Amanda Schooley’s Review of Wings (1929)

“To those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever, this picture is reverently dedicated.” – Last line of the opening prelude to “Wings

Filmed in the span of just nine months, Wings is a 1927 American film (although it wasn’t actually released in the U.S. until 1929), directed by former WWI aviator, William A. Wellman, and starring Richard Arlen (also a former aviator in the War), Charles Rogers, and Clara Bow—Paramount’s bona fide ‘IT Girl’ and star with a big, glittery capital ‘S’.  

The film is a romantic war drama, telling the story of two men: Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen). Both men are from notably different walks of life: Jack is a middle class idealist with a dream of flying, while David is the son of the richest family in town and seems far more down to earth—really, the only thing the boys have in common outside of their decision to enlist in the War is their rivalry for the affections of the beautiful city girl, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, Jack is painfully oblivious to the affections thrown his way by his friend and literal girl next door, spunky and doe-eyed Mary Preston (Bow). As 1917 closes in, both Jack and David enlist in the army to become aviator pilots and are billeted together and, following the sudden death of their tentmate and having undergone intense military training together, the two’s rivalry fizzles out into the gritty but affectionate friendship that sometimes borders on intimate as the war drags on, a relationship which feels all too familiar and tragic in this class. Meanwhile, Mary decides to enlist in the Women’s Motor Corps of America as an ambulance driver—and well…fate finds a way. 

Jack (Rogers), Mary (Bow), and David (Arlen)

This film initially caught my attention on two factors: 1) it was just barely before All Quiet at the Western Front in the US (and completed two years prior), and I was curious on its portrayal of the War—would it condemn it or glamorize it, in its retrospective approach?; and 2) as a silent film (sans the music cues and SEX added in the 2012 restoration by Paramount), it mostly relies pretty much solely the expressions and body language of the actors alongside the cinematography to tell its story, as you can’t just type out every little line of the script on title cards and call it a day. Considering how much we have read in class from the POVs of characters who have mostly internalized everything to the point of coming off as notably detached, could the exaggerated and expressive style that is practically necessary for silent films work in a film about the Great War? Thankfully, both of these questions were answered in a way that I felt was satisfying. 

Right off the bat, the cinematography is nothing to scoff at: even a shot as simple as David and Sylvie lazily swinging in a hammock together is poignant as the camera literally swings along with them, back and forth, before the sudden arrival of an excited Jack literally jolts their idyllic scene to an abrupt halt. Likewise, there’s an equally stunning dolly zoom later on in the film in which we glide past all the gleeful patrons of a French nightclub drinking and petting before we land on a happy and shamelessly intoxicated Jack. However, the moments that will surely stand out—even in the somewhat drag of a first act—are the aviation and dogfighting scenes, among the first of their kind, and just as enthralling today as they were almost a hundred years ago. Additionally, there are little animations added here and there such as the bubbles that occupy Jack’s hazy mind during his drunk stint on leave in Paris halfway through the film, as well as in the title cards, that are a nice touch. 

Many of the texts we’ve read have emphasized the dangers of individuality and how people were stripped of it during the War—here, we have a clearly defined protagonist in the primary POV character, naive Jack Powell. Moreover, the film early on, almost takes on the jovial, patriotic tone that one would more likely see on propaganda posters than on the actual Front; much lime we have a clearly defined “hero”, we have our established villain: German ace pilot Count von Kellermann and his dreaded “Flying Circus” who, among ominous closes ups of the Iron Crosses on their black planes and shots of the pilots giggling and twirling their mustaches as they bomb compounds with glee, are accompanied by a score that seems more suitable for a Star Wars villain. Likewise, the emphasis on comradery amongst the Allied forces is paramount—the British soldiers gleefully rescue Jack went he’s down and cornered by German gunfire, eagerly ushering him into their trench with wide smiles on their faces—”chivalry of the knights of air”, the movie calls it. There’s even a comic relief character, a Dutchman named Herman Schwimpf, whose entire schtick is that he is blissfully and shamelessly patriotic to the point of getting an American flag tattooed on his bicep to wave as his superiors continuously try and fail to literally knock sense into him.

Gary Cooper, in his film debut, as “Cadet White”

Yet, despite the somewhat light tone starting out, there are notable undercurrents of things not being so great about the Great War: kicking off with the almost immediate and senseless death of Jack and David’s would-be tentmate, Cadet White, before we even have the chance to get attached. Likewise, a fairly comedic scene of Jack’s fun drunk antics in Paris and Mary’s attempts to get him to leave with her to get him back to his post (and away from the French girl he’s been cozy with) is under the threat of him being court martialed, and ends with the painful double whammy of Mary both realizing Jack is in love with Sylvia and then being fired from her job when military police catch her undressing from a gown she used to infiltrate the nightclub, and assume the worst.

“Here, for men fresh from the front, whose minds carried the image of unutterable horrors—here was forgetfulness…”

It all goes downhill following her abrupt exit, as we are thrown headfirst into the War again with scenes that are, while not very explicitly bloody, are just as intense—from a random soldier getting struck down with shrapnel from a bombing in the Front, to another soldier being crushed by a falling tank, its made abundantly clear that this film, while a romance, is anything but romantic down to its roots. When Jack and David’s relationship gets tested following a misunderstanding, and David is later shot down by the enemy in the following dogfight, Jack makes it a point to brand himself the hero and avenge his fallen friend by taking down as many Germans as he can. Little does he know, David is still alive in German territory, and manages to escape by stealing a German plane. Oh, oh no… 

The film was also one of the first to show a same-sex kiss onscreen

Jack’s stint at heroism ends with a sharp role reversal as he is given tube villainous music cues as he tries to chase and strike down David, believing he’s “only another foe to be slaughtered without mercy”. When he eventually succeeds, he’s finally broken when he realizes his fatal mistake, much like Paul and the French soldier, only this time, he has a grieving family he has to go back to. Rogers and Arlen’s acting in this scene is excellent, and we even cross that blurred line of the friend, brother, and the lover so common in the bonds between soldiers at the time, leading up to arguably the most famed scene of the film nowadays: Jack passionately kissing David on the lips as the latter dies in his arms. And although Jack goes home a celebrated “hero” (to the point of literally having his name and face plastered on newspapers that laud him as such) and is publically showered with adoration and flowery parade rides through town, there’s a distinct emptiness as he looks at the little bear charm David left behind—the one Jack promised to return to his mother. Furthermore, the ending scene between Jack and David’s mother makes the message obvious: “I—I wanted to hate you, John, but I can’t. It wasn’t your fault. It was—war!”

Overall, I really enjoyed this film despite its slow start, and would recommend it even if you don’t like silent films. The acting and the action is excellent, and it really feels like gradually watching characters like Paul get to the point of where they were in their story fresh from their idealistic beginnings—under a less overly violent, nihilistic lens. I can see why this won the Academy Award for Best Picture. My only real complaint is that Mary did NOT deserve Jack—at all.

Katia’s review of The Burying Party

The one-hour run of The Burying Party (2018) contains the ghosts of several films. A gritty war film depicting the real life poet Wilfred Owen’s first exposures to the trenches; a film that dives deep into the literary world he occupies, giving greater detail and focus to its cast and their interpersonal relationships. A deep dive into the development of Owen’s writing voice; a condemnation of war-hungry empire. Potentially, even, two or more hours that try tries to combine some or all of these features. 

The Burying Party itself is is not any of these films, but I think it accomplishes an unusual sense of completeness in its fragmented brevity. As it moves across time and space, through disparate visual and auditory worlds, it interweaves snapshots of Owen’s life at the front and on leave. In other words, the film can roughly be split into his witnessing first-hand “the pity of war,” and the interpersonal, artistic journey that enabled him to capture it, in such a way that we’re reading and remembering him now, over a hundred years later. 

The film’s contrasting settings are conveyed with care and detail. We open on Owen (Matthew Staite) at war, surrounded with what I’ve come to think of universally as gray-green “World War One color grading,” and accompanied by the haunting, discordant sounds of a piercing yet irresolute soundtrack, which punctuated by the sounds of the war itself. When the next scene finds him back home, in his mother’s house, seeing him clean and indoors is as jarring to the viewer as it clearly feels to the character. 

As he and the rest of the cast navigate indoor spaces, as well as the breathtaking English pastoral scenes that our friend-from-two-weeks-ago Sigfried Sassoon (Sid Phoenix) critiques Owen for lauding in his early poetry, the contradictions at play within these poets’ emotional lives surface with these alterations in visual worlds. These are mirrored by the soundtrack, which alternates between the harshly modern instrumentals of the war scenes, the stately pianos and violins of indoor social spaces, the birdsong and seaside of the English outdoors, and – at certain times, like the first meeting between Owen and Sassoon – the perfect silence that backgrounds dialogue. 

Owen and Sassoon’s dynamic fruitfully evades explicit melodrama or overstatement but nonetheless read to me as the heart of the film. While I’m unfamiliar with all but the most famous of Owen’s works, and only know the basic outline of his biography, the interplay between the two (and at times others in their circles) surrounding war poetry and its mission felt memorable and specific in a way that literary-biography type movies sometimes fail to achieve. I don’t know how it would play to experts, or to people with less knowledge of early twentieth century English literary circles than I, but to me the exposition surrounding the cast’s relationships and life positions felt effective and economical.

Outside of art, politics, and war, in the world of feeling or affection, more is unsaid between Owen and Sassoon than said for the majority of the movie. The intensity of this oft-mythologized literary mentorship was effectively carried by Staite and Phoenix, both in the realm of independent acting choices and the quietly intense chemistry between the two. 

As an admirer and writer of creative nonfiction, watching The Burying Party acts in close parallel to the experience of reading a fragmented lyric essay. We do not get the full story, but the parts we get are vivid and well-chosen enough to form a cohesive whole nonetheless. We might yearn, in fact (or at least I did), for hours of watching Owen and Sassoon discuss poetic form, for Owen, Sassoon, and Graves to get to sing the entirety of The Leaving of Liverpool without breaking off, for Owen to have a full conversation with his mother. But each moment we get to see is beautifully crafted; and when it comes to Wilfred Owen himself, time’s limited run is arguably the entire point.

Article I mentioned in class (sort of)

I have seen another piece about finding the body of a WWI Italian soldier in the Alps and will keep looking. But in the meantime, here is the story from the Post that I crossed it with, in which they find a preserved bunker from the war that is Austro-Hungarian, so I was a bit off:

Katia’s Reading Questions for February 10th

  1. “Repression of War Experience” is one of now several portrayals we’ve seen of a narrator struggling with mental health in relation to the Great War, but it’s the first we’ve seen in metered poetry, as opposed to Smith and Aldington’s prose. How does the existence of meter as a force that structures the poem interact with the narration of the post-war mind, which is arguably a fundamentally unstructured thing? How might the change in form from prose to poetry impact a reader’s experience of this subject? 
  2. “The Redeemer” and “Christ and the Soldier” both portray men who appear to be Jesus Christ in contact with the war, but the two portrayals are very distinct. Notably, the symbology of the crown of thorns is explicitly divergent between the two. What kinds of differing or parallel images do the two poems paint regarding Christ in relation to soldiers and the Great War? How might this tie into Sassoon’s more overarching views on England, or on religion? 
  3. Sassoon varies the tone of his poetry and the voices imbedded into it a great deal; the dialogue-centered, sardonic “They” and “The General” exist alongside dense, highly-detailed, visually-oriented narration, such as the voice that narrates “Counter-Attack” and “A Night Attack.” What are the differing purposes or effects of these styles, or other poetic styles Sassoon assumes? Is there a particular advantage (or disadvantage) that one of these approaches might hold in writing about the war for a particular audience?

All Quiet/Not So Quiet: An Ongoing List Of Explicit Textual Parallels

Or deliberate contrasts, or both! I’m not claiming to have exhaustively mined our section for today, but I love patterns and referentiality, so I’m going to start up a list of sections from the text of Not So Quiet… that explicitly evoked a segment of All Quiet on the Western Front to me. The interaction of explicit contrasts, parallels, and half-parallels was really engaging to me.

Page 13: resentment of blind patriotism back home.

No, Smithy, you’re one of England’s Splendid Daughters, proud to do their bit for the dear old flag, and one of England’s Splendid Daughters you’ll stay until you crock up or find some other decent excuse to go home covered in glory. It takes nerve to carry on here, but it takes twice as much to go home to flag-crazy mothers and fathers…”

In some ways this is an explicit, direct echo of All Quiet, and in some ways we see the class difference between Smithy and Paul; we don’t see quite as much of Paul’s parents being blamed for his entry in the war as Kantorek, even though his father does try to show him off to his social circle. Still, the idea of young people being traumatized while people back home congratulate themselves for the “sacrifice” echoes between the two novels.

Pages 19-20: bathrooms.

“Our thoughts fly to bathrooms: big, white-tiled bathrooms with gleaming silver taps and glass-enclosed showers, bathrooms with rubber floors and square-checked bathmats, bathrooms fitted with thick glass shelves loaded with jar upon jar of scented bath salts, white, green, mauve–different colours and different perfumes, lilac, verbena, carnation, lily of the valley.We see ourselves, steeped to the neck in over-hot, over-scented water ;in our hands are clasped enormous, springy sponges foaming with delicious soapsuds, expensive soap-suds-only the most expensive will suffice–sandal-wood, scented oatmeal, odiferous violet. Massage brushes lie to hand, long-handled narrow brushes with quaint, bulbous bristles of hollow rubber that catch the middle of the back just, where the arms are too short to reach… We scrub and scrub and scrub until we are clean and pink and tingling and glowing, we lie in a pleasant semi-coma until the water begins to cool, but emerging has no terrorsElectric fires glow softly ; before them are spread incredibly huge bath-sheets, soft, lavender-scented, monogrammed, waiting to caress our dripping bodies, to smother them in voluptuous warmth.Now we are dry; we pepper our newly-born selves with talcum powder.”June Roses “fills the air with its fragrance, daintily argues with the scent of the bath water, triumphs…

“Half a pint of icy water between six of us,” says Tosh. “Oh Hell, there’s a war on, they tell me.”

This feels like one of the more explicit references to the quick but memorable segment of All Quiet where Paul and his comrades dismiss memories of “white marble” in favor of “shitting under the stars.” It’s a divergence that I think can be rooted in class as well as gender, because (as Smithy’s narration takes care to keep reminding us in various ways) the cast of Not So Quiet… is specifically selected for their middle and upper-class status, and far from every young woman of the time would have had memories of verbena-scented bath salts. Certainly I doubt Paul’s sister would resonate with this particular memory.

That said: I also think this bathroom scene illuminates something fundamentally distinct from Paul in Smithy’s narration, which is that she’s more unstuck in time; this isn’t the only time that she tries to imagine her past life in detail, even though I read ahead by accident and thus can’t bring up the other visible example I have of this yet. To Paul, time and space are more-or-less rigidly delineated between home and the war; I don’t think it would be comforting to him to imagine the former when he’s occupying the latter space. Whether or not it’s comforting or painful to Smithy, though, she does keep doing it.

Page 30: Communications with home, and the truth.

My last letter home opens before me, photograph clear, sent in response to innumerable complaints concerning the brevity of my crossed-out field postcards: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it…”

Jokes aside, though, I think this sequence with Smithy’s letter (and a great portion of the book) demonstrates a far more explicit disdain for Englishness than Paul ever expresses for German-ness. It’s explicitly jarring to hear Smithy put on a show of parodically English upper-class diction after hearing her real narrative voice. (This is another shared quality between All Quiet and Not So Quiet, and perhaps between more of the novels we’ll read this semester; the intimacy between the narrator and the audience, an intimacy that doesn’t include older authority figures in the narrator’s life.) And picking up from my very first item: what my writer friends and I refer to as “momblems” are a lot more bitter and pronounced for Smithy than they are from Paul. Paul lies to his mother with the primary intent of protection; Smithy feels an explicit (and justified) disdain for her.

39: Authority figures

One of these days I will murder her slowly and reverently and very painfully. I will take lots of time over it–unless I meet her coming up the hill with dim lights, denoting an empty ambulance, in which case I will crash her bus head-on and take the risk of my own skidding into the valley afterwards.”

Two important points here. First, a quality of this book that I appreciate is that (even though one of the girls later says “It’s women who will end war,” a statement I find unconvincing in the light of the rest of the book) there is no essential quality of kindness or goodness ascribed to women by default here. The Commandant abuses her power and takes pleasure in doing so, not in the same ways but in many ways just as destructively as Himmelstoss does. Secondly: young women are just as capable of thinking murderous thoughts about their sadistic superior as young men. With the difference being, I guess, that Smithy and the gang cannot plausibly team up to beat up the Commandant. (Cannot, or choose not to, or both? Let’s debate violence again, I guess.)

45: Camaraderie

“A hot-water bottle? They have made a hot-water bottle for me. My friends! They have not forgotten me. This touch of kindliness finishes me completely. The tears roll down my cheeks. I feel a rotter… a beast. I have been calling them everything vile, and all the time they have done this for me.”

A parallel and a contrast in one: the sense of camaraderie between the young people in a horrible situation is the same, but the vital distinction is that Paul never has the moment of misdirected rage against his comrades that Smithy experiences on the preceding pages and feels horrible for upon discovering the hot-water bottle. I don’t like to express preferences here, but I there’s something more authentic about this particular take on experiences of comradeship in crisis; rather than a consistent flood of safety, Smithy’s informed sense of crisis functions in such a way that everyone is a potential threat to her, and in moments of real despair even the bonds of friendship can’t automatically beat out cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Of course, the two characters also exist in different situations; is it in some ways lonelier to be an ambulance driver than to be a soldier? I don’t think I’m qualified to say, having done neither.

55: Solutions?

“Enemies? Our enemies aren’t the Germans. Our enemies are the politicians we pay to keep us out of war and who are too damned inefficient to do their jobs properly. After two thousand years of civilization, this folly happens. It is time women took a hand. The men are failures… this war shows that. Women will be the ones to stop war, you’ll see. If they can’t do anything else, they can refuse to bring children into the world to be maimed and murdered when they grow big enough.”

The same sense of flirtations with internationalism that Paul and his comrades experience on the other side; the same blaming of authority. The gender theory is new, and given the actions and words of the Commandant and Smithy’s mother and the B.F., I’m not sure the text of Not So Quiet… is in accordance with Edwards’s statement here. I like that it’s brought up here, though, for contemplation–

– and I like most of all the way focusing in on any one echo between the two books brings up more questions than answers, and rarely leaves us with the ability to say “well, that’s a parallel!” and move on without further interrogation. So: if there’s anything I missed, or any parallels/contrasts/half-parallels that you discover in further chapters, or if you want to respond to any of the big themes listed above, that’d be (Smithy writing to her mother voice) really splendid!

NOT SO QUIET Miscellany

Nellie notes that her family is sick of receiving her “crossed-out field postcards” (30). This is an example of such a card, many thousands of which were sent during the war:

image of field postcard

Bovril: “thick and salty meat paste extract” (wikipedia)

British ambulance and drivers:

“Words, Words, Words—they do not reach me.”

Paul says this about the books on his shelf at home (173), buttttt I am really excited to track it as a major theme throughout the book. The inadequacy of language is something we continuously see Paul struggle with, on the front and at home. At the front: “Attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse — these are words, but what things they signify!” (129). And “Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand grenades — words words, but they hold the horror of the world” (132).

At home, though, this struggle is emphasized. We can see clearly that Paul is split between these two worlds—the western front and the home (or lack thereof) front. I know we talked at length about this in class, but I wanted to bring it to the blog. To me, It was one of the most compelling sections in this week’s reading. When Paul’s mother is saying goodnight to him, there is a clear division between what Paul wishes he could say and what he actually says. All of it is terrible and heartbreaking and so sad I am once again nauseous reading it, but to just pull one example, take this exchange: “‘And be very careful at the front, Paul.’ Ah, Mother! Mother! Why do I not take you in my arms and die with you. What poor wretches we are! ‘Yes Mother, I will’” (183).


In the 12:30 class, we used this passage to start to generate a list of ways Paul is split, or broken in two. We have: parent (specifically mother) Paul vs. child Paul, maternal vs. violent Paul, and broken vs. performative Paul. Maternal in the sense of pretty consistently thinking of others and caring for them before himself. And performative meaning that Paul performs this calmness as a way to protect himself and those he loves from the broken madness he really feels.

I’m wondering (hoping, PLEASE) if anyone wants to add to/expand on this list of Broken (to use Bonnie’s word) Paul. How else is he broken? What are other ways we can map this conflict in Paul? and bonus: how does language complicate these divisions?