I feel a little uncomfortable devaluing a silent picture when so many have deteriorated and been lost to history. It is a sad truth that an estimated 75% of all silent pictures are lost either through mishandling or were thrown away by studios to conserve space. No one could doubt that Wings is a landmark, a triumph of both early film technology and also as the first film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Nearly everyone who arrives at Wings does so with those two thoughts in mind. Whether it is a great silent film is another matter.
To put a fine point on it, Wings is a great technical exercise with a weak and sappy story. It was originally intended to be just a portrait of aviators during the First World War, but then had a romantic subplot grafted onto it. The result is a muddy narrative with characters that don’t seem to connect. The aviator story involves two kids from middle America, Jack (Richard Arlen) and David (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers), who are called up to serve their country in the cause, joining the air force to knock the Kaiser out of the skies. They are young and naïve, and dream of glorious romantic adventures. We follow them through their partings with their families, through training and eventually to the combat in the air.
As a touch of romance and star power, the studio ordered that a subplot be written for Clara Bow. She was cast – literally – as the girl next door. As Mary Preston, she lives next door to David while he pines for another. Wanting to be part of the cause, she goes overseas to work as an ambulance driver. Although her character isn’t really central to the movie, Bow gives the film’s most spirited performance.
As a narrative (at least on the ground) Wings is a mess. The relationship between Mary and David is nearly non-existent. What is there feels forced. The opening establishes that they are good friends while he is blinded by another girl that he is in love with. When he goes off to war, she follows as an ambulance driver. Their second meeting is a long and exhaustive scene in which she catches up with him doing some R&R in a Paris nightclub. There, she finds him so drunk on champagne that he doesn’t recognize her (he becomes fixated on imaginary bubbles). Their final scene, as it must, has them realizing that they are in love. There is never really any connection between these two people. She loves him, he loves someone else, they get together. The end. There’s no energy or fire to their romance at all.
The relationship between David and Jack is actually more substantial. They have a bond of friendship that actually seems genuine and, in another era, might have turned to romance. One is likely to think that because this is the first film on record as having an onscreen kiss between two men – albeit a deathbed scene that, in truth, is more meaningful and more moving than anything that David had with Mary.
That part of the film is a chore. The other part, the one in the air, works beautifully. I have always been of the opinion that any movie known for its special effects will fall inevitably to the ravages of time. Technology is a great thing, but at it advances, some movies get left in the dust. Watching the film again recently I was stunned by the coherence of the aerial battle scenes. At all points during the battles in the air, we know where all the players are in relation to one another – due in part to some very helpful title cards and some brilliant editing. It allows an orientation that creates the drama. We see a pilot in the cockpit with another plane behind him. When a pilot is shot, we can see the plane spinning out of control. That creates the drama, but the movie is even more inventive than that. At one point, an allied soldier is shot down behind enemy lines, sneaks into the German camp and steals an enemy plane. On his way home, he finds himself shot at by one of his comrades who doesn’t know that he is an American. That’s great drama. It would have been easy to simply create dogfights with no continuity, but to create a story in the air took a further burst of creativity.
Perhaps there is something today in our understanding of the First World War that makes a film like Wings seem a little silly. It was made less than a decade after the end of the war at a time when another world war was looming. We now know, through eyewitness testimony, exactly how brutal and awful this war really was both on the battlefield and off. It is perched at a point of history that seems to have dated it almost from the start. It was a silent picture that was in production when the new revolution of sound was about the put these films out to pasture. It was made eight years after the end of World War I and only two years before the brutality of All Quiet on the Western Front made a romantic adventure like Wings seem almost obscene. That film extolled the ugliness of the war, this one seems more of a crowd pleaser.
Yet again I return to my original point. Is it fair to devalue a film like this when silent pictures, as a whole, are disappearing? Would I want an audience to catch up with this film even as trenchant as it’s story is? As a historical curiosity, yes. It is hard to discount its place in history. There are a dozen or so other silent pictures I would rather people seek out, like Metropolis, for example. I can’t completely throw the movie out.