1917. Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) has a passion for cars. His neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is in love with him, but his attentions are on Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) who in her turn has her eyes on the wealthy young David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). With the arrival of the War, Jack and David both sign up for the Air Force to fight in France and their rivalry soon becomes firm friendship. Meanwhile, Mary joins the Women's Motor Corp in an effort to reunite with Jack.
The first thing that comes up when people talk about Wings is that it won the first ever Oscar for Best Picture, the only silent film to do so (not counting The Artist). It also won the first and only Oscar for Engineering Effects. But in fact there two Best Pictures that year: Wings was Best Production and Sunrise won for “Unique and Artistic Production”. The verdict of history has gone to the latter film. Wings was for a long time difficult to see, and was indeed considered lost for some years, a sad fate for one of the biggest hits of the late silent era. Now, thanks to a digital restoration and a reissue during Paramount's centenary year (including a slot at the 2012 London Film Festival, which is where I saw it for the first time) we have the chance to see for ourselves. Sunrise is certainly a great film, but Wings is a good one.
World War I was a recent memory for many of the audience for Wings and for many of its cast and crew as well. Director William A. Wellman was himself a flyer during the Great War, and what impressed then and still does today is the authenticity of the flying sequences. They were shot with cameras bolted to airplane fuselages and the leading men actually learned to fly their craft. Given that most views of World War One have concentrated on the sacrifice and the loss of life, and the mud and blood of the trenches, what comes across in this film – made by combat veterans and shown to people for whom the war was in living memory – what comes across is a sense of thrilling spectacle, though not without the losses to offset this.
The storyline is on the surface a romance, with Jack and David leaving their sweethearts Mary and Sylvia at home as they go off to fight. But the real love story is between the two men and this is what the plot, and especially the ending, turns upon. It's not hard to read Gallipoli (for example, from the same war) as a coded tragic gay love story, and you can do the same with Wings, though how much this is intended, and how much 1927's audience would have picked up on it, is open to conjecture. Certainly, Mary is somewhat shoehorned into the story despite Bow's top billing, mainly appearing in the opening section, the long interlude in Paris with Jack and David on furlough, and at the end. This was something Bow was quite aware of, and more than a little resentful of too. She also found her uniform more than a little unflattering. On the other hand, on the set she met Gary Cooper (who has a small scene here) and they began an affair.
Wings was a huge hit, running for over two years at its first engagement cinemas. In some venues it showed as a Magnascope presentation: a process where some sequences of the film was projected on a considerably larger screen, rather like IMAX except without the large-format film stock. It helped that Charles Lindbergh's successful transatlantic flight had fuelled a popular interest in aviation, so this film undoubtedly tapped into a popular mood. Sadly though, the coming of sound, later the same year, rendered silent films like this obsolete in the eyes of many studios, and the film was allowed to become lost until a nitrate copy, apparently duped in the 1950s, was found in the archive of the Cinèmatheque Française. Wings has been digitally restored – of which this dual-format release is a beneficiary – and had a cinema reissue as part of Paramount's centenary celebrations.
Strictly speaking, “Pre-Code” refers to the time between Will Hays's first list of “Don'ts” and “Be Carefuls” in 1930 and the Code's enforcement in 1934. But Hays's first Code was in reaction to concerns about the morality and content of movies from the previous years, including the late silent era. So Wings is Pre-Pre-Code, as it were. While I'm not aware of any especial controversy attaching to Wings, some of its content may surprise you. Not only do we have a brief shot of Bow topless during the Parisian sequence, we also have long-shot male rear nudity through an open door at the Aviation Examining Station near the start. The film also features what is apparently the screen's first kiss between two men. The battle and dogfight sequences (with chocolate sauce as blood) were enough for this to earn a PG-13 from the MPAA for its reissue, though the BBFC have given it a PG. (It had an uncut A certificate on its original UK release in 1928, though in a version that appears to have been shortened to 111 minutes. Some of that may have been speed-up by not playing the film at the intended 20 frames per second, though.)
Wings is a dual-format release from Masters of Cinema. It was the Blu-ray disc which was received for review, but the DVD contents are identical.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, as the film was originally shown. Most of the film has been tinted following the original presentation. There are also uses of hand-colouring, for gunfire, flames and the like. The film has also been transferred at the correct speed of 20fps. For a film which was once lost to look as good as this is quite remarkable. There's plenty of grain, but it's natural and filmlike and the HD transfer displays plenty of fine detail.
There are two music scores available for this silent film: the original orchestral score by J.S. Zamecnik presented in DTS-HD HR 5.1 and an organ-dominated score by Gaylord Carter in LPCM Surround (2.0). The Zamecnik score plays continuously from an overture over a black screen before the Paramount logos appear, over the intermission card 66 minutes in and continuing through the restoration credits at the end. This soundtrack also features some sound effects, with aircraft noise, gunfire and explosions making use of the surround channels and the subwoofer. Some effects are a little cutesy: popping champagne bubbles, for example. The soundtrack with the Carter score has no sound effects and is silent until the original Paramount logo starts and does not play during the intermission and after the original end title.
The extras on the disc begin with “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky” (35:58) is an account of the film's making. From start to finish. This and the following featurette have a sense of being the Official Version, with most of the interviewees being Paramount employees. The selling point of the film was that you would be up in the air with the pilots, not just watching dots in the sky as one original object put it. Wings was planned as a major roadshow attraction for 1927. The army and air service's collaboration was vital, and they saw the film as a good showcase for their achievements. Filming took place in San Antonio, Texas. William Wellman (represented here by his son, William Wellman Jr) had made eleven previous films, mostly B westerns, but his wartime air service was the reason why he was chosen to direct the film. Clara Bow was a major star and her inclusion was a case of the studio hedging their bets on what was an expensive film. The featurette ends with Wings winning its Academy Awards in 1929, at a ceremony of just fifteen minutes with the winners having been notified in advance.
“Restoring the Power and Majesty of Wings” (14:23) is an account of the film's restoration, beginning with the difficulties of finding the best materials to work with – which included a dupe negative found in Paramount's archive. Considerable numbers of scratches had to be removed, to begin with and tints were followed from original production notes. Hand-coloured effects were added digitally. The second half of this featurette details the restoration of the soundtrack, including retrieving the only known printed copy of Zamecnik's score from the Library of Congress. (Any musicians out there will see a reproduction of the Love Theme, here arranged for ukulele and in 2/4 time.)
Finally, “Dog Fight!” (12:56) takes us to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome and aviation museum. This is a brief account of the development of aviation and aerial warfare, including Roland Garros's (also a tennis player, with the French Open venue named after him) device for ensuring that machine guns did not destroy his own propeller when they fired.
Masters of Cinema's 48-page booklet begins with “This is the excellent foppery of the world: The Underside of Wellman's Wings”, a 2013 essay by Gina Telaroli. This points up the discrepancy between the big-budget studio assignment of Wings and the grittier fare he made the following decade, particularly and particularly prolifically in the Pre-Code era. Telaroli however demurs somewhat, discussing elements of Wings that feature in Wellman's later work. Also in the booklet is an interview with Wellman by Scott Eyman, published posthumously in 1978. and an extract from Wellman's 1974 autobiography, A Short Time for Insanity.