A Second Look: Wings (1927)
In 1927, William A. Wellman released Wings, which starred Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper, Jobyna Ralston, El Brendel, Richard Tucker, Gunboat Smith, Roscoe Karns, Henry B. Walthall, Julia Swayne Gordon, Arlette Marchal, Hedda Hopper, and George Irving. The film had an unknown box office gross and was a once lost film. It won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, Production and Best Engineering Effects, the Newport Beach Film Festival Special Recognition Award, and Sasha Gordon won the Avignon/New York Film Festival Special Roger Award for Artistic Accomplishment. It was also nominated for the International Film Music Critics Award for Best Archival Re-Recording of an Existing Score.
Jack and David are in love with a girl named Sylvia, who prefers the latter, but is too kindhearted to turn down the former’s affection when he tells her about his feelings. However their lives are disrupted by World War I and the two men become fighter pilots while Mary joins the war effort by becoming an ambulance driver. During the war, Jack becomes a well-known ace nicknamed “The Shooting Star” and David is shot down and stranded behind enemy lines.
Looking back through the annals of time, Wings comes off these days as an average and decent film. However, it seems to be a very fascinating film when keeping in mind the time period in which the film was released.
The story itself is pretty good, albeit a little predictable at various points. Jack and David go from bitter rivals after the same woman to best friends when they’re billeted together following their enlistment. That’s where the story really cements itself as average with nearly everything becoming more and more predictable, though it may not have been seen that way in the late 1920s. The two have a good friendly rivalry and Jack lets the success and fame of being an ace pilot get to him. At the same time, David is still a good pilot but he’s downed behind enemy lines and it’s at that point that it becomes pretty clear that he’s not only going to find an enemy plane to use for an escape, but that it’s going to get shot down and he’s not going to make it back. Having Jack shoot David down may have been a change of pace at the time and it sure is interesting watching it in this time period, even if it is an often-used trope. What makes it good is that not only does David forgive him, realizing the situation wasn’t because of Mary but because of an honest mistake, but so do David’s parents who state that the war is what was responsible for David’s death.
Within all this, there is a subplot revolving around Mary becoming an ambulance driver. The two stories intersect when she and Jack are on leave in Paris and the latter gets really drunk, causing the former to have to take care of him. The whole thing ends up with her discharged and sent back to the states. It’s a really entertaining subplot that does provide some conflict between Jack and Mary that isn’t resolved until he comes home. What’s more is that it’s more interesting than some parts of the main plot.
While the story itself is average, what really makes the film is how it presents the scenes centering on flight and dogfights. This was in an age when special effects were in their infancy, with cameras only having just started moving about 12 years prior, and decades before the arrival of digital effects. Despite all that, the close-up shots in the planes are well executed thanks to the engineering of a special airborne camera. It all makes it so the Special Engineering Effects Award awarded to uncredited engineering effects artist Roy Pomeroy was very much deserved.
However, the biggest problem with the film is its pacing as it could have stood to have been shortened by about half an hour to 45 minutes. That could have been executed by cutting some of the scenes down, as there are quite a few that go on for far too long, and cutting a few altogether. Where it could really have been trimmed was Mary's subplot because while it may have been interesting, there are some parts of it where it feels that it's providing some unnecessary padding.
Still though, was a good film to earn the first Best Picture. it's just that not of it aged well.
the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion