My wife and I recently decided to watch all the Best Picture winners. I’m reminded of Liz Lemon’s quest to watch all the movies on the AFI Top 100 list but “I only have ‘Star Wars’ and ‘’Tootsie,’ so we just keep watching those two over and over.” I think the in-the-moment Best Picture winners are more fun than the retrospective, obligatory AFI list: they reflect the odd mix of public and critical sentiment from the years they were produced. They’re better indicators of what kinds of films were “important” and also what was “popular,” as well as who was important and popular. And also, those AFI lists have the gift of hindsight in reflecting canonical and enduring sacred cows, some of which weren’t appreciated in their own times, while many of these Best Picture winners have been long-forgotten. This may be a fools mission, or a wild success: we may never make it to Broadway Melody of 1929, or I may have to suffer through Crash again.
But we did watch the first Best Picture winner: 1927/28’s Wings (for the first six years of nominations, they gave tem bi-annually). On any scale, Wings was an insanely big movie. In addition to featuring the hottest star of the moment, Clara Bow, it had revolutionary visual effects. It would have been like if Titanic starred Julia Roberts. And yet, in 1997, we were seasoned movie-watchers; we could have seen (but probably didn’t) Speed 2 earlier that year, and been weary of heavy out of control cruise-ship action. What makes Wings compelling in retrospect is that most of the middle-class audiences watching had probably never been on a plane, or seen this kind of aerial footage before:
Even today, that’s pretty impressive stuff for a time when CGI indicated just three random letters thrown together. Director William Wellman was one of those guys that made about seven movies a year in a number of different genres, yet Wings was special to him since he was an experienced combat pilot. As the award indicated, Wings would manage to grab the dual honor of being (then) the best movie ever made about flying, and the best movie ever made about World War I. The flying scenes are still particularly exciting because they’re recreating something that happened only ten years before, so the technology isn’t nostalgized or reinvented through a modern eye. It’s a bit like going to the most awesome air show ever.
And the plot? It mainly fills the gaps when guys aren’t shooting at each other in bi-planes. Clara Bow’s role as a daffy, lovelorn ambulance driver might seem egregious, but it probably put butts in seats. Even if underwritten, it’s impressive that Wellman wanted to show women’s roles in the war, as she gets to exhibit heroism of their own. Bow is delightful and winning, perky and sexy, while virtuous and brave; she gets her screwball moment in an overlong scene involving a drunken pilot and bubbles – lots and lots of bubbles:
The plot centers around Jack and David, two rivals in love (though not for Bow, who becomes an interloper of sorts) who becomes comrades in battle. It’s all pretty standard stuff until the end, when the film became unexpectedly moving and complicated. David, who has grown increasingly morbid, and gets shot down behind enemy lines. However, he heroic steals a German plane and shoots down several “Heinies” before they can take off. It’s a grand act of heroism, but when he tries to fly back to his own turf, he does so flying a plane with German insignia. In a tense moment, he’s spotted by Jack, and tries to wave him down. But Jack is a good soldier and competently and unhesitatingly shoots him down. At this moment, a movie that has primarily been jingoistic about a predictably masculine heroism questions the values that it promotes. Considering that Wings had the support of the War department, this was a particularly subversive move. And to follow that, Wings has this erotically charged death scene – it was the first movie to show two men kissing.
Watching Wings is admittedly somewhat exhausting: two and half hours long and its everything and the kitchen sink plotting is often poorly paced. There are setups without payoffs, and it takes too long to get to the flying. Yet if you can put yourself in the perspective of a 1927 audience, it’s magical, and rewarding, like many silent films are. There’s an awe here that’s lacking because we know that big summer movies are the creations of skilled people on computers, rather than visual innovators figuring out how to film an aerial battle around all the clouds, or how to film a battle using 3500 extras and timed explosions. If time has proven that it’s not the best movie of 1927 and 1928 (Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise would win that easily), Wings is definitely the biggest and most exciting. And you can be forgiven for confusing that with the “Best.”
(You can watch Wings for free with an Amazon Prime subscription)