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Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen

Posted on Mon, February 13 2017
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On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I, setting America on a course to become an important player on the world stage. It was a turning point in the nation’s history that still reverberates through world events a century later. One of the Museum’s most engaging programs in observance of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War is Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen, a year-long film series showing Hollywood’s finest feature films on World War I. Movies have always shaped our cultural memory of historical events, and World War I has been a rich subject for filmmakers. The Museum’s film series screens the most visually striking and engaging dramas on World War I ever made. The films explore a range of topics, including the reality of fighting in the trenches, aerial combat, the relationship between commanders and troops, and the psychological effects of war. The far-reaching influence of World War I is often overshadowed by the dramatic events of World War II, and the complexity of today’s conflicts. But the centenary of WWI affords us an occasion to examine and reflect upon the war, and understand its ongoing relevance in today’s world.

Still from the 1927 movie Wings. 

February’s series opening presentation is Wings, from Paramount, in 1927. This silent film classic, directed by William Wellman and starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, and Gary Cooper, is among the most important films ever made. In 1929 it won the first Academy Award ever presented for Best Picture, and an additional one for Best Effects. Gary Cooper, who went on to be one Hollywood’s major box office stars, had his first feature role in Wings.

With its incredible aerial combat scenes, Wings set the standard for all aviation films that followed. Released just a few months after Charles Lindbergh’s successful transatlantic solo flight in May 1927, enthusiasm for aviation was at a fever pitch and Wings received instant acclaim from audiences and critics. Director William Wellman was an actual WWI fighter pilot, giving the film a skillful hand with the subject matter. To add realism to the film, Wellman wanted his two male leads, Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers, to actually pilot their own aircraft as much as possible. This was not a problem for Arlen, who served as a flight instructor in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI. Rogers, however, took an intensive two-weeks of flight training to learn the basics. Both actors always flew with an experienced US Army pilot in the back seat just in case. To place the audience in the thick of the action, Wellman and chief cinematographer Harry Perry mounted cameras on various locations on the aircraft to capture the aerial scenes from every angle. The results were stunning and still hold up today. One of the signature films of the silent era, Wings remains one of Hollywood’s sterling achievements of any era. For the aviation history enthusiast or the movie buff, Wings is not to be missed.

Join us at the National Air and Space Museum each month from February through November as we examine how the war has been represented and interpreted on the big screen

Commemorating the First World War

World War I Centennial

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. It was a turning point in the nation’s history that still reverberates today. The Museum is commemorating the centennial of World War I with a range of activities from a film series to an exhibition. See what we have planned. 

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