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Wings (1927); And Comparisons to Wonder Woman (2017)

June 25, 2017

For years I had been trying to watch Wings, ever since my crush on the adorably cool Clara Bow developed. I had always wanted to deep dive into her filmography to witness the evolution of a Brooklyn tomboy into a bonafide superstar, but Bow’s reign in silent cinema meant that sifting through her films would be difficult as many were lost or inaccessible. Wings, her most unanimously lauded film, became my primary directive. The film that won the first ever Academy Award for outstanding picture starring the biggest actress of 1927 was a fact repeated every time I glanced at anything related to Bow. Years ago, prints weren’t widely available until 2012 when the film was released on DVD. It took me 5 years to get my hands on a copy, and lordy, I’m glad there are DVD’s!

One thing I wish I knew going into this film—not that it truly mattered by the time I finished—is that Bow is not the focus of Wings at all: airplanes and William Wellman’s incredible direction is. Wellman was a phenomenally skilled filmmaker whose extensive career generated some of the best films of its time, but no other film highlights his finesse and poetic nature like Wings does. Wings is considered one of the last great films of the silent era. I would argue further that it’s one of the few genuinely great war films of all time.

Wings’ story of two fighter pilots off to war centers itself in WWI. Jack (Charles Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) are two men from different economic backgrounds who love the same girl. Initially there’s spite between them because of it, with David knowing the truth that Sylvia only loves him. Meanwhile Mary (Clara Bow), Jack’s longtime neighbor that he tolerates being around, is head over heels in love with him. But duty calls and both men must leave to fight. In basic training, they develop a bond and their resulting bromance is the crux of the story. Love and war takes its toll on both men giving Wellman free rein to treat audiences to a brilliantly emotional roller coaster packed with spectacle.

The war scenes are simply incredible. I watched in complete shock while screaming at my television in disbelief of the insane stunts that were being performed. Planes whip through the sky, zip into clouds, spiral towards the ground and crash flipping over with real bodies in them. Surely these had to be dummies in the cockpit. The first person medium close-ups in airplanes had to be faked somehow. A director would never put his actors in such dangerous situations, right? Wrong. Thanks to the short feature on the DVD that reveals the film’s production, I learned that “Wild Bill” Wellman was aptly nicknamed and he surrounded himself with a stunt team just as daring as him.

These pilots legitimately crashed their planes into the ground. The bodies that jump from burning helicopters in parachutes are real and they actually hit the earth on which they fall. Wellman and his camera operator Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast found inventive ways to showcase the authenticity of battle through camera rigs and placement. Because of this we are treated to some of the most stunning and immersive shots I’ve ever seen on film. Audiences ride through the skies with these actors. When one is hit and blood squirts from their face or mouth, the emotional impact it has is genuine. We don’t know many of these men falling from the skies but there’s an empathy for the extinguishing of life in the callousness of war.

Throughout the film I wondered what vets of the time thought. Did Wings hit too close to home? Was it authentic? Then I discovered that not only was it authentic, but many of the extras were actual servicemen who fought in the very battle that is depicted at the climax. Wellman and d’Arrast were also WWI vets which explains Wellman’s desire to get the action sequences right. All the complex pieces of real life and movie magic are masterfully controlled by Wellman whom orchestrates with agile delicacy. Nothing looks clunky or janky. Everything is immaculately in place at the right time creating an even paced film filled with all the feels.

A majority of film directors today can’t seem to handle melding both epic action and tender love with equal weight. But Wellman expertly does so in Wings, and what’s more he does it between Jack and David more than the unrequited love affair between Mary and Jack. David even shares touching moments thinking of his mother and in an impressive, masterful shot we are shown David’s dilemma going into war when he pulls out a bear from childhood. We don’t need title cards to express how this boy is now being sent off as a man and may never come back home. Bow is at her best illuminating her emotions with big eyes and possessing an infectious smile whenever Jack is around. She sells her emotions easier than ice cream on a sweltering summer day.

It’s stunning that 90 years later the biggest film at the moment is Wonder Woman, a film set during WWII about 30 years after the events in Wings. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins succeeds at attempting to follow Wellman’s lead on screen. Whether intentional or not, Wonder Woman directly lifts elements from Wings. Many of us in the audience of Wonder Woman roared in praise at Jenkins’ ability send chills when the Amazonian princess decides to walk through enemy lines with nothing more than her lasso of truth and sword. The same feeling I got during that beautiful moment of empowerment came again a week later while watching Wings when Allied troops cross over enemy lines beginning their trench war battle, a sequence that also conjures King Vidor’s epic WWI battle film The Big Parade (1925). In Wonder Woman, the scene in which Chris Pine tries to escape enemy territory by plane almost exactly replicates a scene in Wings when a character flies out of enemy area only to have his fate sealed.

Both films 90 years apart and from completely opposite ends of the spectrum are commentaries on war and the callousness of battle. Both use spectacle to emphasize the damaging nature that war has for everyone and not just those engaged in battle. While I enjoyed Jenkins’ feminine-driven perspective on the topic, I’m just completely amazed at how Wellman—almost a century prior—did it more effectively in ways that still hold up. I thoroughly enjoyed Wonder Woman, but I know the same won’t be said of it in 2107.


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