As I watched 'The Artist' recently, I couldn't help but think about its 85-year-old cousin in silence, 'Wings,' the 1927 World War I epic and winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Picture. The more things change, the more they remain the same, and though the film industry has come a long way since 'Wings' dazzled audiences with spectacular aerial sequences and ambitious battle scenes, here we are in 2012 once again honoring a silent movie with a slew of Oscar nominations and raving about its style, sophistication, and artistry. Sure, sound and special effects enhance a motion picture's excitement quotient, but there's no substitute for a good story, fine acting, and a passionate presentation. That was true more than eight decades ago and it's still true today...and this restoration of 'Wings' combines the best of both worlds to create an entertainment experience that rivals almost any modern war film. Visually impressive and emotionally stirring, 'Wings' truly soars, often proving with thunderous force just how golden silence is.
As the film opens, Paramount sets the stage for this nostalgic journey with a clever montage of studio logos, beginning with the present day and fading all the way back to 1927. Then the narrative begins with a title card saluting the sky's fearless warriors. The 'Wings' storyline isn't much - and certainly would be considered hackneyed and cliched by today's sophisticated standards - but it's honest, fervent, and patriotic in the best sense of those words, with equal helpings of grit, sensitivity, and humor propelling it forward. Though there's a dated element to some of the situations and presentations, if you surrender yourself to the period, such creakiness melts away, and the timeless themes of valor, friendship, and coming of age - complemented by thrilling action scenes - rise to the surface and get under our skin.
It's 1917, and Jack (Charles Rogers) and Dave (Richard Arlen) enjoy the last lazy days of frivolous youth before heading to France as U.S. fighter pilots. The close buddies endure the rigors of aviation training academy and prepare to leave their respective families. Both profess their affection for the refined socialite Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who only has eyes for Dave, while perky, wholesome, down-to-earth Mary (Clara Bow) quietly pines for Jack. Once in Europe, the friends take to the skies, experiencing the horrors of combat as they engage in death-defying dogfights with dastardly German foes. A Paris furlough eases the strain, but tensions soon mount between Jack, Dave, and Mary (who comes to France as part of the medical corps), just as the Allies prepare for what they hope will be a decisive, tide-turning surge.
What sets 'Wings' apart from other Hollywood war movies of the period and beyond is its authenticity. Director Wellman obviously didn't shoot on location in France (the barren landscapes hardly resemble the lush French countryside), but the aerial and battle scenes brim with realism. With cameras strapped in the cockpit and the actors doing some of their own flying, 'Wings' really does take us "on the high seas of heaven," as planes swoop, twirl, circle, and dive. It's an exhilarating ride, and fosters renewed appreciation for the ingenuity and fortitude of the cast and crew. No rear projection work or studio backdrops here; 'Wings' tries its best to replicate the experiences, attitudes, and emotions of war pilots, and doesn't flinch in its depiction of the brutality and destruction that defined World War I. In addition to dogfights and bomber attacks, we witness trench warfare and hand-to-hand combat, and the clockwork choreography and massive scope of these ambitious scenes remain awe-inspiring.
'Wings,' however, is much more than a mammoth spectacle. At its emotional core is a moving portrait of male friendship that often transcends the story's romantic and military aspects. Some might mistake this forthright treatment of love and devotion with homoeroticism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Wellman was a man's man who served in the army and experienced firsthand the intense bonding that's a byproduct of war, and he balances violence and tenderness with delicacy and grace. Even the "It" Girl, Clara Bow - at the time, the world's biggest star - is often a peripheral figure in this testosterone-fueled picture that bravely allows men to shed their macho veneer and expose the sensitivities lurking beneath.
There's also a refreshing abandon to 'Wings' that later films, plagued by the moral constraints of Hollywood's rigid Production Code, lack. At one point, a pilot clearly mouths "You bastard!" as he scuffles in the air with a German foe, while in another particularly risque scene, Bow fleetingly exposes her breasts while changing outfits in a Paris hotel room. Such moments lend the film a surprising contemporary feel that belies its vintage roots.
'Wings' also reminds us just how good silent film acting can be. Of course there are plenty of over-zealous expressions and reactions, but subtlety generally prevails. Bow exudes effervescence, fostering her flapper image, but also exhibits a heartbreaking vulnerability that's attractive and affecting. Though we don't always believe her to be as naive and impressionable as her role demands, Bow nevertheless remains true to her character, and her perky presence bolsters the picture. Rogers and Arlen, however, carry 'Wings,' and their magnetism and chemistry keep it aloft even when the action shifts to the ground. And speaking of magnetism, a young Gary Cooper has a small yet pivotal role that put him on the cinematic map. He's only on screen for a brief period, but makes a notable impression.
As does Wellman's direction. "Wild Bill," as he came to be known, was a risky choice to helm this big-budget epic; he had only made two previous films of questionable merit prior to 'Wings.' But his vision won over his lack of experience, and he proved he could handle the technical and logistical rigors of a large-scale production with ease. Aside from taking the camera to the sky, Wellman mounts it on a swing for an innovative perspective, follows a speeding roadster on a lengthy tracking shot, zooms across multiple tables in a nightclub setting for a striking illusion, and even employs a split screen at one point. A World War I vet himself, Wellman went on to direct a slew of acclaimed films, but it's not surprising that late in his life he told author Richard Schickel, "I think the thing I'm most proud of is 'Wings.'"
And thanks to this dazzling restoration from Paramount, all of us can finally see why.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Wings' lands on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case and sheathed in a glossy slipcase with raised lettering. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio orchestral track. There's also a Dolby Digital 2.0 organ track for those who crave a more traditional silent movie experience. Upon insertion of the disc, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
If only all of us could look this good when we're 85! Paramount has done a superior job remastering and restoring 'Wings,' making this silent antique look far younger than its advanced age. If you happen to steer clear of silent films due to poor picture quality, jerky images, and fast projection speeds, rest assured you won't encounter any of those nagging issues here. As smooth as silk and as pristine as a newly minted penny, 'Wings' is a visually enthralling experience from start to finish, featuring perfectly pitched sepia-toned and black-and-white photography, a fine grain structure that possesses a lovely texture, and excellent contrast.
Of course some scenes are clearer than others and a couple of rough patches creep in now and then, but that's to be expected for a film of this vintage. On the whole, however, all the elements have been meticulously massaged to create images that boast impressive depth and a stunning immediacy, putting us square in the cockpit or gunnery seat and up in the air with the steel-nerved pilots who navigate the treacherous skies with breathtaking virtuosity. Any print defects have been erased, and the hand-painted bursts of yellow flames used to enhance fiery crashes and heated dogfights are startlingly distinct, adding an extra layer of style and a flash of color to the brutal battle scenes.
Black levels are deep and inky, especially in the black-and-white sequences, and pleasing variances of tone lend the visuals greater presence and impact. Close-ups are a bit gauzy, but that's typical of the time period, yet clarity remains solid. Shadow detail is fine, too, and no edge sharpening, noise, or banding afflict the picture. A couple of missing frames here and there occasionally break the spell, but this is a stellar rendering made all the more remarkable when one considers the advanced age of this classic film.
It seems odd to say sound is an important aspect in the overall success of a silent film, but a quality music track and crisp effects can substantially improve the viewing experience. A high-octane action movie such as 'Wings' gains momentum from solid audio, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track delivers in spades. The music score, which incorporates many period and classical melodies, fills the room with superior fidelity and an exceptional clarity of tone as it perfectly complements light-hearted, dramatic, and warfare scenes. Bright highs and weighty lows are handled with ease by a broad dynamic scale, with plenty of palpable yet well-integrated bass seasoning the mix. When bombs explode, we may not hear the destruction or chaotic mayhem, but we feel their impact and force as they hit the ground, and it's enough to immerse us in the thick of the scene.
Directionality is quite good, too. The score bleeds into all five speakers, while many effects, such as propellers, engines revving and sputtering, marching feet, shells whistling through the air, even floating champagne bubbles in a light-hearted Folies Bergeres scene, benefit from distinct stereo separation up front. This is not an old track, so surface noise and age-related imperfections aren't an issue, and no distortion disrupts the sound's purity. For those seeking a more traditional silent movie experience, there's also a stereo organ track included on the disc, which represents how 'Wings' might have played to some 1927 audiences.
But it's the DTS-HD audio that really shines, providing a contemporary sonic experience for this antique film, making it more relatable, exciting, and involving.
A few informative extras honor this silent classic, adding perspective and context to the film. All material is in high definition.
In this year of 'The Artist,' it only seems fitting to take a second glance at 'Wings,' the winner of the first Best Picture Academy Award and still one of the finest and most thrilling aerial adventures of all time. This World War I tale of courage, friendship, romance, and devastation, even after 85 years, still possesses the power to dazzle our senses and wring a potent emotional response, and Paramount's glorious restoration allows us to see this epic the way director William Wellman envisioned it. Excellent video quality, first-rate audio, and a decent smattering of supplements all contribute to a superior release that no serious film buff should rebuff. So buckle up, take to the skies, and marvel at the scope and artistry of this ambitious and affecting movie. Highly recommended.