With all of the well-deserved fabulousity attending the opening of the Red Tails movie today (whoo-hoo!!!), I got to thinking about the first American movie that featured aviation – 1927’s silent film Wings. It was the first movie to win the “best picture” Oscar (although it wasn’t called that yet) and the only silent film to do so. It is one of my personal “Top 25” movies and I try to watch it whenever it is on cable TV. (Updated DVD and Blu-ray editions are supposedly coming out next week.)
Because Wings has no dialogue, the audience really has to engage with the screen action in order to follow the plotline. This intensity heightens the emotional response to this story of two World War I pilots. It has a stellar cast (for the time) – Clara Bow, who was a huge star in the ‘20s; Gary Cooper in one of his first credited roles; Richard Arlen (who hailed from St. Paul) and Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Arlen and Rogers both served as flight instructors during World War II – Arlen for the Army Air Corps and Rogers for the Navy - so you can bet they’re doing most of their own flying in Wings.
In a nutshell: Two lifelong friends enlist and are sent to train as aviators and then go on to France to fight the Germans in the air. They leave sweethearts behind (the course of true love is never easy…), one of which decides to also enlist as an ambulance driver and ends up in France where the guys are stationed. Things get dicey on the ground and in the air. Everyone is flying biplanes, of course, and all pilots are basically sitting ducks to the enemy. I can’t say any more without giving the ending away, but if you’re not in tears (or close to it) by the end, you’d best double-check to be sure you’re breathing.
There are flying scenes throughout the movie, but the big dogfight at the end is pretty impressive when you consider the comparatively rudimentary camera equipment they had to work with in 1927. I’m really looking forward to the dogfights in Red Tails, too – different centuries, different techniques, same thrills.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know my dad introduced me to aviation because he lived and breathed airplanes, especially B-26s and Mustangs. He brought me to Wings for the first time and we watched it straight through twice (with apologies to the theater owners…). The only other movie we ever sat through twice was also aviation-based, but it was the exact opposite of Wings. You all remember Airplane, right?!?
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.