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:
- planes colliding mid air and falling to earth.
- a pilot struggling to free himself from an upside-down plane.
- planes taxiing and taking off from a runway, as filmed from above.
- planes dropping bombs and destroying buildings – filmed through bomb bay doors.
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):
- Outstanding Picture (won)
- Best Effects, Engineering Efforts (won)
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.