There is always some debate about the silent classic Sunrise whenever there is talk about the first Best Picture winner but the Academy officially lists Wings as the first winner in this category.
It was obvious right from the start that the themes War and Musical are right up the Academy’s taste. In their second year, they awarded the mediocre The Broadway Melody while Wings, a saga about combat pilots during World War I, took home the Oscar in the Academy’s first year. Wings also has the honour of being the only silent movie to ever win the top prize – which sets it apart from all the other movies in this ranking. But while it is rather difficult to compare performances from silent movies with those from talkies, a comparison of the movies themselves is not quite so impossible.
Wings is not an anti-war movie. It’s a patriotic story that underlines the greatness of American soldiers (during all the written titles, the American soldiers are always referred to as ‘we’ while the Enemy is always ‘them’). Unfortunately, there was also the need for a plot which is also the biggest weakness of Wings. The love-triangle between two best friends who fight together and a girl from their hometown simply doesn’t work and constantly brings the movie down. Richard Arlen and Charles Rogers do very good work in their parts but Clara Bow, strangely first-billed despite being of secondary importance, is too exaggerated, even for a silent movie, and has basically nothing to do apart from being ‘the woman’. Later scenes in a Parisian bar seem to go on forever – Wings shines during the war sequences but fails in the development and presentation of its main characters. Wings may also be the only silent movie in which the written titles become annoying very soon – there is such a constant harshness in their tone, not just during the war scenes but also before; I never thought written titles could feel so exaggerated but here, they do.
But Wings is surely an exciting movie and improves vastly whenever the story focuses back on the main action. The last part of the movie in which one of the two friends ends up in a German plane puts a moving end to this story without feeling manipulative or corny. And the scenes in the hometown, especially with the family of one of the two heroes, are done very beautifully and build a stark contrast to the wide, light and open shots of the air battles.
Personally, I would have preferred Sunrise to be the first official Best Picture winner since it’s an unforgettable masterpiece and superior to Wings in every way – but this doesn’t mean that Wings isn’t a deserving winner itself.