At the first Academy Awards ceremony, William A. Wellman’s Wings won the Oscar for the Most Outstanding Production of 1927/1928, which makes it all the more surprising that the film became lost for years until the 1960s when a nitrate print was found at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. Paramount better understands how to care for their legacy and have created an impressive high-definition transfer of the film
Wings opens in 1917 as World War I rages. Two young men, Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), both from the same unnamed small town and rivals for the affections of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), join the Air Service to become fighter pilots. Jack is unaware Sylvia prefers David, though she doesn’t make her feelings clear since he’s off to war, and he doesn’t grasp how much Mary Preston (Clara Bow) desires him. In fact, Mary is so in love with Jack she too enlists and becomes an ambulance driver.
The pilot training Jack and David endure is intense and not everyone survives, like Cadet White (Gary Cooper), but it brings them closer together. They respect each other’s abilities and become friends. While on leave in Paris, Mary finds Jack celebrating but he is so drunk he doesn’t recognize her. The film’s last major fight is the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and during this sequence a great plot twist occurs that has great ramification on the two men.
Although the films suffers at times due to its age, from its story and acting being melodramatic to the pacing over its 144-minute runtime not always being engaging, “Wings is thoroughly captivating during the action sequences. The pilots and actors do the most amazing plane stunts that to this day have not been topped and likely never will be. It’s stunning to see what is taking place less than 25 after the Wright Brothers made history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and there’s no surprise to learn from one of the Special features that stuntman Dick Grace broke his neck during a crash that went wrong. There are also great bits of destruction on display as bombs are dropped and buildings blown up.
The disc loads to a menu where the viewer has to choose between the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with a re-recorded original score and sound effects by Ben Burtt or the 2.0 Stereo Dolby Digital track with a pipe organ score. The former is five minutes longer and has an overture before the film starts. I was very disappointed to discover the audio channels can’t be switched while the film plays. The score heard on the 5.1 fills the surrounds. Burtt does impressive work as the effects are well placed and move through space. After watching the film with effects, the music-only 2.0 version is not as satisfying.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer displayed at 1.33:1. The image has great clarity of details and textures for the most part with rare moments of soft focus, likely a result of the source. Some scenes are grainier than others, and damage is evident on occasion, such as marks and scratches to the print and brief light flicker. Amber and violet tint effects were used and the colors appear vibrant. Also, the Handschiegl color process was applied for flames and explosions and has been recreated through applied bits of orange.
The Blu-ray comes with three Special Features, all in high definition. “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky” (36 min) is great for fans as a group of experts provide the history of how the film got made, covering subjects like the people responsible and the U.S. military working with Hollywood for the first time. The restoration of the picture and sound are examined in “Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings” (14 min). “Dogfight!” (13 min) finds aviation devotees talking about airplanes and pilots from WWI.