The Good: Moments of performance and character
The Bad: Predictable plot and character arcs, Repetitive, Pacing issues, A lot of flat characterizations, Soundtrack.
The Basics: Repetitive and often simplistic, Wings is not even the best silent picture I've ever seen, sacrificing sensibility far too often for effect.
Unlike many people I know, I do not grade old movies on a curve. No, just because a film is in black and white and silent does not give it a free pass away from the essential elements in film for me. Just as I do with new films, I judge classic films on the merits of plot, character, acting, and special effects. So when I took in Wings, a silent, black and white film from 1927 which has made its appearance on DVD, it didn't get curved just because it was old.
Wings is an overlong World War One war story about two pilots, one woman, and a whole lot of looped footage. This film would originally have been presented with a live organist playing the soundtrack - an experience I had a few years ago with Nosferatu - and on the no-frills DVD (absolutely no frills, including no menu page or sound options!) there is just the one professionally done soundtrack that mimics the live experience fairly well.
In 1917, Jack Powell is a local boy who plays with fast cars and his neighbor, Mary Preston is obviously infatuated with him. Together they work on his fast car, which Mary names the Shooting Star and Jack takes it out for a test drive with Sylvia . . . who is from the city. Sylvia is actually wealthy David's girl and when both Jack and David are called to service, Jack pressures Sylvia to give him her picture to take with him while rival David is left with a miniature teddy bear from his mother. David, Jack and the patriotic son of immigrants Herman Schwimpf enlist in flight school together. After a decent brawl with one another, Jack and David put their past animosities behind them and they move forward as the best of friends.
Soon, Jack and David are flying missions against the scowling German pilots and they survive a few harrowing encounters and are rewarded with leave in Paris right before the Big Push. After getting quite drunk, Jack encounters Mary who rescues him from more champagne bubbles and another woman - Mary being there as part of the women's motor corps working for the Red Cross - though the Military Police catch them in a compromised position and Mary heads back to the States early. Back in time for the Big Push into German territory, Jack and David go flying and test their luck as pilots attempting to thwart some German zephyrs!
First, the good. Wings actually has themes in it. Gary Cooper appears for about five minutes as White, an Nihilist without a sense of faith who bites the bullet quickly in a freak accident. This justifies the conversations and emotional dependence both David and Jack have on their good luck charms, the bear and locket, respectively. And there are moments that actually work as far as the acting or characters go. Clara Bow, who plays Mary, in addition to doing a number of requisite slapstick bits in the beginning, makes it quite clear that Mary is pining for Jack with her looks, body language and silent attentiveness. Sure, the title cards make it obvious when she leads him to try to kiss her, but Bow is actually decent at presenting the body language to make it clear without the cards.
And therein lies the first of many, many problems with Wings; this is not a film that trades on subtlety at all. After it is clearly established that Mary is infatuated with Jack from her body language and movement, we are essentially told this with some unfortunately obvious dialogue. In face, there are almost no scenes in Wings that are not drawn out well past the point of insulting the viewer's attention. David leaving his mother and father is agonizing for the duration and even the comedic moments, like Jack using squat thrusts to destroy David's hat are drawn out so long that the end result is the viewer gets what happened and we're left waiting for the next thing. Would the viewer have understood less that Jack was being petty and vindictive and mean by smashing David's hat with his foot twice instead of three times? I think not.
Repetition is the plague of Wings and it seems that the film does not know when to stop. Herman's entrance into the film involves a crack about his heritage which he assuages by revealing his American flag tattoo on his bicep that he undulates and this assures all around him that he is as American as they are. This same gage is used twice. Herman, sadly, is relegated almost entirely to comic relief and the establishment of patriotism through the undulating tattoo which was done twice is at least once too much. Director William A. Wellman seem to have no problem with repetition, though; the aerial dogfights are repeated, especially obviously looped are planes as they get shot down and go into a spiral descent.
Apparently one of the big deals of Wings at the time was the special effects and this seems most prominently and obviously when Jack is on leave and drunk and sees bubbles everywhere. Whatever he shakes, he sees bubbles come from and he is obsessed with bubbles. So, as Mary and the other woman in Paris vie for his attentions, he shakes the champagne glasses, the women and the bedpost - a troubling potential metaphor for sure! - and watches bubbles spurt forth. This, sadly is an utter waste of time and has nothing to do with the rest of the film. This is the equivalent of the podrace scene in The Phantom Menace (click here for my review!); ten minutes of pointless special effects that do not truly advance the story or the characters in any meaningful way.
Wings is a war film and Wellman's sense of that becomes tiresome in that the Big Push is illustrated in increasingly long battle scenes involving no primary characters and only one's keen observances of headware to tell who is who. This is problematic because the Germans are shown running toward the Americans and the French - a few moments later - come to join the American by running in the same direction the Germans came from! In addition to the repetition of a lot of footage, there is a troubling lack of attention to detail.
What there isn't is a strong sense of the concept that it is an honorable thing to die for king and country. In fact, in that regard, Wings is very much a Modernist movie, illustrating more accurately the horrors of war and the ravages that come from the way warfare was fought in the Great War. There is less in the way of honorable death and much more in the way of folly and accidents and true mayhem.
Also very intriguing for the time and concept is the relationship between David and Jack, especially late in the film. While both are clearly defined as heterosexual men - both declaring their love for Sylvia - there is a scene between the two where Jack holds David in a very loving embrace, touches his neck and is reassuring in a way that no war movie these days shows. In fact, there is much more passion in Jack's embrace of David than there is in the inevitable kiss between Jack and Mary.
The acting is a mixed bag in Wings as well. Clara Bow is forced - like El Brendel who plays Herman - to exaggerate a lot of movements and make a point out of appearing sometimes ridiculously active. Charles Rogers, who plays Jack, looks just like Orlando Bloom, so that was distracting once I made the connection, but he and Richard Arlen, who plays David have good on-screen rapport and they do as well with what they have as they can.
Because this is a silent film, it is worth noting that the soundtrack plays an integral role and that is what finally drove me to rate this as "below average." Wings has a rather generic organ soundtrack and there is little rhyme or reason to it. So, for example, none of the main characters have themes associated with their characters. When Mary re-enters the film, we do not get a musical cue to reinforce what we already suspect (i.e. that the woman we see is Mary). Between the jumbled and generic soundtrack and the washed-out title cards, Wings is presented as a shockingly mediocre film and with the repetition, it is often just bad.
Wings might have been great in its day but today, it is best viewed as a historical document, a marker of how far we've come in film.
For other dramas, please check out my reviews of:
The Hurt Locker
Flash Of Genius
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here.
© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.