It is amazing to me to realise that this haunting and dazzling silent epic was so nearly lost forever, despite being winner of the first Oscar for best film. It had been thought that no copies of William Wellman’s early masterpiece still existed, until a print was discovered in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris and quickly restored. Watching it and seeing how powerful the imagery and acting are, with great performances by Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, plus a memorable cameo by Gary Cooper, it makes me wonder how many other great movies have indeed been lost to us.
Although this film does survive against all the odds, and has been shown in a few cinemas with an organ accompaniment, it hasn’t as yet been released on DVD, except as a video transfer on the “grey market” and on a Chinese DVD, which I believe has subtitles that can’t be removed. After watching it twice in a good unofficial copy, I’d love to see it fully restored. According to the article on it at Wikipedia, which includes a good clear plot summary, the original release was colour-tinted and had some scenes in an early widescreen format, as well as some prints having synchronised sound effects. A special edition DVD could try to re-create all this, and have a commentary from a film historian – I’d rush out to buy it! However, even a DVD without all those bells and whistles would be very welcome.
In the meantime, I think the movie itself is incredibly powerful, and stands up well against later aviation dramas, perhaps even outdoes them. The spectacular aviation footage and stunts are even more impressive when you remember that there were no advanced special effects such as those we have today – if a plane is seen crashing down to the ground in flames, then it was really crashing, and a pilot had to get out in a hurry. Sadly, there were injuries and even a fatality, as a good article at the Moviediva website recounts. I won’t repeat all the fascinating background information she has put together, but just say that some of the stunt flying was done by the stars themselves and one particularly daring stunt by Wellman, who lands up hanging down headfirst in his upturned plane. However, a lot was also done by US army air corps pilots whose services were lent to the production, because it was believed it would increase understanding of their work.
Made only nine years after the end of the First World War, the film was written by John Monk Saunders, a veteran pilot who who also wrote Howard Hawks’ classic The Dawn Patrol, filmed three years later. Saunders hadn’t actually served in France, a matter of bitter regret to him himself, but he was a flight instructor in the First World War and a member of the Lost Generation who eventually killed himself – here is a link to a fine piece about him. Wellman himself did serve in France and was mentally and physically scarred for life – so they knew their stuff. Wellman insisted on waiting a month for the “right cloud formations”, much to the fury of the bosses at Paramount – but I think the power of the flight sequences, with all the piles of cloud glimpsed from and around the planes, shows he was right. (I can maybe experience this more as an original 1920s moviegoer would have done than most people today, since I have never flown – as yet – which may be one of the reasons why aviation movies fascinate me so much.)
The only part which doesn’t seem altogether authentic to me is the opening sequence, introducing the young Jack Powell (Rogers) as a lad in a small American town dreaming of flying, building himself a car, and joking with girl next door Mary Preston (Bow), but failing to realise that she is in love with him. Jack’s existence just seems too vague and idyllic, reminding me of the country idyll in the opening scenes of another great silent film, Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921). It’s hard to believe that anybody was ever quite this carefree! However, as in Tol’able David, the aim is to create a happy memory which will serve as a touchstone, helping to deepen the later misery – and this is certainly achieved. As in so many 1920s and 30s films, a movie which begins as near comedy will later deepen into tragedy, in this case inevitably given the subject matter.
Despite Mary’s adoration of him, Jack is in love with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who, one of the inter-titles informs us, is from a city and so much more sophisticated than the local girls. Sylvia is in love with David (Arlen), and the two are first seen together, sitting in a garden swing with a roof in a long tracking shot . These swings tend to be seen as quite glamorous in Europe (in Germany they are known as Hollywood swings!) and I think the shot does give Sylvia an air of glamour and mystery from the start, by contrast with the sweet, down-to-earth Mary, who is first glimpsed standing under a pair of large white bloomers on a washing line, before blithely climbing over a garden fence! Both Jack and David seem very fresh-faced and at first I found it hard to tell the two actors apart at times – but, on the second viewing of the film, I noticed more that Jack is clearly the younger of the two, and David (“the richest boy in the town”), has something of the same sophistication as Sylvia.
Both men sign up to train as aviators, and one of the most powerful sequences in the film for me is the footage showing long crocodiles of men marching off to war. There is a sort of split-screen effect, with the marching men in the bottom half of the screen, and shadowy images of the fighting in France in the top half – showing what they are going to.
When Jack and David go off to train as pilots together, at first their rivalry over Sylvia means they dislike one another – but, after a boxing session turns into a full-scale fight, they make up and become inseparable. I think this idea of two men fighting and then realising the depth of their friendship may be something that recurs in Wellman’s films. There is a more tragic version in his early talkie Other Men’s Women, and I’ve seen a clip from a film he made about a boys’ school (I don’t remember the title) where two boys are seen fighting and one of them uses exactly the same line to the other at the end of the fight as in the inter-title in Wings – “You’re game!”
However, here, the fight scene isn’t really the point – the key to Jack and David’s friendship is that they are both living in the shadow of death, which is borne out when Gary Cooper appears in a brief scene, as Cadet White. He rises sleepily from his bed, tells the others he needs to do some flying before breakfast, goes outside and is killed – leaving them looking at the outline of his body on his bed, and his toothmarks in the bar of chocolate he was chewing minutes earlier. Cooper makes an amazing impression in just a couple of minutes –the scene is said to have made him a star, and I can believe it. I’ve seen him in plenty of talkies, but somehow in a silent film his physical beauty is more stunning, and the whole way he moves, shrugging and stretching, seems far more naturalistic than the other actors in this film, good though they are. His eyes look cold and bleak as he tells the others that there is no point in carrying good luck talismans because, if you are going to die, then you are going to die. Wellman claimed in an interview that Cooper asked him to do the scene again because he picks his nose when he first wakes up – in fact he just seems to wipe his hand across his nose, but, in any case, the sleepy gesture is all part of his naturalness.
Cooper’s character dies offscreen, but there are also several powerful scenes of aerial fights, including images of men dying in the cockpit, with blood spreading across their faces – more graphic, I think, than death scenes in films made over the next couple of decades, where you often don’t see much blood.
I don’t want to just go over the whole plot, but will say that there were several twists which surprised me, although they then seemed to have a sort of dream inevitability to them. I was also impressed that, rather than just being left at home to wait, Mary is shown serving as an ambulance driver on the front – I’d been wanting to find some First World War films which show women serving, and didn’t realise this would be one of them! There aren’t any very realistic scenes of Mary’s war work, but it is still something to see her working, and in uniform, not in the sort of designer gowns Joan Crawford, playing a nurse, wears in Hawks’ Today We Live.
In one of the most memorable sections of the whole film, Mary spots a drunken Jack, on leave from the air force, in the Folies Bergeres in Paris, and tries to win him away from a prostitute on his arm. The astonishing thing here is the way Jack sees imaginary champagne bubbles everywhere, which are somehow painted on to the screen (a “making of” featurette on the DVD I’m dreaming of could explain how!) – this is kept up for several minutes and works very well. The picture also goes out of focus several times when we see through Jack’s eyes, to give an impression of just how drunk he is. This doesn’t sound like much when I describe it, but, watching it, it feels so experimental and clever. This sequence also includes some brief nudity, when Mary is persuaded to dress up as one of the dancing girls in order to get Jack’s attention – this is notable as a pre-Code sequence, but I found the giant bubbles more surprising and off the wall.
Probably the most famous scene in the whole film, though, is David’s death scene, where he dies in Jack’s arms, as Jack kisses him and strokes his hair – this is a heartbreaking scene which really brings out the love between the two, built through all they have gone through together, and it would have spoken to all those watching who had lost their loved ones in the war, and especially to those who had lost comrades in battle. The featurette about Wellman in the new box set of his films discusses this scene as being one of the most intense expressions of love between two men on film. I think this is also a scene where silence helps, because, if we could hear Jack crying, it might all become too much and go over the edge into sentimentality – whereas, as it is, the lack of sound helps to keep the audience at a slight distance.
I’ll just add that Henry B. Walthall and Julia Swayne Gordon are great as David’s proud and stiff, but loving, parents. And, oh yes… have I mentioned that I’d like to see this movie released on DVD?
Next up I’ll be writing about Wellman’s Beggars of Life, another brilliant silent film – but it might take me a few days to get my head round that one. I’m probably the slowest blogger around, so thanks to all those who are sticking with me.