Original poster. Note that Clara Bow has top billing, and Gary Cooper in his first role (of just a few minutes) is third-billed of the male stars.

1. WINGS (1927) Dir. William Wellman

Viewed on: Saturday 25th Feb 2023

I’ve always been fond of Buster Keaton and his ilk, but the only ‘serious’ silents I’ve seen all the way through are European art films: Nosferatu, Un Chien Andalou, Caligari and Man With a Movie Camera. Oh, and The Artist, (arguably) the second silent film to win a variant of ‘Best Picture’ in 2012. Anyway, the point is I came to Wings with little grounding, and few expectations. Sticking to my rules for this project, I did absolutely no research before putting it on.

First response. This is a great film: cinematically brilliant, dramatically involving, often very funny and consistently spectacular. Notwithstanding the odd bit of clunky character development, it’s also far more sophisticated than I’d anticipated. The approach to sex and violence is distinctly pre-code, and the depiction of warfare shows real moral courage. Many of its makers, including the director, were themselves veteran pilots, and it doesn’t paint over the horrors of conflict. Indeed, the story climaxes with an event so unflinchingly bleak that I suspect you’d struggle to get it past a test audience even now.

Wings was also my introduction to Clara Bow, a massive star of the silent age and a woman well worth reading about. Although she had top billing for this, Bow later complained her role was ‘just the whipped cream on top of the pie.’ Fair criticism. This is principally a story of male friendship, seasoned, like some other airman movies I could name (the obvious one and The Spirit of St Louis), with a salty dose of homoeroticism.

This was a film of unprecedented scale. Most Hollywood productions back then were completed within a few weeks. Wings took nine months, cost a massive $2M and benefited from a ton of additional resources (planes, tanks, pilots, military advisors) provided by the US War Office.

It’s unsurprising that as well as ‘Outstanding Picture’, Wings also won ‘Best Engineering Effects’. Nobody had made a proper film about flyers before this; consequently, Wellman and his crew had to solve technical problems as they went along, setting a new standard for shooting aerial footage. And the impressive stuff isn’t confined to the sky. Wellman’s depiction of ground-level warfare also displays a great deal of cinematic inventiveness, as do the scenes away from the battlefield. This shot, with the characters on furlough in Paris, is justly famous for its original camerawork, as well as displaying some of the film’s more transgressive content:

Sorry about the poor quality of the YouTube clip. We watched the Eureka Blu-ray release – an amazing job of visual restoration, accompanied by an orchestral recreation of the original roadshow soundtrack. Some purists consider the orchestra too lush, and complain that the additional sound effects (plane engines, explosion sounds etc.) diminish the silent cinema experience. Call me gauche, but I liked them. I don’t know if I’d have survived the more ‘authentic’ alternative offered on the disc: a Wurlitzer accompaniment for the whole two hours.

1st Academy Awards 1928

Winner: Wings – Paramount Famous Lasky

Also nominated:

The Racket – The Caddo Company

7th Heaven – Fox