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"A significant film achievement to mark an important historical event"

By Jim Patterson
Special to the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission web site

During April, the Embassy of France hosted six special screenings of the 1927 film “Wings” as a centennial commemoration of the United States’ entry in World War I. “Wings,” directed by WWI veteran William Wellman, was the first film honored with an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Wings movie posterFrench Cultural Services hosted screenings in New York, Phoenix, Chicago, Washington DC, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. The Washington screening was a cine-concert with musical accompaniment of a live performance of the musical by France’s Prima Vista Quartet.

“Wings” was an epic war film for its time with stunning aerial photography, the beautiful Clara Bow and 150 minutes of non-stop action set against the backdrop of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in the Meuse. The battle occurred over 4 days in September 1918. General John Pershing led the American Expeditionary Forces and over 100,000 French troops in the liberation of the German fortified French city of Metz, in the Grand Est region.

Allied troops sent nearly 1,500 aircraft into the campaign. An estimated 45 percent of the flight were piloted by Americans. It was the first major air battle waged by the United States.

“Wings” shows young American friends, played by Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers as they leave families and friends to fight in France. Clara Bow is in love with Rogers and joins the fight as an ambulance driver in France. A young Gary Cooper has a memorable scene as a pilot who meets a quick demise when his aircraft is shot down by Germans.

The aerial stuns captured audiences in 1927 and today as they were staged by WWI veterans who had witnessed the air campaign. The melodramatics between the actors remains fresh and has an everlasting appeal of youthful lives complicated by the uncertainty and brutality of war.

“Wings,” or “Les ailes” in French, was director “William Wellman’s epic masterpiece” and “one of the last great films of the silent era,” according to the French Cultural Attache. In the U.S., “Wings” premiered in San Antonio, Texas, in May 1927 and in New York in August. The film was largely shot on location at San Antonio’s Kelly Field.

The Buffalo (New York) Courier Express reported in its Stage and Screen section on February 26, 1928, that “Wings” “is the first notable effort in the Cinema art to depict in a graphic manner, the actual aerial fighting of the World War.” Director William Wellman (1896-1975) enlisted in World War I, joined the French Foreign Legion, became a fighter pilot and received France’s Croix de Guerre. Wellman carried a war injury into the production of “Wings.”

“Wings” was placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1997, the 70th anniversary of the film’s U.S. release. Rogers, alone among cast members, survived to see the film preserved by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance, historic importance and artistic excellence.

“Wings” shows the U.S. eager to enter and win World War One. It is a patriotic film, well produced, well-acted and superbly directed and photographed. It is also, thankfully, excellently preserved for current and future audiences.

Preserving U.S. film history is important as the French know so well by screening the historically important 1927 “Wings” on the centennial of U.S. entry in World War One. It is a significant film achievement to mark an important historical event which demonstrated the U.S. commitment to democracy and created strong diplomatic relations between countries.

Jim Patterson, a life member of the American Foreign Service Association, is a silent film historian with an emphasis on the career of family friend actress/author Lillian Gish. He is a life member of Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California, and a member of the San Francisco Silent Film festival.