Saturday, 12 May 2012

Wild Bill keeping it real in… Wings (1927)

“Wild” Bill Wellman is described as being one of the minority of Hollywood directors who had “lived a life” before they began to make movies, having been a professional hockey player, a lumberjack and a fighter pilot in the First World War. This could explain his attempts at realism and his toughness with actors and crew alike. You can certainly see that on Beggars of Life but, before that, he made the astonishing Wings.

The film famously won an Oscar for Best Production whilst Sunrise won Best Artistic Achievement, which pretty much says it all. Wings was an outstanding production, not a great story but a great adventure made under the most difficult of circumstances and featuring incredible bravery from its makers.

If the action in Wings looks real that’s because it pretty much is. Wellman figured that the only way to get the genuine feeling of combat flight was to throw his cast up into the air and film them there. As a result, Richard Arlen, who could already fly having also served in the Great War, and Charles "Buddy" Rogers, who couldn’t fly but quickly learned… are both seen acting their socks off as their planes climb, dive and otherwise career violently through the sky.

Rogers in particular earned his director’s respect for braving the 100 flying hours it took even though he was invariably sick on landing.

Electrical cameras were fixed onto the planes that could be controlled by the actor-pilots as they flung themselves into carefully choreographed dog fights. Stuntmen flyers were also used and some pushed the envelope as far as possible with one filming himself spiralling towards near death (he pulled out at the last moment) and it is a miracle that no one died making this film.

The reward was one of the earliest and best films about aerial combat and one which surpasses Hells Angels and the many similar films that followed in terms of realism and suspense. It is genuinely amazing as I said before.

The perils of the air battle overshadow the rest of the film which never-the-less has good moments and great performances.

Rogers plays Jack Powell, a small town petrol head who is young and naïve. The girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow) loves him more than he loves his car but he’s too busy longing for the unobtainable Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) to notice.

As it happens, Sylvia loves another, well-to-do David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) who reciprocates.

The two enlist for the flying core and leave the girls behind with Jack mistakenly believing that the picture he took from Sylvia was meant for him when it was intended for David. David knows this and takes care never to let on. David takes his old toy bear with him for luck… never a good sign in this kind of film!

The two men undergo their training with the obligatory moments of slapstick (largely provided by El Brendel with his stars and stripes tattoo) intermingling with more serious precursors of what is to come.

One of the more experienced airmen, Cadet White, is a tall good-lookin’ fella (played by young Cary Cooper) who seems to be at peace with the whole business. He has a few minutes of enigmatic screen time but never returns after his plane crashes on a training run. Death is close for all these characters even before they get to the front.

The scene shifts to France where the boys encounter their first action from a more experienced groups of German pilots – they survive their baptism of fire thanks to the chivalry of their opponents: something Wellman carried with him from the conflict?

Meanwhile, Mary has also enrolled and resolved to follow Jack to the war as a member of the Women’s Army Corps. She is seen driving a truck behind the lines, knocking over and knocking out some of the men.

She is next seen in a bizarre sequence when the boys are on leave in Paris. Jack is drunk as a skunk and obsessing with bubbles. He decides Mary has more bubble than his French companion even though he doesn’t recognise her dressed in burlesque party gear. She drags him back to his room but before she can sober him up and tell him all the things she’s bottled up, the MPs arrive to collect him – the big push is about to start and all leave is cancelled.

The two men head back and are to take part in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. This is the film’s massive set piece and utilised thousands of US Army soldiers on foot and in tanks. The crew had dug up acres of land near the airbase they had taken over and it passed for bomb smashed northern France. Explosions were remote controlled and the whole battle conducted with pin-point timing. Compared to something like the Big Parade, Wings was a step-forward in battle-front realism even if its story is not as strong as Vidor’s.

The battle rages and David is believed killed after he has crash landed behind enemy lines… Jack swears vengeance as things escalate toward a fateful climax. Will David fight his way back, will Jack find him and will Mary ever get to tell Jack that she loves him?

You can guess at some of the answers but this was one of the first films to raise those questions and they have been asked a thousand times since. Very rarely as successfully.

Bow gives a strong performance making a lot of the relatively small time she has on screen. Naturally she acts with wit but she’s also called upon to make serious emotional commitments in many scenes and does so believably and movingly.

Yes she’s the light relief, and the sex appeal (appearing topless in one very brief moment after being interrupted in Jack’s hotel room… how very daring Mr Wellman!) but she’s also the tragedy waiting to happen: one of the many who stayed at home and who stands to never have the love she deserves because of the war.

In addition to flying admirably and so very bravely, Arlen is the more expressive of the two male leads and leaves more in check than Rogers. You can see why Wellman was so keen to work with him again in the following year’s Beggars of Life.

I know less about Charles “Buddy” Rogers but he gives a good performance as the younger man and he is the character most transformed by events. The emblem of a million men who enrolled for glory and found the bitter disappointment that only survival could bring. That Wellman knew this from his own experience gives the film added authenticity.

is presented in superb quality on the recently-released DVD and Blu-ray sets - available from Amazons all over. Both come with an excellent documentary on the making of the film which includes an interview with Welman’s son.

It looks pristine - I mean knock-your-socks-off, amazingly pristine! - and held the attention of my teenage daughter for the whole two and a half hours – yes, even when The Big Bang Theory was on. At the end she had a tear in her eye… that says it all about the enduring truths of love and war as well as the durability of great filmmaking.

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