Festival gem: Wings

In the first of a daily series highlighting a gem in the day’s Festival programme, we take to the skies for William A Wellman’s Oscar-winning air-combat drama Wings.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

The best film festivals present the first opportunity to see not only the cream of the current crop of world cinema, but also the latest work by the world’s great film archives and restorers. So what better way to kick off day one of the Festival than by being transported back to 1927 and the end of the silent era for Wings, a stirring aviation drama starring that luminous belle of the silent screen, Clara Bow?

What’s it about?

During the first world war, two young love rivals in an American small town – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – enlist to become pilots in the Air Service. Getting an early lesson in the dangers of air combat during their training, the pair’s conflict soon turns to camaraderie. Then, while billeted in France, David bumps into an old neighbour, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), now serving as a Red Cross nurse…

Who made it?

Born in Massachusetts in 1896, William A Wellman was one of the great homegrown directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, specialising in male-centred adventure films and westerns (Other Men’s Women, 1931; The Ox-Bow Incident, 1942), but with more than one classic comedy to his name too (Nothing Sacred, 1937; Roxie Hart, 1942).

A capable pair of hands across many genres, Wellman repeatedly returned to the theme of aviation after Wings: the roll-call includes Men with Wings (1939), Gallant Journey (1946), Island in the Sky (1953) and The High and the Mighty (1954).

What’s special about it?

Renowned for its still-impressive air combat scenes and an early appearance from the young Gary Cooper, Wings has also gone down in history as the first film to win the best picture Oscar, at the inaugural Academy Awards in Los Angeles in May 1929.

What the critics said

Sid Silverman, Variety, 16 August 1927:

When the action settles on terra firma there is nothing present that other war supers haven’t had, some to a greater degree. But nothing has possessed the graphic descriptive powers of aerial flying and combat that have been poured into this effort. […] Rolls, dives, slips, loops. They’re all there. Spectacular enough without the added constructive potion of make believe that signifies the urge for self-preservation. Manoueuvers that the average person has never seen performed in the air, space eaten up so fast that there’s no calculating the rate it’s consumed at, beside the jockeying of the planes to get on each other’s ‘tail’ before pouring out their stream of lead.

Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, 13 August 1927:

If the audience was thrilled by some of the scenes in the first part of the production, the subsequent chapters must have proved ever more stimulating, for in the course of these sequences William A. Wellman, the director, has adroitly spliced actual war scenes with those filmed in this country specially for the production […] This feature gives one an unforgettable idea of the existence of these daring fighters – how they were called upon at all hours of the day and night to soar into the skies and give battle to enemy planes; their light-hearted eagerness to enter the fray and also their reckless conduct once they set foot on earth for a time in the dazzling life of the French capital.

Wings is screening in the Treasures strand of the 56th BFI London Film Festival.

Read more

Back to the top