Sure, it’s the answer to the trivia question “What was the first movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture?” But the 1927 war movie Wings is more than a historical footnote; it’s one of the most exciting and innovative Hollywood movies of its era. Though not as profound or beautiful as F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise—which won that year’s “Most Artistic Quality Of Production” Academy Award, and which some cite as the real first Best Picture—Wings is hardly artless. Director William Wellman went on to helm some of the toughest, gutsiest Hollywood movies of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and was already flashing some of that edge in the silent era, telling a story about lovesick combat pilots without sparing the sex (complete with fleeting nudity) or the violence (complete with spurting blood). Wellman indulged in some Murnau-style expressionism back in ’27 too: putting cameras on porch swings, doing POV shots of punchy flyboys, pushing through drunk couples at a nightclub, using superimpositions to create split-screens, hand-painting flame and smoke effects, and so on. And Wellman was also big on two-fisted action. He made his stars take flying lessons, then strapped cameras to their planes to capture aerial stunts as breathtaking now as they were in the ’20s.
Wings isn’t subtle. The saga of small-town enemies Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen—who become friends while serving together in World War I—is chockfull of romantic melodrama, as the boys pine for the same girl, while poor, neglected, wholesome ambulance driver Clara Bow looks on from the sidelines. The movie is full of military melodrama, too, as these young men fight courageously for fallen comrades, little realizing that, as one title card puts it, “Like a mighty maelstrom of destruction, the war now drew into its center the power and the pride of all the earth.” Wings was a big prestige picture, made with the cooperation of the U.S. military, and it sports the usual mixed messages of prestige pics, damning war yet reveling in the macho camaraderie. In the newly spiffed-up Blu-ray edition—with a soundtrack that combines a fully orchestrated version of the original score and sound effects supervised by Ben Burtt at Skywalker Sound—Wings is primarily a grand spectacle, with an ingenious piece of visual storytelling rolling along every few minutes.
Three years after Wings, another WWI film took home the Best Picture Oscar: All Quiet On The Western Front, Lewis Milestone and Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, about the misery and deprivation suffered by German soldiers in the combat zones of Europe. The movie shows the opposite side of The Great War, and it’s a talkie instead of a silent, though a silent version was shot for the international market, and is included on the Blu-ray. But otherwise, All Quiet and Wings have a lot in common, from the heroes’ bitterly ironic fates to the way they both start with successive scenes of home life and boot camp to heavy-handed title cards like “This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.”
The big difference between the two films is that All Quiet On The Western Front wears its anti-war sentiment more openly and honestly. (Even star Lew Ayres was a pacifist, which years later got him booted off the popular Dr. Kildare series, after Ayres refused to serve in WWII unless he was guaranteed a non-combat assignment.) The commanding officers in All Quiet On The Western Front are crueler, and the conditions on the line more harsh, with mud, starvation, and vermin the norm. Milestone’s visual style lacks the flourish of Wellman’s Wings, but it’s no less explicit, as the camera pans across battlefields where dismembered body parts hang from barbed wire. The most memorable moment in All Quiet is the final one, in which a butterfly distracts Ayres just before Milestone cuts to a shot of marching soldiers superimposed over a vast graveyard. But the movie gets to Remarque’s ultimate message even sooner than that, in a scene where a seemingly endless succession of young men run toward a trench, only to be turned into cold meat by the machine-gunner dug inside.
Key features: A trio of informative featurettes on Wings; a brief Robert Osborne TCM introduction and two short, generic featurettes on All Quiet On The Western Front.