Director: William A. Wellman
Screenwriters: John Monk Saunders, Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralston, El Brendel, Richard Tucker, Gary Cooper
Wings, for better or for worse, is an important film. It was the first ever recipient of the Best Picture Academy Award in 1929. Taking viewers ten years into the past for the First World War, Wings follows two young men, one rich (David, played by Richard Arlen) and one working class (Charles Rogers’ Jack). Both men are in love with the same girl, and find themselves as comrades, training to be pilots in the dogfights above Europe in a romantic adventure extravaganza.
It doesn’t begin incredibly impressively. The direction is stilted, not as crisp as it should be (even for the 20s), the framing a little loose. The writing is cliché and takes a while to get going. But then, as if the crew were learning on the go and refined their filmmaking craft as they went through the schedule, the film it comes into its own. The camera begins to move around more freely (remember that a moving camera is still a fairly novel concept at the time), and the story begins to kick into second gear.
When it gets going, the aerial acrobatics in the dogfights are sublime. That they actually shot a dogfight up in the air is incredible. You feel each turn of the plane, each whistle of the engines overhead. Cameras high in the air follow planes spiralling to the ground, smoke billowing from broken tails. Each fight gets more sophisticated, with bullets riddling the fuselage, and there’s a stroke of genius in the final battle as the controls in the open cockpit are shot to pieces. The danger gets more personal with each battle, building suspense. If they stopped putting in a title card every ten seconds to explain what we can already see, it would be even better.
Many of the miniatures hold up to this day, and the big battle scenes on the ground are marvellous. The explosions feel real, the earth actually billowing into the sky and raining down on hundreds of extras. Sod all that green screen stuff they’ve got now; back in the day they just went into a field, got people to charge through it, and set off explosions. It’s pure cinema.
The two main characters are joined through a romance with Sylvia back home (played by Jobyna Ralston), but that doesn’t define their bond. Their relationship comes through the camaraderie together as pilots, and not through some attachment to someone thousands of miles away. She’s a crude plot device to keep some kind of forced conflict going which should have been done away with. You can easily manage some kind of conflict between two hot-headed young men, especially if taking into account issues of class spilling into the horrors of war. What’s worse is that we’ve already got another love storyline in the form of Mary (Clara Bow), a childhood sweetheart of Jack’s, whose feelings for Jack are entirely one way. It’s infuriating that there’s a good twenty-minute section of downtime devoted to Mary trying to woo a drunken Jack, and an interwoven storyline with a girl we hardly ever see that the two boys are fighting over. The better writing is given to a plotline which is emotionally redundant. There’s an issue with inorganic storytelling here, and it scrubs off any kind of speed the story could have had at that point in the narrative.
Wings is a good film, possibly even great. The action sequences are strong, the cinematography by Harry Perry is incredible, and there’s some solid characterisation in there. But some elements are unrefined (although not fundamentally bad), there’s a reliance on melodramatic expositional title cards, and it suffers from uneven pacing in areas. When it’s going well, it’s breathtaking, but when it’s not, you want to take off in your own plane and come back when it’s got itself in order.