Wings (PG-13, 144 minutes)
After the 86th Oscar ceremony, I realized that I have only seen forty-six of the eighty-six Best Picture winners: so over the next year I will be watching the remaining forty. With this said, Wings will always be famous for winning the Academy Award’s first Best Picture Oscar; though there were two Best Picture categories in 1929, the Production category, which Wings won, is considered the spiritual predecessor to the Academy’s highest honor.
Now, Wings somehow manages to be a movie that was ahead of its time, yet it would not have worked in any other time period but the 20s. The main reason for this contradiction is that the action and practical effects work well, however, the lack of a plot results from it being a silent movie filmed at the end of the silent era: in fact, this was the only silent film to win Best Picture until 2011s The Artist. However, unlike The Artists, which has an actual plot, Wings is like older silent films where the simplest narrative forms a beginning and end: which is an excuse to fill the rest of the film with various individual set pieces
For example, the basic plot of Wings is two men (Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen), who are in love with the same woman, join the air force to fight in World War I. Now, the bulk of the film is filled with various individual scenarios: boot camp, a lot of war scenes, and even a very odd drinking scene has little to do with the aforementioned love triangle. Now, further proof of the thin plot is how the main love interest only has screen time at the beginning and ending of Wings. This is weird because the movie does not establish why these characters love her: furthermore, the other female character, played by the gorgeous Clara Bow, has just as much screen time as the two main characters. In fact, Clara Bow is top-billed on all of Wings’ advertisements; even two hours into the movie, I was expecting them to fight over Clara Bow’s character and not the little seen temptress from the beginning.
However, I do not mind silent films; Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made amazing movies that transcend time. But not all silent films are as good as Chaplin and Keaton’s; some silent films show that an expanded narrative would not be created until the addition of sound. But still, it is weird to see a silent war movie, especially one that mixes slapstick comedy with heavy themes. But Wings does feature positive aspects that at times make the film engrossing. For instance, a lot of the special effects are practical; all the ‘dogfight’ scenes had the actors really flying the plane. In fact, while the actors were flying all they had was a camera to aid them; which means they had to act while they were flying, dodging other planes, and landing. The many planes flying in the background, which would be a green screen effect today, makes modern audiences realize that present-day actors are sissies compared to these stunt-minded leading men of the past.
Now speaking of the these ‘dogfights,’ if one was to say that an action film has never won Best Picture then I would likely push him or her towards Wings. This aerial epic has the ‘DNA’ of an action war film: it is just weird that the Academy discriminates against the action and comedy genres, meanwhile their first ten years were filled with these types. But it is easy to see why the Academy honored Wings. Between the blood and nudity, this epic action movie is well ahead of its time; how was this not banned in the 20s? Perhaps this has to do with it being a propaganda film, but in the Pre-Hays Code Hollywood got away with more. Now the nudity is only brief, but the blood is consistent throughout; in fact, the chocolate syrup, which works well with a black and white color palette, looks painstakingly graphic.
But that is the last thing that looks ‘ahead of its time;’ a lot of the other elements, like the way the soldiers knowingly walk into gunfire or how they fall after being shot, makes this look extremely amateur and dated. On top of this, the color palette constantly changes throughout: this is because the film was believed to been lost for years and, when found, the copy was in terrible shape. So I cannot blame the film for the color distortion, but at the same time, it is quite distracting that scenes seconds apart differ in shades of black and white.
Last, certain scenes feel extremely dated: for instance, all the propaganda bits show the film’s age. Yes, there are propaganda modern movies, but they are not as blatant as a character in Wings who constantly makes his American flag tattoo wave. Also, certain scenes are weird and I am not sure why they are in the overall product. The biggest agitator is the bubbles scene, where the main character gets drunk and sees bubbles: I cannot tell if this is for laughs or if it means something, but the scene feels out of place when compared to the rest of this action epic.
Finally it is important to point out the extreme length. Wings is well over two hours and it could have been trimmed by thirty minutes. Yes, the dogfights are amazing to look at, but some of the ‘non-action’ scenes fall short and are overly long. But though it is long, the ending is worth the wait; while, the whole film remains ‘sort-of’ upbeat, the ending is a downright downer. Perhaps, the ending is a little predictable, but after watching countless modern movies with cope out happy endings, this sad ending is a nice surprise: so much so, that I could not help but respect the audacity of the filmmaker. And I do not mind happy endings; however, when a movie does not call for an upbeat ending, but it is forced in by extenuating circumstances, then the whole movie suffers. In the end, as much as this is an action and propaganda film, this is still about war. And the ending perfectly suits this 144-minute epic.
Again, this is not for everyone: the length makes it extremely hard to watch. However, if one gets past the ‘rough-patches,’ then he or she will see amazing aerial stunts that are absent in modern movies. In fact, I barely mentioned the actors because one sees this for the amazing practical effects and not the performances. Now, Wings should be seen if you are a film junkie that wants to see historically important motion pictures: but understand, if this did not win the first ever Best Picture, Wings would have been another movie forgotten over time. This is not even close to the top ten best silent films, but it must be respected for how it was filmed and what it achieved.