‘Wings’ or — The Ecstasy of Flight?
You might be familiar with the film’s famous shot: the camera gliding over the tables, between the couples in the Follies Bergère before coming to rest as a flying ace gulps down a glass of Champagne. It’s a remarkable shot, although what’s even more remarkable is that it’s not even the best shot in the film.
‘Wings’ (1927) concerns two young men, Jack and David, who leave behind their sweethearts to become fighter pilots when America joins WW I. We follow them through training, their first patrol and, ultimately, their roles as experienced aces during the Big Push. Yet it’s not just danger in the skies but on the ground, too, as Jack and David both love the same girl which is a bit of an inconvenience considering there’s a war going on. Although is this a love story between men and women or between two men? Watch William Wellman’s ‘Wings’ and find out!
So the story to ‘Wings’ is a tad predictable serving as both an anti-war film as well a celebration of bravery and comradeship with the appropriate dosage of sentiment to tug at heart strings. It’s briskly and clearly told, nicely accessible and with well defined characters. So what’s so remarkable about it? Possibly the fact that ‘Wings’ might be the most spectacular, technically ambitious, balls-to-the-wall exciting film about fighter pilots ever made!
Every few minutes I was looking at what was on screen in front of me and thinking “How the hell did they do that?!” as I was confronted by some of the most incredible aerial sequences put to film. The answer to my question was simple — they actually did it! Cameras were mounted on the planes with the actors, all properly trained, not only acting their roles but also flying the planes AND often operating the cameras too. The result is absolute immersion as we’re directly in the cockpit with these guys soaring through the clouds.
And those clouds are another vital component here as Wellman knew that in order to capture relative motion to sell the speed and velocity of these dogfights that they needed to be shot against cloud banks. Wellman took his time, often waiting days for just the right conditions. These clouds (all of which are often immense in scale) provide the perfect perspective, something animators also know about clouds which is why there’s a there’s a lot of Miyazaki’s ‘Porco Rosso’ (1992) here. You can also see the influence ‘Wings’ must have had on films such as ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983), ‘Star Wars’ (1977) and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987) — the shot of the sergeant looking straight down the camera replicated almost exactly by Kubrick. And no wonder this movie is so highly regarded because it’s a towering achievement.
For example — there’s a scene where a German bomber strikes a small town during a raid. I kept looking at what I was seeing utterly baffled until I realised that they were genuinely blowing up the small town for real. And these are HUGE explosions! There’s plenty of effects work at play here, with almost every type of effects work — models, miniatures, double exposures, hand-painted bursts of colour for fire and flame, etc — popping up at some point but the majority of what we’re seeing is completely real. So when we’re watching hundreds of soldiers pouring over no man’s man land whilst fighter planes blast over the horizon as explosions convulse the earth then the reason it looks authentic is because it is. There’s really nothing else quite like what’s going on here.
Although the real stars are those aerial dog-fights, each skirmish precisely and expertly planned, shot and edited. We’re never confused as to what’s going on allowing us to lose ourselves completely in the action, and combining this clarity with the technical innovations means ‘Wings’ is ludicrously exciting.
Ironically the only scene that drags a tad is the famous scene in Paris when a drunken Jack unknowingly reunites with Mary (Clara Bow) as, for me, the bubbles nonsense went on a little too long and was overplayed. But it’s easily forgivable as this is the only real down time in a furiously paced movie as well as giving more screen time to Clara Bow who is simply captivating every time we see her. The charm, life and spontaneity she radiates is hypnotic and there’s something about her smile that I’m still smitten by the following day.
There are plenty of other surprises contained in ‘Wings’ such as the first on screen kiss between two men, nudity as well as a lesbian couple making out for good measure. Factor all this in with the cinematography, sound effects and bursts of colour and ‘Wings’ feels extraordinarily modern. Indeed, it puts many recent films to shame in terms of marrying vitality and verisimilitude.
I can’t believe I’ve had ‘Wings’ sitting on my blu ray shelf for FIVE years before finally getting around to watching it last night. I’m disgusted with myself at this lapse although also happy as a clam because I’m just grateful that this movie actually exists. It is exciting, moving, insanely spectacular and pulls off feats of technical brilliance that blows almost every other war movie out of the air in terms of scale and thrills.
‘Wings’ is a phenomenal work and is not just one of the most exciting silent films ever made (with the pummeling sound effects and orchestral score there’s NOTHING silent about this movie in the slightest, anyway) but is one of the best war movies, too. Not only that but chances are we’ll never see anything like this ever again. It’s a jaw-dropping marvel.