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Release Date(s)1927 (January 24, 2012)
Wings is a stunning achievement - a film that is dramatically honest, at times thrilling in its depiction of the World War I air war, poignant in its portrayal of the toll of war on both soldiers and family, intense in its vivid portrait of the horrors of battle, yet at others comedic as vignettes of life can sometimes be in times of peril.
The story follows the fortunes of two young men, Jack (Charles Buddy Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) who join the air force upon America's entry into World War I and a young woman Mary (Clara Bow) they both leave behind. The film began principal shooting in September of 1926 on location outside of San Antonio, Texas. The cooperation of the Army in allowing access to its camp in Texas and making available resources in the form of men, planes, and other equipment made the resulting film logistically and financially possible. Not including the value of the Army's contribution, Wings's budget soared to $2 million at a time when very few films cost as much as $1 million.
It was almost entirely due to the dedication, tenacity, and at-times irascibility of director William Wellman that the resulting film was the spectacular entertainment it ended up being. Wellman's own WWI flying experience drove him to ensure a look of reality in the flying sequences, and his efforts yielded footage that must be seen to be properly appreciated. Amazingly, the two male stars of the film did much of their own flying, Rogers even taking lessons to ensure that the aerial sequences he featured in looked entirely believable. The actual footage of many of the aerials resulted from some innovative camera placements and operation - something in which Wellman again was a driving force.
Returning to the cast, Clara Bow's performance as Mary is a key component in the film's success. She gives such a luminous performance, that one literally can't take one's eyes off her whenever she's on screen. Look also for the small part of a doomed fellow flyer of Jack and David's played by Gary Cooper in one of his very early screen appearances. The impact of the small but important role and Cooper's understated playing of it was a key element in lifting him to stardom soon afterwards.
When Wings opened in theatres, it became an immediate hit with extended playdates at many locations, including over a year at its original New York engagement. In 1929, it became the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (for the 1927-28 period), beating out other nominees The Last Command, The Racket, Seventh Heaven, and The Way of All Flesh. For a long time afterwards and particularly for contemporary audiences, Wings has been difficult to see in other than a compromised form mainly due to the loss of its original camera negative years ago.
For the restoration process undertaken by Paramount in order to release the film finally to the home theatre market on both Blu-ray and DVD, the studio utilized a duplicate negative housed in its film archive. Although the best element available, it was still characterized by entire reels laced with long vertical scratches and patches of nitrate decomposition. As a result, a significant amount of frame-by-frame restoration had to be undertaken using state-of-the-art digital tools normally employed in creating special effects. Original tints and handschiegel effects (in Wings, colours embossed onto the film strip to give flames and explosions a fiery look) were then digitally recreated based on a detailed continuity script that still existed and tinting/toning guides from the period.
Considering what Paramount had to start with, the resulting 4:3 Blu-ray image is very impressive. Clarity and detail are very good throughout, particularly on close-up and foreground components. As expected, there still is some minor evidence of the wear and tear the dupe negative was subjected to over the years, but nothing that is in any way distracting. The original grain is nicely retained and the digital work of recreating the tints and handschiegel effects shines particularly well. There is no evidence of untoward digital manipulation. Two soundtracks have been supplied and the excellence of and differences between both provide an excellent excuse to watch the film twice. One is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio re-recorded score composed by J.S. Zamecnik that features pianist Frederick Hodges and the other a DD stereo pipe organ score composed and performed by Gaylord Carter. I'm partial to organ scores myself and pleased to report that the one on the Blu-ray though not lossless, comes off equally well in comparison to the lossless piano one. One caveat though, the piano score also includes sound effects (gunfire, explosions, airplane engine noise, etc.) by Ben Burtt that have been quite seamlessly integrated into the film, and result in some rather effective surround experiences. In addition to the film's English intertitles, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are also provided. The extras comprise three featurettes. Most effective are a 36-minute making-of documentary (Wings: Grandeur in the Air) and a 15-minute restoration piece (Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings). There's also a 13-minute examination of the art of recreating World War I aerial combat (Dogfight!).
Very highly recommended.