REVIEW – Wings (1927)

WingsFilmJuice have my review of William A. Wellman’s Wings, the first ever film to win a Best Picture Academy Award.

Set during World War I, the film follows a pair of young men as they travel to France and earn reputations as fighter pilots. Initially antagonistic as a result of having fallen in love with the same aristocratic woman, the two men become friends until the madness of war consumes them both and one accidentally kills the other. As I explain in my review, I pretty much hated this film…

Wings is an absolutely terrible film: Despite having nearly two and a half hours in which to build characters and relationships, the writing fails to imbue the melodramatic plot with any real dramatic weight. For example, we are told that Jack and David hate each other before eventually becoming friends but nothing ever happens to either to stoke the fires of hatred or build a bridge of friendship. David never saves Jack, Jack never saves David and when Jack finally kills David it is done with absolutely zero pathos as the script fails to establish the idea that Jack might at one point have wanted to see David dead. The treatment of supporting characters is equally shoddy as a German-American airman is viciously bullied for comic effect while the women in the film are reduced to sex objects, plot devices, and guilt sponges in what the lead actress Clara Bow maintained was a misogynistic script even by the standards of 1920s Hollywood. Buttressed by inter-titles so ludicrously purple that they could have been lifted from a 1990s video game, the action scenes are surprisingly hit and miss given the vast resources thrown into producing them. Frequently little more than shots of military pilots flying in formation and pretending to crash, these scenes are a microcosm for the entire film as they are of little more than historical interest.

I think it says an awful lot about this film that its lead actress felt moved to complain about the sexism and the fact that her character was little more than a dollop of cream on top of the man-cake. However, the more I watched of this film, the more I came to realise its importance in determining which kinds of films were deserving of awards. As I explain in my review, this film was released in the same year as Metropolis and Sunrise and yet it feels almost childishly simplistic in comparison. Next time you wonder why it is that terrible films win Oscars while genuinely challenging and thought-provoking films are ignored, look no further than the crude sexism, jingoism and inflated budget of Wellman’s Wings.

Watching this film, I actually began to wonder whether one might argue that the American film industry owes as much to German emigres as its space programme – Without German scientists, there would be no Apollo; without German directors, there would be no Citizen Kane. Hmm.

Contrary to my editor’s suggestion, I gave this film an even-handed 3 out of 5 as I think the market for this Masters of Cinema release is most likely to be people with an interest in the history of American film and the unimaginative writing, poor visual story-telling and lazy bigotry of Wings actually reveal a surprising amount.