Wings (1927) Director: William A. Wellman
Wings is an undeniable film. It was the first to ever receive an Academy Award for Best Picture (1929), though in my opinion this honor should have truly been bestowed upon F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The grandeur of Wings exists in its high flying aerial acrobatic scenes. It is memorable for launching a number of Hollywood careers, like Gary Cooper and for cementing Clara Bow “The It Girl”. I can imagine Wings dazzling early 20th century audiences with the feeling of direct experience with the “Great War.”
At the first Academy Awards presentation, the first award for Best Picture was presented by Douglas Fairbanks to Clara Bow on behalf of the producers. Wings was also the only silent film to win Best Picture from the Academy before 2011’s The Artist (awarded in 2012). Hundreds of extras were involved in the shooting of Wings and they were supervised by military officers, along with over 300 U.S. Air Corps pilots and planes for the spectacular aerial scenes. The film stars Clara Bow, Hollywood’s biggest star at the time. She was apparently unhappy with her role in the film, calling it a “man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie.” The film also stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, and a young Gary Cooper (Cooper launched his career from his small role in Wings). Both Rogers and Arlen completed all of the stunts themselves. Arlen served in World War I but Rogers had to undergo flight training for the film. Despite the death-defying stunts only two incidents occurred on set, including a fatal crash of a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot. Also during filming, Gary Cooper began a tumultuous affair with Clara Bow during filming, despite her recent engagement to Victor Fleming.
The film follows the intertwined rivalry of Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). The picture is dedicated to “those young warriors of the sky whose wings are folded about them forever.” Both Jack and David are madly in love with a pretty girl named Sylvia Lewis, but a close friend, the girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is sadly in love with an oblivious Jack. Together, they come up with a name for Jack’s car he built called the “shooting star” after Mary draws a star on it. At the outbreak of World War One, both men enlist in the Air Service and Jack goes to Sylvia who gives him her picture to take to war, but secretly, her heart belongs to David.
The two share a tent with Cadet White (Gary Cooper) who dies in an air crash. After completing their training, the two men become close and they are shipped off together to France to fight the Germans. Meanwhile, Mary works as an ambulance driver and overhears that Jack has garnered a reputation as “The Shooting Star” for his skilled piloting. One evening she spots him on leave in Paris. She tries to approach him, but soon learns that he is drunk with his friend and a loose woman on his arm. In truth, Rogers was actually drunk during the filming of this scene as he was only 22 and had never tasted alcohol before filming the scene. Mary convinces him to go home where she puts him to bed. While she changes back into her ambulance uniform, military police barge into his room and force Mary to resign her position, thinking there was more to the scene than Mary innocently changing out of her dress and into her uniform.
The apex of the film occurs with the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. David’s plane is shot down and he is thought to be dead. However, he survives and escapes the shots of the Germans while running into the forest. Soon, he recovers and steals a German plane, in the hope of crossing the allied line. Tragically, Jack spots the plane and believing it to be a German plane headed for Allied lines, he shoots it down.
On the ground Jack realizes what he has done and embraces his dying comrade and they share the first on screen same-sex kiss (platonic). Jack is forced to return home and is celebrated as a hero. He goes to David’s family to beg for forgiveness but they do not blame him. Instead they lament the evils of war. Jack is reunited with Mary and he realizes his love for her.
Wings was a public sensation upon its release, especially considering the public infatuation with Charles Lindbergh and aviation at the time. Throughout the film, chocolate syrup was used as blood and Wings is known as the only film to win an Academy Award for “Engineering Effects.” The aerial scenes were delayed for four weeks due to clear skies and William A. Wellman, a veteran pilot, knew how important clouds were to the audience who required spatial recognition of speed as they filmed over Texas. Wings is a powerful film for the purposes of posterity. Were it not for the prestige of winning the first award for Best Picture, Wings would likely be cast unto the shelf of forgotten silent movies.