|25-year-old Gary Cooper's indelible bit part in Wings|
"The Great War," in contrast, had faded to a kind of dusty prelude -- perhaps in part because there were less photos and films of the battles.
|Georges Méliès sets the moon afire in Hugo|
But it's also the setting for Spielberg's movie War Horse (which, sorry, I couldn't get through), and even Hugo finds its historical footing in filmmaker Georges Méliès falling into despair and disfavor after the "Great War" and burning all his movie props [above].
Shot less than a decade after the war it depicts, Wings contains a couple of moments that made me wonder if Downton creator, Julian Fellowes, had watched it for research and inspiration, or at least was already familiar with it. [Update: the production also lucked into preexisting WWI trench replicas built by British war nerds.]
At an Academy screening in L.A., William Wellman Jr., the 73-year-old son of the movie's director, described Wings as "The Star Wars of its time." It boasts amazing, actual aerial photography, which put viewers in the POV of a pilot. Wellman senior -- who had actually been a WWI pilot -- had been unhappy with the first several months of filming and junked it, and the cost ballooned to $2.1 million -- five times the era's average budget.
After a slow, corny soap-opera start, Wings soars, aided by the bracingly modern Clara Bow, the biggest star of the era. The brutal, epic battle scenes remind how primitive WWI warfare still was. You see men in pathetic tin hats running across acreage being mowed down in ways that probably aren't that different from the Civil or even Revolutionary wars.
|Downton Cast, Season 2: Dressed for the Great War|
In one battle scene in Downton Abbey, a soldier in the trenches jinxes his chances for survival and then dies a few moments later. Watching it, I found it a little corny.
Imagine my surprise when I saw the same theme in a Wings's most famous scene -- the debut of Gary Cooper (above) in a short cameo so indelible that he renders invisible the two putative stars of the movie, Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers.
SPOILER ALERT: When the men discuss their good-luck charms, Cooper cooly says he doesn't bother with such superstition, that "When your time comes, you're gonna get it." A few moments later, he proves his point.
Now -- about that lucky charm.
In Downton Abbey, when Matthew is heading off to combat, Lady Mary gives him a small stuffed dog [below]. Now, this is probably coincidence, and lots of soldiers had good luck charms, but still: stuffed miniature animals? I wonder....
music from Vertigo, and scenes from everything from Citizen Kane to Singing in the Rain. But isn't that almost required of a movie about moviemaking? I was more put off by the recent TV pilot for Alcatraz stealing Vertigo's entire rooftop leaping/partner losing grip and plummeting to death sequence. Yes, they're both in San Francisco, but I'm not sure what else it does besides take savvy viewers out of the moment and wonder if there's been no advance in stunts or screenwriting in a half-century.
Which is a roundabout way of complimenting Wings. The modern viewer often goes into these movies ready to find them quaint or tinny. But the battle scenes -- while much larger in scale -- are not at all technically inferior from the way Downton staged them -- and the aerial scenes are, if ultimately a little drawn out and repetitive, authentic and beautiful in a way that today's CGI can't quite match. In this case, the Oscar has held up nicely, thank you.