Prior to the United States entering WW1, Hollywood had issued two super-productions which partly dealt with the ongoing war: Thomas Ince's Civilization and D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Although the Hun was certainly portrayed as the foe, both films were openly pacifist as was most of american public opinion at the time. Ten years later, Wellman's work revived the war epic pattern with a huge scale production, in which war had become an exciting adventure for young men providing they fight in the sky - for Wings was also to be the mother of all air war movies.
War, an adventure? It may seem odd. Even if the 'never more' stance so prevalent in European post-war films and literature was less salient in America, Vidor's Big Parade had brilliantly stressed that the loss of one's innocence at the price of so many deaths (and the loss of one's limbs) was far from desirable. Yet in 1926 Walsh's What Price Glory? had been a successful 'buddy war movie' adapted from a Broadway hit, paving the way for films that would set aside the horror and make for good entertainment.
Aviation was undoubtedly a very hot topic: Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic was performed just weeks before the release of the film. As a decorated war veteran from the Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Flying Corps, William A. Wellman was probably in a unique position to express all the excitement of aerial combat, which he does quite unabashedly in this film. The juvenile exhilaration, adrenaline rushes, c'est-la-guerre attitude give Wings an formidable freshness that still stand today.
The aircraft-mounted cameras provide for unprecedented moments of rollercoaster cinema. The huge budget was spent on the reenactment of a joint arms offensive with thousands of extras (some of which would be hurt in the process), which is as much a tribute to the power of the motion picture industry as it is a testimony of the scale of WW1 itself. And the depiction of the Paris nightlife in 1918 - or should I say of its discovery by a young American - is incredibly vivid; fortunately, the Motion Picture Code hadn't been implemented yet.
Les années folles
Surely, Wings has its flaws. It has too many inter-titles and drags a bit in the middle, plus the 'love interest' is quite unbelievable - although silent film amateurs might find a guilty pleasure in watching the otherwise scandalous Clara Bow play... an ingenue. However if many of its moments would instantly become clichés, mimicked in almost every Hollywood aviation flick afterwards, it cannot be reduced to the formulaic: much like many Wellman films, the film stands out for its honesty. Just watch the short scene in which a young Gary Cooper demonstrates his conception of fate, and you'll see what I mean.
Wings at imdb
Blu-Ray restored edition (Paramount) & others