It’s all too often assumed that silent films will, by default, be somehow more primitive than modern movies. The might be great films, but they will undoubtedly look dated. It’s a foolish idea to cling to because there are plenty of films that disprove this, but it’s certainly a stumbling block in getting some people – even those who consider themselves movie fans – to give silents a go. This wilful ignorance might be an insurmountable problem, but if any film could convince the doubters, then I suspect it would be Wings.
This 144 minute epic is a mixture of melodrama and war film, following the exploits of Jack (Buddy Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who join up at the start of America’s entry into the Great War. The pair are rivals in love, both courting society girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) – though for her, it’s only the wealthy David that she is interested in. To complicate things, Jack is the object of desire for girl next door Mary (Clara Bow), but he’s too caught up in his own doomed crush to notice her. Yeah, he’s not too bright. I mean, my God, that’s Clara Bow making eyes at you over the fence, man! In what universe is the dull Sylvia more entrancing?
The pair find themselves undergoing pilot training, their initial rivalry eventually giving way to a close friendship that sometimes borders on the homo-erotic. Eventually, they are shipped off to France, flying missions over the Western front, where Jack earns a reputation as a risk taking daredevil pilot. Mary, meanwhile, has volunteered to serve as a nurse, in the hope of finally making Jack see the light. But a series of events will see her sent back to America under a cloud and the friendship of Jack and David stretched by events outside their control.
Made in 1927 – and so the last gasp of the silent era – Wings was the first ever Oscar winner (but don’t let that put you off either!), a massive, sprawling, insanely expensive World War 1 epic that not only pioneered a whole bunch of cinematic techniques but still remains fresh after almost a hundred years of people tweaking and expanding those innovations. Wings might well have the most impressive air battles ever filmed, even now – gripping, intense, thrilling dogfights that are all the more spectacular because they arereal – no CGI or miniatures here. These are real, rickety old aircraft dive bombing, chasing and spiralling into the ground. The fact that the were often actually being piloted by the actors makes it all the more astonishing (and adds a sense of authenticity that not scene shot against a green screen could ever match). This is some of the best stunt work you’ll ever see, but it rarely calls attention to itself at the expense of the story.
It’s not just the air battles that remain impressive. The ground assault during the big push is one of the most astonishing war movie sequences ever shot, surprisingly brutal and unforgiving (shot pre-code, the film features bloodier deaths than you would expect to see in a film of this vintage, as well as a brief nude scene with Bow), while the melodramatic aspects of the film are given more grit that you might expect. Characters die without sentiment and Mary’s meting with a drunken Jack in Paris is given just the right sense of tragedy to be effective without over-egging the pudding.
Director William A. Wellman also comes up with some fantastic little moments – camera shots and incidental scenes that are pretty breathtaking in their visual audacity. Add to this the efforts to make the film more than just a black and white silent – uses of the Handschiegl technique to add colour to flames and machine gun bursts, the tinting of frames, the use of extensive sound effects (all digitally recreated here, which might concern purists, but which would seem to match the initial intentions and release format of the movie and which certainly hasn’t been overdone) – and you have a film that doesn’t actually seem that dated. With the addition of J.S. Zamecnik’s original score, this is a film that can easily match the grandeur and power of any later movie.
The film also has solid performances from the leads. Bow has surprisingly little screen time, given that she’s the top-billed star – this is very much a male-dominated story – but she makes her character believable, sympathetic and charming. Her sense of despair at Jack’s indifference at home and drunken boorishness in Paris, is quite heartbreaking. Rogers and Arlen manage to flesh out their characters more than you might expect, and the supporting cast and generally excellent.
Made just eight years after the end of the war, Wings also benefits from having a sense of authenticity that can only come from being created out of a collective memory. The battle fields, the trenches, the brutal combat and the randomness of death would have been something that many of those involved were acutely familiar with – Wellman was apparently a WW1 flyer before becoming a filmmaker. And so while the film occasionally slips into flag waving, it never forgets the horror of war – and admirably avoids demonising the ‘enemy’. The Germans here are given more humanity, more character and more sympathy than in many a later film. And while the lead characters might initially see warfare as a jolly jape, by the end of the film they have been made to see the reality.
Wings is that rarest of things, a long film that feels quite brief. It’s a cinematic epic in all senses of the word – a grand, emotive, sprawling spectacle that hooks you in early and holds you throughout. It might not be the best silent movie ever made, but I can’t honestly think of one that is better. This is a masterpiece that seems as fresh now as it must have done when first released. No film library is complete without it.
And this new restoration looks incredible. With frame damage removed, projection speeds adjusted and the original look and sound of the movie lovingly recreated (but never so polished that it doesn’t look authentic), I can’t imagine the film has ever been this good since it first unspooled onto cinema screens. This is what film restoration should look like.
This new release comes with a couple of documentaries – one on the making of the film, the other on the restoration – plus a featurette about the aircraft and pilots of the time, which is more interesting that it seems it will be initially. These are solid, fascinating and well edited documentaries that fill in the background of the film and are well worth checking out.