And the Oscar Goes to ... "Wings"

Wings (1927) has the distinction of being the first film in history to win the Academy Award for Best
Picture. It also has the distinction of being the first silent film I have ever seen. The experience was an interesting one. I was fascinated by how a story could be told in such a way that I could both laugh out loud and be moved to tears while only understanding a fraction of the dialogue between the characters. I'm no historian so I can't say whether director William A. Wellman's portrayal of warfare during the first World War was accurate, but I was impressed by his ability to depict both the glories of victory and valor, as well as the real brutality and senselessness of war. The almost offhand comment from two characters nearing the end of the film -- "That's war!" -- served to set the tone for a world coming out from under the shadow of one of the most horrific moments in human history. You may accidentally be responsible for the death of your best friend -- "That's war!" You may get incredibly drunk on leave in Paris and do things you regret as you try to forget the horrors you've faced -- "That's war!" The unanimous desire by the end of the film is to leave the Great War in the past and move on with hopes for a brighter future. No matter what you've done wrong for the sake of your country, you can leave it behind now that the war is over.

I found myself questioning this logic throughout the film, particularly as I pondered the actions of the film's major protagonist, Jack Powell. Is it true that all's fair in love and war? Is no one responsible for their actions when they are caught up in the midst of the violence of battle? Should ethical and moral codes be sidelined in favor of "doing what needs to be done"? When Jack returns to America a hero, he brings the medal and teddy bear of his best friend David Armstrong back to David's parents to pay his respects and to apologize. Jack had been unwittingly responsible for David's death and he comes to seek their forgiveness for his actions. David's mother responds: "I wanted to hate you, Jack. But it's not your fault -- it was the war!" Is it the war's fault David died? Maybe so. After all, David was flying a German plane when Jack shot him down. Jack was only doing what the war required of him. But Jack's character is impulsive and selfish, and his ignorance is often self-imposed. At the beginning of the film, Jack expresses his love for Sylvia Lewis despite the fact that it is more than obvious she has bestowed her affections on David. David and Sylvia are sitting on a swing together as she plays music for him, when Jack comes and physically removes Sylvia so he can take her for a ride in his new roadster. He does not apologize for intruding on the couple, he does not ask Sylvia if she would like to ride in his car, and he does not really even offer her a choice. He selfishly assumes that she wants what he wants, and then impulsively forces her to live up to his expectations. Unfortunately, David and Sylvia are both kindhearted and reserved people, so neither make a move to correct Jack. The same thing happens when the two men are making ready to leave for Europe to take part in the Great War as aviators. Sylvia is preparing a locket for David so that he can carry her picture with him into war. Jack arrives before David, intending to ask Sylvia if he might have her picture and assuming that she will say yes. When he sees the locket on her desk, he once again makes the self-centered assumption that the locket is for him and impulsively takes it from her without asking for permission or clarification. Sylvia starts to explain that there's been a misunderstanding, but then David arrives and the antagonism between the two rivals is palpable. Jack leaves with the locket, and Sylvia is left to try to explain to David why she has nothing to give to him but her heart.

The same behavior continues when Jack and David begin training as war pilots. During a training exercise, Jack repeatedly and maliciously stomps on David's hat while pretending it's only an accident, despite the fact that David has done nothing to him and tells him to stop. Jack is in no way punished for this behavior. In fact, as the two men attempt to settle their differences in a boxing match (again, as part of training), Jack knocks David to the ground three times while barely suffering a blow himself. Along with the triumph of having bested his rival in a feat of strength, the two men immediately become best friends after this. Again, Jack receives no backlash for his self-centered and impulsive behavior. While on leave in Paris, Jack indulges in some stereotypically negative army behavior by getting completely intoxicated and spending the evening in the arms of a flirtatious Parisian woman. When his old next-door neighbor and secret admirer, Mary Preston, arrives to sober him up with the news he must return to the frontlines immediately, it's all she can do to get him away from women and champagne, and into bed to sleep off the effects. While Mary saves Jack from at least one moral danger, she herself is implicated in indecency and is forced to resign her post as a military medical driver. Once again, Jack acts impulsively and selfishly, and other people are forced to suffer punishment on his behalf.

The final scene of the war contains perhaps the trickiest example of Jack's self-centered behavior. Jack becomes angry with David before their last flight together because David has torn up his picture of Sylvia, which had fallen out of the locket. The reason David does this is because Sylvia had written a love note on the back of the picture to David, and David does not want to hurt Jack by revealing that Sylvia is not really in love with him. When Jack refuses to let David replace the picture in the locket himself, David tears up the photo rather than allow Jack to learn the truth. Jack refuses to speak to David afterwards and takes to the sky angrily. As they meet German opposition in the skies, Jack leaves David to dogfight with three German planes, while Jack attacks the blimps. David does not return from this dogfight, and the Germans claim that they have killed him. Believing his best friend to have died, Jack regrets his former anger and vows revenge against as many German enemies as he can claim. He goes into the last battle in an impetuous rage of vengeance and attacks anyone he can find: foot-soldiers, gunners, balloons, and planes. He abandons his squadron so that he can fly behind enemy lines and attack the Germans head on and alone, feeding his grief and his desire for revenge. Unbeknownst to him, David has survived and has managed to steal a German plane in order to get back to the American lines. Before he can do so, he is spotted by Jack. Despite his urgent cries and waving in hopes that Jack will recognize him, the narrative intertitles specifically note that Jack is "blinded" by his desire for vengeance so that he is unable to recognize his friend. This blindness results in David's death. Once again, Jack faces no consequences for his actions against David beyond his own sorrow and guilt at having been instrumental in his demise. David excuses Jack completely of any fault in the matter, as does the French commander, who blames the war. On his return home, Jack is greeted with accolades and a parade, and even David's parents can say nothing more than that nothing is his fault. Jack doesn't even bother to visit Sylvia to convey his condolences or offer some sort of apology for his behavior. Instead, he finds Mary and apologizes to her for his actions during a drunken night in Paris that he doesn't even really remember. It's the closest thing to an apology that Mary will ever get for the trouble he has put her through, but I guess Jack makes her full reparation in finally giving her his love, which is what she's wanted since the opening scene.

Mary's response to Jack's apology is to leave the past in the past. David's parents say that nothing is his fault. David himself says that Jack didn't shoot him, but just the German plane. Is anyone going to hold Jack responsible for his actions, for his choices to act maliciously, get drunk, and kill in a blind rage? Were these choices forced on him by the war, or is he morally culpable for these decisions? Even though the film insists that Jack left for war a boy, but has come home a man, there is not very much evidence that his character has improved.

But perhaps we're viewing this film through the wrong lens. Perhaps this movie is not so much about the building up of a moral character as it is about the capacity for forgiveness despite the most unforgivable of tragedies. War in general provides a myriad of opportunities for this kind of heroic forgiveness; the scars and pain of having to spend one's youth learning to hate a brutal enemy in order to brutalize him in return opens up an infinite gulf of guilt and despair. How can one possibly be forgiven for the atrocities committed in the depths of such darkness? Curiously, the film's one overtly religious moment happens at the very climax of the film as David's broken body and smoking plane crash to the ground in rural France. A woman and her child are depicted praying before a crucifix in a small grotto outside their home. They are forced to take shelter when David's plane crashes directly into their home. His body is taken inside to be cared for, and Jack's plane lands soon after so that he may exult over his kill. It is only when Jack places his hand upon the miraculously undamaged crucifix in order to see the pilot he has killed that he recognizes him as his friend. It is in the shadow of this same crucifix that Jack receives the heroic forgiveness of his friend, who tells him that it was not him he killed but the evil his plane represented. There is an opportunity to make a beautiful parallel between David's words and Christ, the incarnate God who became sin for our sakes so that He could defeat our evil once and for all. Similarly to Jack's unspeakable error, we also had been so blinded by our sins that we could put to death our loving God, a crime that should brook no forgiveness; and yet, it is through this death that we are granted the ultimate forgiveness, the release from sin and death, and the welcome into the heavenly kingdom. In this sense, the forgiveness Jack receives from all those he has harmed reflects the salvific mercy of Christ who, while we were still sinners, was willing to die for us. Even though Jack is still flawed and guilty, those around him are able to put aside their pain, their regret, and their hatred in order to reveal the beauty of mercy.

As a war movie, Wings offers that same mercy to those still suffering the effects of a war that helped to bring out the worst in so many people. The film offers something like forgiveness to those who feel the weight of their part in the violence; it does not excuse what has been done in the name of freedom and justice, but it does offer a share in that impossible forgiveness that stems from the Cross of Christ by insisting that we leave the bitterness behind and move forward in hope.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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