One of the chief joys of watching older films lies in finding answers to questions about why certain films get made and why they look the way they do. Often, people who concern themselves with such matters argue that particular films respond to particular historical events but a more precise answer is to say that while filmmakers do find inspiration in the world around them, they also respond to other films that tell them not only how to go about telling a story but also what kinds of stories to tell. For example, the reason Hollywood films look and feel the way they do is that Hollywood films have always looked a certain way, felt a certain way and dealt with certain kinds of subject matter. Indeed, if you want to know why Hollywood produces so much meretricious crap then you need to go back to the source and watch films like William A. Wellman’s Wings, the first ever film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
The film revolves around a young American go-getter named Jack (Charles Rodgers) who falls in love with a disinterested aristocratic beauty despite having a manifestly better relationship with plucky girl-next-door Mary (Clara Bow). Desperate to prove himself a man, Jack enlists in the US Army flying corps and heads off to basic training alongside the aristocratic beauty’s aristocratic paramour David (Richard Arlen). Initially at loggerheads, the two men soon bond over German-killing and earn a reputation for muscular airborne patriotism. Sent to Paris to celebrate his medal, Jack gets blind drunk and lands Mary in a compromising position that gets her immediately sent home in disgrace. Having accidentally ruined one friend’s reputation, Jack goes on to accidentally murder another before returning home to a hero’s welcome. Thankfully, any feelings of guilt that Jack might have felt are immediately dissolved by an absurdly forgiving Mary and a mother who points out that it was not Jack who was responsible for killing his friend but War. Hmm.
On one level, 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. Which brings us to the other side of the coin…
On another level, Wings is an absolutely fascinating film: Produced at great expense by Paramount Pictures at the absolute peak of their success, Wings was the first Hollywood production to gain logistical support from the US military in exchange for making them look good. So next time you go to see a Michael Bay or Kathryn Bigelow film and you see the latest piece of military hardware set against the background of a tattered-but-still-proudly-flying American flag, remember that this is the film that pioneered that disgusting relationship and transformed peace-time Hollywood into the willing mouthpiece of American military might.
Equally fascinating is the role that this film must have played in establishing what was and was not an award-worthy film by Hollywood standards. Despite appearing twelve years after D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Wings has far more in common with the simple-minded populism of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle than it does the more emotionally nuanced and narratively sophisticated films that Griffith went on to produce in the immediate aftermath of Birth of a Nation. In fact, when you realise that this film was made in the same year as not only Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but also F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, you begin to see that Oscar’s tendency towards self-regarding nostalgia may well have been present at birth. By claiming the inaugural Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings let the Academy off the hook and made it okay for them to award prizes to unsophisticated and simple-minded films. This in turn made it okay for Hollywood studios to produce unsophisticated and simple-minded films because Oscar says quality and how can you argue with quality? Poor standards are not a sign of laziness or stupidity but a cage designed to keep out the radical and the visionary lest the prisoners begin to feel bad about themselves. William A. Wellman’s Wings is part of the cage that keeps new and radical voices out of Hollywood and for that it deserves nothing more than our contempt.
Some films are watched as an end in themselves and other films are watched for what they tell us about the history and practice of filmmaking. Effectively little more than a silent-era Pearl Harbour, Wings is a terrible film that reveals a great deal about contemporary American cinema. Exquisitely re-mastered by Paramount after the film was long considered lost, this Masters of Cinema release comes with two different scores (including the Hammond organ score created for the film’s recent cinematic tour of America) and a fascinating albeit hagiographic making-of documentary. An absolute must for anyone with a strong stomach and an interest in the history of mainstream American film.