The Paramount logo – that jagged, snowy mountain garlanded by stars – takes us back in time as this impeccable DVD and Blu-Ray restoration of Wings begins, rewinding through the icon’s numerous incarnations until it reaches the nostalgic brown tones of 1927. Wings was the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, so this spin back through history feels more fitting than it might for any old re-release – especially as the film was restored as part of Paramount’s centennial celebrations in 2012. If you need it, it’s the perfect transition to the simpler, silent world of filmmaking Wings comes from – although the film’s emotional complexity is much defter than the elegantly simple plot might initially suggest.
Clara Bow might be the nominal star, adoringly adorning the poster with Charles “Buddy” Rogers, but this is really a boys’ club, if thankfully not in the imposingly masculine way that term might invite. America throws itself into World War I and takes its young men with it. For us, that means small town rivals Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), both besotted with Sylvia (Jobyna Rolston) – even if it’s clear to the audience that Jack’s true love is the girl next door, Mary (Bow). Frustrations come to a head not long into air service training, but the inevitably fisticuffs turn anger into friendship, and the pair soon become inseparable as they’re shipped off to France.
The first big ticket picture directed by tough director William A. Wellman, Wings benefits enormously from the war pilot experiences of its director. Applying fairly generic characteristics to its leading men, and allowing their handsome, expressive faces to draw the audience in, Wellman directs the action sequences with a steady but thrilling hand, expertly splicing together breathtaking stunts and tensely paced intertitles in several scenes that are astonishing for their continuing vitality. J.S. Zamecnik’s original, re-recorded score is similarly instrumental in the success of these scenes; an orchestral triumph, it also includes sound effects to ensure the immediacy of the aircraft, gunshots and bomb blasts across nearly ninety decades.
What might be most impressive about Wings, though, is the fairness and warmth with which the story is told. A story of this type could easily submit to blind patriotism, jingoism or even racism, but, while the German opposition isn’t sympathised with, nor are they demonised. They are simply the figures of the enemy, so frequently mere dots or blurs on the screen, and the battle sequences take little pleasure in the bloodiness of victory. Flying is thrilling, but death isn’t, and Wings confronts the “stern reality” of the war head on. Our heroes aren’t America but Jack and David, and the final moments of the film, quickly eschewing the celebratory homecoming for a private, poignant encounter, put the emotional pain of war at the film’s heart.
Make no mistake, though: this is classic Hollywood filmmaking and it’s operating here at its finest. Bow’s status as the ‘It’ girl isn’t hard to understand; her big, bright eyes pop from her appealing face, and her sharp comedic expression makes her sequences a light relief. But the true romance is between the two male leads – even including a fraternal kiss and embrace – and the true majesty of the film is in the awesome stunt work and Wellman’s steady, thorough directorial eye. Wings is a tight, absorbing production, its near two-and-a-half hour running time (excuse us) practically flying by. In terms of entertainment, Wings outdoes most modern studio productions, combining breathless, dynamic cinematography with a direct, energetic narrative.
Extras: Paramount’s restoration is simply gorgeous. The warm brown of the day sequences adjusts to the shifting moods beautifully – the detour into an intoxicating Paris showing off the detail of studio backgrounds, while Wellman’s eye for a vivid exterior is given full expression – and a silver nitrate-coloured night time sequence looks absolutely enrapturing. Zamecnik’s score pops with enthralling vitality, while the release also comes with the option of Gaylord Carter’s organ score, though it feels much more antique, its ghoulish feel often sounding sadly tuneless.
Along with the 1080p restored transfer, Zamecnik’s score in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Carter’s score in 2.0 Dolby Digital, this Wings issue contains two video documentaries. The longest, Wings: Grandeur in the Sky, is an absorbing half hour recounting the making of the film, revealing the astonishing precision and audacity of Wellman’s directorial approach. Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings takes us through the immense task of the restoration process with interviews with Paramount’s specialist team. Also included are video piece Dogfight!, which looks at early airplane technology, and a comprehensive 40-page booklet featuring a new essay by critic Gina Telaroli, vintage press pieces and rare archival imagery.
Wings is out now on Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray. All images courtesy Eureka Entertainment.