If some films age like wine, while others age like wet bread, then William A. Wellman’s “Wings” is just about the finest vintage a movie can get. Released in 1927, “Wings” was the first film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture (technically, it wasn’t called the “Best Picture” Oscar yet, and they had a similar award that same year that went to “Sunrise: A Tale of Two Lovers, but this film still won the award) and I feel in many ways it is just as historically significant as other films from that era like “The Birth of a Nation” and “The Jazz Singer,” except with far less insulting racism. Watching this film over 90 years after its release, I can say this film not only holds up, but is just as engrossing as many action films made today.
“Wings” tells the tale of two young men, Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), from a small American town who immediately enlist in World War I when they get the chance to fight for their country. Both are assigned to the air force, where they learn to become pilots and very quickly become two of the best pilots fighting for their side. Meanwhile, Mary (Clara Bow) is madly in love with Jack, who barely even gives her the time of day, and eventually decides to join to the war in her own way, by being an ambulance driver.
“Wings” was the only silent film to win Best Picture (until “The Artist” bucked that trend in 2011), but the film still has a very effective use of sound, as well as color. The only noises we hear throughout the film are the sounds of engines, mostly those of a biplane, and the sound of gun fire. It works in the opposite way of the comedic sound effects of a late Charlie Chaplin film – it draws your attention, making the spectacle of war feel far more real than it ever felt before. While the film uses lots of colored tints and lenses, the color that sticks out is the burning yellow flames of a crashing biplane, making that carnage stand out even more.
But what’s truly impressive about “Wings” is its camera work and how it perfected filming airplanes in motion. We might take shots of multiple airplanes flying in formation for granted these days, but in 1927 when cameras weighed hundreds of pounds and were mostly never in motion during a shot, that makes the cinematography of this film even more impressive. There were no miniatures or fake explosions in this film – if a plane rams into the ground with the pilot still inside, that really happened.
Multiple aerial dog fights are shown throughout this film, all with beautifully crisp camera movement, always using the vast emptiness of the sky to its advantage. On top of that, there are loads of shots within the cockpit of Jack and David’s planes, which Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen had to film themselves, since the camera was so heavy they couldn’t carry another person. So while they were flying the plane and acting at the same time, they also had to be the camera men too.
“Wings” is the most impressive and awe-inspiring movie of its time, mastering techniques in the 1920s that are still dangerous today. Everything about this film feels authentic, helped by William A. Wellman’s superb direction and experience in aviation. It has the utmost respect for those who served and the hardships they went through, no matter what they did during the war. I strongly recommend this, not just to film or aviation buffs, but to those who want to see an example of how you don’t need talking or much of a story to have a wonderful movie.
Final Grade: A-