Okay—I need to be less of a procrastinator. I promised this a day after my first blog post, but that stretched out into 2010 (blame UPS). I definitely need to update this more often if I am to reach my goal of completing the Best Picture reviews before the next Oscar ceremony. Which likely won’t happen, but I am going to try and get through as many films as I can.
Before I delve into the review, I'm going to spell out the criteria that I'm going to judge the films by. As I go, these criteria may change, but for now I'm going to factor five areas in reviewing the Best Pictures:
- Acting—This is pretty straightforward. I will judge the acting in each feature. I'm not going to differentiate between styles--dramatic performances will be right up against comedic performances and performances that are more physical or technical (like say, in a musical or something like Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Christy Brown in My Left Foot). Ultimately, the biggest factor is how the performances make the film better (or worse...)
- Direction—Again, this is pretty straightforward. I will make a judgment on how well the director conceived the picture and brought it to life.
- Technical—All the other filmmaking aspects--screenplay, production design, costumes, score, art direction, cinematography, editing--will be taken into account.
- How Well Does the Film Hold Up?—I think that a film named "Best Picture" ought to have some sort of lasting appeal that makes it fresh or relevant to any audience in any time. For the older films, I will certainly asking the question: Would a modern audience enjoy and appreciate the film? For the newer releases I'm going to do a bit of prognostication: How well will the film hold up over time. Ultimately, which of these films are going to be the Hamlets, still being appreciated and studied 400 years from now?
- Etcetera—Anything not directly related to the technical aspects of the filmmaking or speculation on the endurance of the film will be covered here. If there is a film with a special historical significance, I will factor that in. If there was a milestone achieved, I'll consider it. If the film is so special or so beloved it has infused itself into the popular culture I'll look at that. If a film is based on a novel, how well is the film adapted? If the film is based on history, how historically accurate is it? (And please note, a film doesn't necessarily have to be historically accurate or a close adaptation to be considered great.) If there is anything special or unique about a certain film I will make sure and mention it.
So, with that:
Directed By: William Wellman
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralson, Gary Cooper
Studio (that distributed the film): Paramount Pictures
I'll make a confession about older films: I'm a bit prejudiced against them. In fact, I think the vast majority of modern film viewers are. I don't know the exact reason why for this. Perhaps, in the back of my head, black and white is too dull. Maybe I find the dialogue quaint, or the pacing too slow. I also tend to think that newer features have more sophisticated themes. Despite knowing full well that older features have dispelled those notions many times over, I'm always a bit leery to pop in an old picture.
Wings already had a couple of strikes against it, none of which had anything to do with the quality of the picture itself. First, not only is the film in black and white—it is also a silent picture (in fact, Wings is the only silent feature to win the Academy Award for Best Picture). Two hours plus and no dialogue? Oh boy, I thought. Getting through this would be a chore. Also, Wings is unavailable on DVD, which meant I had to track down a VHS copy of the film. I have nothing against my VHS player, but I'm trying to enjoy these features on the finest medium possible, and right now, that's DVD (or in some cases Blu-Ray, but I don't own a Blu-Ray player--somebody write Santa a letter for me). Instead of seeing the film on my 50-inch big-screen TV, it played on my wife's smaller TV/VHS combo.
I shouldn't have held any sorts of prejudices. Wings is delightful.
The story is quite simple. Two young men enlist as fighter pilots in World War I. Jack (Rogers) is middle class while David (Arlen) comes from the wealthiest family in town. Jack has a crush on Sylvia (Ralston) who gives him her locket before he goes off to war. It is not out of love though, rather kindness, for Sylvia doesn't wish to reveal to Jack that she has given her heart wholly to David, and thus break the young man's heart. Jack however, is oblivious to the affections of the girl-next-door (literally here), Mary (Bow), who loves him unconditionally. Mary also enlists as an ambulance driver, and the film follows how the war transforms the three main characters.
While the love triangle thrusts the plot forward in the first act of Wings, the primary relationship in the film is between Jack and David. Fraternal love is a subject that is often explored in many of the films that have won Best Picture, and Wings establishes an arc. Jack and David are first seen as competitive rivals (though not to an extreme level), and then an incident brings the two of them together. In this case, one of their tent mates (a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Gary Cooper) dies during a routine mission on the day Jack and David are scheduled to make their first flight into enemy territory--it's a crucial moment in the film, because it establishes that these men can die at any moment. Ultimately, the once rivals become the best of friends and each becomes the pilot the other depends the most upon.
The film's final act, depicting the Battle of Saint-Mihiel over France, provides a twist where a case of mistaken identity leads to the death of one of the men. I had recently finished Jon Krakauer's account of the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman, where Krakauer makes the point that despite the utterly preventable circumstances of Tillman's death, friendly fire is always an ugly truth in war. The death scene in Wings brought resonance to that point. The last bit of the film has the surviving man returning home and dealing with his guilt.
Where Wings has fantastic success is in the performances. Rogers and Arlen are both tough, physical guys (though Rogers does bear an uncanny resemblance to Vincent Kartheiser from Mad Men) who use body language and facial expressions to carry the emotional weight of their performances. In fact, because of the lack of dialogue, far greater importance is carried on movement and expression, and the men here are wholly unafraid to laugh, cry, act drunk, grieve--Rogers and Arlen even share the first on-screen kiss between two men on film.
Even better is Bow, who uses many of her It-Girl charms to great success. Her desperation for Jack is made achingly evident throughout the film, but especially in the first act then in an extended comedic sequence in Paris when the soldiers are on furlough and Bow has to out-vamp a coquette vying for a drunken Jack's affections. Bow provides a nice comedic counterpoint to the more dramatic story between the two men, but the script shows that she is equally capable in her role as an ambulance driver as the men are as pilots. The script has a nice balance between the main and sub plots; the story in Wings is never dull and is brought quite vividly to life by the lead actors.
Wellman does a superb job of bringing the action to life. Another advantage older films hold over new ones is that there is no cheating. Wellman really took a camera up into those biplanes and let it roll. Undoubtedly, if Wings were remade today, a good chunk of those shots would be computer generated and be using stunt performers whenever possible. It’s really Rogers and Arlen in those planes (along with Wellman and his crew filming the action), and the film creates a palpable sense of immediate danger whenever planes take to the skies. Audiences are inclined to go along with characters in their journeys on screen. When the actors themselves are flying the planes, there is no illusion—we buy into the world Wellman has created for us. Instead of nitpicking at details—the plane looks phony, he’s not really flying it, that’s gotta be a stunt double—Wellman opts for reality more often than not, allowing us to focus on the characters and the story.
That said, I think Wings holds up remarkably well, and far better than I was expecting. I look at a film like Top Gun, and clearly see it as a grandchild of Wellman’s film. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor lifts wholesale from Wings—and the older film does it much better. The film is also very much a standard bearer for the kind of films the Academy has honored over the years. It’s an epic, a love story, there is an historical context, the story is emotionally stirring, and there is a certain “wow” factor to the technical aspects of the filmmaking.
Wings is also a crowd pleaser. I don’t think a film needs to make audiences happy to be considered for the Best Picture Oscar (and there are plenty of films that have won the big prize that have challenged, puzzled, and depressed audiences), but it never hurts when a film provides solid entertainment to the people who watch them. More than anything, Wings entertained me, and splendidly so. Yes, it is an old, silent film from an era where movies were very different. Good entertainment never ages, and Wings is a film that should not go overlooked or be forgotten. I was glad I overcame my prejudices here.