Paramount Pictures, 1927 (DVD, 2012)
John Monk Saunders wrote some classically hokey stories of World War I aviators that found their way onto the big screen in films whose flying sequences tend to be more memorable than the plots. There was Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, the 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol and its even more enjoyable 1938 remake, which reused the original’s flying sequences but benefited from a more polished cast, featuring Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone. But the one that set the standard for all that followed was Wings, just remastered and released on DVD for the first time.
Paramount Pictures was gambling when it took steps to turn Saunders’ yarn into an air epic. The firm obtained unprecedented help from the War Department at a time when the post-WWI U.S. military was willing to try anything to cajole funding from Congress. As a result, the military put its bases around San Antonio, Texas—including Fort Sam Houston, Kelly Field and its aircraft, and a training area, plus up to 3,500 soldiers at a time—at Paramount’s disposal, support worth roughly $15 million.
But what made Wings stand out was its director, though he too was a gamble on Paramount’s part. By 1926 former Lafayette Flying Corps pilot William A. Wellman had directed 11 films, seven of which were Grade B Westerns. As a combat veteran who knew war and flying, however, Wellman drew on his inside knowledge to ground most scenes in this film in enough reality to keep them ringing true today.
In an age of computer-generated special effects, anyone who watches Wings will marvel at how its air action sequences were achieved. Besides the stuntmen involved, actors Richard Arlen and Charles Rogers flew with cameras on their planes. Arlen had flown trainers in Canada in WWI, but “Buddy” Rogers learned to fly just for the film. Airplane buffs may be fascinated to see how Wellman interwove scenes between genuine Spad VIIs and Fokker D.VIIs, used on or close to the ground, and the Thomas-Morse/Boeing MB-3As and Curtiss PW-8s that serve as their stand-ins during actual dogfights. A Martin MB-3 passes for a Gotha bomber, but it says something about the state of the Air Corps that the 1926- vintage Liberty D.H.4Bs it supplied for the St. Mihiel sequence are not that different from those that flew during the real battle in 1918.
Seeing Clara Bow in a significant supporting role may remind current viewers why she was the “It Girl” of her day. When it came to the supporting cast, Wellman was obsessed with finding a handsome aviator to die early on, to shock the audience as well as his heroes about the grim realities they would soon face. His choice, after auditioning 35 men for that two-minute scene, was Gary Cooper, whose appearance was as memorable as it was brief.
Released in 1927, Wings became a sensation, launching its director on a distinguished career and earning the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Seeing it now reminds us why that happened. There was nothing like it before, and for all the films that have emulated its formula, there’s been nothing quite like it since.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.