First, some history, for those who don’t know already; at the first Academy Awards, there wasn’t one single award for Best Picture, but two. One was called Outstanding Picture, and the other was Unique and Artistic Production, and they both were seen to embody and reward two different aspects of great moviemaking. Nevertheless, in ceremonies going forward, the Academy decided to have one single award go to the best film of the year, and they retroactively decided that the winner of the 1st ceremony’s Outstanding Picture award had won what would go on to be known as Best Picture. That film was Wings, the only fully silent film to win Best Picture, and a more likely candidate for the title of Outstanding Picture would be difficult to find in 1927/28. Where the other half of Best Picture concerned itself with artistic merit, particularly Sunrise, which won that award, Outstanding Picture was just that: the film which had more wow factor than any of the others. In that aspect, Wings was the definite winner. However, in other aspects, I’d be willing to bet that Wings wasn’t the overall favorite, for some fairly evident reasons, and even without having seen either of the other nominees for Outstanding Picture that year yet, I still feel I can make that claim.
Wings is the story of two men, Jack Powell and David Armstrong, and one woman, Mary Preston, who is just so gosh-darn in love with Jack that if he doesn’t choose her… well, she’ll just kiss him till he does, boy howdy! Well, he doesn’t; he wants a young socialite named Sylvia, but more than that, he wants to fly, and when the Great War (WWI) comes along, he sees a great chance to do just that, so he enlists along with David, the chief rival for Sylvia’s affections. After a brawl during training ends up with the two men becoming friends, their mutual dream comes true, and they both become ace pilots in the armed forces; the film detailing the evolving friendship between them, as well as their exploits in the war, along with Mary, who has enlisted as a medical driver in order to be closer to Jack. There’s a lot that went into this film, and a lot that went into the making of it, so much so that it ended up being one of the most expensive films of the silent era. The production value of it certainly shows this fact, especially the aerial dogfighting sequences, which even almost 90 years after they were shot still manage to impress today. The aerial sequences are only a portion of the film, however, so how does the rest match up? To be honest, not all that well. A lot of it is extremely textbook, as if the filmmakers are following a manual for how to make a film of this type, which, considering it was Hollywood in the late 20s, might’ve been the case. There’s your obligatory love story angle, which only feels as out of place as it does because everything else in the film doesn’t seem to have a place to go along with it. The war aspects are a little odd from a modern standpoint, given that they are extremely upbeat, treating war with that propaganda-style heroism that seemed all too common with pictures of the era; the good guys always win, even when the going seems tough, and there’s even a moment in the film where an enemy pilot, noticing one of the protagonist’s guns on his plane has jammed, opts to let him live, and a title card following the action explains the “chivalry” between the fighters of the air, even across battle lines, and I had to shake my head a little at the whole affair. Really, that’s how most of the film comes across; something that, as a modern viewer, I just have to shake my head at the corniness of it, instead of be genuinely moved by what happens on the screen.
Here’s the thing about Wings: it’s good, but only from the perspective of watching it for the first time in 1927. Many of the things that are inserted into this film are just that; inserted into it, apparently to fill some sort of quota for things that should be in a film, right down to each movement of the story. The Academy Award for Best Screenplay existed in a different form back them, called Best Writing, Original or Adapted Story, and Wings missed out on a nomination; this I can totally understand. The added unfortunate aspect is that I’m watching this almost a century after it was made, instead of in 1927, and thus the added hindsight means that most of the film just doesn’t hold up well at all. Sure, that’s a little unfair to the film, and I tried to watch it from the antiquated mindset, but it still didn’t mean that it didn’t feel, well, antiquated. This would probably get a higher rating if I were judging it in the 1920s instead of now, maybe even more so since I wouldn’t have the decades of cinematic story retreading that take place, but I can’t ignore the sensation that much of this film would become very outdated even a decade or so after its initial release. The aerial sequences are really the only selling point that remain a selling point even to this day, and they are certainly impressive to watch. But, other than that, this is a run-of-the-mill happy-minded war story, with (of course) a love story shoehorned in to ‘make it a more complete picture’, or something to that effect. A good bit of history, and an interesting war film, but that’s about it.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10