By Mitch Hemann
Just when the silent era was beginning to wind down, and “talkies” were about to become all the rage, William Wellman’s big budget war picture Wings (1927) flew into movie houses across the country, dazzling audiences wherever it landed. It is a stunning masterwork of cinema that is regarded even today as one of the greatest representations of wartime aviation on film and is beloved by veterans for its realistic treatment of the subject.
The film is centered on Jack (Buddy Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), two men who become fighter pilots in World War I and forge an unlikely friendship. They also share a love for the same woman, played by Jobyna Ralston. Sylvia, the object of both men’s affection, and the ravages of war frequently test their friendship throughout. And as if that isn’t bad enough, there is another woman who delightfully complicates things further.
Clara Bow, the original “It Girl” and certainly one of the most iconic sex symbols of the time, receives top billing in the film, and rightly so. At the time, she was Paramount’s biggest star and she packs a punch as Mary Preston, an American girl who joins the Volunteer Corps to be near Jack, her childhood crush. Though a smaller role, Bow’s portrayal shows great depth as she pivots from melancholy to saucy comedy, proving she has the chops and deserves credit for her dramatic performance. But there’s no question that her star power and her reputation to add oomph to anything is the reason she appears in the film at all. When asked about working with Bow, Wellman said, “She was mad and crazy, but WHAT a personality!” The truth is that Bow wasn’t particularly happy with the part, describing Wings as “a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie.’’
What makes the film work is the perfect balance of romantic comedy and war epic. But above all, its glorious depiction of life during wartime via its ambitious situations and brilliant cinematography is the reason it stands the test of time. Cinephiles still go absolutely ga ga over the magnificently shot scene at the Folies Bergère, where a crane-mounted camera zooms its way through the club, parting couples the whole way (feast your peepers at the bottom of this post).
The battle scenes are spectacular and remarkably realistic. The film cost $2 million to produce and was shot at Kelly Field in San Antonio Texas. 220 planes and 13 cameramen were used for the epic sequences, and the U.S. Army provided thousands of soldiers as extras. There was also a massive battlefield constructed to reenact the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, complete with trenches, barbed wire and explosions. Wellman himself makes a cameo as one of the many fallen soldiers. For the aerial sequences, there were no special effects to speak of, including projections or models. The actors even flew the planes themselves and operated cameras mounted on the aircraft to get close ups while in flight. The result is an epic and gritty piece of cinema that beautifully captures the triumphant and tragic realities of war.
Before his illustrious career in Hollywood, William Wellman served as a combat pilot in WWI. Paramount, knowing he had first-hand experience, chose him to direct Wings. He didn’t have a lot of films to his credit at the time, but the gamble paid off and Wellman went on to direct many successful pictures afterwards. But he held Wings in higher regard than all the others, and has said that it’s the one he’s most proud of. The film was very personal to him, and his pain-staking efforts to make it as realistic as possible is evidence of that. Wellman dedicated the film “to those young warriors of the sky whose wings are folded about them forever”.
On May 16th, 1929 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its first ever Academy Awards ceremony at a humble banquet at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Films from both 1927 and 1928 were recognized that night and Wings became the very first film to win the Oscar for “Best Picture, Production”. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was the host and he presented the statuette to Clara Bow. Wings is certainly worthy of all the praise and accolades. It is without a doubt one of the greatest products of the silent era, and a loving tribute to our veterans.