The Year's Best: Wings (1927)

Title: Wings

Director: William A. Wellman

Starring: Clara Bow, Richard Arlen, Charles "Buddy" Rogers

Wings was released in August of 1927, when Hollywood was still transitioning into the sound era – it is the only silent film to win top prize the Academy Awards.  During the first Academy Award ceremony, Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won the statue for Most Artistic Quality of Production, while Wings received the Oscar for Best Overall Production.  The two categories would be combined into one award, Best Production (the precursor to Best Picture) the following year.

Clara Bow was the film’s draw.  At a time when around half the country would go to the movies in a given week, she was literally Hollywood’s “It girl.”  Millions would flock to see her films; she embodied the essence of the Roaring Twenties and was one of its most prominent sex symbols.  But in Wings she plays a supporting role.  The main story arc focuses on two soldiers, played by modestly successful actors Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers.  Wings is also notable for including Gary Cooper in a single scene, a performance which would help his career take off (pun unintended).

It also broke several of the common mores that were present in the industry at the time.  There are moments when it seems like the actors are mouthing curses – I’m pretty sure I caught an, “I’ll be damned” and a “son of a bitch.”  There’s a scene in which Clara Bow is suddenly interrupted while changing clothes, complete with a quick flash of nudity.  And even more interestingly, Wings also contains the first (that I’m aware of, anyway) male-on-male kiss, occurring fraternally near the end.

Production-wise, the thing that stands out to me the most about Wings are the aerial battles.  Not only are there long shots taken from far away of planes diving and spinning, there are also close-ups.  Cameras were placed directly in front of the actors to capture their facial expressions and reactions to the battle supposedly raging around them.  What makes this so incredible is that with the technology and the type of planes director William Wellman was working with, that meant that the actors actually had to fly the plane.  There was no greenscreen that could be replaced with a backdrop of clouds.  There was no way a cameraman could tag along. 

Thankfully, many cast members (including Arlen and Wellman himself) had been trained to fly during the actual war.  Buddy Rogers had to be taught.  For each take, the actors would have to successfully take off, maintain control of the airplane, turn on the camera, act, and land.  Can you imagine an actor today having the balls to do all that?  Imagine telling Tom Cruise, “We’re going to teach you how to pilot a plane, and then you’re going to be up in the air alone.  You’ll need to fly, act, and operate the camera all by yourself.  It’ll be fun!”  Top Gun wouldn’t have happened.

Does the film hold up 80 years later?  Surprisingly so.  Of course, it suffers from most of the “flaws” that have come to be associated with films of that era.  It’s silent, so if you can’t handle reading title cards you’d better stay away.  The action scenes, while well-executed and filled with plenty of explosions and dead bodies, lack the quick-cutting we’ve grown used to and as such feel a bit dull.  The story is simple and relies on melodrama (though I guess at the time, people wouldn’t have seen these plot threads before, or at least not as much).  But there’s enough emotion generated through the physicality of the actors’ performances, and enough humor thrown in, that most the time Wings works.  I haven’t seen the other films it was up against for the Oscar (Howard Hughes’ Racket and William Fox’s Seventh Heaven), but I can see why voters might have felt a connection with Wings.  It seems to be in many ways a reflection of the attitudes and feelings that were present during the 1920s.

That’s actually what surprised me most about the film.  During the first half of Wings, part of me thought it was just another example of pro-America war propaganda, the type of which we would later see in World War 2 with films like Capra’s Why We Fight series.  We’re presented with Jack Powell and David Armstrong – could there be two more American-sounding names? – as protagonists.  Jack is a middle-class good ol’ boy who dreams of flying.  David embodies the other side of the American Dream as part of the wealthiest family in town.  They’re both fairly attractive; one wouldn’t be surprised to find them plastered on posters with Uncle Sam.

There are also seeds of American idealism and values sprinkled throughout the first act.  Jack names his car the “Shooting Star,” an image we tend to associate with values like love, hope, and freedom.  The title cards describe American pilots as the “bravest of the brave.”  The Germans, by comparison, are clowns.  Even the most daunting enemy pilots are taunted with names like “Captain von Kellermann and his Flying Circus.”  A wannabe-soldier with the last name Schwimpf (note the inherent insult) is chided for his last name, despite his objection that, “I’m as American as you!”  Even when he’s allowed to enlist, he’s still the comic relief who ultimately has to find work as a mechanic.  There’s a definite layer of patriotic optimism infused throughout the first 45 minutes, not unlike that found in most war-time propaganda.  Americans are good.  They are strong.  They are brave.  And as we know, they will win.

But that's not all Wings is about.  I was struck by how this us-and-them mentality contrasts with the film’s second half, which cements Wings not simply as a pro-America film, but an anti-war film as well.  In the end, this movie is about how while America is a great nation, its wars are not something to be admired.  World War I is described as “a cloud” over the entire country, a terrible storm that “drew into its center the power and pride of all the earth.”  Leaves of absence aren’t just a vacation, they’re a “furlough from Death.”  Hyperbolic much?

The Germans are not the enemy.  Close-ups during aerial battles reveal the Americans as stern and determined, even when shot – the only exception is one who clutches his throat and spits up blood.  Their German opponents, in contrast, are prone to crying and screaming.  Though we cheer for the Americans, we sympathize with their victims.  Title cards describe both sides in simple numeric terms – “American No. 2” battles “German No. 2,” emphasizing how war depersonalizes all human life, not just one side or another. 

For a film released in 1927, Wings feels downright progressive, particularly in light of the USA’s current state of foreign affairs.  We spent 8 years under a president many would describe as a warmonger, and even now we’re still at war in two countries and just committed another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.  As a result, despite its melodrama, I came away from Wings feeling like it actually tackled the issue of war in a somewhat sophisticated manner!  It maintains a patriotic tone while clearly communicating an anti-war stance.  And is there a better metaphor for how war damages all involved than the film’s climactic sequence, in which the enemy plane one of our heroes shoots down turns out to be piloted by his friend?  Suddenly I want us all to just hold hands and start singing “We Are The World.”

In retrospect, it seems obvious that a film like Wings would be released and be successful when it was.  The war was far enough behind that it could be viewed through a lens other than that of blind patriotism, but it was still close enough for the memories to sting.  The twenties were a time of optimism and prosperity.  The economy was booming, the Great Depression was a few years away, and the League of Nations hadn’t yet begun to crumble.  All in all, things were going pretty well, both domestically and abroad. 

What does it say about me (and us as a nation) if now, watching Wings, I look upon its characters with a twinge of envy?  Forget the “gool ol’ days” of the fifties.  If it's a goal to get back to a prior time, maybe we should aim for the twenties.  Yes, Jack and David may fight in a war, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  By the time of Wings’ release, the violence had ended and it seemed like there might even be a chance at international peace.  The film ends with Jack declaring his love for his neighbor Mary.  The final shot is of their kiss, moments after seeing a shooting star flash across the heavens.  The mood is tender. Bright.  Hopeful.

Right now, America’s in a bit of a tight spot.  Perhaps we need another film in the vein of Wings to remind us that all wars come to an end, and it’s still possible to come back home.