'Wings' (1927) Blu-ray Review: Today's Filmmakers Can Learn Much from This 85-Year-Old Classic

Directed by the great William Wellman, “Wings” is the not only the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (it was technically declared “Best Production“), it’s also the only silent movie to ever hold that honor (though “The Artist” could very well bookend that honor this year).

Back in 1927, “Wings” delivered spectacular aerial photography that must have blown the customers out of their seats. But in 2012, thanks to over a decade of Hollywood’s over-produced CGI, you’re still going to be blown out of your seat. To experience, in high-definition, no less, the spectacular in-camera flight and battle scenes, is a wonder to behold. The aerial shots are nothing short of spectacular, as are the expertly choreographed sequences involving armies and explosions. If “Wings” were produced today in the exact same fashion, people would marvel at the achievement.

Wings 1927

“It Girl” Clara Bow, a star so popular in the mid-to-late twenties there’s no actor working today who compares (think Marilyn Monroe in 1959), is listed as the film’s star, but she’s really a supporting player — a crucially important one, though. For she symbolizes all that is pure and decent and why our young, brave men fought and died in World War I.

All Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) has ever wanted was to fly, and all Mary Preston (Bow) has ever wanted was Jack. In their small, very American town, Jack and Mary live next door to one another, but Jack only sees Mary as a friend, a pal. You see, Jack’s in love with the more sophisticated Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), but unfortunately for him, she’s in love with David (Richard Arlen). It’s a complicated love rectangle, further complicated by class distinctions. Jack is working class, Davis is wealthy, and it will take the outbreak of a long and heartbreaking war to sort it all out.

Though rivals for the same girl, Jack and David both want to be combat pilots and end up in the same squad together. Soon they become friends, the very best of friends in the knowledge (brought to them by a shockingly young and undeniably charismatic Gary Cooper) that the very real prospect of death is a constant companion.

Not for a moment does Wellman allow “Wings” to shy away from the horrors of war. The price these young men pay to do their duty hangs over every frame of film and plants a sense of dread deep in your gut. At the same time, Wellman also doesn’t shy away from that which terrifies Hollywood today, the reasons why America is worth fighting and dying for. This isn’t done through speechifying for the preach, it’s expertly done through story and subtext and humor.

Some of the film’s most memorably funny moments come from a character who can hardly speak English, which means his patriotism is constantly called into question. That is, until he proudly reveals the stars and stripes tattooed on his bicep. Moreover, the class difference between our two protagonists dissolves completely, for Wellman’s message is simple and poignant and American: e pluribus unum — out of many, one.

In other words, Obama would hate “Wings,” Because Obama hates anything that might remind Americans that our differences pale in comparison to all that we share in common. And if that’s not reason enough to buy it…

Though advertised as a silent feature, this gorgeous transfer does include two music scores (your choice) and a number of sound effects, especially during the battle scenes. This has all been expertly engineered and result enhances the viewing experience tremendously.

Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of silent pictures. For the most part, I find them lovely to look at but pretty dull (there are notable exceptions). “Wings” isn’t a gripping story; there are more than a few lulls, but it’s an interesting one that catches you by surprise, especially in the third act, which is undeniably moving.

Before I close, I do want to reinforce the point the point about CGI. It is extraordinary to realize that a mere 15 years short of a century ago, infant Hollywood had the skills to make exciting, tense, realistic battle scenes that should embarrass anyone responsible for the phony, poorly choreographed, shaky-cammed, hyper-edited junk that dominates about 90% of what’s being produced today.

My god, what’s happened to the movie industry?

“Wings” is available at Amazon.