Despite the success of The Artist a couple of years back there are still plenty of film fans who apparently remain immune to the charms of silent cinema. As someone who can’t get enough silent era movies it’s frustrating to often find myself trying to convince people that many of these films are truly entertaining, and not just staidly interesting in a museum exhibit kind of way.
It’s obviously true that films from this era are unlikely to entertain modern audiences in exactly the same way as modern blockbusters. We have different tastes and expectations these days and cinema is constantly evolving, so to expect a film made nine tenths of a century ago to hit all the same sweet spots in a 21st century filmgoer’s mind is ridiculous.
But at the same time, blockbuster films have become more and more CGI centric and we have become more accepting of the fact that spectacle in movies these means a convincing bunch of pixels. So, to watch an old film that genuinely has a cast of thousands of extras, real sets that actually had to be physically constructed and death-defying stunts which put courageous stuntmen in real danger is absolutely thrilling.
And it’s hard to imagine a more thrilling movie experience than William A. Wellman’s Wings, with a mammoth-for-its-day-budget it’s an unbelievable recreation of WWI and the first ever film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Although the film centres on the relationship of two childhood friends, Jack (Charles “Buddy Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) who both become flying aces, its set against the epic back-drop of the war and the battles both in the air and on the ground are recreated with staggering realism and ground-breaking technique.
Although these combat scenes are hugely exciting in a proper Boys Own’ adventure kind of way, they’re also surprisingly brutal and bloody. It’d be easy to think of the film as the Saving Private Ryan of its day, providing a harrowingly realistic portrayal of warfare that audiences simply hadn’t seen before. But it’s important to remember that that Spielberg’s film came to audiences half a century after the conflict it recreated ended. Wings was in cinemas less than a decade after the end of the Great War and everyone who saw it would have been affected by the war in one way or another. Watching the film with this in mind adds an extra layer of tragedy to what’s already a fairly tragic story.
Of course the fact that the film was released so soon after the war ended means you have to forgive it for being a little over-patriotic. The Germans are more or less portrayed as nothing more than the evil enemy and there are no sympathetic German characters. But unlike a lot of the American war movies that were to follow it, Wings does at least acknowledge that America wasn’t fighting the war alone, with scenes in the trenches featuring British and French troops.
The trench scenes and recreation of the furious fighting on the ground are mind-boggling in their scope with literally thousands of extras on screen, all somehow managing to not get caught in the masses of explosions going off. But where the film was really ahead of its time, and in a lot of ways ahead of our time, is in the aerial combat scenes. Although we’ve seen WWI dogfights in recent movies like the charming Flyboys and the disappointing Red Baron, these movies relied on CGI to try and recreate their death defying terror and thrills. William A. Wellman had no such cheats to rely on and instead simply strapped cameras to biplanes and filmed other biplanes spinning and diving around each other. In some cases planes are shot down and you see the pilot filmed from a camera on the front of the plane.
There’s no trickery here, the planes are genuinely spinning towards the ground and the pilots/actors simply had to remember to stop playing dead and pull up before hitting the ground. We’re so used to having scenes like this created in a computer that it’s hard to get a modern mind around how real and dangerous it all was but it’s completely thrilling to watch. Many people aren’t aware that the advent of sound in cinema actually set the medium back in a lot of ways. Once cumbersome microphones and sound equipment were introduced filmmakers were constrained in where they could place the camera and early talkies often look very stagey and stilted. But back when directors didn’t have to worry about picking up their actors’ lines they were free to be more creative and daring with their camerawork. And there was none more creative than Wellman, whose camera swoops and swings even in the ground based scenes.
But the film isn’t all full throttle action scenes and the story at its heart is completely compelling and melodramatic in a way only silent cinema managed. These scenes benefit greatly from the presence of original flapper girl and 1920s megastar Clara Bow as Jack’s love interest Mary. One of the film’s most memorable sequences takes place away from the combat in a Parisian cabaret bar as soldiers on leave get together to have a good time and partake in the closest thing a silent movie can have to a musical number. Wellman’s camera is just as kinetic here as in the battle scenes, including one unforgettable shot where he tracks through the bar across the tables of various sozzled soldiers.
It all adds up to a film that manages to be both fascinating and moving as a piece of film history and as genuinely entertaining and exciting as any war movie made since. The presentation we’re given isn’t exactly the same as the film seen in 1927. For a start it’s been restored and looks pristine on Blu-Ray but there’s also the fact that as well as the original score performed flawlessly by an orchestra, sound effects maestros have also contributed sound effects to the soundtrack. That said, it’s not too inauthentic, as its premiere Wings did have a live orchestra and live sound effects. There’s no denying that the sounds of plane engines, guns and explosions does make the film a more immersive and visceral experience.
Extra features on the Blu-Ray include an in-depth look at making of the film and its place in history as well a documentary about the restoration. But as with all these Masters of Cinema releases the real treasure is the 40 page booklet featuring essays and interviews. That, along with the fact that the movie is incredible, makes this a package worth owning.
Overall Verdict: The first Best Picture Oscar winner more than deserves its place in history with its insanely epic and realistic battle and stunt scenes as well as a story that’s in turns thrilling, funny and tragic. If you know anyone who thinks silent cinema is antiquated and boring you need to show them this film.
Documentary: Wings, Grandeur in the Sky
Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings
Dogfight! Documentary about WWI fighter aces
40 page booklet
Reviewer: Adam Pidgeon