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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Wings

January 23rd, 2012

Wings - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

We are in the heart of Awards Season and not only are there plenty of Oscar hopefuls in theaters, but there are also several that have recently been released on the home market. This week, we also get a bit of Oscar history with the release of Wings, which makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday. Wings was the very first film to earn a Best Picture Oscar, although back then it went by a different name. In the more than 80 years since then, there have been dozens of films to also win Best Picture, but not all of them aged well. A lot has changed since this movie came out. Can is still connect with audiences?

The Movie

Wings is set during World War I. The film begins in a small town in America and we are introduced to Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), a young man that has always dreamed of being a pilot. His next-door neighbor is Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who is madly in love with him. However, Jack doesn't return her feelings. In fact, he doesn't even notice her feelings towards him. Instead, Jack was interested in Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), a big city gal visiting the small town. He has competition from David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), whose family is the richest in town.

The romance has to be put on hold when World War I begins and the youth of America are called to fight. Both Jack and David join the war effort as pilots, to prove to Sylvia they are worthy of her love. However, Sylvia has already chosen David, even if Jack doesn't quite read her signals right. Not only do they both join, they will be going to train in the same academy. Awkward. We also meet a couple of their fellow cadets. Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel) is eager to become a pilot, but because he has a German name, he's subject to bigotry. Also, he's just not cut out to be a pilot. There's also Cadet White, who they share a tent with once ground school is over. Eventually the two see beyond their differences and become friends.

Meanwhile back in the states, Mary sees they are recruiting women to be part of the Woman's Motor Corps of America. Perhaps this is how she can be reunited with Jack.

When they graduate and join combat duty, Jack and David are both assigned to the squadron and are assigned patrol duty. They are warned about the German Ace, Count von Kellermann, and his squad, the Flying Circus. And sure enough, he shows up on their first patrol. The Americans fair poorly in the fight with the leader killed and most of the wingmen shot down. David is spared by the Count after his gun jams, while Jack is shot down and crashes. Fortunately, he survives and is rescued by British troops.

At this time, we get back to Mary, who is now on the front line working as a nurse. Due to a flu outbreak, she is a frequent visitor to Mervale. Unfortunately, Mervale is also home to a munitions dump and plenty of troops, and while she's there tended to the sick, the Germans send a Gotha bomber to destroy the place. The village is hit, but Jack and David arrive in time to shoot down the German bomber, and its two escort fighters and are hailed as heroes as a result.

The war is not won yet and soon there will be a big push. However, before that Jack, David, and the rest of the 39th Squadron are getting a little R&R in Paris. Mary is in Paris as well, and when she hears her Jack, a.k.a. the Shooting Star, is in town, she tries to reach him. But will she finally tell Jack how she feels? And when their leave is over, will Jack or David make it back from the war?

This is one of the oldest movies I've ever seen, but it tells a story that is still told today. I have no doubt that audiences will connect with the story or the appealing characters. However, there are some elements that have not aged as well. The acting is exaggerated compared to what we see today, but perfectly inline with the standard of the silent era. Clara Bow is very sympathetic in the role as the leading lady. The film is also filled with plenty of, what at the time would be groundbreaking special effects. The dog fighting scenes are fun to watch, although they too feel a little dated. It is impressively shot and I do like the really retro looking effects when planes caught fire. The sound effects were better than expected. There are sound effects, which is not 100% expected for a silent film. But because the sound effects are limited, it is not as immersive as a similar scene done today would be.

This movie is absolutely worth checking out and has high replay value. However, a lot of its value comes as a historical document from an era of cinema most people haven't experienced for themselves.

The Extras

Wings: Grandeur in the Sky is a 36-minute retrospective featurette that touches on cinema in the 1920s, the genesis of the story, the creation of the movie, its success in theaters, and its legacy. Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings is a 14-minute look at the restoration of the film from trying to find prints to restore, cleaning up the print, recreating the score, etc. Finally there is Dogfight!, a 13-minute featurette on the evolution of aerial combat. There are only three featurettes, but all three are worth checking out and in total it's more than an hour of extras.

The film looks excellent on Blu-ray. In the restoration featurette, they do admit the film doesn't look as good as it would back in 1927, but this is damn close. There are a few scenes that are softer than I would like, or that have a bit too much grain, but for the most part the clarity is very strong. The audio options include a 2.0 pipe organ track, the kind some theaters would have back in the day, plus a 5.1 track with orchestral arrangement and limited sound effects. The pipe organ track has some novelty, but the 5.1 track is the one you'll want to listen to.

Finally we get to the price. The Blu-ray is just 25% more than the DVD, which is a fantastic deal.

The Verdict

While there are elements of Wings that have not aged particularly well, for the most part it should still entertain audiences. The DVD and the Blu-ray are worth picking up, while the latter is worth the upgrade.

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Filed under: Video Review, Wings