Wings (William Wellman / U.S., 1927):

A large-scale consideration of the Great War as buzzing hornet's nest, William Wellman leaps right in. Small-town boy (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) loves big-city beauty (Jobyna Ralston) who loves brooding fancy-pants (Richard Arlen), the fellas enlist for aerial combat in Europe and the tomboy next door (Clara Bow) follows suit in ambulance. (A parallel trajectory traces the metamorphosis from hot-rod to fighter airplane to actual shooting star.) Barracks training "as exciting as going back to school" then wings for the Yanks, the camera is mounted on the cockpit so that the horizon seesaws with each loop and spiral. Tinted celluloid for machine-gun blasts above the clouds, a dogfight with a German flier ends with a salute, "there was chivalry between these knights of the air." Leave in Paris is an oneiric interlude, quick as Clair and twice as jocular: A bravura dolly shot at the Folies Bergères pushes through table after table (past a dapper Sapphic duo and an officer getting a drink thrown in his face) to find Rogers entranced by animated champagne bubbles, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel is the hangover. Seizing this huge production by the scruff of the neck, Wellman gazes down from hot-air balloons and up from the trenches so that an armored truck can roll over the lenses. Flashes of fatalism crack boys-adventure ebullience, two shots give the "half hope, half dread" schism: Bow crawling out of rubble to mouth "Oh boy!" at the bombarding skies, and a quasi-Gance image of a uniformed cadaver sprawled on top of rocks painted into the Iron Cross. In the midst of all this, two minutes of Gary Cooper—he pauses at his tent's entrance and smiles in close-up, and suddenly it's like discovering a lost photograph of young Lincoln. "See them aloft, see them in the distance..." Hawks in The Dawn Patrol has the bitter distillate, Wellman the sadder and wiser reflection in Lafayette Escadrille. With El Brendel, Richard Tucker, Henry B. Walthall, Roscoe Karns, and Julia Swayne Gordon. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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