By Jude Warne.
On May 16th 1929, in Hollywood’s Hotel Roosevelt, it was announced that William Wellman’s film Wings had won the first “Best Picture” Academy Award, or the “Best Picture, Production” Academy Award as it was then called. Eighty-five years later, Eureka! Entertainment has re-released Wellman’s Oscar winner in an impressive Blu-ray/DVD package that features a magnificent new restoration of Wings as well as an array of interesting special features, all under its highly regarded “Masters of Cinema” sect.
Plot-wise, Wings follows the paths of best friends and eventual World War I fighter pilots David and Jack (played by Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, respectively), who both happen to be in love with Sylvia, played by Jobyna Ralston. To further complicate matters, Jack’s next-door neighbor Mary, played by Clara Bow, is in love with Jack and follows him into the war as a volunteer nurse. While the film’s story is adequate, it is the cinematic techniques and visual effects that are most striking in Wings. The midair combat scenes between fighter pilots are breathtaking and still impressive by 2014’s standards, especially when one considers that the blue screen did not exist. Stuntmen did though, and so did actors who performed all of their own stunts. Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers flew their characters’ planes themselves during the picture, allowing for various close-ups that add to the realism of the visual story.
While Wings is a war picture, it is no All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in that while we are shown a plethora of sky battles, and some of the wildness of Parisian life while Clara Bow is there, we are never given a sense of the emotional damages of war, or of the outrageous number of fatalities. We see very little blood and sinew. Moreover, the film seems to serve as a celebration of the valor and spirit of World War One’s soldiers, rather than critiquing the nature of war in general. There is a last moment of severely frightful action involving Jack and a tragically ill-fated decision to avenge a fallen comrade, when those involved address how the war is at fault for it. Despite the scene’s attempt at honesty though, it still seems a bit disconnected from an emotional core and the audience is left vaguely unmoved. The bits of slapstick comedy included in the film’s storyline fail to achieve full effect as well, particularly in a repeated bit about Jack’s stint of drunkenness in Paris.
The early moments of Wings are largely focused on the love stories of Jack, Mary, Sylvia and David, and it is these scenes that are on par with any romantic comedy of high quality. The cinematography also serves the film well, largely owed to the inspiring level of aesthetics at hand—particularly that featured in the Parisian scenes. Most apparent however, is the filmically impressive nature (even eighty-seven years after the film was made) of the flight sequences, the technical prowess of which is augmented by the stellar quality of the blu-ray’s restoration.
On Eureka! Entertainment’s new release of Wings, the viewer is able to choose between two soundtracks that can accompany the film, including a recent re-working of the 1927 film score by composer JS Zamecnik. This score is perhaps preferable, as basic sound effects that accompany the action sequences (such as the roar of airplane gears) help to captivate the audience. As for bonus features on the release, there is a thoroughly informative half-hour-plus documentary that addresses the filming of the flight sequences and the actors who did their own flying, among other short subject inclusions that cover the film’s restoration and the history of flight. Perhaps this film is not the most artistic or unique contribution from the realm of early silent cinema; yet, Wellman’s Wings did set the tone for the future of Academy Award Best Picture winners, and story aside, the aesthetics of the aerial shots lift the film’s value to an even higher tier of recognition.
Jude Warne recently earned her BA in Cinema Studies and Art History from New York University. She currently works at NYU Stern School of Business and is earning her MA in Humanities and Social Thought at NYU. Her hero is A.O. Scott of The New York Times.