Thoughts on “Wings”

Many people assume that early films were primitive, dull, turgid relics.  If they ever sat down and watched Wings, they’d realize that this is like saying Da Vinci’s paintings were “something a two-year-old could slap together.”

If you have even the slightest inkling of an interest in WWI or early aviation then you must, must, must see this film.  If you are impressed by great human achievements in general (on the order of “extreme danger and hard work in service of art”) then you are wasting precious time by not seeing this film.

Wings will always go down in history as being the very first film to win the Best Picture Oscar, which is a blessing since this bit of trivia is bound to come up every awards season.  But then, how many people will actually sit down and watch Wings?  Probably precious few–and that’s a big loss.

This film is literally awesome.  It was a huge hit when it was released, and has survived in excellent condition–in some ways it’s hardly aged.  The action sequences are so daring, so perfectly shot, and so breathtaking today that you can only imagine how exciting they were to audiences in 1927.  Biplanes battle each other like a flock of birds.   They soar, twist, and tumble through towering clouds.  They plummet to the earth in very real spirals.  They steal the whole show–even though Wings had a heck of a great cast.

The leads were played by George Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers (and what a good-looking, sunny kid Rogers was, too–no wonder he was “America’s Boyfriend”).  Gary Cooper has a tiny role that ever-so-rightfully catapulted him to fame.  And of course Clara Bow, Superstar, shines in her too-few scenes.  She seems to have been hired basically because of her Superstar status–naturally, she’s shown off in a couple rather superfluous scenes where she takes off her stockings and is seen from behind sans shirt (and from the front too, although that shot is so brief it’s hard to tell just how risque it is).

When I watched Wings recently, two thoughts struck me:  A.) WWI ended less than a decade before this film was made.  The Great War, a war that in some ways gets overshadowed by WWII today, was still fresh and real in the public’s minds.  B.)  I am watching this almost exactly 100 years after WWI began.

One of the stunning shots from the film.

Apparently there weren’t a lot of pictures made about the Great War in the silent era.  Perhaps time had to pass before people were comfortable with them.  Perhaps they wanted to forget the hard times of the war during the optimistic atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties.  Still, the film usually cited as being the biggest hit of the entire silent era was The Big Parade, another WWI picture.  People may have wanted to move on, but they certainly had no intention of forgetting.

Wings was dedicated “to those young warriors of the sky who wings are folded about them forever”.  It spared no expense in recreating the battlefields (and airfields) of France. Several acres of land in San Antonio, Texas were turned into trenches and meticulously pockmarked with faux shellholes.  The small French village was made from scratch.  Many of the aerial dogfight scenes were filmed from right in the cockpits with Arlen and Rogers.  Those backgrounds weren’t early green screens–those were real planes that were actually flying and chasing each other.  And not only that, but the actors–you guessed it–were actually piloting their own planes.

This…THIS is the silent era, folks.  This is what it’s all about.

Arlen fortunately had some real piloting experience, but 22-year-old Rogers had absolutely none.  He had to be taught how to fly a biplane very quickly.  After every session spent filming up in the sky he would reportedly get out of the plane and lose his lunch.  Every time.  But he would always go right back up in that plane again for the next session.

Before Wings the only time I had seen anything close to dogfighting was in those Charlie Brown cartoons where Snoopy battled the Red Baron.  I had no idea how active, furious, and dangerous those fights were in real life.  The amount of guts those Edwardian era pilots had was staggering–what they did makes police car chases look dull.  And seeing their daring feats recreated onscreen made the war that much more real to me.

And it was already very real to me.  In 2012 I was fortunate to be able to visit the battlefields and cemeteries in Ypres, Belgium, where the entire area had once been a “sea of mud” and where every building and every tree dates after 1918.  Few experiences have been more moving than seeing the loving care those soldiers’ graves had.  The edging of the grass, the freshness of the flowers, the absence of weeds…everything was perfect, down to the smallest detail.

It was staggering to think of all those men lying there.  And after watching that film, I realize that many of them were probably handsome kids like Rogers, dashing men like Cooper and Arlen.  Real, brave, daring individuals who had gone through so much.

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Two photos I took at the Tyne Cot Commonwealth cemetery.

History hit home.  I would never look at it from quite the same angle ever again.

That’s what film does.  That’s why film history is so a massively important.

As the many WWI anniversaries come and go in the next few years, I hope that Wings will find a bigger audience.  What a perfect, unique time for theaters to show it.  I can think of few people who wouldn’t appreciate this film.  And boys…boys in particular need to see it.  For them, it will be particularly inspirational.

Wings aerial view soldiers

Extra thoughts:

  • Henry B. Walthall has a small part.  Some of the battle scenes near the end are very reminiscent of the ones done in The Birth of a Nation back in 1915–one wonders what Walthall’s thoughts were upon seeing the finished film.
  • Here’s a funny bit of trivia I heard–in the sequence where the airmen are partying at the Folies Bergère in Paris Buddy Rogers was literally drunk.  The nice, upstanding young man had never taken a drink before, so the director simply gave him some real champagne and the result is forever captured on film.  Cheers!
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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Wings”

  1. Wings is a great picture. One of my all-time favorites. The scene where Rogers realizes who it actually is that he shot down is heartbreaking. I’ve never forgotten it.

    • It’s a stunning, stunning film–the kind of film that’s so good that whenever you hear people talk about silent films being “primitive” you just want to laugh loud and long. Ah, how much they’re missing!

  2. Great write-up! I sometimes get the impression people think Wings is remembered just because it happened to win the Oscar, not because it deserves it in itself. I only watched it for the first time last night, but I agree with everything you say — it’s a really fantastic bit of filmmaking. Maybe in the next couple of years, as we reach the 100th anniversary of its setting and events, it’ll get some more of the recognition it deserves.

    • I like that thought! And I agree that the name gets trotted out every awards season, but seldom (if ever) gets discussed. Which is sad, since it is absolutely magnificent.

  3. Pingback: What’s Your Silent “Gateway Film”? | Silent-ology

  4. If you’re interested in insight and backstory on “Wings” and much of the silent/early sound era, check out Budd Schubert’s book “Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince.” This bio of a kid who used to hang out with everyone from Clara Bow to Sergei Eisenstein, includes the story of how hard fledgling director and WW1 fighter pilot William Wellman had to convince producer BP Schulberg to go to bat for him with Paramount executives to direct “Wings.” Wellman was certainly on a mission to make this film. https://www.amazon.com/Moving-Pictures-Memories-Hollywood-Prince/product-reviews/1566635268/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_viewpnt_lft?ie=UTF8&filterByStar=positive&reviewerType=avp_only_reviews&pageNumber=1

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