Academy Award-winning silent film ‘Wings’ stands testament of time

There’s a reason Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” was considered one of the greatest novels ever written. The 14,000-page book was epic in scale, chronicling love and war through the eyes of three noble Russian families.

“Wings,” the first movie to win an Academy Award for best picture, shares qualities with Tolstoy’s novel, spanning years as the Allies troops fought the German and Austrian-Hungarian Central Powers during World War I.

Based on the story by WWI veteran John Monk Saunders, “Wings” features American Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a boy who dreams of flying. His dream comes true with war. Powell enters the American Expeditionary Corp., where he trains to be a fighter pilot.

Meanwhile, the girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), also enlists in the war effort. Fueled by her crush on Jack, Mary follows Powell to Europe; there she drives medical supplies to Allied troops.

But Jack doesn’t love Mary. His sights are set on their hometown beauty, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). And Sylvia’s sympathies are with the wealthy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), who likes her back.

When Jack and David find themselves training together, they eventually become best friends. They’re both assigned to the 39th Aero Squadron, and are promoted to lieutenants.

So best friends falling for the same girl? Sure, it’s an overused storyline (which we saw in “War and Peace” and still see in later war media including Michael Bay’s 2001 film, “Pearl Harbor”), but “Wings” is a historical remnant. Director William “Wild Bill” Wellman, another former WWI airman, crafted spectacular flight scenes with plane chases and crashes. (The U.S. government donated more than $16 million in planes, pilots, tanks and other military assets to the film.) It’s nothing compared to today’s computer-generated imagery, but back then, this was cutting-edge.

At its core, “Wings” is a propaganda film; you can’t watch it without feeling a surge of American patriotism. In one scene, a German-American soldier (played by El Brendel) flashes his “stars and stripes forever” tattoo on his bicep, flexing his muscles to make our grand old flag wave. Sure, it’s tacky, but you cheer along with Mary as Jack’s plane — whom he nicknamed “the shooting star” — shoots down German Heinies.

“Wings” reflects an era and sentiment lost with Vietnam and Iraq. War was romantic and exciting; now, it’s bloody and terrible. Petya Rostov from “War and Peace” looked forward to the day when he could join his older brother Nicholas in defending Mother Russia and fighting Napoleon’s French invaders.

Now, three years since the Iraq War ended, (unless you or a loved one fought in the war) war seems forgettable, distant and a relic of the past. Compared to the profusion of support pictured in Wellman’s silent film, “Wings,” it’s dull and muted, flickering like reels of scratched film. At one time, it was starkly black and white, but time has discolored the picture. Now it just blinks and flickers.

“Wings” was directed by William A. Wellman and written by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton, based on John Monk Saunders’ story. “Wings” won the first Academy Award for best picture in 1929. 

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