Two young men, one rich, one middle class, who are in love with the same woman, become fighter pilots in World War I.
In 1997, Titanic, a film about a love triangle (taking place mainly aboard a ship that sinks to the bottom of the ocean), would become one of the most successful films of all times. It was not only a critical success but a success at the box office, earning more money than any film since. It would go on to win 11 of the 14 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Seventy years prior, another film involving a love triangle (in this case, taking place mainly in fighter planes that soar above the clouds) premiered also to much critical and box office success: Wings. It would go on to win Best Picture, the first film to ever covet the award. Granted, in 1929 (when the award ceremony took place) the category Best Picture had not been established. Instead, Wings won as the Most Outstanding Production and shared the spotlight with F.W. Murnauís Sunrise which secured an award for Most Artistic Quality of Production. Generally speaking, however, the reward is recognized as the rightful pre-cursor to Best Picture and, therefore, Wings is provided an equal distinction of honor and repute.
And rightly so! Directed by the estimable William Wellman (an award-winner himself who would go on to helm such marvels as The Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident and the original A Star is Born), Wings has some of the most amazing aerial fights in film history and a story that could rival Paths of Glory in its anti-war sentiment. Itís one-part romance, one-part action film, revolving around World War I fighter pilots and the women that love them. Jack (Charles Rogers) is young man from a quintessential small American town. In love with him is the tomboyish Mary Preston (Clara Bow), cute as a button but doesnít know when to shut up. Jack can see her only as a pal and sets his eyes on Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), the prettiest girl around.
But heís got competition in David (Richard Arlen), son of a wealthy family and handsome to boot. War breaks out and both Jack & David enlist into the Air Force.
After a victorious battle against German bomber planes, the fighters are given leave. Mary, having also joined the war efforts, finds Jack cavorting with the Parisian nightlife, happily inebriated beyond comprehension. Her attempts to woo him fail and Jack passes out with no memory of their encounter. Fortunately for Mary, she is unaware that Jack holds dear to him a locket with Sylviaís photo in it which he keeps as a good luck charm. David, well aware that Sylvia covets no feelings for Jack, tries to protect him from seeing the inscription (written for David) on the back of the photo. But it results in a jealous feud and the men take to the air with ill will in their hearts.
But friendship outweighs Davidís anger for Jack and when it comes to it, he puts himself in harms way to protect Jack from enemy fire. His heroism leads to his plane being shot down in German territory. He escapes capture and manages to steal a German fighter the next day. Fleeing into the morning air, he is mistaken for a German pilot by, of all people, Jack, who believes David has died and has it in his heart to avenge his fallen friend. David tries to disclose his true identity but does so to no avail. He is fatally wounded and in his last remaining moments attempts to make a safe landing. When Jack learns of what has occurred he is devastated.
Although Jack returns stateside as a hero, the guilt of his actions weigh on him. Davidís parents are quick to forgive him, though, citing the war was the cause of his death. Later that day, contemplating all that the war has brought him, he comes to realize that it was not Sylvia who he missed so dearly during his time at war but Mary.
By 1927, talking pictures were fast overcoming silent films. But the bulkiness of the sound equipment impaired the freedom of filming and limited where and what a director could shoot. As silent films were liberated from the need of catching dialogue, they could practically shoot just about anywhere and no film shows it better then Wings. Harry Perry, who would make a career of brilliant aerial cinematography, showcases his best work in this film. Credit must also be paid to the work by the stunt pilots who put on a riveting performance in these WWI fighter planes. The main cast, too, are a joy to watch in their respective roles having some wonderful on-screen chemistry (not to mention, stunningly good looking). For as much somber plot that runs through this film, there is also a rather lively and jovial undertone that pervades each scene. Wellman directs each moment with a zest for life and thrill that one canít help but get caught up in, whether itís Jack imagining that bubbles are floating out of every girlís dress or the quivering lips of Mary when Jack goes off to war or the moving last scene between Jack and David. And be sure to keep an eye out for the film debut of a young Gary Cooper who has a small but poignant role in the film as a cadet pilot!
There have been plenty of films that have won Oscars whose merit for the reward is questionable. Some might lump Titanic into this category. But the Academy of Motion Pictures got it right when they saluted Wings as it deservedly owns this acclamation. It was the first and only silent film ever to win an Oscar as by the time they began doling out the awards, talkies were taking hold of the publicís interest.
It is somewhat of a disappointment that the Academy Awards were not around to honor earlier silent films, but in so far as Wings stands testament to what a great silent film can be, we should be all the more grateful.