(All media is telling you something. This is the second post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahibity blah. I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes on Jesus and Christianity. Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned!)
Best Picture 1927/28
“Hello Yank, welcome to a very merry little war.”
Wings, the first best picture winner, has some surprising similarity to the another more modern academy award best picture winning movie: Platoon. The director, “Wild” Bill Wellman, like Oliver Stone, had participated in the war in which the film portrayed. Like Stone, it was incredibly important to Wellman that the war be depicted in an extremely realistic way. (In the case of Wings, the realistic portrayal focuses on amazing aerial filming and live military sequences that you won’t believe even after seeing* ) And, like Platoon, the war and its purposes are secondary, almost even inconsequential, to the plot.
Wings centers on Jack Powell (played by Buddy Rogers). Jack is a young kid whose love of fast machines leads him to enlist to become a pilot in World War 1. Jack is in love with Sylvia. However, Sylvia is in love with David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), a wealthy kid in the same town as Jack who also enlists. David loves Sylvia as well. All is not lost for Jack, though, because his childhood pal, Mary Preston (played by one of the biggest stars in the world at the time – Clara Bow), is quite in love with him. It all sounds a bit like a J. Geils Band song, doesn’t it?
Even though it is not the focus, certainly, the film serves as a vehicle to sweepingly show the glories of war. It literally puts you into a cockpit of a bi-plane to experience it’s terror and exhilaration. According to Wings, war may not be fathomable, but it sure is a rush. There is almost a workmanlike quality Wings takes to war. It’s as if the guys who serve the military in the film do so because, well, it’s just their duty. Morality is something to be sifted through later.
At the forefront of the plot is the unspoken way people should honor each other even at the cost of their own happiness. Wings is telling you that war is no excuse to break bro code. Jack is competitive with David because he believes Sylvia is considering David as a suitor and David is wealthy. Jack is kind of a jackass to him, really. David, who actually knows that Sylvia loves him, allows Jack to believe that Sylvia loves him back to give him confidence to fight in the war. David’s sacrificial attitude secretly makes him the hero of the film. The secondary hero isn’t Jack, really, but Mary since Mary pursues Jack through his jackassery (towards her as well as David), patiently waiting for him to see her worthiness.
It’s through David that we see the most obvious reference to Christianity. David allows Jack to think he’s betrayed him (when he secretly was protecting him). On David’s return with a stolen craft from behind enemy lines, Jack shoots him down. David’s plane lands in a church building setting a scene inside a sanctuary. The following scene plays out Jack’s horrible realization that he shot down David and that David was protecting him the entire time while David and he have their last conversation. This illustrates a thought that Wings puts forth about Christianity. We may have to do horrible things to each other because our morality has led us to conflict but the small honors we give to each other show our goodness. Pausing to close the eyes of a dead comrade during a bombing run, Mary’s faith, David’s self sacrifice – these help you hold onto your morality.
War has a certain moral ambiguity in Scripture. Well, maybe ambiguity isn’t the word. The real thing is that extremely strong points can be made in which war is not only justifiable, but called for I believe you can make just as strong an argument that Christians should never strike out at others. It is beyond the purposes of this blog to try to get into that in a detailed way other than pointing out that Wings is saying that it thinks it has found some middle ground.
Bro code, though, is certainly biblical. Cain asks God “Am I my brothers keeper?” The answer that screams out from the text (and from Abel’s blood on the ground) is “Yes!”. The apostle Paul tells us that we should not just look out for our best interests but for those of others as well. And, of course, Jesus embodies sacrifice for others. That sacrifice, like in Wings, opens the eyes of others to things they didn’t see before.
In Wings, David’s sacrifice opens Jack’s eyes to Mary. In our lives, small sacrifices open our eyes to the possibilities that love can have on others. It is a point worth remembering.
“D’you know what you can do when you see a shooting star?” “No, what?” “You can kiss the girl you love.”
* Bill Wellman actually bolted a couple of cameras to real planes and shot footage of the actors, who he made learn how to fly, as they flew. These guys actually had to act while flying the plane for hours at a time. Rogers, who was brand new to flying, apparently threw up every time he landed. The shots are unbelievable. For the battle scenes, Wellman somehow managed to get the Army to allow scores of actual troops and military equipment to be used in the film as a PR stunt. The cost of that in today’s dollars has been calculated in the billions. To boot, each battle scene is filmed with crackerjack timing You will literally never see anything like those scenes ever again. Incredible stuff.