The first feature to ever win the title of Best Picture from the Academy, a prestigious effort that would further grow in stature as years fly by. William A. Wellman’s Wings is a combination of a melodramatic tribute and warming drama that would become a template for future generations, and many of which would go on to receive similar top honours.
Wings begins by tailing the triangular romance between Jack, David, and Sylvia. Jack lives within the middle class while David on the upper; they are both courting a young woman who seems special among their parts due to her being an export from a metropolitan city carrying a sophistication that many aren’t able to offer. Jack fails to realise the affections that his next door neighbour, Mary Preston, carry for him; a girl who carries a slight tomboyish and aloof personality, and has a keen skill of driving a vehicle. Jack and David constantly bump into one another during their visits for Sylvia, slowly building a sense of hatred towards each other’s guts.
The war arrives and the nation is searching for recruits, brave young men who are willing to step up to the plate and fight for their country; Jack and David enlist, again constantly bumping and in each other’s throats. Sylvia prepared a photo locket for David, whom she considers her true and passionate love, but by mistake Jack assumed the parting gift was for him, hence taking it with him to war. In Aviation training their competitiveness elevates and explodes through fists, but eventually they build a strong respect for one another and thus beginning a deep friendship that aids them through this awful war.
Jack begins to gain a popular reputation for himself as one of the greatest pilot in the war, and the film does a terrific job in conveying this; through grand spectacle that shows actual planes within a single shot, manoeuvring and assaulting one another, showing their rise and downfalls. It is here that we see the glory of war, especially from the side of the alliance, evoking feelings that would have us jumping for joy in their triumph; but like any powerful film of war, it grounds its characters with sadness and anger, though not as absorbing as the works that have come of late, it does at least show that these characters are human, not machines, capable of feeling loss and grief despite deaths concerning the other side.
As for Mary, she finds herself enlisting as a motorist for the delivery of supplies within the field of battles, with Jack unknowing of her presence as his place is to dominate the skies and protect the ground. The two would cross paths in Jack’s temporary vacation to Paris, where Mary tries to relay a message that he must return to the base to prepare for the upcoming “push” that the allies would have against the Germans. It is here that the film attempts to spark the romantic potential once again between the two, exposing the evolution of Jack since his entry into aviation, a broken shell that relies on alcohol to dampen the pain that radiates within his soul, thus failing to recognise the girl that stands before him, the only woman in the entire world who deeply cares for him. Though a pivotal point for its characters, it is executed with such drag and at times comic absurdity in Jack’s obsession with bubbles that it came off as an unnecessary distraction from the film’s upcoming climax. Despite its beginnings, romance is not found within the film’s core, sure by its end it fulfils its characters, but it never entirely loses sight of its intentions which has been the war, grounded by the friendship that both Jack and David carry, reaching in areas that are touching and heartbreaking that I simply wasn’t prepared for; at moments I was on the verge of welling up.
All around the film’s marketing highlights Clara Bow as its key player, and if one comes in expecting a large focus on her, one would be left disappointed, as its sights remain on both Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Richard Arlen as Jack and David, respectively, and exploring the effects that the war has had on themselves and their friendship. Rogers features the more prominent arc, but it is Arlen’s performance that stood out for me, playing a role with more subtlety and warmth, one who has been stripped down in this world of war, standing equal with his comrades, aside from holding a snobbish attitude that many figures from wealth would convey. It was his performance that captivated me in the film’s most depressing and melodramatic of moments, drawing me into the platonic romance between Jack and David.
Wings is a fascinating piece of filmmaking that carries sincere emotions, with its strongest scenes able to penetrate even the most hard-shelled of audience. It also pays a loving tribute to those who contributed in the aviation side of the war, maintaining a layer of complexity, but with a padding of sentiment, that views them more than just tools of a larger cause.