On the day of the latest Academy Awards ceremony I rewatched the first ever Best Picture, William Wellman's World War I flying epic. Wings was one of two "best pictures" that year, officially recognized as the "outstanding production" of 1927-8 while F. W. Murnau's Sunrise received the first and only award for "unique and artistic" effort. Film buffs today regard the Murnau as the superior film and I'd most likely agree with them, but the distance between the two pictures really isn't as great as some may think. Both films are spectacles showing silent film at its peak of technical virtuosity, and both have plenty of corny moments. If Sunrise showed what a proven expressionist master could do with a Hollywood budget, Wings is arguably more of a revelation because Wellman really hadn't done anything distinguished before. Finally matched with the right subject, the young director went at it with every trick in the book and achieved unprecedented and arguably unmatched effects. While it flaunts supremely mobile late-silent camerawork and attacks the air war from almost every possible angle, Wings is above all the ultimate statement of silent cinema's primitive authenticity. Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers literally take to the air for the film's dogfights, and even jaded modern audiences are likely to be captivated if not awestruck by the unmistakable reality of it.
Arlen and Rogers are the leads in the film's tragic bromance of frenemies. They're from the same town, where David Armstrong (Arlen) is a privileged rich boy and Jack Powell (Rogers) is a car enthusiast. Both pine for rich girl Sylvia Lewis (Harold Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston), but Jack does so almost as a matter of one-upmanship with David, and in spite of the obsessive attention paid him by his neighbor Mary, his neglect of her all the more inexplicable by the fact that Mary is played by top-billed "It" girl and legendary sex symbol Clara Bow. Maybe Mary comes on too strong, as Bow often does in her films. She does score a point with Jack by naming his homemade race car "the Shooting Star" and creating a logo he'll also use on his fighter plane.
The audience will be all for Bow because Mary also enlists, joining the motor corps as an ambulance driver. There's a scene nearly midway through the film that may remind today's moviegoers of Wonder Woman's exploits in a French village, down to the climactic destruction of a church steeple. Of course, all Mary can do is cower under her truck as that steeple crashes down point first almost on top of her, provoking what probably was some salty language from our star, though my lip-reading isn't good enough to verify it. As an aside, there's at least one "Son of a bitch!" during a dogfight scene that absolutely no one will miss. In any event, Mary's really big adventure takes place in Paris (some actual second-unit shooting was done there), where she's tasked with dragging a sozzled Jack from a bar because his leave's been cancelled. This is part of the scene that includes a famous tracking shot including two lesbians at a table, for what that's worth to you. On one hand, this is one of the film's dumbest scenes, sinking to the level of idiot comedy as Jack becomes obsessed with champagne bubbles and begins hallucinating them everywhere in special-effect form. On the other, the whole bubble business has a brilliant payoff when Mary, having changed from her chic uniform into a sequined cocktail gown to get Jack's attention, shimmies a blizzard of bubbles at him that finally wins him away from a predatory French woman. Of course, he's so stinking drunk that he never recognizes her through the whole experience, finally passing out in a hotel room just before some MPs show up to arrest Mary in mid-change back into her uniform. Her war ends with the grim irony of dismissal for immoral conduct, and when Jack reads about her "resignation" in a hometown paper, still none the wiser about Paris, he remarks that Mary didn't seem like the quitting type.
It's remarkable that Wings made Buddy Rogers a star when Jack is such an obnoxious character. Not only does he treat Mary like dirt, only to win her at the very end of the picture, and not only does he delude himself about Sylvia when she really loves David (as Ralston did Arlen), but on top of everything else he kills David. Not intentionally, mind you, or not in the "I want to kill David" sense, but because, believing David dead behind enemy lines, he goes on a berserker rage during the big American push, breaking from his formation to go on a solo rampage against any German plane he can find. So of course David has survived, and of course he steals a German plane in a desperate effort to get back to his own lines, and of course Jack isn't going to realize that it's his buddy in a German plane flying toward the American lines. This is all a big tragedy, of course, but Wellman takes it beyond tragedy to outright horror, milking David's hopeless helplessness for all it's worth as he knows exactly who's after him from the shooting star logo on the pursuing plane. This isn't a moment of valorous resignation but a sustained fit of despairing terror, and Arlen makes the most of it. Sure, the boys reconcile before David finally expires, after he's shot down and crashes into a house, but while Wellman strives to restore a sentimental tone -- the symbolic cut to a plane's propellers slowing to a halt outside a military ceremony is a nice touch echoed in the epilogue by Sylvia's mournful stillness in the swing she and David used to swing on -- that play for pathos can't erase the memory of one of the most terrifying moments in all silent film, all the more terrifying, of course, for knowing that Arlen is up in the clouds, theoretically as helplessly vulnerable as the character he plays.
It's quite an achievement by both Wellman and Arlen that that scene of one man in peril is so memorable after some massively detailed scenes of land and air battle, nearly as definitive as the trench warfare scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front. Wings is more of a patchwork than that film, with wider variance in tone than Sunrise, to return to the original 1927 comparison, in an effort to please every part of the audience. Somehow it's a film that elevated everyone involved, including Gary Cooper in his famous few minutes as a doomed trainee pilot. Wellman knew star power when he saw it, and while Cooper doesn't have quite the godlike emergence here that James Cagney gets in Wellman's Other Men's Women, you can tell from the way the director dissolves to a closer shot of Cooper as he prepares to leave his tent for the last time that the young actor would make an indelible impression. But hell, this film even elevated El Brendel. Brendel really became a big deal in talkies, when his Swedish accent was judged inherently hilarious, if nothing else about him was. What on earth did he have to offer in silent film? Apparently Wellman found his face funny, having used him in an earlier picture, and in the meantime silence freed the presumptive comedian from the confines of his own shtick, so that here he can play a German-American, Herman Schwimpf, who has to fend off disdain for his enemy ethnicity by displaying an American flag tattoo on his bicep. Apart from that, he gets beat up during an aggressive demonstration of hand-to-hand combat and is forgotten about for most of the rest of the picture until he turns up firing an anti-aircraft gun before the climactic battle. He was there for someone's benefit, I guess, though I'd wonder about anyone who found him the highlight of the film. He's what you get when you try to have something for everyone in a movie, and that just goes to prove that Wings is more -- far more -- than the sum of its parts. Parts of this film are probably still the best air-war movie ever made.