Home Video Hovel: Wings, by Darrell Tuffs
William A. Wellman’s Wings, will forever be remembered as the first film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards of 1929. The award is itself a fine accolade, and places the film forever in the history books of important movies. However, the film is rarely discussed past the point of this interesting piece of trivia. When anyone happens to ask the question of which film won the first ever Best Picture Oscar, the answer turns out to be an unknown airplane film called “Wings”, of which, few people have been interested enough to check out. The film was a huge box office hit on its release, and possessed a budget of over two million dollars, an amount rarely seen in the 1920s.
Wings is not a perfect film by any standards. But, hopefully with its newly restored Masters of Cinema release, modern audiences will finally see how gripping, epic and innovative the film can be at times.
Wings was Wellman’s first big budget studio film. He was little known as a director at the time, but would later go on to direct films such as The Public Enemy (1931) and A Star Is Born (1937). Wellman was chosen to direct over other more established Paramount directors such as Cecil B. DeMille. This was largely down to Wellman’s previous experiences as a pilot. The films story was largely based on elaborately detailed and highly technical airborne scenes. Which would include many terrifying and dangerous airplane battles of World War One. With this, Paramount needed a director with airplane experience. Someone that could influence the script with personal experiences, and act with innovation to create something never seen before in the world of movies; that someone was William A. Wellman.
The film follows two young men (Jack Powell and David Armstrong) during a dispute over a girl in which they have both fallen in love. This takes place as they are both preparing to fight in World War One, as airplane pilots. The pair at first are natural enemies, they bicker, argue and try everything within their powers to annoy each other. This rivalry is at first comical. In a cartoonish fashion, they take it in turns to give and receive torments.
The film lacks in its development of characters towards the beginning of the film. Jack and David at first, act somewhat as character types. Jack is a vibrant and kinetic young man, full of energy and charisma. David is a thoughtful and strategically calm gentleman, who for the most part, remains reticent, but full of ambition and pride. The film establishes both characters firmly if not slightly heavy-handedly in its first couple of scenes, but continues to develop each man as the film progresses, adding flesh in small amounts along the way.
Their love interest is Sylvia, a little seen character, but one with much influence over most of the film. She secretly loves David, but leads on Jack in fear of upsetting him. Sylvia possesses very little screen presence, and at times, the power and charm she holds over David and Jack is only faintly felt in viewing. This becomes a minor issue towards the film’s ending, but leaving her undeveloped remains a regretful character decision while trying to understand the motives in full of both leading male characters throughout the film.
Wings is largely centred on the theme of friendship, how it can grow from hatred, and what it can mean when your life is on the line. David and Jack learn to put aside their differences at a time of need. This development is handled well. The end of the film establishes a strong sense of understanding between them, and at a par level, allows its audience to understand their dramatic arc as characters.
On the ground, Wings is a delightful and at times fun little story about friendship and understanding. In the air, Wings is a huge epic, with brilliant action set pieces and never before seen aerial camera techniques. While making Wings, Wellman had cameras strapped down to planes as they danced in the air. This creates many stunning visuals and free-flowing camera pans, without any need of special effects whatsoever. We witness planes twirl and drop from the clouds. We see grand battles on an epic scale. We are even given close-ups of David and Jack as they (in real life) fly their planes, twisting and gliding in the sky. The film is well worth viewing just for these battle sequences, which in stature, match some giant scenes in other silent films such as Metropolis or Intolerance.
The main frustration with Wings comes with its time management. The film does feel over-long at 144 minutes, but its problem is not so much with spending too much time in its world, rather focusing too much on some of its less effective scenes. One scene involving Jack becoming very drunk at a hotel in Paris is stretched out for a tremendously long time. And, does become somewhat repetitive. A certain slapstick joke in the scene is played again and again, almost to the point of borderline annoyance. Wings falls victim to this on many occasions. Some scenes on the ground are played out for such long stretches of time, and, at points, wear out emotional moments at the expense of losing their main focus. The film would have benefited greatly from dropping some of these moments, and spending more time in the air.
Despite its problems, Wings is home to some good performances. These include Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen as Jack and David, and perhaps the films only great performance in the form of Clara Bow, as Jacks secret admirer, Mary. There is also a very early performance from Gary Cooper, who in total, is only given about a minute of screen time.
As a film, Wings works well at times, but not so much at others. There are some interesting visuals; including a wonderful Hitchcock styled camera track-forward in the Paris hotel sequence. But, as fun as its story can be, Wings only truly comes to life while in the air. And, as famous as the film’s Oscar win is, its true marvel comes from stunning airborne visuals, and the daring innovation it took to bring them to the screen.
(The Masters of Cinema special features include three video documentary pieces on the film’s production, restoration and airplanes)