Heading into the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture*, I had no idea what to expect. Would the film stand the test of time? As a war movie, would the special effects strike me as cheesy? As a silent movie, would the obligatory over-the-top expressiveness turn me off completely?
Luckily, William A. Wellman’s Wings still delivers more than 85 years later.
I forced my friend Jordan to watch the movie with me from several hundreds miles away, which led to some truly beautiful text commentary. It speaks to the enduring quality of the film that we both remained (mostly) engaged through all 2 hours and 20 minutes of this thing.
For later generations, Wings is a bit like Top Gun + Pearl Harbor. Two young men, Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) prepare to head off to war. Jack’s neighbor, small town girl Mary Preston (Clara Bow), is not-so-secretly in love with him. Jack loves Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), a pretty city girl. So does David, who comes from the richest family in town.
The viewer quickly learns that Sylvia only returns David’s feelings. Jack chooses to believe Sylvia loves him and therefore hates David as a rival. Hence the early drama of the film. Yet, after a good manly fistfight, Jack and David become best friends. At this point, the movie becomes much more about the war – and that’s where it succeeds.
We follow Jack and David as they finish training and quickly become aces. They meet other characters, including the ultra-patriot (and Jordan’s soulmate) Schwimpf (El Brendel) and Cadet White (a young Gary Cooper, whom I enjoyed far more than in his later work).
For me, one issue with silent movies has always been the difficulty of tracking supporting characters. Wings avoids this issue, as Schwimpf and White are the two most significant outside of the love quadrangle. Both help to flesh out the bromance war scenes.
As far as portraying the main storyline, Arlen and Rogers perform convincingly as rivals-turned-friends, both of whom hide their feelings for Sylvia for the sake of their friendship. Clara Bow, the big star of the film, plays Mary as kind of a stalker, but we should probably root for her anyway. The real magic, though, is in the context of the romance.
Allow me to note that I am not a person who enjoys “war movies.” The Hurt Locker bored me more than words can say (I do not look forward to rewatching it for this project). Wings, though, really does work. The scale of the battle scenes is breathtaking even today – perhaps more so because of the absence of modern special effects. Wellman worked directly with the War Department to create intense air sequences that perfectly complement those on the ground. The results are impressive; I can only imagine how groundbreaking the film was upon its release.
Jordan said she got some propaganda vibes from the film as a whole. Of course, it was made during the national high of the 1920s, after America “saved the world” and before the Germans tried to destroy it again. However, you could probably imagine this story unfolding in any nation especially because it’s silent. For lack of a better word, it’s timeless.
Wings is an encouraging start to the Best Picture Project. Performances and action sequences that have stood the test of time combine to create a genuinely enjoyable viewing experience. Don’t miss out on this landmark piece of cinematic history.
Available on Daily Motion.
Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers
Run time: Approximately 140 minutes.
*Technically speaking, Wings won Outstanding Picture while Sunrise, another amazing silent film, won Unique and Artistic Production. The Academy combined the awards and retroactively named Wings Best Picture. #funfact