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William Wellman's World War I fighter pilot picture, Wings, is a remarkable achievement that stands as a forerunner to today's big-budget action blockbuster. Wellman (who had been a flier during the war, and later became a barnstormer) and his team of daredevil pilots threw caution to the wind while filming the most staggering action scenes that anyone had ever attempted up to that point. Remember, this was 1927. There were no CGI effects to lighten the director's load, and Wellman wasn't the type to constantly rely on miniatures when he needed to do something extraordinary.
There are aerial sequences in Wings that still dazzle audiences today, and that wouldn't be the case if Wellman had taken the easy way out. Sure, the people who made this movie had to be a bit reckless, if not crazy - the stunt pilots are truly death-defying - but that's why Wings is still a thrilling experience. Even with an accent on melodrama in the narrative and the acting, which was an ever-present aspect of commercial pictures at the time, it's like a bottle of soda that never loses its fizz.
The script follows Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), a small-town auto fanatic who doesn't know that the girl next-door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), is in love with him. Jack has actually fallen for Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), although Sylvia is in love with Jack's best friend, David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). Soon enough, the characters are drawn into the sweeping drama of World War I, with Jack and David becoming fighter pilots. The combat footage, as you might expect, is the real star of Wings. Rogers, by the way, actually learned how to fly a plane during production. There were sequences in which the actors had to not only fly the planes, but operate the cameras while they did it!
In his autobiography, Wellman wrote at some length about the biggest air-raid scenes in Wings. To hear him tell it, he was quite literally orchestrating a military maneuver for the cameras: "We had been rehearsing with 3,500 army personnel, and 65-odd pilots for 10 days. Camera positions on one-hundred-foot parallels erected at the apex of a triangle, and at various distances down one side. Seventeen first cameramen and crews plus positions for twenty-eight Imoes electrically controlled. It was a gigantic undertaking, and the only element we couldn't control was the weather. That is what I thought."
The wild card that Wellman didn't consider was the human element. At this point in the shoot, there had already been a few plane crashes. The pilots weren't badly injured, but the planes were demolished, and the air corps was prepared to pull its participation if another aircraft was lost...and that would doom the entire production. Sure enough, after cueing wave after wave of soldiers on the ground and biplanes in the air - this was the 1920s equivalent of the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now (1979) - a daredevil flier's plane went down. Fortunately, everyone from the producers to the generals was so thrilled with what they had seen, the wrecked plane was immediately forgotten.
Movie buffs will note that Wings was a pivotal step in launching Gary Cooper to big-screen prominence. Cooper - who plays a heroic, not-long-for-this-world pilot - only appears in one rather brief scene. But his piercing eyes and broad-shoulder bearing burn a hole in the screen. Wellman was mesmerized by what he saw through his camera, not that Cooper himself was convinced that he'd done a worthy job.
After filming Cooper's scene, Wellman retired to his room and took a shower in preparation for dinner. Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and Wellman called for the person to come in. Entering the living room dripping wet, with a towel wrapped around his waist, Wellman was shocked to find Cooper standing nervously. Cooper hemmed and hawed, but it soon became apparent that he wanted to re-shoot his scene, even though he was hardly in a powerful enough position to demand such a thing. When Wellman asked him why, Cooper explained that, right in the middle of the scene, he picked his nose! "Just a minute, Coop," Wellman told the young actor. "You keep right on picking your nose, and you will pick yourself into a fortune."
Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton, John Monk Saunders (story)
Cinematography: Harry Perry
Art Direction: Hans Dreier (uncredited)
Music: J.S. Zamecnik (original music uncredited)
Film Editing: E. Lloyd Sheldon and Lucien Hubbard (uncredited)
Cast: Mary Preston (Clara Bow), Jack Powell (Charles 'Buddy' Rogers), David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel), Air commander (Richard Tucker), Cadet White (Gary Cooper).
by Paul Tatara