William A. Wellman's romantic WWI epic Wings is most frequently noted for being the first Academy Award winner for "Best Picture, Production" as well as one of the great final films of the silent era. The new DVD released on the 100th anniversary of Paramount studios presents the film in a newly mastered transfer that looks superb, and also includes a newly recorded score and sound effects track, as well as a brief documentary on the making and legacy of the film. Looking back at the film now, it's clear that although its accomplishments as a technical feat are astonishing, it fails to inspire the repeatability of the visionary work that came out of that same period, especially in the same year that gave us two masterpieces by German directors, Fritz Lang's Metropolis and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Admittedly, I bring this assessment to the film as someone who has never been crazy about war epics, and is more likely to get excited by brief experimentation than long form narrative. But, what interests me most about Wings is how it's exemplary of an American combination of storytelling and flag waving that is still with us today, particularly in a year that has already given us the release of recruitment-as-entertainment films like Act of Valor, Red Tails, and Battleship. While Wings is certainly not the beginning of using the cinema as a place to condition young audience members toward enlistment and amplify nationalistic fervor in audiences of all ages, it certainly falls into the cannon of that cinema, and serves as a reflection of what an indelible mark its template has left on modern movies.
William "Wild Bill" Wellman was a director who came right out of the Army Air Corps, and by all accounts had served in the French Foreign Legion and lived the life of a daredevil pilot by the time he directed Wings. He then proceeded to make films in a number of different genres for decades, working with everyone from James Cagney to John Wayne. His films have a far reaching influence, reflected most directly in recent works such as Steven Spielberg's Warhorse (2011) and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), with the later chronicling Howard Hughes' production of Hell's Angels (1930), a film that began production with the aim to top what Wellman had done in terms of airborne cinematography with Wings. And, it does, which is no surprise since, as we now know, to call Hughes driven and well funded is a bit of an understatement. But, unlike Wellman, Hell's Angels is nearly unbearable in its grounded, dramatic segments (for a closer examination and appreciation of Hell's Angels, read Marilyn Ferdinand here); still, the German Zeppelin scene alone is well worth the price of admission, and still delivers a chill as the soldiers jettison themselves into the dark opening of the Zeppelin floor one by one to lighten the load.
Wings is also packing some terrific and tense action, with the final chase sequence providing an undeniably engaging bit of drama, as our hero Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) unknowingly pursues his friend and fellow soldier David (Richard Arlen) who has stolen a German plane as a means of escape. The drama on the ground in Wings is also benefited by the presence of girl next door Mary Preston ("IT" Girl Clara Bow), who of course joins the Army because, as the title card tells us, "Youth answered the call!"...but, mostly because she will stop at nothing to someday win Jack's affections. Jack, of course, is in love with David's girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), which provides the central romantic entanglement of Wings (though a few moments between Jack and David have inspired readings that place the real romantic tension elsewhere). All of this holds together as well as can be expected, but leads to a pretty predictable resolution. Though Jack ultimately experiences a horrific turn of events due to the war that would most likely leave some psychological scars in reality, its all shrugged off with a kiss, and bolstered by an appearance earlier in the film by a young Gary Cooper as a seasoned fighter pilot whose shockingly brief character arc serves as a lesson of how fleeting life is during wartime.
The character relationships and depiction of war in Wings are surely informed by a film maker who was reaching the end of a prolific career in the late 20's, D.W. Griffith. The influence of the Biograph one-reelers that Griffith had been making unceasingly since the mid-Aughts, and then the explosion of his war epic The Birth of a Nation in 1915 are difficult to ignore when talking about the films of this period, particularly war films. Griffith's films are an essential and ethically complex part of film history, and the traces of their influence seem to recur with great frequency, not only in relation to silent cinema, but to American movies in general. When I began studying films, and saw some of my first Griffith/Biograph pictures, along with a number of other silent era staples, I now realize that I developed a way to read those films that set them apart from the "modern" movies I was experiencing at that time, and held them to a somewhat different standard. After teaching Griffith (always to at least a handful of students who seemed immediately anesthetized), I now find it impossible to set those works apart from the cinema of today (even though, in some cases, I probably like watching Griffith less than some of those students). The Birth of a Nation and Wings are two huge roots in a very old tree, and carry a similar historical weight, though in comparison to the overt racism of Birth (adapted from a book titled The Clansman), Wings could be seen as progressive in some of its choices and characterizations of the war, as in the "furlough from Death" Parisian nightclub sequence, where those with quick eyes might glimpse a romantic touch between a lesbian couple in one of the films more artful tracking shots.
Griffith also seems relevant here in the precedence he established for mass distribution of films, and the political sentiments that came with them. Once The Birth of a Nation hits theaters like the Biograph in Chicago, spooling out again and again to controversial screenings that were sometimes shut down by police officials for the potential to incite racial tensions, the long arc of the potential for movies to bear the weight of history and influence public sentiment begins. This arc continues through the pictures of Wellman, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Sam Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone and Steven Speilberg, to name but a few. With varying degrees of cultural sensitivity and controversy, these directors crafted a conversation of American militancy that continues to shape our national identity. Though Wings is not without its recognition of the horrors of war, it is a far cry from the way in which WWII vet Sam Fuller would bear the realities of racial tension and treatment of POW's in 1951's The Steel Helmet, or Stanley Kubrick's anti-war sentiment in 1957's Paths of Glory. The war film re-emerges post-Viet Nam with Coppola's Apocalyspe Now in 1979, Brando's Colonel Kurtz perhaps completing the narrative begun by Cooper's Cadet White in Wings, having been stripped of his illusions about war, pessimistically dismissing Arlen's lucky bear charm as useless superstition.
But the "Film School Generation" not only produces Coppola's legendary production, but also the less critical and more classroom friendly variations of war in the works of Steven Speilberg, which spans the cartoonish Nazi depictions in the "Indiana Jones" series to the critically untouchable sappiness of Schindler's List. In the age of Speilberg, the historical war film enters the classroom, although in my experience it was never accompanied by any discussion of media literacy, but mostly simplistic commentary on what was depicted truthfully and what wasn't, as if movies like Glory (1989), Amistad (1997), or Saving Private Ryan (1998) were just attempts to visually replace history books. In fact, when I think of Truffaut's famous claim that "There is no such thing as an anti-war film," it's Saving Private Ryan that is evoked most immediately. At the time of its release, the popular buzz about the film seemed mostly reduced to comments about the intensity of its opening depiction of the D-Day invasion. The film inspired multiple news stories of combat veterans being simultaneously honored and traumatized by the films technical achievement, and the conversation that arose around the film always seemed less like a thoughtful reflection on the horrors of war, and more like the reaction to having just played an intense combat video game, the likes of which would experience enormous and widespread popularity after the release of the film through the mass marketing of games like Halo and Call of Duty. Spielberg's films have always struck me as "pro-war" films, very much in the tradition of Wellman. Anyone who has seen the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan would most likely call it horrific, but maybe not to the extent that they wouldn't pay to take the ride again. This is where the war film tradition of Wellman and Spielberg differs from the likes of Kubrick's Paths of Glory, and to a greater extent, Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line. Where Spielberg's action is air tight and relentless like that of a first person shooter game, The Thin Red Line is undulating, reflective, and truly horrific.
Although I will always champion cinema that refuses to glorify war, I am not so naive as to ignore the fact that the history of war films is an essential component of how we understand our history and how we continue to shape our attitudes toward war. And, as with most things in life, it's dangerous to think of those cultural artifacts as falling neatly into Red and Blue baskets, and to allow ones viewing habits to follow suit. In fact, I will readily admit to enjoying some of the most propagandizing of war films (especially when they are as beautifully batshit crazy as the final sequence in Battleship!). For instance, if you dismiss Rambo III entirely you might miss the story of the sculptor, which may not necessarily be tied to a great movie, but does reveal an interesting philosophical question about our natural inclination toward militarism that sticks with me more, for some reason, than a good number of more didactic anti-war films I've seen. In other words, war films are rarely as "pro" or "anti" as essays in a freshman English course, and it's a mistake to approach them as if we could easily, conclusively assess their content in terms of the effect they have on a diverse audience.
Getting back to Truffaut's claim, though I believe it to be true in general, the digital age of documentary film making has certainly put his statement about the impossibility of an "anti-war" film to the test. The era of the Bush wars and Fox News instigated some incredible films that excelled purely as anti-war statements, and advanced film making in one of its most crucial capacities (and one that seems to have dropped off a bit in the last few years): to tell stories and provide images that fall outside of the script of corporate news sources. Films like James Longley's Iraq in Fragments (2006) and Patricia Foulkrod's The Ground Truth (2006), which specifically exposes the ethical gap between military recruitment tactics and reality, both represent an exceptional new breed of journalistic film making that flip the script of the war film and the mainstream media to much needed effect. Meanwhile, the fiction film front gave rise to such revelations as Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo (2006) and Paul Haggis's overlooked In the Valley of Elah (2007). Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight (2004) seems also to be worthy of note here as it forms an essential thread in the long arc of the war film, creating a direct line from the mythologizing of the WWII war hero to the more media exposed quality of our current military conflicts through appropriating the propaganda films of maybe the most all-American of directors, Frank Capra.
As for modern propaganda, it may be that the success of a film like James Cameron's Avatar is the modern antidote to the jingoistic war films of the past. It seems a lot of adult audiences and critics took joy in mocking the films sci-fi take on a corporate military mining expedition in search of "Unobtanium" as juvenile, and while Avatar is perhaps not that sophisticated in its allegorical tactics, it seems clear that Cameron was speaking to a younger demographic. Seen as a film for children, Avatar may be one of the most effective and subversive films to come out ina while (especially if the marketing arc proves to be anything like that of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or The Beatles). And, frankly, even though I would never need or want to see Avatar again, I kind of want the next generation to be one that favors the big blue hippies over the corporate soldiers.
When Avatar was playing in theaters, experiencing a success comparable to the Lindbergh era-fueled popularity of Wings' theatrical release, I attended a screening with a close friends two sons, 11 and 12, both first time actors in a theater production I was directing at the time, and both master Halo players. As usual, an endless barrage of advertising played at full volume prior to the film, mostly consisting of ads we were familiar with from television, except for one. As the first 30 seconds or so of this particular ad ran, the younger boys eyes widened. He looked at me to see if I recognized, as he had, what film we were finally seeing a trailer for. Then he leaned up and whispered in my ear: "I think it's the Halo movie!" This seemed reasonable to me, especially since the video game-to-movie transfer was becoming a pretty common practice by that time. I feigned a bit of surprise. Then, after a few more seconds of the "trailer," my eyes began to widen. The "trailer" in question was actually a very expensive Army recruitment ad, carefully designed to pull in the viewer with all the mechanisms of the finest Hollywood hype-craft. And, even though the realization that this was not, in fact, the trailer for a movie version of Halo was a let down to my fellow movie goer, I had already witnessed how skillfully they had hit their target. If the cinema recruitment tactics of the late 20's are a WWI biplane, then the advertising of today is a smart bomb.
|Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper in Wings|
|D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation|
|Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory|
|Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now|
|Saving Private Ryan|
|The Thin Red Line|
|Rambo III (1988)|
|Frank Capra's Why We Fight|
|Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight|