Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.

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