Big budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.
There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.
The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.
As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.
If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.
In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.
Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.
10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.
On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.
The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.
The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.
A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!
9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.
Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.
Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.
Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.
Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.
And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.
8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.
A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.
Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.
7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.
Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”
Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.
It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.
When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.
6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!
Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.
But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.
Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.
For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”
Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.
Looks like somebody’s not in Kansas anymore.
5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.
Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.
Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.
4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.
Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.
Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.
Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.
Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.
3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.
Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.
Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!
Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.
Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”
2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.
Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.
Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.
To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.
Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.
The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?
And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.
Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.
It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.
Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI. No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.
220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.
The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.
The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.
In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.
By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.
Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.
The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!