Film Director: William A. Wellman
Composer: Carl Davis
Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor: Carl Davis
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
At the end of the showing of Wings at Huddersfield Town Hall, a sizable proportion of the audience rose in a standing ovation. Who or what were they applauding? William Wellman, dead these 40-odd years, for an inspired piece of film-making? Carl Davis, for a magnificently dramatic score or for a near-60 year career creating some of the best in film, television and theatre music? The Orchestra of Opera North, for a superbly committed performance of Davis’ score? Or even whoever it was who found and restored the supposedly lost masterpiece in the early 1990s or Opera North for curating a vivid and varied programme to commemorate the end of World War One?
In some measure all deserve it. Wings is a 1927 film which tells an essentially simple story of two boys, two girls, a war and lots of aeroplanes – and it was the aeroplanes that won the film the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture. It is still the only silent film to receive the award.
Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Jack) and Richard Arlen (David) play two young men living a comfortable life in small-town America, more than comfortable in the case of David, scion of the richest family in town. In 1917 both join up as air force flyers. Both are in love with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), though her preference is ambiguous. There is no ambiguity about the feelings of Mary Preston (Clara Bow), so devoted to Jack that she ends up driving an ambulance in France to be near him. Bow disliked the film, having been brought into “a man’s movie” as insurance against a flop, but she is always wonderfully watchable and there are nice cameos from Gary Cooper, five minutes of laconic masculinity, and El Brendel as the unfortunately named, but determinedly American, Herman Schwimpf.
However, it’s the spectacle that does it: fine scenes in training, on the battlefield, on parade or celebrating leave in Paris pale alongside the terrific scenes of aerial combat. Some 300 pilots were employed on the film and Wellman, a flying ace with (of all things) the French Foreign Legion, knew how to deploy them, but even so dare-devil is the only word!
Some of the characterisation may be simple, but Wellman’s movie, like many of the great silent films, is a sophisticated construct, with the use of split screens, multiple images and framing handled with great subtlety.
Nevertheless the story-telling, as Carl Davis points out, is straightforward and his 1993 score matches it in what he calls “a purely symphonic approach”. It’s a mistake to think of silent movies being always accompanied by improvised piano; big films went out with pre-composed musical scores for those movie houses that could provide a band and J.S. Zamecnik did the job for Wings – which is worth mentioning only to emphasise that those mazy, dangerously beautiful aerial sequences were always meant to be boosted by an orchestra.
It’s hard to imagine that the now-forgotten Zamecnik produced anything to rival Davis’ score, full of variety and contrasts, by turns explosive and lyrical, with a witty use of borrowed melodies and styles: gymnastics and boxing in training are accompanied by an Irish jig, sly hints of “This is the Army, Mr. Jones” recur and Davis scores the most rousing version imaginable of La Marseillaise. The focus – splendidly realised by the Opera North Orchestra – is on the brass, with an enlarged trumpet section, but, most distinctively, only one tenor trombone, joined by bass trombone and two tubas, producing glorious sonorities and full-on attack for the battle of the skies.
Of course the Orchestra of Opera North delivers many excellent symphonic performances in the Kirklees season, but a performance like this, somewhere between pit and concert hall, unleashes the essential theatricality of the orchestra to riveting effect.
Reviewed on October 19, 2018 | Image: Contributed