Wings Set Aviation Movie Standard in 1927

By Scott Spangler on August 8th, 2022

Much has been made of the actors portraying naval aviators in Top Gun: Maverick being filmed in the aft seat of an F-18 Super Hornet to capture the sagging distortion of real-life g-forces. Compare that to the challenges faced by Charles “Buddy” Rogers who, in 1927, learned to fly so the camera operator, sitting backwards in the front cockpit of a World War I-era biplane, could capture him stick-and-ruddering his way through the dogfights choreographed for Wings. (And he kept flying and was a World War II Navy flight instructor.)

Wings was the last of the great silent movies and the first to win the Oscar for Best Picture at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929. To recoup its $2 million cost ($33 in 2022 money), Paramount released it three times in three different years: The New York premiere in August 1927, in Los Angeles in January 1928, and across the United States in January 1929. Paramount released it a fourth time in 2012 with the restored original.

Available from several different sources, I recommend the DVD because it includes a special feature. To more fully appreciate this remarkable film, watch the special feature before the 144-minute restoration. While Rogers learned to fly for his role, the film’s director, William A. Wellman (right), and Richard Arlen, the other male lead, were already pilots. Wellman was a World War I pilot who saw no combat but earned the nickname of Wild Bill. Arlen flew with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps.

The drama focused on the two men, one rich, the other middle class, who were in love with the same woman, who was not Clara Bow, who had top billing. It introduced the world to Gary Cooper, whose first 90 seconds on film as a flying cadet who perished on a training flight flying figure eights, led to his star-crossed career. But the real star was Harry Perry, the cinematographer who figured out how to overcome the challenges of air-to-air movie making. And then there was the squad of “stunt pilots,” led by Rod Rogers. One of them, Hoyt Vandenburg, credited only in IMDb, taught Rogers to fly for Wings and went on to become the U.S. Air Force chief of staff from 1948 to 1953.

Vandenburg was a lieutenant stationed at Kelly Field in San Antonio, where Wellman filmed Wings with War Department support. Thomas-Morse MB-3s stood in for most of the good guys and Curtiss P-1 Hawks wore the Iron Crosses of the bad guys. More than 300 pilots participated in the aerial sequences, most of them active-duty Army aviators. And so did more than 3,500 soldiers from Fort Sam Houston (now part of Joint Base San Antonio), who recreated the epic Battle of Saint-Mihiel, on the five-acre training range it lent to the film. To prepare the battlefield, the army dug trenches and used the range for artillery training to give it an authentic shell-cratered surface.

Filming Wings took nine months, mostly because of the weather, specifically the lack of cumulus clouds that provided the necessary contrast and scale for the spectacular aerial footage. All the aviation films that have followed have been mere shadows of what Wings pioneered. And it might all have been lost, like the film’s originals negatives, had not Paramount found and restored a spare negative found in its vaults.

In 2012 Paramount released a meticulously restored hi-def version of the film on DVD and Blu-ray. They remastered and re-orchestrated the original score (remember, this is a silent movie). There’s also a pipe organ music option, which played around the nation’s smaller theaters. Skywalker Sound used archived audio tracks for the sound effects and the restorations includes the Handschiegl color process for the fires that consumed the aerial casualties. If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, treat yourself. You won’t regret it. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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