It is a painful irony that silent movies were driven out of existence just as they were reaching a kind of glorious summit of creativity and imagination, so that some of the best silent movies were also some of the last ones. Of no film was that more true than Wings, which opened on August 12 at the Criterion Theatre in New York, with a dedication to Charles Lindbergh. The film was the conception of John Monk Saunders, a bright young man from Minnesota who was also a Rhodes scholar, a gifted writer, a handsome philanderer, and a drinker, not necessarily in that order. In the early 1920s, Saunders met and became friends with the film producer Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s wife, Bessie. Saunders was an uncommonly charming fellow, and he persuaded Lasky to buy a half-finished novel he had written about aerial combat in the First World War. Fired with excitement, Lasky gave Saunders a record $39,000 for the idea and put him to work on a script. Had Lasky known that Saunders was sleeping with his wife, he might not have been quite so generous. Lasky’s choice for director was unexpected but inspired. William Wellman was thirty years old and had no experience of making big movies—and at $2 million Wings was the biggest movie Paramount had ever undertaken. At a time when top-rank directors like Ernst Lubitsch were paid $175,000 a picture, Wellman was given a salary of $250 a week. But he had one advantage over every other director in Hollywood: he was a World War I flying ace and intimately understood the beauty and enchantment of flight as well as the fearful mayhem of aerial combat. No other filmmaker has ever used technical proficiency to better advantage. Wellman had had a busy life already. Born into a well-to-do family in Brookline, Massachusetts, he had been a high school dropout, a professional ice hockey player, a volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, and a member of the celebrated Lafayette Escadrille flying squad. Both France and the United States had decorated him for gallantry. After the war he became friends with Douglas Fairbanks, who got him a job at the Goldwyn studios as an actor. Wellman hated acting and switched to directing. He became what was known as a contract director, churning out low-budget westerns and other B movies. Always temperamental, he was frequently fired from jobs, once for slapping an actress. He was a startling choice to be put in charge of such a challenging epic. To the astonishment of everyone, he now made one of the most intelligent, moving, and thrilling pictures ever made. Nothing was faked. Whatever the pilot saw in real life the audiences saw on the screen. When clouds or exploding dirigibles were seen outside airplane windows they were real objects filmed in real time. Wellman mounted cameras inside the cockpits looking out, so that the audiences had the sensation of sitting at the pilots’ shoulders, and outside the cockpit looking in, allowing close-up views of the pilots’ reactions. Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers, the two male stars of the picture, had to be their own cameramen, activating cameras with a remote-control button.