Wings appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. As detailed elsewhere on this disc, the years hadn’t been kind to Wings, but you wouldn’t know it based on this borderline spectacular presentation.
Normally I don’t award “A”-level grades to anything that’s not virtually timeless in terms of visuals, and I can’t claim that’s the case here. Wings did look like a movie from the 1920s, and it showed its age at times.
But just barely, as the image was radically superior to anything I expected. Sharpness had uneven elements and could be slightly soft at times. Nonetheless, overall definition was quite good, as even the occasional instances in which the movie was a bit fuzzy didn’t cause real distractions. Clarity held up nicely during most of the flick, as even the wide aerial shots looked pretty accurate and concise.
I noticed no signs of jaggies or moiré effects, and edge haloes were absent. Given all of the work required to make Wings watchable, I wouldn’t be surprised if various forms of processing were used, but they don’t seem apparent in a negative way. The film lacked any print flaws outside of maybe the occasional small speck, but it still featured a good layer of grain – not as heavy as one would expect for an 85-year-old movie, but enough to remind us that this was a film.
Wings went with a monochromatic palette, though the nature of that “one color” varied. Much of the flick opted for a sepia tint, but some shots gave us a more standard black and white feel. Aerial fights added a touch of orange via flames and gunfire as well. These tones seemed accurate for what they intended to represent.
Blacks appeared reasonably tight and dense, and low-light shots were pretty clear. Some opacity came with the latter, but not to a substantial degree, so the shadows remained clear and viewable. The sepia shots were the most attractive; actual black and white elements tended to be a little uglier, though still more than acceptable.
Given what I said earlier, I did feel a little reluctant to slap an “A” on this transfer, as it clearly didn’t offer an objectively excellent visual presentation. However, sometimes I do need to grade on a curve more than others, and this was one of those instances. Wings so greatly exceeded my expectations that I felt it deserved the high praise that comes with an “A” rating.
In terms of audio, Wings delivered two soundtracks: one “traditional”, one modern. The latter provided a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that gave the movie a different feel than it would’ve had in 1927 via the inclusion of effects and an orchestral score. The music dominated and focused on the forward channels, which offered good stereo presence.
An effects track created by Oscar-winner Ben Burtt opened up the movie’s action sequences. In these, we got planes and other vehicles as well as gunfire and explosions. A few more mundane audio elements also appeared, but Burtt’s work focused largely on the military moments, and iit did so pretty well. While the track didn’t go nuts, it featured smooth movement around the channels and a positive overall level of involvement.
Sound quality was as good as one would expect of a brand-new recording. Music was bright and peppy, while effects sounded concise and dynamic. Again, Burtt didn’t make this an action spectacular to suit a modern film, so the effects didn’t blast us like they might if he’d gone whole hog, but they sounded clear and accurate.
As for the alternate soundtrack, it gave us a Dolby Digital Stereo mix that focused solely on music. This brought us a pipe organ performance that presumably would approximate a score that would’ve accompanied most theatrical exhibitions of Wings. (As we learn in the supplements, the 5.1 track’s score adapted orchestral work that played for some screenings of the film, but I suspect most people saw it with a simpler organ player.) It filled the front channels well and also showed nice vivacity and life; the track reproduced the music in a warm, rich fashion, so it was an appealing presentation.
Did I have a preference for one track over the other? Yeah – I thought the stereo pipe organ score worked better because it delivered audio that seemed more appropriate for the film; it offered the sort of music that would’ve come along with the movie back in 1927. Still, the 5.1 track provided a fun alternative, and I thought it worked fine in its own right, so I’m glad it’s here as an option.
Only a few extras pop up here, which comes as a disappointment given the film’s historical value. Paramount couldn’t take the time to at least line up a film historian for a commentary? Boo!
Whining aside, here’s what we find. Grandeur in the Sky runs 35 minutes, 56 seconds and includes notes from film historians James V. D’Arc and Frank Thompson, Paramount Pictures VP of Archives Andrea Kalas, director’s son William Wellman, Jr., Air Force Personnel Center historian Rudy Purificato, Paramount producer AC Lyles, author Katherine Orrison, Fort Sam Houston director John Manguso, Academy Film Archive film preservationist Brian Meacham, Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski, and sound designer Ben Burtt. “Sky” traces the film’s financing and path to the screen, cooperation from the US military, sets and locations, cast and crew, stunts and shooting aerial sequences, thoughts about director William Wellman and the movie’s release/reception/legacy.
While I remain disappointed that the Blu-ray doesn’t include a commentary, “Sky” manages to cover the relevant subjects pretty well. It touches on a good array of subjects and does so in reasonably positive way. It’s not the most thorough show but it’s a solid overview.
Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings lasts 14 minutes, 21 seconds and provides info from Kalas, Pogorzelski, Meacham, Burtt, Orrison, Lyles, Wellman, Technicolor executive director Tom Burton, pianist Frederick Hodges, arranger/orchestrator Dominik Hauser, photographer Philip Makanna, and sound designer Dustin Cawood. As implied by the title, this piece looks at the film’s restoration. It avoids much of the self-congratulation that mars featurettes like this and provides an interesting examination of the challenges – and solutions – that came with this movie.
Finally, Dogfight! goes for 12 minutes, 54 seconds and features airshow historian James Hare, Old Rhineback Aerodrome Air Shows president Hugh Schoelzel, Spad pilot Chris Bulko, and Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome pilot Bill King. They talk about the state of aviation circa World War I and tell us about planes, innovations and developments. We get a nice take on the subject and learn a lot here.
As I’ve watched 83 Best Picture-winning films, I’ve suffered through some that didn’t hold up well after however many years. I expected 1927’s Wings to be as dated as The Broadway Melody and Cimarron but found it to be surprisingly enjoyable; while it shows its age, it still delivers a fun popcorn flick. The Blu-ray boasts stunning picture quality as well as very good audio and a handful of informative supplements. I’m glad to finally have Wings on Blu-ray, and this release brings it home in spectacular fashion.