Friday, March 4, 2022

#2,718. Wings (1927) - The Men Who Made the Movies


This year marks the 95th anniversary of Wings, a WW I action / drama / romance that took home the very first Academy Award for Best Picture.

A thrilling war film, Wings stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who plays the part of Jack Powell, a young, enthusiastic auto mechanic. As the movie opens, Jack is trying to win the heart of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who is already in love with millionaire’s son David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). Jack is so preoccupied with Sylvia, in fact, that he doesn’t realize the pretty “girl next door”, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), has had a crush on him for years!

When war breaks out, both Jack and David enlist with the intention of becoming fighter pilots. Though rivals at first, a friendship forms between the two, and when their training is over, they become flying partners, battling the Germans in the skies over France and hoping one day to return home as war heroes. But war is unpredictable, and there are no guarantees even for the best pilots. Yet neither Jack nor David could have possibly known how their experience together would play out in the end.

William A. Wellman, aka “Wild Bill”, was the perfect director for a movie like Wings; when he was 21, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, and was the first American to join the Lafayette Flying Corps. He was involved in several skirmishes, and shot down three enemy aircraft (with another 5 probable kills) before himself being wounded when his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire in March 1918.

As a veteran of World War I, as well as a former combat pilot, Wellman knew how to shoot an aerial battle scene, and Wings features some of the finest ever committed to film. Mounting cameras directly onto the planes to put us in the middle of the action, Wellman pieced the skirmishes together in a way that keeps the excitement level cranked all the way up, culminating with a stirring recreation of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which serves as a dramatic turning point in the story.

We had an area there in (San Antonio) Texas that looked exactly like it”, Wellman once told writer and critic Richard Schickel about his staging of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, “and I rehearsed it and rehearsed it. For those days, it was big. I had 65 airplanes in the air. I had over a thousand men”. And based on his grand, thrilling depiction of this famous battle, I’d say Wellman’s hard work paid off in a big way!.

Kudos must be given to Rogers and Arlen, both of whom did a fine job portraying the rivals that become friends, yet it’s Clara Bow - on her way to being the “It Girl” - who shined brightest in what was essentially a thankless role; like Jack, Mary is a car enthusiast, and volunteers to work for the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. She is herself sent off to France, but while featured in one exciting scene (when the Germans bomb a town), Mary spends most of the movie pining after Jack, both at home and even in Europe (Bow is the best thing about an extended sequence in Paris, where her Mary meets up with a drunken Jack at a night club, only to find he’s too preoccupied with champagne bubbles to even realize she’s there). Also keep an eye out for Gary Cooper, who, in an early screen role, appears briefly as Cadet White.

While some of the film’s non-battle scenes may be hit and miss (Jack’s fascination with bubbles stretches on far too long, eventually losing its humorous effectiveness), Wellman’s aerial fights are as thrilling as they come, and do their part to make Wings a film that, almost a century later, is guaranteed to bring you to the edge of your seat.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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