The film that won the first Academy Award for Outstanding Picture was an ambitious drama about two American aviators who become bosom pals during World War I. These two men (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Richard Arlen) form a strong friendship – even though they both love the same woman.
Wings was a big-budget, high-tech spectacle, costing $2 million US (in 1927 dollars!). It was the second-highest grossing film of the year, after The Jazz Singer.
You might be wondering what $2 million could get you in a black & white silent movie in 1927. Paramount, the studio backing the film, may have wondered the same thing.
Turns out you get a lot for $2 mill. Wings has breathless adventure, engaging characters, and Clara Bow (yes, that Clara Bow). But the most impressive scenes are those that capture the marvel of human flight. (Let us not forget that Charles Lindbergh made his famous trans-Atlantic flight in May of 1927.)
Because Wings is about aviators and aerial battles, there is no shortage of fascinating footage shot in the air. Indeed, many battle scenes look like sky dances.
We – as in, yours truly – are no aviation expert, but we’ve compiled a list of “Get Out!” aerial shots from the film:
This kind of footage is humdrum today, but director William A. Wellman was giving audiences a wildly innovative film in 1927. In fact, you’ll swear the actors themselves are flying the planes.
Wings glorifies flight but not war. In one disturbing scene, a pilot is shot while trying to dodge enemy planes; his lifeless body slumps in his seat, blood spurting from his mouth. As another pilot (a young Gary Cooper) warns us, “Luck or no luck – when your time comes, you’re going to get it.”
(Hint: Cooper is telling us to have tissue handy. You thought you could watch this film dry-eyed? Uh-uh.)
As thrilling as the aerial scenes are, and as condemning of war as it is, there are two overriding themes in Wings.
The first theme is friendship and the sacrifices a man will make for his best friend. Rogers and Arlen both love the same woman, but the bond between them is much stronger than the love either of them feels for this gal. (If you’ve seen Wings and have thoughts about the nature of this friendship, please share.)
The second theme is redemption. There is an incredibly moving scene where one character extends almost unfathomable forgiveness to another character. It is so powerful, even we the audience feel absolved. (Tissue Alert!)
In our opinion, Wings not only deserved to be named Outstanding Picture, it deserves the honour of being the first recipient of that award. It set a high standard for Best Picture nominations in all the years to follow.
Wings Nominations (1929):
Wings: starring Clara Bow, Charles (Buddy) Rogers, Richard Arlen. Directed by William A. Wellman. Screenplay by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton. Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., 1927, B&W, 144 mins.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club during the month of February. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions.
What a marvelous piece. I just love the way you manage to pluck out the most important points of a film and lay it out there thoughtfully and humorously. It’s mind blowing to think of a budget like 2 million dollars back in 1927. I’ll get the tissues ready, sounds like one heck of a compelling film…
I particularly love the image you used. It sort of says a lot about the bonds of brotherhood, without the planes colliding of course, wowza that must have really awed audiences back then…! PS I really want Arlen’s leather bomber jacket…
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I want Arlen’s bomber jacket too! And his boots! Those aviators really knew how to put together an outfit.
I wish I could’ve seen this movie in person in 1927. I can’t imagine how mind-blowing this high-priced blockbuster would have been.
Thanks for dropping by! 🙂
Wow. What great thoughts you have here on a film that many downplay these days. I think I will watch Wings tonight just because of you and this post. Long live the Academy Awards, and long live Wings!
Yes, long live “Wings”. A lot of people talk about how long it is, but it never feels like a long movie to me.
I found the Blu-ray on sale for $10(!), if you can believe it, and immediately snapped it up. It’s gorgeous on Blu-ray.
Really enjoyed reading your review. I love this movie – one of Wellman’s greatest and worth watching and re-watching. A shame he didn’t get the Oscar for best director, but the film itself certainly deserved its award. The brief scene with Gary Cooper is said to have made him a star, and he makes a very strong impression in just a couple of minutes. This reminds me that the film has just been released on Blu-ray in the UK by Masters of Cinema, so I must get a copy of it soon and watch it again!
Yes, you must run (not walk) to your nearest movie provider and get the Blu-ray. It is stunning.
Re: Wellman – I KNOW!!
Re: Gary Cooper – I agree. You can see his “star” quality in those few minutes he’s on screen.
Okay, I am going to make an admission here. I gave up on this film after 20 minutes. As you probably know, Gary Cooper is one of my great loves, so a few years ago, I was scouring my public library’s inventory of Cooper films. “Wings” was among them, so I put it on hold without knowing a thing about it. A few days later, it came in, I picked it up, and popped it into my player. Imagine my shock to discover it was a silent film! (I didn’t even notice the film year, or I would have known that.) Anyhow, much as I love the classics (and Coop!), I couldn’t get in to a silent, so I turned the film off long before I ever caught a sight of the beautiful Coop.
Alas, since then, I have actually made it through (and enjoyed!) an entire silent (Phantom of the Opera), Thus, I am thinking that I would see “Wings” in a new light now. And your fantastic review of it confirms that I want to.
Have a wonderful weekend,
The film does have a bit of a slow start but, in my opinion, once it gains momentum it’s a terrific ride. Besides, as the most devout Gary Cooper fan I know, you owe it to yourself to at least see the film until his appearance. (And by then you’ll be hooked.)
The silent version of Phantom of the Opera is one I haven’t seen, but is on my list. I’ve seen bits and the style looks really interesting.
A great, great film that gets to me every time I watch it. Timeless.
It is timeless, isn’t it? I just read one of these Oscar lists that everyone publishes this time of year, and out of all 85 winners of Best Picture, “Wings” was listed 83rd! 83rd!! Third last! Needless to say, I’m drafting a response.
Great post. I love this movie – it really has it all. And who can deny the allure of those romantic flyboys? Sigh…..
Ha ha! Allure, indeed! Plus, great aviator jackets and boots.
Exciting good stories are timeless aren’t they!
They sure are timeless – with or without sound.
Thanks for dropping by. 🙂
Ruth, I must admit that while I’ve heard so much about WINGS, I haven’t had the opportunity to get a hold of WINGS; I’m only one person, I can only wath onc classic movie at a time! 🙂 However, with all the rave reviews from you and our other fellow bloggers, I’ll certainly give it a chance sooner rather than later; your moving post has gotten me interested! 🙂
Thanks, Dor. It really is worth a watch – it has some very powerful imagery. But it is a longer movie…just so you’re prepared. However, it would be FABULOUS to see this on the big screen.
I have never seen a silent movie. It sounds like this one would be a good one to start with. I’m amazed that they could portray so much emotion without any words. I love Gary Cooper, too, so would like to see anything he is in. Thanks for opening my eyes to something new, Ruth.
Gary Cooper isn’t in this movie for very long but, even with his brief appearance, you can tell he’s destined to be famous.
The movie starts a bit slow, but soon you’re sucked into it and you forget you’re watching a silent film. I saw this on Blu-ray, and it’s gorgeous!