Wings was based on a story by John Monk Saunders, who was an Air Service flight instructor in Florida during WWI. Unlike the film characters, Mr. Saunders never got posted to France, which bitterly disappointed him for the rest of his life. His story was rewritten by Byron Morgan, Hope Loring, and Louis D. Lighton to include Mary Preston, Clara Bow’s character.
William A. Wellman was chosen as director because of his experience as a fighter pilot in WWI. He received the Croix de Guerre for his numerous brave exploits. His final combat mission ended in his plane being shot down, which resulted in a lifelong limp.
At the time, Wellman was the only Hollywood director with combat pilot experience, though Richard Arlen (David) and John Monk Saunders had served as military aviators.
Wings was filmed from 7 September 1926–7 April 1927, on a budget of $2 million, at San Antonio’s Kelly Field. This location was used as one of 32 Air Service training camps during WWI, and also contained schools for mechanics, engineers, supply officers, and adjutants. In 1995, this storied training camp was closed.
Three hundred pilots took part in the filming, among them pilots and planes from the U.S. Army Air Corps. Some of the pilots served as supervisors and assistants instead of actors. The scenes from the climactic Battle of Saint-Mihiel was rehearsed in minute detail over ten days, with 3,500 infantry on a battlefield constructed just for the film.
Wellman frequently butted heads with the pilots and officers supervising the military accuracy, esp. the infantry commander whom he believed hated flyers and movie people. However, he needed all those outside pilots and planes, since Kelly Field didn’t have enough.
In addition to all the pilots, hundreds of regular extras also took part. Due to inclement weather, there were many delays in the filming.
Though the story had been rewritten to give Clara Bow (Paramount’s biggest star) a role, she wasn’t happy about it. She described herself as “just the whipped cream on top of the pie” in “a man’s picture.” Her costumes weren’t to her liking either, so much so she cut off the sleeves and slit the necklines.
Due to Richard Arlen’s experience as a military aviator, he was able to do his own flying scenes. Buddy Rogers (Jack) received flight training so he could be filmed in closeup during his own flying scenes.
Producer Lucien Hubbard offered everyone flying lessons, which probably accounted for the fact that there were only three accidents. Stunt pilot Dick Grace suffered two of these crashes. The first time, he flew into a real plane instead of barbed wire and fake posts, with the jagged edge of an airframe just seventeen inches from his head.
The second crash was much more serious. Though he initially appeared okay, he was soon diagnosed with a broken neck and four crushed vertebrae. (More on this subject)
The third crash killed a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot.
In spite of the meticulous attention paid to historically accurate WWI planes and other technical details, Wellman nevertheless used hairstyles, clothing, and cars from 1926–27.
The main aircraft were Thomas-Morse MB-3s (the American SPADs) and Curtiss P-1 Hawks (painted over as German planes). It took a long time to develop a successful technique for filming closeups of the pilots in the air, as well as capturing the planes’ motion and speed.
Not much of the footage from the first two months of filming was useable. Things only began changing when Wellman requested the extra pilots and aircraft from Washington.
Most films of the era only took about a month to shoot, in comparison to Wellman’s nine months. Paramount was very concerned with the rising production costs and ever-increasing budget. They sent an executive to San Antonio, and Wellman promptly told him his two options were “a trip home or a trip to the hospital.”
The cast and crew stayed by Saint Anthony Hotel, and with all their free time between shootings, Wellman claimed “San Antonio became the Armageddon of a magnificent sexual Donnybrook.” He also claimed all the female elevator operators by the hotel were pregnant by the time filming ended.
The cast and crew got frisky with one another in addition to the locals. Clara Bow and Gary Cooper (Cadet White) began their famous affair during this time.
The editing and release-preparation process took six weeks. The long, slow creation process proved to pay off most powerfully.