The last great silent movie was also the first great Academy Award winner, and remains the only completely silent movie to have taken home the Best Picture prize. If you’re currently glaring at your screen thinking but The Artist won you idiot – yes, it did, but it contains a moment of spoken dialogue and is therefore not a pure silent movie. Who’s the idiot now?!
It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch a silent movie with a running time of more than two hours – would it hold my attention that long? Would the story be easy to follow? Would the incessant piano music send me into a hypnotic murderous rage? The answers turned out to be yes, yes and…for legal reasons let’s not discuss the third. What I can tell you is that Wings holds up. It is still a great movie, with flaws that are frustrating but non-fatal.
We open on Jack Powell [Charles “Buddy” Rogers] lying in the grass, a picture of handsome home-town America and hopeful energy. “Youth, and the dreams of Youth” the title card reads, as Jack stares up at the clouds he’d so love to be navigating. Alas, the closest he can come is to modify his car for speed, a vehicle he calls Shooting Star – a name he is destined to inherit later in the narrative. His neighbour Mary Preston [Hollywood’s brightest star at the time, Clara Bow] appears – wide eyed, chatty, bothering him with her presence and clearly the victim of an unrequited love. Mary’s role in the film is a messy one, at once the beautiful leading lady, comic relief and tragic loner, strange bedfellows that never quite feel fully realised.
By far the stronger point of the plot is the relationship Jack will develop with David Armstrong [Richard Arlen] – they are romantic rivals and brothers-in-arms, friends and enemies. Theirs is the most dynamic and cohesive narrative force in Wings, and the thing that keeps the movie interesting for the present day audience.
Of the two, David is the most compelling. As we are informed of the dawn of WW1 in Europe we see David bid an emotional farewell to his parents, butler, and dog. The scene is supremely powerful, a wealthy family who you sense are usually emotionally withdrawn are broken down by this foreign threat and the only thing that gives them comfort is a toy bear from David’s childhood that he will take with him for luck, and to remember. I challenge you not to cry at Arlen’s full bodied performance of this scene.
It’s clear early on that much of this narrative is startlingly relevant to our modern cultural landscape, especially the plight of Dutchman Herman Schwimpf, whose patriotism is questioned repeatedly as he attempts to sign up for and graduate from aerial school. His foreign-ness is viewed with the kind of suspicion that has crept back into Western consciousness today, and he must prove himself proudly American multiple times by displaying the stars and stripes tattoo on his upper arm. To be American in a time of war, he must be marked as such.
War is, ultimately, the central character of Wings – and for the first time in history war has taken to the skies. I have absolutely no idea how director William A. Wellman filmed the aerial combat which dominates the running time, but it is hyper-realistic for a movie of its era and even through modern eyes it isn’t always easy to find the camera trickery. You can see that every great war movie out of Hollywood has at some point been influenced by the brutal battle scenes of Wings, which does not hold back from showing the horror of war with blood pouring from the chest, mouth and eyes of stricken pilots.
David and Jack must navigate this horror together, becoming great compatriots of the skies. It is Jack though who shows the greatest skills, his dreams of being the Shooting Star finally realised as to great ovations he saves a small French village from destruction at the hands of a german bomber and in doing so unknowingly saves the life of Mary, who has joined military efforts driving supplies behind the lines. They will reunite during the movie’s weakest sequence, as Jack gets blind-drunk on leave in Paris and, failing to recognise her when she arrives in the same bar, is so cruel to Mary that one wonders why she persists in loving him. Their evening somehow brings them to a hotel room together, where she innocently puts him to bed, but is caught by senior officers and is swiftly expelled from the military for her perceived misbehaviour. It’s all unnecessarily cruel to the leading lady and the whole Parisian segment seems messily stitched in solely to give Bow more screen-time.
As the film plows on towards its conclusion, tragedy and romance strike the lives of David and Jack, with moments of brilliant tension. David’s crash landing and subsequent attempts to escape from behind enemy lines is particularly great and will carry you through to the conclusion of the European drama. Invest in David’s plot from early on, rather than Jack’s, and you will not be disappointed with Wings. Invest too in the artistry of the final flight scenes, in how Jack and David are flung together for their last moments together in the sky, in how the narrative propels us to a tragic twist that you won’t see coming.
Ultimately, while the romantic plot of Wings is somewhat weak and expands the running time further than is necessary for the sake of foregrounding Bow as the biggest star, this is a movie which remains extremely deserving of it’s Best Picture crown. Wings sets the tone for the innovative, emotional storytelling that has been expected of every oscar nominee since and will inform you as to how Hollywood narrative tropes have evolved since. The movie may be silent, but it’s voice is still heard in movie theatres today.
Rating: 8/10, would recommend you give it a try even if you hate silent film.
Fun facts: Wings contains both the first on screen kiss between two men and an early example of on screen nudity in pre-code Hollywood.
First sighting: Look out for Gary Cooper as Cadet White in one of his first on screen roles.
Food accompaniment: Hot wings, obviously.
Memorable moment: That toy bear is everything and you will cry.
Bathroom break: As soon as they hit the clubs of Paris, feel free to excuse yourself.
Next week’s winner: 1932 Best Picture, Grand Hotel