There had been other great war films before Wings. With the popular success of two of them, The Big Parade (MGM, 1925) and What Price Glory? (Fox, 1926), Paramount set out to make a war film of its own. Each of those earlier movies had focused on foot soldiers and their experience on the battlefield. Paramount, hoping to do something different, set its sights on a flying story. Wings was suggested by screenwriter and former wartime pilot John Monk Saunders.
To direct, Paramount selected an otherwise little known 29-year-old by the name of William A. Wellman. He was chosen not because his work, which mostly consisted of a string of low-budget westerns, had shown much promise, but because he was the only director in Hollywood with aerial combat experience.
Paramount’s hopes were high, so much so that in an era when very few films cost more than a million dollars Wings was budgeted at two million. Saunders was sent to Washington to solicit government cooperation, and, with the help of producer Lucien Hubbard, they secured an additional $16 million in the form of military equipment and manpower.
As director, Wellman involved himself in nearly every facet of Wings, including casting, camerawork, and certain aspects of the story that echoed his own experiences as a decorated combat pilot in World War I. In his 1974 autobiography A Short Time for Insanity, Wellman recounts: “We had been rehearsing with 3,500 army personnel and 65-odd pilots for ten days. … It was a gigantic undertaking, and the only element we couldn’t control was the weather. All morning long, we waited, everything in readiness. The barrage to gouge its creeping devastation and noise, the troops to plow through God knows what, and the cameras to record the countless number of rehearsed bits of battle business. The planes on the runway ready to take off and circle to my right of the battlefield, to swoop down on their strafing assignments, and the camera planes at different altitudes to photograph the air view of the maze of confusion of a battle.”
Wings was the first significant motion picture to deal with the role of the airplane in war. As William Wellman Jr. explains in The Man and His Wings, his detailed study of his father’s work, “Before 1926, there had been some aerial warfare work in films; however, flying footage was gathered from independent sources, government financed films, and with the use of miniatures. Actors were not seen in actual flight.” Up to that time, in fact, many aerial scenes had been shot in stationary planes on the ground.
Wellman set out to achieve what no one else had attempted, and, under his direction, cinematographer Harry Perry and a large number of cameramen shot close-ups of flyers from the rear cockpits of planes while following dogfights from a near squadron-worth of camera planes. Wellman and his team of cameramen also devised daring new techniques, and, at times, even had the film’s stars pilot their own planes while controlling mounted, motor-driven cameras that faced them.
Wings was largely shot at an airfield near San Antonio, Texas, where devastated battlefields and a wrecked French village had been re-created. The film was in production between September 7, 1926, and April 7, 1927. Shooting dragged on from month to month (at the time, most films were made in four weeks) as the headstrong Wellman waited for ideal conditions. Once, the Wings company waited 18 straight days for the right clouds in the San Antonio sky.
Wellman wrote, “Say you can’t shoot a dogfight without clouds to a guy who doesn’t know anything about flying and he thinks you’re nuts. He’ll say, ‘Why can’t you?’ It’s unattractive. Number two, you get no sense of speed, because there’s nothing there that’s parallel. You need something solid behind the planes. The clouds give you that, but against a blue sky, it’s like a lot of goddamn flies! And photographically, it’s terrible.”
Besides Wellman’s love of flying, Wings embodied several themes close to the director’s heart: male friendship; the deeply felt comradeship of groups of men engaged in a shared and usually dangerous endeavor; and the romantic triangle, often settled by the setting aside of one of the three’s interests. The story follows the wartime fortunes of young fighter pilots played by Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Rivals for the love of the same woman, they become friends after a fistfight. Clara Bow, the studio’s biggest box-office draw at the time, was cast as the film’s heroine because Wellman picks Arlen and Rogers were unknowns. Bow drew out sensitive passages and added just the right amount of pulchritude to what is essentially a man’s story.
Wellman’s determination to get it right paid off. When Wings premiered at the Criterion Theater in New York in August 1927, everyone agreed that nothing like it had been seen before. Quinn Martin of the New York World wrote, “there has been no movie … which has surpassed it in impressing upon an audience a feeling of personal participation.”
“Amazing,” “impressive,” “thrilling,” and “startling” were some of the words used by critics to describe the film, which turned out to be a huge hit. With a top ticket price of two dollars (in an era of 25- and 50-cent admissions), Wings played to large crowds at the Criterion for a remarkable 63 weeks before moving across town to the Rialto and concluding an unprecedented two-year run in New York City.
Wings came to San Francisco as a road show attraction in April 1928. It played at the Columbia (located at Eddy and Mason) for a respectable five weeks, where it was accompanied by a 25-piece touring orchestra and sound effects and was shown on an expanded “super-size” screen. Here, as in Chicago and New York before it, the film was “enthusiastically received,” according to local newspapers.
Edith Bristol, writing in San Francisco’s Call and Post, praised the production, calling it “a stupendous achievement.” Up from Los Angeles for the occasion, syndicated Hearst critic Louella Parsons wrote in the San Francisco Examiner: “The direction of Wings is grand. I mean just that. William Wellman has achieved a noteworthy success that should distinguish him as one of our few gifted directors. … Wings cannot be judged by the ordinary standards of criticism because of the path it blazes in advanced photography and direction and because of those unprecedented air scenes.”
Wings has aptly been compared to Star Wars for its broad appeal and for its influence on Hollywood filmmaking. Both broke new ground, and each inspired a legion of imitators and even their own genre. At the first Academy Awards in 1929, Wings was named the first ever Best Picture for the years 1927–1928. Until earlier this year, it stood as the last silent film to have been awarded an Oscar. Neither time, nor the arrival of sound, has diminished its singular achievement.
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts journalist and, since 1995, director of the Louise Brooks Society. He edited the “Louise Brooks edition” of The Diary of a Lost Girl.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Foley sound effects by Ben Burtt and Rodney Sauer