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Wings (Blu-ray Review)

26 Jan, 2012 By: John Latchem

$24.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper.

Seeing Wings on disc restored to what it must have looked like during its early roadshow presentations, it becomes evident how it became the first film to take home an Academy Award for Best Picture. (Technically, though, it won for "Most Outstanding Production," a category that was eventually renamed "Best Picture.")

The film depicts the story of two men who become fighter pilots for the U.S. Army during World War I. Silent film queen Clara Bow plays a love interest who becomes an ambulance driver for the war effort.

There’s also a small part for Gary Cooper, whose subsequent rise to superstardom guaranteed his name would forever be listed prominently on the packaging. He appears in the film for only about a minute, long enough to introduce himself as Cadet White, before promptly walking outside and getting killed in a training exercise.

Wings is very much an epic for its time (akin to Top Gun or Titanic), shot with a then-sizable budget of $2 million and filled with techniques that hadn’t been seen on film before, such as innovative camera angles that take viewers into the planes to witness the action in flight. Director William A. Wellman had been a pilot himself during the first World War, and that experience translates to an authenticity in the flight scenes one wouldn’t expect from a film of the era. If the battle scenes seem particularly harrowing, it may be because Wings was one of the first films to receive major support from the military.

To this day, Wings remains the only silent film to ever win the Academy’s top prize (it may soon have company if The Artist can pull off a Best Picture win this year). But some of the scenes were shot in such a way you almost expect to hear the dialogue, and it’s quite evident the industry was about to experience a major transition. Wings bowed in August 1927, and The Jazz Singer, often credited with ushering in the era of the talkie, would premiere about two months later, in October.

Unbelievably, for a time the film was considered lost, until a copy was found in a film archive in Paris. The meticulous restoration process is chronicled in one of the three featurettes found on the disc. The transfer here is derived from the best copy known to exist, a backup negative from Paramount’s vault, and the clean-up is simply remarkable. The image is surprisingly crisp with nary a speck of dirt or wear. The featurette makes quite clear how much work the restoration team would have to do, since in many scenes the frame was very rough around the edges as a result of degradation.

The film has been color-tinted in accordance with the original presentation notes. Most of the scenes are presented in sepia tones, with some nighttime scenes in lavender. The image also includes special color effects to depict flames, seen as something of a gimmick at the time.

The disc includes two separate soundtrack options. One features music played with a pipe organ in 2.0 stereo Dolby Digital. The other, which may be a bit more pleasing to modern ears, offers a 5.1 DTS presentation of a full orchestral score and sound effects. All the music and sound has been re-created for the restoration.

Another featurette includes a history of the production as told by film experts and family members of the filmmakers. There’s also a great piece about the history of dogfighting and the evolution of combat aircraft during the early 20th century.

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