Monday, June 17, 2024

NFR Project: 'Wings'



Dir: William Wellman, Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Scr: John Monk Saunders, Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton, Julian Johnson, Byron Morgan

Pho: Harry Perry

Ed: E. Lloyd Sheldon, Lucien Hubbard

Premiere: January 15, 1928

144 min.

Wings is an extraordinary achievement. Tasked with bringing the air war of World War I to life on screen, the relatively young and inexperienced director William Wellman overcame massive logistic and technical problems to accurately portray the experience. It led to the film being given the very first Oscar for Best Picture.

War movies were not uncommon at the time, but few attempted the epic scope attained by Wings. Perhaps the closest comparison to it could be King Vidor’s infantry saga, The Big Parade (1925). The story of Wings gives us two young men, at first rivals then bosom buddies, who volunteer to join the air corps together. After rigorous training, the two are off to Europe, where dogfights and bombing raids clutter the skies above the trenches.

Young flyer Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) is in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who prefers his friend David (Richard Arlen). Sylvia and David decide not to let Jack down and tell him the truth until after the war. Meanwhile, the plucky girl next door, Mary (Clara Bow) is in love with Jack. She volunteers to join the ambulance corps, and is soon off to France herself.

The machinations of who loves who gives a little impetus to the plot, which otherwise hangs on the armed conflict in the film. Clara Bow, then the reigning queen of Hollywood, was put into the film to broaden its appeal, but the real stars of the movie are the fight sequences.

It helped immensely that Wellman was a World War I flyer, giving him the experience and connections to make Wings happen. He took his film crew to airfields in San Antonio, Texas to serve as a staging ground for his aerial sequences. He gathered more than 300 pilots, and used 3,500 extras on the ground. One of his advisers engineered an automatic camera system, running on a motor, that could be mounted on a plane and allow shots of the pilots in flight.

Special effects artist Roy Pomeroy won an Oscar for Best Engineering Effects. Filming was excruciatingly slow – whereas it normally took a month to shoot a feature film, this one took nine. After hundreds of hours in the air, and thousands of feet of film, the end result was lauded.

The film was essentially released twice – first as a silent, and then with a synchronized score and sound effects. Sound technology was rapidly catching on, making this one of the last silent epics.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Beau Brummels.

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