Wings. Paramount Pictures 1927.

Before watching the movie:

The machinery of the Public Domain has shuddered back to life and as with last year, new works are transferring ownership to the people. Perhaps most notably, the copyright on the final Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories finally expired, so it will be entertaining to see what shaky legal argument the Doyle Estate will come up with to try to continue to get money out of Holmes now. Also joining the Public Domain is The Jazz Singer, which has an enduring technical legacy and, I hear, little else to recommend it.

But the member of the PD class of 2023 that I’ve heard the most praise for is Wings. While I don’t recall hearing of it before now, it has not only a good reputation in story but also very impressive aerial cinematography for its time. I’m strongly reminded of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, so much as I remember anything about it. While that movie was set in the first world war but made in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how the 1920s retold WWI.

After watching the movie:

While Jack and David both compete for hometown girl Sylvia’s affection, Jack completely fails to notice how smitten his neighbor Mary is for him. Joining the Air Service for the war, Jack goes to Sylvia to ask her for a photo to carry with him and finds she has one ready, not realizing she meant it for David. Sylvia sends David a letter explaining to him that she loves him but doesn’t want to hurt Jack. As Jack left Mary his car at home, which she named the Shooting Star, she gets good enough at driving that she is able to join the Women’s Driving Corps as an ambulance driver in France. She learns of a flying ace known as The Shooting Star, and tries to find Jack on leave in Paris, discovering him drunk and refusing to return to his military duties too drunk to recognize her. Mary’s efforts to get Jack to put down the bottle and sober up are misinterpreted by Military Police officers, getting Mary drummed out of the service. In an aerial battle, David is shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, leaving Jack determined to avenge his friend, while David is actually making his way home completely alone.

So much of the lengthy runtime is combat footage that’s at the same time quite impressive for the time it was made and also contributes just about nothing to the plot. I suppose in 1927 you came to the theater to see the aerial choreography, but now it just feels like a break from the character arcs. Ironically, the script was rewritten to make Clara Bow’s part bigger as she was the biggest star. So I guess the part I cared about was even smaller as intended. But they crashed a plane into a French chapel, that was shocking to see.

So much as there’s a villain, it’s the German air squad leader. The air squad is called the Flying Circus, but the Baron heading it is not Richthofen. It was my guess they changed his name because of the legal troubles that Rasputin and the Empress got into which inspired the “any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental” disclaimer, but that didn’t happen until a few years later. The Baron is in any case mostly a gentleman, but he does send a “courteous” message that David was killed, which is not true. The Germans in general, so much as they’re characterized at all, pretty much the same as the good guys, but playing on the other team. The movie talks up the horrible spectre of war, but it’s mostly here to have a good time with the exciting airplane battles that the war is here to be the reason for.

It’s always a bit difficult to understand how much of the experience of a silent movie now is the same as what was planned for at the time. Maybe there was a score, maybe there wasn’t. Maybe there was a score but somebody wrote a new one more recently. For example, I know there’s an anniversary version of A Voyage to the Moon out there with a rock-based score. I also never trust on the face of it that synchronized sound effects were intended, but it’s probably more common than I think. It turns out the version I came across was the 85-year anniversary restoration, with a new orchestration of the original synchronized score and recreation of the special coloring effects that were done (tinting of scenes and isolated color bursts for things like gunfire). Of course, the restoration is not in the public domain because of the recreated visuals and music performance, but I’m glad care was taken to make the film viewable without overwriting what was originally intended. The result was much preferable to a bad AI colorization.

Ninety-five years on it’s very hard to appreciate this movie in the way it was meant to be, as it has been heavily superannuated. I eventually found a plot thread to grab onto but it kept going back to combat scenes that didn’t matter as much to that story. It’s just about at the peak of what silent film was capable of though, so there’s plenty to appreciate with the right mindset. It’s easy to see why it was still getting referenced forty years and more later, and why it was at the top of everyone’s Public Domain Day lists this year. This is a movie that has spiritually belonged to all of us for a long time, but now in a very limited sense, that’s legally true as well.


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