Lowdown: Celebrating the romance and mateship of WW1 American fighter pilots.
Wings, a 1927, is not a movie one would watch because one wants to watch a good movie; it’s a movie one would watch in order to see what people used to consider good movie making almost a century ago, back when it was all black & white, square and silent (with the exception of music). Wings is probably one of the better candidates for this anthropological exercise, being the very first “best movie” Academy Award winner in the competition’s very first year. Personally, I only heard about it through Bill Bryson’s One Summer book, in which this favourite author of mine tried to convey what the year 1927 felt like in the USA. Once I figured out I actually still have relatives who were alive at the time this movie was released, I thought I’d take the plunge.
It goes without saying that the version of Wings I got to see on my modern TV is a restored one. There is still no spoken dialog, but there is music all along as well as sound effects and – if I might venture a guess – some newly added, albeit minor – visual special effects. It is interesting to note relics of the original intermission have been kept. Your experience will thus vary from that of your typical 1927 viewer, but that would have clearly been the case anyway given that original viewers saw this movie in theatres of types that no longer exist. My point is, we can try and catch a glimpse of what 1927 was like, but we cannot get the complete experience.
Contents wise, the movie is a tribute to American pilots of WW1, or The Great War as it was known back in 1927. We follow a small American town guy, Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), the love interest of Mary (Clara Bow, who – according to Bryson – was the Hollywood star at the time, until technology caught up and her voice brought the downfall of her career). Alas, Jack is not interested in Mary, but rather in another girl who happens to be the love interest of David (Richard Arlen), the son of the town’s richest family. Yes, Wings is a love triangle taking place in the shadow of that great war: the USA joins in, and our two boys volunteer to become fighter pilots. They start off as rivals, yes, but quickly they become friends as the violence of the war befalls them. They manage to defy the survival odds for pilots at the time, but war does have a way of catching up on the odds.
What is vividly obvious about Wings are (a) it’s length, at around 2.5 hours, and (b) it’s very complicated and grandiose war scenes, many of which involve aerial battles. Some crude visual effects are obvious, but I have my suspicions a lot of what we see is real – which makes Wings a mighty achievement, both for the time and even by today's standards.
Wings is not without fail, though. Many of its failures are probably the result of it being a pioneer of the art of cinema: some scenes are unnecessarily long (e.g., when we see our pilots receive heroes medals, we also see these being given to others both before and after them); given the silent nature of the affair, acting is exaggerated to the point of laughable; some of the acting is outright bad (like that of the many soldiers we see dying on the battlefield); the whole Clara Bow during the war story thread feels like it was jammed in just so the star could have her screen time; and much, much more. A lot of Wings’ failures still apply today, like the glorification of the American for being American, or just the fact we witness the death of hundreds if not more but the movie only cares for two.
Yet, with all of its shortcomings, Wings stands out for its pioneering spirit. It proves the love triangle formula has been around the movie theatre for a while and it shows just how bad contemporary Hollywood is at recycling. It also features nudity, including both male nudity and that of the biggest Hollywood star at the time according to Bill Bryson.
By today’s standards, Wings is a poor movie. No surprise there, really. As an experience in history? While I would say Russian Battleship Potemkin provides a better lesson of cinematic history, I cannot deny the validity of the Wings experience. Bottom line is a middle of the road, 2.5 out of 5 bored/curious crabs.