The Greatest films of all time: 14.Wings (1927)

Introduction:

“Wings” is a 1927 American patriotic war silent film, set during the World War I, directed by William Wellman, starring Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, and the first appearance of Gary Cooper that launched his film career. Wellman was the only director in Hollywood at the time who had World War I combat pilot experience, and the actors, Richard Arlen and John Monk Saunders had also served in the war as military aviators. Hundreds of extras and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming, including pilots and planes of the US army air corps which were brought in for the filming and to provide assistance and supervision. “Wings” acclaimed for its technical prowess and realism became a landmark for the future aviation films, specially its realistic air-combat sequences. A short list of the films that followed the footstep of “Wings” are Hell’s Angels (1930) by Howard Hughes, remade in 2004 by Martin Scorsese under “The Aviator”; Flying Tigers (1942) of David Miller with John Wayne; The first of the few (1942); Air Force (1943) of Howard Hawks; The Memphis Belle: A story of a flying fortress (1944) of William Wyler; Command decision (1948) of Sam Wood; Flying Leathernecks (1951) of Nicholas Ray; Island in the sky (1953) with John Wayne by William Wellman himself; Reach for the sky (1956); Battle of Britain (1969); Aces high (1976); Flyboys (2006); The Red Barron (2008), and more. 

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“Wings” is one of the rare true great films in the history of American cinema to be recognized and winning an Academy award, that won for the best picture at the first Oscar in 1929, as the only fully silent film to do so. It also won the Academy award for the best engineering effects. In 1997, Wings was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and the Academy Film has preserved “Wings” in 2002. Before further discussion about this frontier film, its director deserves some mention.

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From aviation to acting and filmmaking:

William Augustus Wellman (February 29, 1896 – December 9, 1975) was of English-Welsh-Scottish and Irish descent. William was a great-great-great grandson of Francis Lewis of New York, one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Wellman was expelled from High School for dropping a stink bomb on the principal’s head, while ironically, his mother was a probation officer who was asked to address Congress on the subject of juvenile delinquency. Wellman worked as a salesman, then at a lumber yard, before ending up playing professional ice hockey, which is where he was first seen by Douglas Fairbanks, who suggested that with his good looks, he could become a film actor.

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In the World War I, Wellman enlisted as an ambulance driver, but while in Paris, he was assigned as a fighter pilot and the first American to join N.87 escadrille in the Lafayette Flying Corps, where he earned himself the nickname “Wild Bill” and received a French war medal. Wellman was able to shoot down 7-8 German airplanes, though he ultimately was shot down by a German anti-aircraft fire on March 21, 1918, although he survived the crash, but he walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. He published his air fighting experience for the French legion after his return to US in September 1918. He consequently joined the US army air force, but soon the war came to an end, though he taught combat tactics to new pilots for a while, in San Diego.

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While in San Diego, Wellman would fly to Hollywood for the weekends in his Spad fighter, where he met Fairbanks who was fascinated with him and his true-life adventures and promised him a job in the movie business. So Wellman started with acting in 1919 and was hired for the role of a young officer in Evangeline (1919), but was fired for slapping the leading lady, the actress Miriam Cooper, who happened to be the wife of the director Raoul Walsh. Wellman hated being an actor, and soon switched to working behind the camera, aiming to be a director. He was first assigned as an assistant director for Bernie Durning with whom Wellman became lifelong friends, and progressed forward towards full directing. Wellman made his uncredited directorial debut in 1920 at Fox with “The Twins of Suffering Creek”, then “The Man Who Won and Second Hand Love” in 1923. After directing a dozen low-budget films, Wellman was hired by Paramount in 1927 to direct “Wings” for his fighter pilot’s experience during the World War I. 

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After this great ground breaking film, Wellman went on to make many other notable films including “The public enemy” in 1931, the first version of “A Star is born” and “Nothing scared” in 1937, the 1939 version of “Beau Geste” starring Gary Cooper, “Thunder Birds” in 1942, “Lady of Burlesque” in 1943, “The story of G.I. Joe” in 1945, “Battleground” in 1949, and finally two films starring and co-produced with John Wayne, “Island in the sky” in 1953 and “The high and the mighty” in 1954. His last film “Lafayette Escadrille” of the French air force in the World War I, which he produced, directed, wrote the story for and narrate in 1958, and reflected his own war experience. 

Innovations in air filming and camera movements:

“Wings” invented several firsts in filmmaking including newly invented camera mounts that could be secured to plane fuselages and motor-driven cameras to shoot actors while flying as the cameramen ducked out of frame in their cockpits. Towers up to a hundred feet tall were used to shoot low-flying planes and battle action on the ground. Techniques were also developed for filming close-ups of the pilots in the air and capturing the speed and motion of the planes onscreen. 

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Wellman attempted well to capture footage in the air in contrast to clouds in the background, above or in front of cloud banks to generate a sense of velocity and danger. Wellman later explained, “motion on the screen is a relative thing. A horse runs on the ground or leaps over fencers or streams. We know he is going rapidly because of his relation to the immobile ground”. Against the clouds, Wellman enabled the planes to “dart at each other”, and to “swoop down and disappear in the clouds”, and to give the audience the sense of the disabled planes plummeting. Wellman took responsibility for the meticulously-planned explosions himself, detonating them at the right time from his control panel. Reportedly at least 20 men, including the cameraman William Clothier, were given hand-held cameras to film “anything and everything” during the filming.

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Whereas most Hollywood productions of the day took little more than a month to shoot, “Wings” took approximately nine months to complete in total, for its spectacular aerial footage and making Hollywood film history. Gary Cooper reportedly showed Howard Hughes the script of the film, that helped him 3 years later to make his own “Hell’s Angels”. “Wings” was one of the first to show two men kissing, when several aviators were presented medals by a French general and are ceremonially pecked on their necks, and a fraternal moment between Rogers and Arlen during the deathbed finale, which were more friendly than romantic. Wings is also one of the first widely released films to show nudity, where in the enlistment office, nude men were undergoing physical exams. Bow’s breasts were also revealed for a second during the Paris bedroom scene when military police barge in as she is changing her clothes. The Café de Paris scene, was shot by mounted camera on a boom to move freely from table to table, a first time invention in filming. 

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From a common war story to a major historical film:

The story of the film starts with a rivalry between two men, David and Jack, for the attention of a pretty girl. But when both enlist in the army to become combat pilots in the Air force and going through strenuous training, they end up being best friends. The climax of the story begins with the epic Battle of Saint-Mihiel, where David is shot down and presumed dead, but he survives the crash landing, steals a German biplane and heads for the Allied lines. By a tragic stroke of bad luck, Jack spots the enemy aircraft and, aimed on avenging his friend, begins an attack, and succeeds in downing the aircraft. At the end of the war, Jack returns home to a hero’s welcome, and visits David’s grieving parents and begs their forgiveness for causing David’s death. The father says it is not Jack who is responsible for her son’s death, but the war. Clara Bow, the Hollywood’s biggest star of the time has said later that: “Wings is…a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie”. The film became a breakthrough and hailed at the time and still remembered to this day, not for the story but for its heralding technical achievements.

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The legacy of “Wings” led Wellman to win an Academy Award later on for the story of “A star is born”, and being nominated as the best director three times, for “A star is born”, “Battleground” and “The High and Mighty”, and being honored by the Directors Guild of America for a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1973, and having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Several filmmakers have examined Wellman’s career, including Richard Schickel who devoted an episode of his PBS series “The Men Who Made the Movies” to Wellman in 1973, and in 1996, Todd Robinson made the feature-length documentary “Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick”. William Wellman, Jr. wrote two books about his father, “The Man And His Wings: William A. Wellman” and the “Making of the First Best Picture” (2006), and “Wild Bill Wellman – Hollywood Rebel” (2015). 

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Wellman dedicated the film “to those young warriors of the sky whose wings are folded about them forever”. The film premiere was held at the Criterion Theater, in New York City, on August 12, 1927, and was screened for 63 weeks before being moved to second-run theaters. The original Paramount release of “Wings” was color tinted and had some sequences in an early widescreen process known as Magnascope. The original release also had the aerial scenes use of the Handschiegl color process for flames and explosions. Some prints had synchronized sound effects and music, using the General Electric Kinegraphone sound-on-film process. Wings was an immediate success upon release and became the yardstick for which aviation films were measured against, in terms of “authenticity of combat and scope of production”. One of the reasons for its resounding popularity at the time was the public infatuation with aviation in the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. 

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The critical response was equally enthusiastic and the film was widely praised for its realism and technical prowess, despite a superficial plot. The combat scenes of the film were so realistic that one writer studying the film in the early 1970s was wondering if Wellman had used actual imagery of planes crashing to earth during the World War I. One critic observed: “The exceptional quality of Wings lies in its appeal as a spectacle and as a picture of at least some of the actualities of flying under wartime conditions.” Another wrote: “Nothing in the line of war pictures ever has packed a greater proportion of real thrills into an equal footage. As a spectacle, Wings is a technical triumph. It piles punch upon punch until the spectator is almost nervously exhausted”. The New York Times praised the cinematography of the flying scenes and the direction in a review in August 1927. 

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For many years, “Wings” was considered a “lost film” until a print was found in the “Cinemateque Francaise” film archive in Paris and quickly copied from nitrate film. In retrospect, the film scholar Scott Eyman in his 1997 book “The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926–1930” writes: “Ironically, a mass-market silent spectacular like William Wellman’s Wings effortlessly showcases far more visual variety than mainstream American films have offered since: it displays shifts from brutal realism to nonrealistic techniques associated with Soviet avant-garde or impressionistic French cinema – double exposures, subjective point-of-view shots, trick effects, symbolic illustrations on the titles, and so on.” 

Conclusion:

In closing remarks “Wings” by William Wellman is a simple patriotic war story turning to a technical triumph in the history of cinema. This alone can be a testimony that without a great story and acting, but by technical achievement, imagery, sound and thrill, the screen and the minds of audience could be captured. Now almost 90 years later, this great work one more time, will be redefined based on the following criteria:   

  1. Originality: “Wings” is original in many film and camera movement techniques and beyond all, is a frontier in aviation filming that so many films in years until now have followed its footsteps. This great technical film by mounting cameras on the planes and the boom, was made at the time that the camera was still in the silent era and any probable thrill was made only by editing and not camera work.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Wings” as mentioned above, was impossible to make at the time, and a wonder at this time how it was possible to make such a film then. This perhaps became a possible reality by a man behind the camera who experienced the whole film in the battle field and in the air as a fighter pilot, who was even shot down by the enemy. Wellman’s hard working efforts to bring in supervisors from the army and navy to the stage has been and should be an example for all the filmmakers in the future as it has been for all in the past, to take filmmaking as an artistic and scientific endeavor in need of hard study, work and authenticity. 
  3. Impact Factor: “Wings” has been adapted in the film technical arena for years, a hard fact to ignore. The influence of the film on any aviation film that a short list of them mentioned earlier, make them all, including the “Hell’s Angles” of Howard Hughes, in one way or another a copy and adaptation, and takes away from them any credit. 
  4. Survival: “Wings” survival is so that even in black and white and silent, today it could be watched, enjoyed and thrilled, and wonder how it was made about 90 years ago.
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