Thursday, February 9, 2012
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper
By Alan Bacchus
Renowned for being the first ever ‘Best Picture’ Oscar winner at the Academy’s inaugural awards ceremony in 1928, this film gets its Blu-ray debut 85 years later. Perhaps it’s timed with the success and acclaim of The Artist and, alas, the release of Red Tails (sad, but true). Wings, however, deserves much more than the minor historical significance of its Oscar win, as it’s one of the greatest film spectacles of all time and one of the greatest war films ever made.
Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) are chums from a small town, friends but also rivals, who compete for the same local hottie, Sylie. While Jack is ogling Sylie he fails to acknowledge the affections of his neighbour, Mary (Clara Bow!). Once word arrives of America’s involvement in the War (WWI), like all boys their age Jack and David quickly sign up, leaving both gals at home. The boys join the Air Service as pilots, trained in dog fighting against the German Air Service and the likes of the Red Baron.
The film takes us through some of the traditional stages of war combat, including basic training, the fun experiences during R&R and, of course, hardcore wartime combat.
As produced by Lucien Hubbard with a $2 million budget (then, ENORMOUS), every aspect of the production is huge. As for the combat, Wings is untouchable for its awesome aerial sequences. Through some great hustling by Hubbard and the Paramount execs the production received full cooperation from the US military, including use of their air force base, planes, men and weapons. The result is some of the most authentic, exciting, visceral and visually spectacular war action scenes we’ve ever seen on film.
In the air, cameras capture the actual actors in real bi-planes. With no rear projection, green screen or CGI, Wings spares no expense for realism, and the effect is more effective than anything of its equivalent produced today.
On the ground, Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton’s script anchors the film in a melodramatic, but no less tragic and triumphant, human story. The two friends are torn apart by their love of the same girl and by Mary’s desperate plea for attention from Jack. The final act is almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. After the monumentally epic Battle of St. Michel, David is shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead. But when he escapes and commandeers a German plane he comes face to face in the air with his best friend, who, in the most tragic of ironies, is hell bent on avenging David’s death. The final moments between the two friends are truly heartbreaking and bordering on homo-erotic (but I won’t go there).
Other than the Oscar, Wings is notable for its influence on George Lucas in cutting Star Wars, not only in the choreography of the Millennium Falcon-Tie Fighter battle, but actually using footage from Wings as temp cuts before his special effects were finished. And I doubt any filmmaker making a war film about aerial combat hasn’t referenced Wings or used the film as a yardstick.
The new Paramount Blu-ray special edition is a decent package, featuring two soundtracks, a completely new track with new music, and sound effects created by Ben Burtt, as well as a traditional organ music track one would have heard back in the day. Either version is fine and doesn’t significantly alter the superlative experience of the film.