Wings truly is the film that launched 1000 movies, and it is now available to stream on Paramount Plus.
I was first made aware of the movie Wings after watching a documentary about the silent screen actress Clara Bow, who was a huge star when the movie premiered in 1927. Intrigued by clips of the cinematography, I was eager to see the film. Fast forward nearly a decade, and I still hadn’t seen the movie. It had been released on Blu-Ray, but I had yet to make the purchase. Then, Paramount Global added it to their streaming service. I was so excited, that I discussed it on that month’s edition of The Streaming Stop Podcast.
So after all that, what did I think of it?
Impressions of Wings
Wings, on paper, is an already impressive proposition. It was directed by William A. Wellman (A Star is Born, The High and Mighty). It won the first academy award for Best Picture at the debut ceremony in 1929. It starred ‘it girl’ Bow alongside Richard Arlen, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and a young Gary Cooper. It was also one of the first widely released films to show both male and female nudity. Basically, this film appears to have a lot of firsts…and it’s mindblowing.
The film follows Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) who go off to fight in world war I as pilots. The girl they leave behind, Mary Preston, soon joins them, serving as an ambulance driver. What follows is a story that feels genuine, real and quite gritty, perhaps because it is told by people who were there and made only nine years after the war ended. There are lots of impressive stunt flying sequences that have to be seen to be believed and a fair few heart-wrenching moments. Gary Cooper makes an appearance in this movie, but blink and you’ll miss him. There is one lighthearted scene mid-way through, which screams SILENT MOVIE, but the use of tracking shots in the cinematography is incredible to see in a film made in 1927.
While viewing Wings, this 95-year-old film began to enchant me in ways I had not expected. I became engaged in the stories of Jack and David and wanted to see where it went. While the special effects and stunts featured are a main draw, the performances of the main actors should not be understated. During flying scenes, where the actors were really flying, the reaction and facial expressions tell more than one story. Bow’s role is smaller than the poster would have you believe, but her appearance does enhance the movie. Aside from the obvious, her participation in an impressive sequence involving an explosion is one I shall be contemplating for some time. She’s able to switch between comedy and tragedy with ease
Those unfamiliar with the joys of silent film art may be daunted by the prospect of having to read the intertitles. Unlike the frivolity of contemporaries, Wings manages to find the balance, with many minutes filled with action without interruption. The wording of intertitles actually adds gravity to the narrative, with its use of evocative wording that just stops short of being over the top.
Running at over 2 hours and 20 minutes long, it does initially appear a little bloated. I felt a couple of the lighthearted scenes could’ve been shorter. Once the end credits rolled though, I began to see that it contributed to the effectiveness of the whole thing. What felt like an excuse for Bow to have a trivial sexy moment, only served to make the film even more powerful.
This is Where it Began…
Never have I witnessed a film where I suddenly understand where certain tropes came from, much of them seemed to have been invented for this film. Before Top Gun, Star Wars and hundreds of world war II films, Wings was offering action-packed dogfight sequences with inside cockpit reactions before it was standard. Wellman, a pilot himself, shows himself to be a visionary when it came to shooting these sequences. I could sit here and describe a bunch of extremely realistic sequences that had my wife and me in awe, but I really don’t want to spoil the spectacle.
Thank Goodness This Movie was Found…
This was initially presumed lost until a print was found in France. Paramount restored this film using digital technology in 2012; The year of the studio’s centenary. Most of the film has a sepia tint, with black and white used for sequences set at night. There are also cases of added colour on specific shots for effect, but these were actually present in the original presentation! The image is astonishingly clear, with very little grain. The soundtrack featured was specially recorded using the original manuscript, with sound effects added to the atmosphere. Although it might not seem overly authentic, the sound effects really help to cement it for a modern audience; Some early prints actually had synchronised sound anyway!
In a year when a sequel to Top Gun is breaking cinema records, its mere existence owes a lot to Wings. I thank Paramount for making this film available to the wider public, I truly think it is one people should see. With groundbreaking techniques and an engaging story, this left a real impression on me. Here is a story of friendship and romance steeped in tragedy and ultimately war This film feels like it could have been made in any decade, despite some elements tying it primarily to the silent era. Its conscience and execution are timeless, each frame as effective today as it was when first released.