William Wellman never won an Academy Award for directing. He did share a win for the writing of A Star is Born, but the directing nod that year (1938) went to Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth. Frank Borzage took the award for best director of a dramatic production at the inaugural ceremony in 1929. That ceremony saw one award for Best Picture go to F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (Unique and Artistic Production) and one go to Wellman’s Wings (Production).
Sunrise is still studied in film schools and watched by cinephiles outside of the academy. It can feel archly melodramatic for those with little to no exposure to silent films to anchor comparisons, but its themes and execution resonate to this day. (For a good discussion of the former, I recommend Doug Cummings’s essay on the Dardennes brothers in Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volume I).
Wings? It’s not a bad movie, but I know of no one who has ever watched for reasons other than historical interest in its status as the first Best Picture winner. Wings is nearly two and-a-half hours long, and both its length and its emphasis on spectacle feel archetypal, the first triumph (of many) of scale over story in awards history.
The story is reducible to the broadest strokes. It’s a love triangle and a war story. Jack and David both love Mary and both enter World War I as pilots. Perhaps the most interesting moment in the story was when a German ace refuses to take advantage of his opponent’s sitting duck status when a machine gun locks up on one of our heroes. I have no idea if such a transaction is historically credible, but I can’t imagine such a sympathetic portrait of a Nazi in a film ten years after World War II or a Vietcong from a war film in the late 1970s. For those of us who have lived all our lives with laments of Hollywood’s liberalism so constant they are like background noise, the film’s romanticizing of military life feels just this side of Top Gun.
Also of historical interest might be the representation of Mary (Clara Bow). The males are protagonists in the film, but Mary is not without agency, and she gets a storyline that allows her to do more than sit around and be claimed by whichever male proves himself most deserving of her as prize. Wings is not exactly subversive when it comes to representations of gender in film, but it is sobering to contemplate that it may, for all its creakiness, be more progressive in that area than most action films made nearly four score years later.