A note from Lindsey: This article contains spoilers for a few minor plot points of 1927’s Wings. Read with caution if you have never seen the film and would not like to be spoiled. Details about the production process of this film are sourced from the documentary Wings: Grandeur in the Sky, IMDb and the TCM database.
Wings (1927) is probably best-known for being the very first winner of the Best Picture award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This film is historically and culturally significant for more than its win of a statuette, though: it is one of Hollywood’s greatest dramatizations of World War I.
The film tells the story of two young men who have joined the armed forces to become pilots.
Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) have been vying for the attentions of the same girl, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) in their small hometown. When they both enlist, they’re assigned to the same billet and must learn to get along.
Facing the trials and tribulations of training together, they quickly lose their disdain for each other and become friends. And that’s a good thing, for once they graduate from their training, they are sent to France together to begin serving their country as pilots.
Mary Preston (Clara Bow) was Jack’s neighbor back in America, and he – blinded by his affection for Sylvia – was totally clueless to the fact that his ol’ pal next door was totally in love with him. Mary and Jack find themselves reunited overseas after she joins the war effort as an ambulance driver.
Wings was directed by William Wellman for Paramount. The film’s story was conceived by John Monk Saunders, the script from that story written by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton.
The film opens with a quote from Charles Lindbergh about how World War I was the height of achievement in aviation, along with a dedication “to those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever.”
What more fitting way to pay tribute to the pilots of the first World War than to craft a film that tells their story accurately, realistically and through beautiful cinematography? Released less than ten years after the war ended, the subject matter of Wings still weighed on the minds of viewers as the film hit theaters.
Wings is an exercise in balance: equal parts comedic and dramatic, equal parts fun and serious, equal parts thrilling and heartbreaking. The film effortlessly blends the personal dramas of these young pilots with their experiences in war, providing a portrait not just of battles fought by brave men but of those men themselves. With the film running at about two and a half hours in length, the viewer gets to know Jack and David pretty well, and we come to care about them quite quickly as we see them transition from the carefree days of youth to the dangers of war.
“So youth laughed and wept and lived its heedless hour, while over the world hung a cloud which spread and spread until its shadow fell in some degree on every living person.”
The film’s mood is usually quite light, but deceptively so, as the realities of wartime are incorporated through more serious scenes. David’s goodbyes to his family tug strongly at the viewer’s heartstrings, for instance, as does the scene in which David and Jack must pack up their friend Cadet White’s belongings following his death. And all of this before they even go overseas!
The impact of the story that Wings tells is most strongly felt due to the phenomenal cinematography. As David and Jack head to France after graduation, a split screen shows soldiers marching on the bottom as scenes of battle play above them. We literally see them walking toward destruction and danger with this clever use of photographic effect.
And of course, no discussion of Wings would be complete without mentioning the truly spectacular stunts and aviation footage (a collaborative effort between Wellman, Harry Perry and 13 cameramen), which lend a heightened sense of drama and thrills to the film. Cameras were mounted on airplanes to capture the sensation of flight, Wellman waited until the sky had just the right amount of clouds, and the rest is history.
This daring cinematography was not free of risks or extreme costs. There were fatalities and injuries on set, and the United States military donated $15 million worth of equipment to be used in the film, according to Wings: Grandeur in the Sky, a documentary which accompanies Wings as a special feature on DVD. Some of this equipment was damaged beyond repair during filming, as scenes in which planes catch on fire and crash were shot with the real deal — no clever, harmless special effects work here.
The government’s cooperation with the film ensured accuracy and gave the film the ability to make the viewer feel like they were in the trenches and in the air with these soldiers. Wings goes beyond simple entertainment, truly engaging the viewer in the experiences of its characters and in the period of history in which the film is set.
Even small details of the film work toward a greater level of accuracy. Gary Cooper fans will lament in the fact that he appears for only a few minutes on screen before being killed off during training, but the decision to kill his character gives the viewer a greater sense of just how much danger these pilots were in. Flight alone was risk enough, as proven by the fact that Cadet White died while training. To get those planes in the air amidst enemy fire was an even more daunting task. Each time one of these pilots stepped foot in a plane, he was putting his life greatly at risk.
As another example of how small details count in this film, the fact that Clara Bow’s character of Mary joins the war effort as an ambulance driver gives the viewer a glimpse into how women were able to become involved in supporting the Allied cause. Many women did their part in various capacities on the home front, but for those who went overseas, nursing and ambulance driving were common jobs. An opportunity for greater exploration of women in war is thwarted since Mary is dismissed and must return home, but her job is still an asset to the scope of the film’s portrayal of the war.
The film would not hold up as well, nor would it have as much impact on the viewer, if not for the cooperation of the military and the expertise of everyone involved in production. Even the cast and crew had experience with aviation: Wellman served in World War I and was an experienced pilot, Richard Arlen had served as a part of the Royal Flying Corps during World War I and Buddy Rogers – who had never flown a plane before taking lessons for this film – would go on to serve as a Navy flight training instructor during World War II. No other director or cast could have been a better fit here, and the knowledge of everyone involved was a great benefit to the film.
If you haven’t yet seen it, Wings is not one to be missed. It is certainly one of Hollywood’s best films about World War I, and one of the best wartime dramas in general. From the performances to the story to the ground-breaking stunts and cinematography, Wings is a phenomenal film.