It is a sad fact of film history that, for much of its existence, the movie studios did not appreciate the value of their creations as archive-worthy artistic endeavors—let alone public interest in props, costumes and other tools of the trade (which only truly came to the forefront during the famous 1970 MGM auction). As such, many—and, in the case of silent films, the majority—movies have been lost for good. Every now and then, one such lost work resurfaces, but those that do are fewer than not. It is almost inconceivable to us now that, of all movies, the very first Oscar winner for Best Picture (then “Best Picture, Production”), William A. Wellman’s Wings, could at one time have been lost, but such was indeed the case. Fortunately for future cinephile generations, Wings is also among the few lost films that have been found. Hit the jump for our review of the Blu-ray.
Wings stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen as Jack Powell and David Armstrong, rivals for the affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack is completely clueless that his next-door neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), is in love with him. When America enters World War I, Jack and David both enlist as fighter pilots. Soon their old differences are put aside and they become the best of friends. Mary also joins the war effort as an ambulance driver.
Jack and David both become combat aces. On leave in Paris for their new ace status, Mary runs into Jack, too drunk even to recognize her. She takes him to his room to sleep it off and starts to change from a dress back into her uniform when the Military Police find her naked in Jack’s room. Mary is sent back to the States while Jack and David return to the front for the Allies’ final offensive. During the battle, David is shot down. He steals a German plane to try to rejoin the American forces, but Jack, thinking he is a German, shoots him down again, killing him. The offensive is a success and Jack returns home a hero, where he once and for all realizes Mary is the one for him.
Wings is an amazing production, and it is easy to see why the film won the inaugural Best Picture (the only silent film to win the award). The aerial and combat photography are absolutely spectacular, incredibly advanced for the time and probably unlike anything most 1927 audiences had ever seen. Although there are some moments of silliness and silent movie melodrama, most of the movie exhibits a gritty realism.
Besides its technical merits, Wings is also notable for being one of the first major motion pictures to depict two soon-to-be Code no-nos: nudity (a momentary glimpse of Clara Bow’s breasts) and a kiss between two men (Jack kissing David just as David is about to die).
The restoration of this new Blu-ray release—timed to coincide with Paramount’s centennial anniversary—is truly beautiful. Not only have all the dust and scratches been eliminated, but the color tinting and Handschiegl color process effects have been restored according to the original frame accurate production notes. Even the camera/projector drift has been stabilized to present the most steady, locked-off silent movie I have ever seen.
As for special features, the Blu-ray contains three featurettes: “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky”, “Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings” and “Dogfight!” The first is a pretty typical production of how the studio brought the film into being. The second details some of the mammoth efforts taken to restore the movie (good viewing for anyone interested in film preservation) and the third a brief treatise on the evolution of both the planes and dogfighting during World War I.
Wings is an important movie in film history. As hard as it is to believe that this film once was lost, we should all be thankful that it has here received the full restoration treatment—a must-own Blu-ray for any true cinephile.