Release Date: August 12th, 1927 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: William A. Wellman Actors: Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralston, El Brendel, Richard Tucker, Gary Cooper, Arlette Marchal
n June 12th, 1927, in Washington, Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh paid simple tribute to those who fell in World War I. As he observed, greater feats and deeds of aviation were accomplished during times of armed conflict than during times of peace. But these achievements came with a heavy price – a significant loss of life – to whom “Wings” is dedicated.
Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) has always dreamed of flying. But instead, he spends most of his time tinkering with automobile repairs, which are consistently foiled by next door neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who won’t leave him alone. It may be 1917 in a small American town, but young love isn’t a stranger to these two, even if Jack requires more coaxing than Mary. Meanwhile, David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), from the wealthiest family in the area, romances his sweetheart Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), a girl with an advantage over the others: she’s a visitor from the big city. Jack falls for this element of rarity, opting to pursue Sylvia despite her obvious interests in David.
As the frenzy of war takes ahold of everyone across the country, Jack heads for the Aviation Examining Station – where only the bravest of the brave dare to apply. Coincidentally, so too does David; but Jack manages to procure – accidentally – a parting photograph (a good luck charm) from Sylvia (as well as one from Mary, though it’s unrequested). The first stop on the path to glory is drill after drill on the ground, where the recruits learn to stretch, box, shoot, and cope with the sudden spins of airborne maneuvers. It’s quite some time before they ever see an actual plane. Jack’s first dawn patrol at an overseas airdrome, however, proves to be worth the wait – an exciting opportunity to finally clash with the enemy (specifically, the German Captain von Kellermann and his “Flying Circus”).
Back home, Mary occupies herself by joining the Women’s Motor Corps of America – which ships her off to the front lines as the driver of a puddle-hopper full of medical supplies. With a hint of drama, she’ll find herself in the vicinity of her friends, but just out of reach. And even when she does manage to occupy the same room, she’s met with humiliation rather than a warm embrace. Preston may be something of a child, but she’s forced to be levelheaded and maturer than the man she pursues – as if she was the leading lady in a screwball comedy.
Despite “Wings” being a war picture, the introduction of the characters and the initial training sequences are steeped in slapstick. Romantic mishaps, engineering blunders, and supporting character Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel) – who is purely for comic relief – keep the levity high. Even when Jack and David’s rivalry grows more bitter before they eventually become inseparable pals, there’s a touch of humor to their confrontations. In a rather offbeat twist, Cadet White (a recognizable Gary Cooper in a bit part) meets a senseless demise, as if to remind audiences that war isn’t a laughing matter.
Hundreds of extras march into large-scale trench battles (notably at the climax, which borrows designs from D.W. Griffith), but it’s the aerial photography that proves to be (expectedly) the highlight of “Wings.” An early dogfight at 10,000 feet, with an exchange of incendiary bullets and black smoke billowing from hit aircraft as they burst through wispy white clouds, is particularly impressive. With limited special effects available, the stunts are entirely thrilling, cut together nicely and showcasing explosive mid-air collisions and tumbling crash-landings. Shortly thereafter, a bombing run at Mervale, featuring a Gotha “dragon,” reveals plenty of additional sequences of daredevilry and destruction – along with, oddly, the return of humor and smiles, even as Mary flees from crater-forming detonations.
Although the airplane skirmishes are the focus, the plot itself is oftentimes suspended just to protract the action. Furloughs in Paris provide an opportunity for the long-awaited reunion of Mary and Jack (and a very impressive bit of camerawork at the Folies Bergere as the camera travels down a row of partiers), which is an overlong ordeal of gayety (with a surprisingly unnecessary flashback), even though it reinforces the primary love story (and puts Bow in – and out of – a glittery dress). Without this romance, the adventure certainly wouldn’t mean as much. The “Big Push” arrives right afterward, giving rise to yet another aerial engagement, once again with so many participants and stunts that intertitles are required to sort out which pilots have been shot and which ones are still circling for additional passes.
“Wings” would become the first recipient of the Best Picture Academy Award, though it would be marginally bested three years later by the superior war film “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which would itself pick up the top golden statue. In “Wings,” love and friendship and comedy tend to triumph over WWI displays (save for the poetic yet contrived finale); for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” warfare is revealed to be the terrifying, tragedy-laden crucible that it is. If nothing else, however, “Wings” is an early example of high-octane, blockbuster-like visuals, made more memorable by a sweet, clever parting shot, as it retraces its romantic comedy introduction.
– Mike Massie