The video version of this review (which I made in January 2014) can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anCBcxDSY80 Over the past 83 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given out awards for outstanding work done for a movie. The most coveted is probably the Oscar for Best Picture. As of November 2012, 84 films have been honored with this award. Some films have deserved it; others have not. In this new series, I will examine each of the Best Picture winners, determine whether or not I think they should’ve won, and see how they hold up today. The first Oscar ceremony took place on May 16, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. As was typical in the early days of the award, films from the previous two years (1927 and 1928) were honored. Wings (1927), a silent World War I aerial epic, was the winner of the first Best Picture (then named Outstanding Picture, Production). (That same year, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won the award for Unique and Artistic Production, the only time this award was ever given. Some count this as a Best Picture win, but the Academy doesn’t, so I am not counting it in this series.) Wings is the story of two young men, Jack Powell (played by Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (played by Richard Arlen), who join the Air Service after America gets involved in the Great War. They both dislike each other and fight for the attention of Sylvia Lewis. Lewis is in love with David, but neither can bear to tell Jack, who goes to war believing she shares his feelings. Mary Preston (played by 1920s star Clara Bow), who has a secret affection for Jack, joins the war effort as an ambulance driver. Jack and David become good friends while in training and go on to endure the perils of war in Europe.
The problems with Wings lie mostly with poor scripting. The actors do a good job with what they are given, but the characters they have to work with are sometimes no more than one-dimensional cutouts of character types. This makes the film’s first half or so less engaging than it could’ve been since that portion of the picture deals a lot with character. Another fault has to do with the tone. The film, while needing lighter moments to keep from being too dark, was overbalanced with comedy in certain places where it could’ve used more seriousness. One such instance, is when the three leads are given leave in Paris, and Mary finds a very drunk Jack trying to catch imaginary bubbles. Another example includes scenes with actor El Brendel, who plays a bumbling cadet who doesn’t quite make it as a pilot and so becomes a mechanic instead. Brendel’s character most serves as comic relief and his scenes, where he messes up time and time again, don’t quite work. These and other poorly timed and poorly executed comedy scenes, work against the film and undermined some of its more dramatic moments. Having so much comedy holds the film back from the dramatic heights it might’ve reached if more focus had been placed on drama. Please don’t misunderstand me – movies can have comedy and still have hard hitting drama. The films of Charlie Chaplin come to mind. Wings just isn’t capable of balancing the two as well as other films have in the past. The aerial battles surely must have been remarkable in the 20s. Today, with the enormous battle scenes we have grown accustomed to, they aren’t as impressive and new as they would’ve been back in the day. That being said, they still retain some of their thrill with fast paced aerial acrobatics, bullets flying everywhere, and planes crashing in balls of flame. I also appreciate the ingenuity, hard work, and resources it must have taken to create these immense scenes with 1920s technology.
Things truly get better in the picture’s final battle. The action in the air as well as on the ground is exhilarating, whereas it had been a bit boring earlier in the film. The tension builds on itself until the film’s heartbreaking, character driven climax that must have been all too true for friends fighting in the war. While I do have issue with the tone, the film does a good job at capturing the experiences, the good and the bad, of American soldiers fighting abroad. The movie is honest about the hardships that lay ahead for the men returning from war, but it does also manage to show hope for them rebuilding their lives after going through so much.
So, does it hold up? Well, it does in parts. Certainly some of the truths of war shown in the film are as true today as they were back then. The actors certainly do a good job at getting the life and drama of a soldier across. It does sadly suffer from being too light at times. The battle sequences, when compared to current action films, aren’t very exciting until the end of the movie; and characters lack enough depth to be fully three-dimensional and real. For its time, though, I would say it probably did deserve the Oscar. What the film still has after all these decades is the ability to break your heart with the cruelties and injustices of war. At the same time, it is able to provide a sense of hope for those who have returned from a war that has changed them forever. For these qualities alone, I recommend it.