In which we’re flying with two sets of wings.
Winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings tells the story of two men sent from their hometown to the front lines of the first world war. Produced in 1927, the film is widely regarded as one of the pioneering movies of the silent era – a reputation it more than deserves.
Often used in the film round of pub quizzes thanks to its unique place in cinema history, Wings is yet another movie that’s sat in the back of my mind in name only. I vaguely remember seeing shots from it in some documentary about the early days of film. The sweeping dogfights and plane crash stunts looked incredible for the time, so I was excited to finally watch it.
In truth, I’ve had the blu ray for a few months, but the 144-minute runtime has been putting me off starting it. As it happens, I injured my back during the week and have spent the last three days confined to my bed and sofa. It seemed like the time had come.
Wings follows the lives of Jack, David and Mary as their young lives are interrupted by the USA’s participation in the Great War. Jack and David enlist in the air force, training together and slowly bonding despite their differences. Both write back to their sweetheart Sylvia, who loves David but felt too sorry for Jack to let him down as he left for war. Meanwhile, Mary loves Jack but has to watch from afar as he courts Sylvia.
Mary enlists as an ambulance driver, following the oblivious Jack to France. The three arrive at the front line, with Jack and David battling the enemy in epic airborne fights, while Mary drives between outposts bringing medical supplies. As the war progresses, the day of the ‘big push’ arrives, with the allies planning to attack the Germans across their lines. It’s life or death for those involved, whether on land or in the air.
The final battle, like the rest of the film, is an immaculately staged extravaganza with thousands of actors hurtling across a huge battlefield of explosions and gunfire, with bi-planes racing overhead. The airborne scenes are incredibly staged, from the choreographed dogfights, to the cockpit mounted cameras that capture the reactions of the pilots.
It’s testament to the director, William Wellman, that the action never overshadows the story. With such a large canvas, we must be drawn into the lives of characters we care about on a personal level. With Jack and David, we’re treated to a friendship that evolves from initial contempt to the deep brotherly love of men sent out daily knowing they may not return.
Mary is less developed, though the movie was marketed and rewritten as a vehicle for Paramount’s star Clara Bow. She’s quoted in Darwin Porter’s book on Howard Hughes as saying “Wings is…a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie.” Bow is wonderful in the role, but it’s hard to disagree with her assessment.
Overall, Wings is an astounding achievement in filmmaking. Both epic and personal, it manages to blend an airborne spectacle worthy of any film and a heart-wrenching tale of two airmen holding onto each other to survive. Moments of great horror often inspire great art and Wings soars high as an enthralling chronicle of the first world war.