Acting legend Lillian Gish once said, disapproving of the ‘talkies’ that replaced the films she became known for: ‘’Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomine, but something wonderfully expressive.” That quote seems appropriate when discussing the first and last of silent films to ever win the Best Picture award, William A. Wellman’s Wings. It’s also fitting to describe the many virtues of this film, and possibly even as to explain the reasons this movie has never properly enjoyed the reputation of a classic, to the point where I can’t help but wonder if it would be completely forgotten if it weren’t for the historic, perhaps even random privilege of being our very first Best Picture.
It’s not necessary to understand the context in which this film earned the accolades it did during its heyday in order to be able to appreciate it, but learning a bit about them does enhance the overall experience, and earns even more craftsmanship appreciation points. And I’m not talking exclusively about the first World War post war feeling, the transcendence of its notorious aerial battle sequences, the immense success achieved by it thanks to the sudden rise in popularity of aviation, conveniently at the height of Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic achievements, the opportunistic use of It Girl Clara Bow in a filler role… Part of that post ‘Greatest War of All Time’ (the film’s own words) sentiment manifests an almost complete discarding of political context in order to focus on the story at hand that’s surprising and refreshingly ahead of its time, especially when thought of in retrospective. Or maybe it’s just meant to be over understood, because of how recent the events were, but either way, the almost devotional preference to character actions and devices over exposition, to plot developments no matter how contrived over boring historical contextualization is both admirable and endearing, even when it doesn’t always work.
I always prefer to keep the plot as much under covers as possible when I’m writing reviews, but given that this remains as the most undeservedly underseen (Cavalcade can spend the rest of its days in obscurity for all I care) of all Best Picture winners, I feel almost obligated: two young men from the same hometown: David, played by Richard Arlen, who comes from a wealthy, always rigid looking family, and is bound to play husband to beautiful city girl, Sylvia, (who remains as not much but a plot device, the elephant in the room to both our leads, after both our heroes head to war, we’ll only see her once again in a sole shot, and much like the other big Oscar winner from that first Academy Awards’ ceremony, Murnau’s Sunrise, it’s that subversive visitor from the city the one’s that’s to disrupt the calmness and provoke discord into the story), who also happens to be the object of affection of our other male lead: middle class, youthful Jack, played by Charles Rogers, who at the same time continuously ignores the not so subtle romantic approaches of next door neighbor Mary, played by Clara Bow. As the threat of war comes along, both men (and Clara, eventually) gleefully submit to the air craft to fulfill their dreams. It’s interesting how the film is certainly not shy in showing that life altering decision in an exciting, cheerful manner (physical comedy breaks and slightly xenophobic comic relief are to be found in this section of the film), whereas a few years later All Quiet on The Western Front, the other Oscar winning WWI epic, wasn’t having any of that: the blind ambition that drove those young men into risking their lives for glory and unabashed nationalistic pride was shown so loudly, so emptily instinct driven, it was completely premonitory to awful things about to happen.
Even the most heart-stopping, life threatening (literally, an Air Corps’ pilot crashed fatally during production), audacious air stunts seem to be portrayed in that same careless but unashamedly vicious craving to entertain. Even after Gary Cooper’s infamous two minute cameo, in which his character, a veteran of aviation, after our boys have finally joined the Air Force, teaches them both a lesson about the arbitrariness of luck and destiny during duty, only to become seconds later the same cruel example to his own ‘teachings’; we meet his demise in clever filmmaking style: unlike the other aircraft fatalities during the film, Wellman decides to shoot Cooper’s trajectory and eventual downfall through the use of shadows, you follow the shade of the plane ascend throughout the base without ever looking up to the sky, ending in an almost delightfully sadistic, nail biting yet obviously inevitable finale.
But despite the amazing craftsmanship that obviously went on during the making of the film, and the uniquely entertaining the results those battle sequences achieve, there’s much more to the film than the power of its neat action pace. During my first viewing earlier this year it seemed as if I was much more taken aback by that wonderful silent era sentimentality (in the purest sense of the word) present throughout the film: the naïveté and childlike drive of our lead character Jack, Clara Bow’s contagious, giggle worthy forced smiles, the obstinate serious faced-ness of David, that makes his more spontaneous happy moments all the more miraculous, and the hardships of his tragic journey all the more moving; and also by the obviously pre-Hays Code enforcement naughtiness: during an intoxicated reward trip to Paris, there’s a longshot showing everything from cross dressing gentlemen to tomboy lesbians seductively enjoying a night on the town, Bow’s character doesn’t think twice when it’s time to slut herself up for the team (spilling more boobage than you’ll find in any Best Picture winner, until the native ladies from Mutiny on the Bounty), our heroes don’t mind taking unidentified ladies while on the influence of apparently hallucinatory champagne, obviously phallic jokes, even emotional man on man affection and probably more ‘amoral’ stuff than I didn’t pick up.
It’s funny when it needs to be, it’s jam packed with towering technical achievements, but it’s the emotional payoff that doesn’t lend itself until the ending, despite predictability, what I gathered the most from this second viewing: in the tragic climax, resulting from a misunderstanding of war barriers and angst and mourn driven actions, eerily remindful of my beloved The English Patient in more than one way, in which the film entirely lays its heartbreaking rewards unto us. Lillian Gish was definitely onto something: despite the contrivances and the limitations, you rarely see films attempting so much and achieving most of what they seek to nowadays, something that the late silent era was only beginning to provide.