In 2012, Paramount Pictures will celebrate its centennial. What better way to kick off the celebration than with the release of the classic silent feature, Wings. Winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture (called Most Outstanding Production at the time) and long sought after by fans and film aficionado’s, Wings would undergo an astonishing restoration by the team at Paramount and find its way onto High Definition with picture and audio quality that will drop more than a few jaws. This release, the first of many planned by Paramount Pictures as part of its celebration this year, could not be better!
Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Rating: Not Rated
Film Length: 144 Minutes
Video: Black & White/Color Tinted / MPEG-4 AVC 1080P High Definition
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 (4:3)
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, 2.0 Stereo Dolby Digital
Subtitles:, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Release Date: January 24, 2012
Review Date: February 4, 2012
“To those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever, this picture is reverently dedicated”
It is the onset of World War I – the first Great War – and brave young men in America are eager to sign up to fight the Kaiser’s forces in the air. Jack Powell is an energetic young man born of middle-class cloth. Restoring an old car, he impresses the beautiful Mary Preston who quickly falls for him, but Jack is oblivious. David Armstrong is a man born of great wealth, wooing a pretty girl in town; he is ruffled when Jack swings in to pick up the girl he is with for a ride in his restored car. And so is born a rivalry that will follow Jack and David as they join up to become U.S combat pilots. They will train together, fight together, and befall tragedy together as the war takes its toll and fate offers little comfort.
Director William A. Wellman’s classic WWI tale was a landmark achievement for its realistic filming of aerial combat and the impressive scale of its adventure. A spectacle in many ways, this inaugural winner of the equivalent Best Picture Academy Award was a darling with critics and audiences alike, playing for 63 straight weeks at the New York Criterion Theater before moving on to a secondary theatrical run. The marvel of the film – mounting cameras on the planes that fought the brutal dog fights of World War I with the actors themselves flying the planes – was a feat never attempted before and, to my knowledge, never attempted since. The flight sequences are gripping even with today’s highly stylized and visual effects laden adventure sequences. Harry Perry, chief cinematographer on the picture, is owed a debt of gratitude for his accomplishments here. His work, and that of Wellman, gives rawness to the sequences that carry a near white-knuckle response from audiences.
The cast are genuinely capable, with the lovely familiar face of Clara Bow lighting up the screen as Mary Preston (the love interest and much more), Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers as Jack Powell, with whom Mary was in love, and Richard Alren as David Armstrong playing the initially feuding but soon tight aviator pal of Jack. David came from great wealth, Jack was a sprightly middle class fellow, but both heard the battle cry and signed up to fight. Both deliver performances of requisite bravado and surprising vulnerability when called for, giving Wings more emotional impact than once might presume. Also to be seen here is a Gary Cooper in an entirely too brief (but career launching role) as the ill-fated Cadet White.
In many ways the film is a presage of the kind of war propaganda that would establish itself comfortably during World War II – but it neither glorifies nor chides the events of war. There is an undeniable pride in the stars and stripes and the men who fight for all that it stands for – but at the core of this film is a tried-and-true tale of friendship, tragedy and love.
Under the careful eye of Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount Pictures, a talented team undertook the task of restoring and preserving this treasure of the film craft. Researching for many months the look of the film, its exhibition venues, and the tinting applied to remain as faithful as possible to how the film was seen by audiences in 1927. Wings was saved from a discovered print and a duplicate negative made from a nitrate print in the1950s, it has only been from the recent advances in technology – and the coinciding timing of Paramount’s centennial celebration – that the time was right to give Wings the royal treatment. Audiences can rediscover or discover anew this classic film from the great silent era. It isn’t a perfect film, but such it is a grand filmmaking accomplishment with all the creative and practical flair of a skilled filmmaker on display. There is purpose to the framing, to the tracking shots, and to the scale of scores of planes dodging and diving in aggression and defense to fight the battles of the First World War.
The restoration work on Wings is a cause for celebration. In the past few years more and more silent films have made their way to the High Definition format (I’m looking at you Buster Keaton), and this glorious era of film continues to shine. Wings is in all likelihood the absolute best looking silent film on Blu-ray. The image is stunning, especially when you consider the film is now 85 years old. Detail is incredible, with clear delineation between objects even in the mid to far background. Specks and other debris are near-non-existent and all that remains are some occasional evidence of original film damage.
The tinting – brown during most of the film, blue-grey in others, gives a warmth or cool fitting of the scene. The coloring of flames (digitally recreated here from reference materials) during the superb aerial combat footage is faithful to its original exhibition, though may take a moment to adjust to (this being my first viewing, it took me a moment), but quickly the scenes become augmented and not distracted by this work, and the guns blazing on the fighter planes, and the falling planes out of the sky, ablaze and doomed, stand out is lovingly restored. This was after all a quintessential roadshow picture!
All in all, Wings will astonish.
Wings comes with two audio options. First is an all-new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track with a re-recorded score by Composer J.S Zamecnik and arranged and orchestrated by Dominic Hauser (who you will often find arranging rerecording’s on the Buysoundrax label). The score features pianist Frederick Hodges and includes superb sound effects from the great Ben Burtt. Also available is a pipe organ score composed and performed by Gaylord Carter in 2.0 Stereo Dolby Digital.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is wonderful. Rich orchestrated music surrounding the listener with Ben Burtt’s sound effects adding another layer entirely. The music is dramatic and playful in fitting turns and comes across pristinely throughout the sound sphere. It is full bodied, faithful, and extremely satisfying.
3 / 5
Wings: Grandeur in the Sky HD (35:56): Interviews with film historians and Andrea Kalas, VP of Archives (see interview here), and the son of director William Wellman talk of Wings and the world of the late 1920s in which Wings took flight (including how it almost never happened). Retrospectives of this sort are among the most interesting special features we can hope for, especially for older films, and this one does not disappoint.
Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings HD (14:21): A very good look at some of the work that went into bringing this classic film into the high definition age. Technicolor, working with Paramount and the Film Academy helped bring Wings back to life (from nitrate deterioration, scratches and other damage) – giving us a look at this film that many had feared not possible.
Dogfight! HD (12:54): Stewards of the history of aerial combat talk about the evolution of these craft going from wood and wire to welded steel, their function in war, and the relatively constant set of tactics employed in an aerial dogfight.
Silent films don’t really lend themselves to subtle drama, indeed the very nature of this style of filmmaking demands a certain boldness of expression and action, but Wings does something particularly well for its medium; it leverages the visual dependency and creates aerial combat footage that has yet to be suitably rivaled. This is a grand demonstration of epic camera work as scores of planes dodge and weave in the air, rattling off machine gun fire, clipping wings and plane bodies, wounding and shooting pilots who either evade or die. It is a terrific achievement made even more remarkable given given the relative youth of cinema and the limited technology of the day.
The romance and drama of the story – elements that would be echoed with much less success many decades later in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor – are woven quite nicely into this tale of two men who go to war. Reverence for the sacrifice made by young men and their families and loved ones is front and center for this production and that holds as true today as it did then.
Wings is a wonderful film to discover or rediscover and any serious film-fan would be amiss not to have it in their collection. As Wellman’s son put it, “It’s the last great silent film”. Couldn’t agree more.
Overall (Not an average)