Aces High

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William Wellman’s silent dogfighting film Wings has two big distinctions within the annals of war fiction and another within the annals of cinema history and I beg your patience as I focus largely on the former before I start to discuss the latter for reasons that will be obvious soon. The first distinction is usually not very much discussed to begin with and it’s probably because it requires quite a bit of historical context.

Wings was released in 1927, just right in the middle between World War I and World War II. And that’s kind of an interesting place for war fiction. Most of war literature and war films around that time have a pretty clear attitude towards warfare as being an unfair and costly trauma to the world that we all prayed would have occurred when we dubbed World War I “The War to End All Wars”. In the 1930s leading up to World War II, fiction began to be filled with frightened and arch works that implied how WWII would just be reopening wounds we had just spent decades trying to close and began upping the nightmare quality of World War I as a tragedy for us. The Big Parade itself was one of the big WWI films prior to Wings‘ production that illustrates that, while the most famous example is probably the subtle trench-based imagery of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien (himself a jaded WWI veteran)’s The Lord of the Rings books. In these days where we do have several movies that touch on the human cost of war, it may be hard to recall that pre-WWII propaganda era had some pretty heavy stuff in the genre.

Wings, which was directed by the only WWI veteran directing in Hollywood at the time, probably didn’t stand alone on being a pretty romantic look at war in that era, but it did stand on that side of the line between pro-war and anti-war pictures. Its attitude on WWI was less concerned with the damage it made to the people of the world and more concerned with portraying the idea of war as just one of the many places where boys could heartily become men or meet with the glory that comes with giving your life for your country. In general, conflict is shown to be a source of honor and camaraderie amongst men (strictly men, this is a male-skewed flick) from the very get-go. German planes refuse to shoot down planes with jammed machine guns. Our two male leads start off with contempt for each other before they get a moment to punch out their feelings with each other and suddenly become the fastest of friends. Wings is even heavily apologetic about its final tragic beats in portraying the war, turning it into a moment of forgiveness for a character and a validation of one of the central romances.

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My attitude on the subject of war aside (which is not similar to Wings‘), this sort of optimism is probably part of why a silent film going for a little under 2 1/2 hours is probably able to get away with that stretch of time. It’s excited about the things it means to show us as more than just spectacle, but grounded myth of heroics and action. And I think it has a real good reason to be excited about that when its focus is on the daring field of dogfighting – aerial combat – in the war. What is already a pretty thrilling concept of warfare to me (aviation and aeronautics in general) is only made extraordinary by the craft of those very same scenes, mixing between as many possible techniques one could throw at real-life shots of planes zooming around each other in the sky, leading up to one of two Oscars that the movie earned at the very first ceremony the Academy had – Best Engineering Effects. Save for the painting in of flames (which has mixed results with me), every single one of the movie’s flying firefights has spared no expense in trying to gain urgency and pleasant perils out of a visual presentation of that. It’s easily the biggest reason to watch Wings and yet its storytelling between those battles is not extraordinary but still digestible to act as interludes.

That story is more-or-less a bromance between two men, small-town man Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and wealthy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). This is no different than the kind of men in war relationship we’ve seen many times, particularly between flyboy flicks like Top Gun and Pearl Harbor – started over the affections of a pretty woman, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), grown into a masculine bond over their great work in the skies together. Sylvia’s affections belong strictly to David, despite leading Jack to believe otherwise, while Jack is the object of long-time friend Mary Preston’s (the iconic Clara Bow, in a performance that is limited in screentime yet eagerly uses all her strengths as tomboy, sex object, and dramatic actress) affections. Mary herself is so devoted to Jack and his patriotism that she herself enlists in the war as an ambulance driver. Obviously a large scale soap opera within itself and one that eventually gets tiring, especially when it tries to go darker with its ironic final dogfight scene (set after an amazing setpiece recreating the Battle of Saint-Mihiel), but nevertheless Wellman’s eagerness to go big on the melodrama helps such a long film feel like it keeps moving. And when I say big, I mean camera shots and tricks that are used for casual scenes one doesn’t really need unless he just wants to play around. My personal favorite touch is bubbles flooding a scene when Jack himself is drunk. I can hardly tell how this story I’ve seen many times before might have been perceived in 1927 as fresh or not. It certainly wasn’t when I first saw this movie in 2012. But it nevertheless was the best sort of digestible dramatics that leads to being loved by a large audience and so it’s easy to see how it won the first Best Picture Oscar.

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Which is where I rewind all the way back to my very first statement on this review, where I stated there are two big distinctions for Wings and address that second distinction for Wings. The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place in May 1929 and had presented one of its two highest honors The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture to Wings. The award would go on through different names over the years until 1962 when it would finally take its current form of The Academy Award for Best Picture (Wings is also the only silent film to have won Best Picture until The Artist, which still has two lines of dialogue). History has led this to be a point of contention as Wings was seen to have adopted the honor of being the very first Best Picture winner away from another more well-regarded film, which had been awarded that second highest honor from the very first ceremony – The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture, which would only be given that one year before it was dropped. An unfair circumstance I intend to address as I continue from here into a retrospective of the Best Picture Oscar winners, if only to make a detour for one of my favorite movies of all time…

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