This week, we begin our focus on feature film reviews. The week has ended both with an historic election and falls on the Veterans' Day holiday. So our first movie selection is going to have a double theme. Since Making America Great Again was the hope of the electorate; and since Veterans' Day originally commemorated WW1---our feature this weekend will be both about America at its former greatness, with WW1 as a part of it.
And to add to the whole theme of American excellence, this film was also the first winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film is simply titled Wings, produced by Paramount Studios in 1927. The film had what would be in today's dollars, a $28 million production budget and took over 9 months to produce.
Wings is a WW1 action story with a romantic love theme deeply embedded in it. The plot concerns two men and two women in a typical town on the eve of America's entry into the war. The two men, Jack Powell (played by Buddy Rogers) and David Armstrong (played by Richard Arlen) are bitter enemies and rivals for the hand of the same girl, Sylvia Lewis (played by Jobyna Ralston). Jack believes that he has won Sylvia, though secretly she loves David. Meanwhile, the demure girl-next-door, Mary Preston (played by Clara Bow) is deeply in love with Jack. Such are the state of affairs when both men join the Air Force.
Mary, meanwhile, enlists as a volunteer in the Red Cross and goes to the Western Front as an ambulance driver, largely motivated by her love and concern for Jack. By then, Jack has become a fighter ace and the rigors of war have not only reconciled him and David, but they become as brothers, comrades-in-arms, fighting and flying every mission together.
Wings was released for the 10th Anniversary of America's entry into WW1 and its reception was phenomenal. The storyline took a different approach from most of the period's dramas, which focused on the cruelty and dehumanizing aspects of the war. The theme driving Wings was that love and service to a higher purpose brought out the best in human nature in spite of the war. Mary's love for Jack and Jack's love for his country and fellow-soldiers pointed the way to future that would survive and go on after the conflict was over.
The action-scenes in Wings were also ahead of their time and, in fact, set the standards for most aerial-war films since. Director William Wellman employed the then-new technology of aerial photography during the dogfight scenes (and there were lots of them in Wings). The photographers shot the combat footage at angles above and parallel to the aircraft---usually on cloudy days---producing some of the most realistic battle-scenes ever done before or since. Wellman himself was a former WW1 fighter pilot, and all of the stunt-pilots in Wings were as well. The crash-landing scenes were actually performed with real planes; and 3,500 active-duty US Army troops volunteered to re-enact a battle scene on the ground.
Wellman dedicated the film "to those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded around them forever," making it fitting viewing for Veterans Day. Wings is not only a positive depiction of genuine masculinity, but an outstanding portrayal of genuinely feminine love, thanks to a dynamic performance by the beautiful Clara Bow. Unlike a lot of war films, Wings is a positive and uplifting production emphasizing the better and higher aspects of human nature.
As of this writing, Wings is available for free viewing only on Vimeo. There are also DVDs available. Although there are no more WW1 veterans in the US anymore, you get a real sense of their sacrifices and values through this feature.