This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
Long legendary as the first – and only – silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (at the very first ceremony, back in 1927), Wings now comes to us in a stunning new restoration, courtesy of Eureka’s ever-dependable Masters of Cinema label. The film tells the story of Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who compete for the affections of Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), before becoming comrades in the airfields of World War I. Star power was added by the original “It girl”, Clara Bow, in the role of Jack’s neighbour, Mary – the pure-eyed girl next door with an undying love for our hero.
If this setup – minus the Mary strand – sounds familiar to silent film fans, it’s perhaps due to a striking similarity to the setup of Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919), in which two rivals in love become comrades on the battlefields of World War I. However, if the overall plot of Wings at times resembles that of J’accuse, it does so without that film’s stringent anti-war message – and without its power.
In Wings, we are often told of the “horrors” of war in the title cards, but rarely do we see them. Even towards the end, when the body count begins to rise, it never feels as if we’re given a true sense of the barbarity of war. Compare, for instance, the lightness of the scenes detailing the cancellation of the soldier’s leave with the devastating impact of the equivalent scenes in Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses, released just five years later. The closest Wings gets to touching upon this darkness is its final tragedy, but even there the film doesn’t quite hit home, despite the characters explicitly saying that the “war” is to blame. Wings was made with the assistance of a military in need of good PR, and perhaps it’s this that led to the film becoming a paean to the “young warriors of the sky” (as with J’accuse, real soldiers acted in the film, many of whom had seen service in the Great War). It’s a fine tribute to those who fought but, in being so, there remains a whiff of propaganda around the film’s portrayal of the chivalric life of these “knights of the air”.
Still, if that leaves Gance’s film as an unlikely counterpart, links to other European films emerge: see, for instance, the way the hand hovers over Jack before waking him up for dawn patrol – it’s like something out of a Murnau film. Or witness the camera attached to the swing that holds Sylvia and David, as Jack approaches from behind to stop their rocking world – it’s like something out of Dupont’s Varieté (1925). It’s a stunning moment and, in fact, the photography is stunning throughout – not just in the famous aerial war sequences.
In the opening comedic-romantic scenes, the images impress the most. Just look at the framing as Mary lies on the ground to talk to Jack under a car. Or at Jack’s expression as he heads off for war, leaving David and Sylvia alone, framed in deep focus. Or at the way the camera glides over the tables of the Paris nightclub to find Jack holding a champagne glass – and thereby summing up the gaiety of Gay Paree in one fell swoop of the camera. It’s a tremendous moment in a sequence that otherwise deflates the narrative: in which Jack, on leave and on the lash, takes the film off the boil with his obsession with champagne bubbles.
In fact, that sequence isn’t the only lapse in dramatic tension. Like so many war pictures, the film falls prey to a wearisome picaresque structure, but worse still are the misadventures of a comedy Dutchman that fall as flat as the character (he has a tendency to get knocked down). But despite all this, the film does manage a strong emotional hook all the same, an early scene in which Sylvia lets Jack walk off to war with a picture she had meant to give to David proving particularly effective.
And then, of course, there are the aerial sequences – a dazzling technical achievement that remains breathtaking to this day. The stunt work is truly exceptional, and its presentation on the restored Blu-Ray is flawless.
Aside from the film, the disc also contains an enjoyably punchy talking heads documentary about the making of the film, which covers a lot of ground in its 35-minute runtime, including outlining the physical demands placed on the actors (who did their own flying). There’s also a typical (and typically dull) documentary on the restoration, and a short piece about the history of aviation in the run up to, and during, the First World War (which is not without interest, but does little to enlighten the audience). There’s also the customary booklet, which contains a short piece situating Wings within the context of director William Wellman’s later work, an interview with Wellman, and an extract from his autobiography. Though the interview and autobiography extract contain some overlap with stories told in the making-of documentary, it’s interesting to read them in Wellman’s own words.
Finally, the disc contains the choice of two soundtracks for the film: a pipe organ score by Gaylord Carter, and a new orchestration of the film’s original score by JS Zamecnik. The fact that the Zamecnik score incorporates the sound effects of the airplanes and gun fire helps remind us that Wings was made at the very tail-end of the silent era, just as the art was reaching its apotheosis. If, when seen today, Wings feels far from the greatest achievement of the silent era, it nevertheless retains much that is of interest, and on a purely visual level, the film is nothing less than astonishing.
Wings is released in a Dual Format DVD & Blu-Ray on the Masters of CInema imprint on 27 January 2014. Pre-order here: Amazon (Dual Format) http://amzn.to/IEXBGP; MovieMail (Dual Format) http://bit.ly/1iW0mDG; The Hut (Dual Format) http://bit.ly/1bW0Tlm
By Alex Barrett
Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker and critic. He is currently in development with his new film, London Symphony, a silent city symphony. You can follow the project’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.