I didn’t know anything about Wings except it was the first best picture winner in 1928. I didn’t even know it was a silent film until I started watching it. I’ve seen silent films before so it wasn’t alarming but the silent films I’d seen were much older than Wings. Not only was it the first silent film to win (it was the first of a lot of things) it’s still the only completely silent film to win*. Although the other two nominees in 1928 were also silent films (The Racket and 7th Heaven) only one more silent film would ever get nominated (The Patriot). “Talkies” exploded the next year and films really were never the same.
Set during World War I, only called “The Great War” back then (sadly they didn’t know there would be a sequel), it tells the story of two young small-town men who both vie for the attentions of the same girl. When they go off to war as combat pilots they begin as rivals but quickly become comrades and friends fighting together in France.
Wings is packed with a ton of battle scenes that are still very impressive. What sets Wings apart from any war films before it is its focus on the war from the air battle perspective. The dogfight sequences are remarkable.
The grandeur of this film can’t be overstated. This film is an absolute epic. I’m resisting saying things like “for its time” or “considering the era” but what director William Wellman accomplished was nothing short of astonishing. It’s a shame he wasn’t nominated for best director but he’d get three nominations and one win for writing A Star is Born later in his career.
The cinematography is this beautiful combination of realism and style. The use of the camera was at times positively striking. I literally thought at one point, “How did they do that?!?” I found out later the innovations made on this film were revolutionary.
The aerial shots are real pilots flying real planes in the real sky. You think Ryan Gosling really playing the piano in La La Land is impressive? Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen took flying lessons so they could fly themselves for this picture! Apparently Rogers tossed his cookies after every take. But the tough S.O.B. got right back in the cockpit every time.
Men jumped out of planes wearing parachutes with cameras strapped to their chests. They dropped real bombs on real buildings and you saw it from the point of view of the plane. There are multiple plane crashes. Sometimes they crash into the ground. Sometimes they crash into buildings. Sometimes they crash into each other. The stuntmen did things I’m sure unions today would never allow.
Wings was a very expensive film to make. At $2 million (1927 dollars) it was double what even the most expensive films of its day cost. But you can see it on the screen. There are very few sound stages used and the locations sets are both massive and authentic. At one point they’re driving through the streets of downtown Paris through crowds of people past the Arc de Triomphe. I wondered if the crowds even knew there was a film being shot.
There are even special effects. Bursts of color during the dogfight sequences give a flash of yellow to their guns as they fire and a tail of yellow to planes as they go down in flames.
There are even animated bubbles when one character gets drunk on champagne and envisions them everywhere he goes, coming out of the bottle, a bedpost and even people.
And although the strength of this movie may be its technical achievement, that shouldn’t discount the story. War is a natural backdrop for genuine emotion. Boys going off to war become a band of brothers.
There is a lot of action, excitement, humor and heart (both romantic and patriotic) in this film.
My nitpicks are few.
Silent film actors act like they’re in a silent film. They don’t really deliver lines the way you would if your words could be heard. But that shouldn’t diminish their performances, especially the legendary Clara Bow.
Also, editing didn’t have to account for keen-eyed audiences so you can see the seams at times. And silent films can feel a little like novels. They can tell instead of show using title cards.
The dogfight scenes go on a little long but it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before.
Overall Wings more than holds up. It’s a very interesting film and starts The Oscar Project off with a bang.
*The Artist won best picture in 2012 it is mostly a silent film but does include two lines of spoken dialogue.\
DVD available from Netflix