“The war in the air from both sides of the lines”
Director: William Wellman
Cast: Clara Bow, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Richard Arlen
Synopsis: Two young men, one rich, one middle class, who are in love with the same woman, become fighter pilots in World War I.
Wings was something of a blockbuster in its day with stupendous aerial action scenes and an epic scope. Its budget was an estimated $2,000,000 — a phenomenal amount for its time — and, unlike today’s tentpole releases, most of the money is up there on the screen rather than languishing in the bank account of some A-lister. The aerial sequences, many of them captured by cameras bolted to the planes, are almost vertiginous at times, immersing us in the hair-raising experiences of WWI fighter pilots who, as well as dropping bombs as so graphically depicted here, were just as likely to drop bricks on enemy infantrymen below or fire pistols at enemy aircraft pilots.
It’s a shame the plot isn’t as enthralling as those aerial scenes, because if it were, Wings would be up there with the most exalted silent movies rather than holding only a footnote in history as the first movie to win the Best Picture (or its early equivalent) Oscar back in 1929. Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, who would one day marry Mary Pickford, plays Jack, who likes nothing more than tinkering with his hot rod and mooning over the beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), with whom he would also like to tinker if only she’d let him. Jack’s so in love with the kind-hearted Sylvia that he can’t see she only has eyes for handsome and wealthy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen, who would meet and marry Ralston during production of this movie), who is understandably unimpressed by Jack’s attentions towards her. Love has also blinded Jack to his cute neighbour Mary (Clara Bow), who is quite clearly bonkers about him.
The American entry into the Great War eventually disrupts this idyllic lifestyle, and both Jack and David volunteer for the flying corp. Their mutual enmity results in one of those curious punch-ups peculiar to movies in which the participants, after having knocked seven kinds of stuffing out of one another, become firm and inseparable friends. They graduate from flying school together, and out of compassion David does nothing to put right Jack’s misconception that Sylvia has feelings for him. While the two boys are learning how to master the skies, Mary is doing her bit as an ambulance driver and, in the kind of coincidence only found in movies like this, she ends up in Paris at the same time as the boys are enjoying some well-earned R&R.
She comes across Jack in a bar, and he’s so intoxicated that he doesn’t even recognise her. In fact, for some unexplainable reason, all Jack can see are bubbles. They fizz out of a girl when he shakes her and pop out of the bedpost in the hotel room to which Mary takes him, presumably with the intention of having her way with him while he’s too drunk watching bubbles to notice. Sadly, Jack’s a little too far gone for any of that sort of thing, and when a couple of military policemen turn up just as a topless Mary is climbing back into her uniform, she finds herself quickly despatched back to the States.
Today, Wings’ storyline is as cliched as it sounds, but that’s not to say it wasn’t considerably fresher back in 1927. Either way, screenwriter John Monk Saunders keeps things zipping along at a fair old pace so that there’s generally something new happening to distract us from dwelling too long on the story’s familiarity. Like director William A. Wellman, Saunders was a veteran of WWI which, back then, was recent history, and they both brought a wealth of first-hand experience to the production. Wings really does come alive during the aerial sequences, with its realism enhanced by the fact that both Rogers and Arlen are actually flying the planes themselves. As the film was made in 1927, it’s pretty light on special effects, but that kind of works in its favour, because that huge budget was clearly spent on realistically recreating what it was like to be a fighter pilot — and an infantryman — back in 1917.
Although Clara Bow is given star billing, she really only has a supporting role to the male leads, which is a shame because she gives by far the best performance, investing her character with a beguiling warmth and vulnerability. Rogers and Arlen turn in performances that run hot and cold, with most of the burden falling upon Rogers’ shoulders. Sadly, although he’s likeable enough, he’s not really up to the job, a fact reflected in the way that his acting career never really went anywhere. Ironically, perhaps the most interesting performance from today’s perspective is an early pre-stardom appearance by Gary Cooper as an ill-fated comrade of Jack and Dave’s. He’s only on screen for a few brief moments, but it’s easy to see why those few seconds led to a lifetime of stardom.
(Reviewed 29th May 2013)