I've been watching old movies ever since I was little. It's never mattered to me if they were in black and white or color, it just needed a good story and characters I could invest in. One kind, however, I never can remember getting into were silent films. Typically, for silent films, there isn't a hint of dialog or, in most cases, any sound effects; these films usually just play to an instrumental soundtrack that is tailored to the mood of the film. In 1929, William A. Wellman's epic tale of two small-town boys who become good friends and two of the best fighter pilots, titled Wings, won the very first Oscar for Best Picture. In 2012, Paramount Pictures is releasing the film in high definition for the first time, offering it in a newly remastered and painstakingly restored format.
To be honest, I went into watching Wings not realizing it was a silent film (I hadn't read up on it. I saw that it starred Clara Bow, whose name I only recognized from an Eddie Cantor song, and was interested in educating myself). This Blu-Ray restored version offers two viewing options: One featuring a "re-recorded score, composed by J.S. Zamecnik (Orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser; Featured Pianist - Frederick Hodges) with sound effects by Ben Burtt"--all in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The other is entirely sans sound effects and is presented with the original "Pipe Organ Score Composed and Performed by Gaylord Carter in 2.0 Stereo Dolby Digital." I chose the re-recorded score with sound effects and found myself launching into my very first silent feature film. And it's quite the film to get your feet wet with. I did later check out the pipe organ score as well and it felt much more fitting for the time period and film style. However, the full score brought a sense of grandeur to the epic war film that it truly deserved. Also, Burtt's sound effects were wonderfully appropriate. A special feature on the Blu-Ray disc features Burtt explaining how he chose to use sound effects from the time period and the 30's to match the film's era. It all felt appropriate and not overdone or out of place. When I watched portions of the film with no sounds at all, just the pipe organ accompaniment, it definitely felt like it was lacking something.
Admittedly, I felt it was a little laborious to watch the beginning of the film. While I've seen bits and pieces of silent films or, better yet, parodies of silent films, I honestly didn't realize just how much of the film is spoken dialog without dialog cards displayed during the scene for the audience to read the dialog that's being spoken. It was like watching a movie on mute and only incomplete pieces of subtitles being made readable for the audience. Also, much of the film felt a little sped up, which was probably to counteract the fact that you have to rely on action and acting entirely to understand what is happening on screen (or it's just the film quality from the cameras of their day? I don't know). It wasn't until the story really started unfolding that I felt drawn into the film. The acting was pretty good, although there was some significant overacting done by several cast members--namely Clara Bow and Charles 'Buddy' Rogers. Granted, it was somewhat necessary at times to compensate for the lack of dialog, but a more sincere performance from Richard Arlen and a cameo from Gary Cooper proved it wasn't necessary to overact as badly as Bow and Rogers do. In the end, however, the grand scale that Wings performs in outshines any of the cast's overacting; the story speaks for itself.
With that said, Wings is driven by a story that sees these two friends in love with the same girl. Jack, played by Buddy Rogers, is in love with Slyvia and is too blinded by this to realize she's really in love with David, played by Richard Arlen. David is in love with Slyvia too, and Jack finds himself hating David because of it. This puts the two at odds with each other until a fistfight that breaks out between them helps them put their differences aside to discover a real friendship. Meanwhile, Jack's childhood friend (and somewhat of a nuisance), Mary--played by Clara Bow--is madly in love with Jack, who just can't see it. As Jack and David go off to war and become aces of the sky, things with their gals eventually come to a head. Wellman's direction is mostly ahead of its time; the air battles are not only convincing because of his filming technique, but he literally stuck Rogers and Arlen in planes and sent them up into the air as well. There isn't a blue screen or green screen in effect in this filmmaking era, and putting a movie screen behind the actors to simulate flying was something Wellman, a war vet himself, couldn't fathom doing. Also, the film is filled with elaborate battle scenes that are realistic enough to capture the brutal war time feel without getting too graphic. But Wellman's directorial technique isn't perfect, either. After an intermission splits the film in half, it almost feels like an entirely different picture when we find our heroes in Paris at the start of the second half. Jack and David are drunk off their rears in a scene where an also-enlisted Mary finds the blitzed Jack flirting with a Paris girl and it all goes on much, much too long. Jack relentlessly carries on about seeing bubbles coming out of things (and people) around him. Mary tries to snap him out of it, but he's too far gone to realize it's her. Distraught, she retreats to the bathroom where a creepy French maid convinces her to wear a dancing girl's dress to become the proper eye candy to penetrate Jack's alcohol-soaked vision. Jack's behavior during this whole sequence makes him less than appealing, and the tone is far goofier than any other moment in the film. Once it finally ends, the film gets back to business focusing on the war, and the drama focuses back to the friendship (and tensions) between Jack and David.
The content of Wings surprised me. I tend to have a rose-colored view of movies from the classic era, so when anything that you'd find in today's more profane manner of filmmaking is found in these old movies, I'm always taken back by it. Wings was much edgier than I could have ever expected--for a movie from 1927, that is. For example, more than just a few pilots are injured or meet their end in the air, and although the film is in black and white (and often tinted a yellow or blue color), some of these moments get pretty "bloody." Also, because the actors mouth dialog that never is displayed in words on the screen, there are times when you can visibly read their lips and discern what they're saying. While it's not proven exactly what profane words they may be speaking, I was surprised to see what convincingly looked like the use of words like "b*stards," "S.O.B" and possibly even a "Holy Chr-st" and "g*dd*mn." Again, none of these words are written in the dialog cards seen in the movie, so it's not definite that these words were used (except it's pretty obvious when Jack utters "B*stards!" after shooting at some Germans). The only profanity shown in the dialog cards is one use of "h*ll." In addition to the language and violence (of which there are plenty of men being shot down, shot up, stabbed, blown up, etc. We even see a couple dead soldiers with their eyes frozen open), there's one scene where Mary is changing out of her dress back into her uniform when two soldiers walk in on her (mistaking the sight for her having messed around with Jack, which she didn't). As they walk in, we see her reflection in the mirror as she quickly uses her uniform shirt to cover up her topless nudity. We see the quickest flash of her bare chest and nipples in the process, obscured by the quick motion and the fact that it's seen through her reflection. Still, it was surprising to see at all. Also, because of the clarity of high definition, it looked as though there may be a hint of nudity seen hanging in the background in the form of pinup art while Jack and David are talking in a service building. It's small and in the background, and would normally be unnoticeable if it weren't for the clarity of the picture, but it still appears to be there.
The restoration of such an old film as Wings was remarkably done. One might view the film and think "what's so great about seeing this in high definition?" However, viewers must understand that most classic films--especially one that is 85 years old--show incredible aging, scratches, dirt, and fuzziness that to see them in such a clear presentation as this one is really unusual. Paramount did an incredible job restoring Wings, and I'd love to see what they may do with other classics. As for who may enjoy a film like Wings most, I'd have to recommend it primarily to fans of classics (or any of the film's cast) and those who are really serious about filmmaking and the history of American cinema. Being that Wings was the very first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, true movie fans should probably check it out if for no other reason than for the nostalgia of it. Fans of aviation and war films probably also would enjoy this one, as it's clear that it has gone on to inspire many of the war films that have followed.
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 1/14/12)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
Wings may not seem like a must-see in high-definition, but upon viewing the old film in its restored form, it's certainly a must-see on Blu-Ray for anyone who enjoys classic films such as these. Paramount did an incredible job restoring this film. Along with the feature film (which includes two separate soundtracks to view it with) are a few noteworthy extras...
Wings: Grandeur in the Sky (35:56) is a documentary dedicated to the impact the film had on the film industry, and also serves as a retrospective on how the film was made. Director William A. Wellman's son talks a lot about his father's film, as well as his legacy, and the hurdles he had to jump over to get this film made in the mid 1920's. It's a fascinated documentary which gives some interesting insight into what the movie industry was like back then. It also sheds some light on how the iconic dogfight scenes were made. (1 "g*dd*mn," 1 "h*ll," 1 "S.O.B.")
Restoring The Power and Beauty of Wings (14:21) takes a look at the restoration of Wings for high definition. They found an original negative, cleaned it up digitally and then recreated the score from original music sheets and added sound effects as the script had directed. It's excellent to see, not only how they restored the film but how much effort they exhibited to preserve the film. (1 "g*dd*mnit," 1 "G*d")
Dogfight! (12:54) - The folks at Old Rhinebeck Aerodome Air Shows talk about recreating the early days of aviation in "Dogfight!". It's perfect for those interested in early dogfights, how planes first mounted a gun on a plane, etc.
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 1/14/12)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Sex/Nudity: We briefly see the silhouette of a dancing female puppet to represent Paris; In Paris, the camera focuses briefly on a soldier's and a woman's clothed butts as they bend over; We see the close-up of a woman's clothed chest with a low-cut V-neck blouse as she pins a pilot's wings to her blouse right in the center; We briefly see the backside of a nude female statue in the bar/club in Paris; Mary shows cleavage in the dancer's dress she puts on; There is a really quick flash of topless nudity in the mirror as some soldiers walk in on Mary as she's changing; There may be a nude pinup photo hanging in the background during a scene where Jack and David are talking while on the front. It's barely noticeable, however; Jack tells Mary that he "forgot himself" one night in Paris and breaks down in tears. Mary then smiles because she knows he didn't do anything with the girl that was actually her (he doesn't remember because he was drunk and passed out).
Vulgarity/Language: 1 written "h*ll;" A lot is mouthed, since this is a "silent" film, but it looks like we MIGHT see the following: 2 "b*stards," 1 "I'll be d*mned," 1 "Holy Chr-st," 2 "S.O.B," 1 "g*dd*mn," 1 "My G-d!"
Alcohol/Drugs: People are seen having drinks in a bar/club in Paris. One woman throws her drink in a man's face; Jack is seen very drunk in a bar, along with others; Some German soldiers are seen drinking from bottles while in hot air balloons.
Blood/Gore: All of the following is shown in black and white or with the film tinted yellow: David has blood on his mouth and shirt and running from his mouth after he and Jack box during training; A pilot that has been shot spits out a mouthful of blood; A pilot who's been shot puts his hand up to his head and some blood runs down the side of his face; A pilot is shot and he puts his hand to his shoulder as we see blood squirt all over his hand. There is some blood on the side of his head too; A man is shot and has some blood on his mouth and chin as he's dying; A dying soldier has some blood on the side of his head and face.
Violence: A soldier punches out a foreign American who is mistaken for not being American enough to fight on the side of the U.S; Soldiers fire large machine guns at toy planes during training; Soldiers box during training. One is selected out of the bunch to be used as an example and he's punched several times in the face and in the back of the head (it's played for laughs; David and Jack duke it out during this boxing training match; Two planes collide in mid-air and we briefly see some mid-air debris; We see and hear some cannon fire and see some soldiers fall over during a brief war montage; We see a series of dogfights in the sky that result in several planes catching on fire and smoking as they lose control and fall out of the sky through the clouds; A pilot is hit, he spits out a mouthful of blood and we then see his head lying lifeless as the plane loses control; Another pilot is shot and we see two planes crash in mid-air; A plane crash-lands and the pilot gets out and hides in a ditch where the plane tries to shoot at him. We then see a lot of ground fire from ground troops; A woman driving a car accidentally clips a soldier, who falls into a ditch, but is ok; The enemy bombs a small town and we see many explosions with buildings being decimated. At one point, a building caves in on a room full of soldiers. Some debris almost crushes Mary who dives for cover under a nearby car; We see a flaming plane crash on the ground; A plane is shot up during a dogfight and crashes in a firey wreck; Jack, while hammered, smashes a bottle on the ground; A bomb falls and we see an explosion, while a piece of shrapnel or stray bullet hits a random soldier. We then see him lying dead with his eyes open for a moment; We see another dogfight; Jack shoots down some German balloons in a firey mess while some ground-to-air cannons fire back; A pilot is shot down and crashes into a swamp. He gets out of his plane and is shot at by German soldiers; We see cannons shooting at a German plane; We see more battlefront explosions; Jack fires on a bridge covered with German troops; We see more explosions and casualties on the frontlines (one soldier even stabs another with a bayonet); A tank rolls over a gun nest and crushes it, along with the man inside (we see it collapse on him); Jack shoots up a car that crashes off the road; We see more waves of troops gunned down; A man steals a German plane and the Germans chase him, shooting at him and the plane. He then doubles back and shoots up a German plane before it can take off. It crashes on the runway and the dead pilot flops out. His fellow troops then carry him off, with his eyes frozen open; We see more explosions and soldiers being gunned down on the front; Jack shoots a plane down which crashes into someone's house. The pilot barely survives and dies on the table inside the house.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.