It’s seldom that a DVD set is packaged like a Blu-ray collection, but maybe the 100th Anniversary of World War I was enough for Warner Bros. to make an exception. This “World War I Centennial Commemorative Collection” is a handsome affair, with a well-made book containing heavy board pages into which the five DVDs are slipped, and a just-as-sturdy slipcase to protect the whole thing. It’s the kind of packaging that you more typically get with Warner Bros. monsters or gangsters Blu-ray collections.
And what a set it is . . . if you’re not averse to silent films. Only two out of four films in this centennial collection are “talkies,” and all are black and white, with the two silent films sepia and color-tinted to show flames and gunfire.
Included is the silent movie “Wings,” the very first Best Picture winner from the May 16, 1929 Academy Awards hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel; “The Big Parade,” a silent film that laid the groundwork for other realistic war movies and their subtle anti-war themes; “Sergeant York,” the film that earned Gary Cooper his first Best Actor Oscar; and “The Dawn Patrol,” a 1938 swashbuckler in the skies starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and David Niven.
The two silent movies are ranked 18th (“The Big Parade”) and 29th (“Wings”) on the list of the Top 100 silent films at SilentEra.com, and they both impress with their production values and large-scale battle sequences. Yes, the acting is melodramatic, but you can still get caught up in the plots and the action with little coaxing.
“The Big Parade” (1925, 151 min.)
John Gilbert plays James Apperson, a bored rich lad whose parents are split on whether he should serve in the army after America enters the war. Caught up in a patriotic parade, he enlists, bonds with blue-collar types at basic training, and they’re sent to serve in France, where James, Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien) all fall for the same girl (Renée Adorée). Though it has a happy ending, the film, which is based on Laurence Stalling’s novel, Plumes, shook audiences used to a hands-off policy on stars, because the hero is seriously injured in battle and the level of realism is ramped up. Hand-to-hand combat in the trenches is shown, and the explosions and battle scenes are surprising convincing for the period—perhaps because the U.S. War Department loaned the producers more than 200 Army vehicles, 100 planes, and 4000 soldiers.
Directed by King Vidor and grossing roughly $20 million worldwide, “The Big Parade” was one of the most successful movies of the Silent Era and it paved the way for other war films like the better-known “All Quiet on the Western Front.” (Clip)
“Wings” (1927, 144 min.)
Director William A. Wellman upped the ante slightly with “Wings,” a film that was shot on a then-lavish $2 million budget on location at a real air field, using more than 300 real pilots and actual U.S. Army Air Corps planes. The battles are larger and even more impressive than “The Big Parade,” with 3500 extras used as infantry for just one battle. Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen star as men who go through training to become pilots, then become best friends and aces, though both came from the same town and wanted to woo the same “girl next door” (Jobyna Ralston). The filmmakers relied on a tried and true formula of rich vs. poor trying to win the affections of a woman, but it works here because the bond between the two men grows stronger the more they fight together.
This pre-code film shows men’s bare butts at the recruiting office and offers a surprisingly pro-feminist take on the action, with one small-town woman (Clara Bow) driving an ambulance. Look for a young Gary Cooper as (what else?) a ladies’ man, and be prepared for an unusual display of affection between two heterosexual men—something that flies in the face of or redefines the idea of the macho male. You can watch wings with a new 5.1 soundtrack, but I much preferred the 2.0 pipe organs to get the full flavor of what it might have been like to see this in the theater.
“The Dawn Patrol” (1938, 103 min.)
This remake of a 1930 film by the same name is based on a short story titled “The Flight Commander,” by John Monk Saunders. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone squared off in many a swashbuckler, and there are aspects of this WWI flier film that will make you think they’re in swashbuckler mode again. They flout the rules, they laugh in the face of danger, they drink heartily, and they do everything with flair. Here, Rathbone plays the squadron commander while Flynn and David Niven are the carefree pilots who do whatever they want because they’re aces. German ace The Red Baron factors prominently in this film, which relies on the trope of a younger brother reporting for duty and the way it unsettles his older, veteran sibling.
Students of war films will find it fascinating that the two silent films are more realistic, while this one—shown in theaters as the Spanish Civil War was raging and the Japanese had invaded the Soviet Union and Mongolia—offers a more romanticized view of war. And it’s that very romanticism that makes “The Dawn Patrol” feel a little like a swashbuckler in the skies.
“Sergeant York” (1941, 134 min.)
Gary Cooper was nominated for Best Actor three times during America’s involvement in WWII, winning for his portrayal of conscientious objector-turned-war hero Alvin York but failing to bring home the statue the following years as Lou Gehrig (“The Pride of the Yankees”) and Hemingway’s hero in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Film buffs may find it strange that voters thought Cooper’s performance in “Sergeant York” better than Orson Welles’ in “Citizen Kane,” or Robert Montgomery’s in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” but you’d have to say that the role gave Cooper an edge.
Sgt. Alvin York earned the Medal of Honor for his part in neutralizing a machine gun nest that was tearing up Allied troops, all but singlehandedly killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 prisoners. The Tennessee-born sharpshooter became the biggest hero in that state since Davy Crockett, and a poster child for war bonds.
This biopic from the legendary Howard Hawks works, despite an Academy Award-nominated screenplay that now seems a little formulaic: 20 minutes devoted to establishing York as a hellraising hillbilly who could shoot his initials into a tree with a revolver, drunk as a skunk; 20 minutes depicting his religious conversion, with the prodigal coming back into the fold; 20 minutes or so devoted to his love of a woman and his determination to earn enough money to buy bottom land so he can marry her; and the last part of the film depicting his stint in the military. That’s right. Only a fourth of the film is actually “war movie,” but while some of the scenes in the set-up can go on a little long, it’s still one of the better biopics to come out of Hollywood during this period. Walter Brennan appears as York’s pastor, while Joan Leslie plays the romantic interest, Ward Bond and Noah Beery Jr. play York’s hellraising friends, and George Tobias is the best buddy in khaki. (Trailer)
Given their age, these films look pretty amazing. There’s all kinds of grain, but dirt, scratches, and other imperfections are minimal, and there were no sprocket skips that I noticed. On the silent films, the sepia tone feels natural, but it’s a little strange seeing spot color: fire blazing from plane-mounted machine guns, or trailing from a plane that’s headed for a big crash. But you get used to it.
“The Big Parade” features a Dolby Digital 2.0 music score with English tiles and English and French subtitles, while “Wings” offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 orchestral option as well as the 2.0 pipe organ music track, with tiles in English and subtitles in French and Spanish. “The Dawn Patrol” and “Sergeant York” are in Dolby Digital Mono with the former having English and Spanish subtitles and the latter French as well. None of the sound is remarkable, but the hiss and pop have been significantly reduced on these old films.
Each film is already available as a stand-alone title, with “The Big Parade” and “Wings” also available on Blu-ray. But they’re grouped here for the first time. Each movie and bonus features are on one disc, but “Sergeant York” is a two-disc set.
“The Big Parade” features a decent commentary track by historian Jeffrey Vance with director King Vidor, as well as a vintage studio tour that’s fun and fascinating and theatrical trailer.
“Wings” offers just a single bonus feature: “Grandeur in the Sky,” a making-of retrospective.
“The Dawn Patrol” includes several short features: a Warner Night at the Movies, musical shorts “The Prisoner of Swing” and “Romance Road,” the classic cartoon “What Price Porky?” and theatrical trailers.
“Sergeant York” is comes with a separate disc of bonus materials. Included are a commentary from film historian Jeanine Basinger, a making-of featurette “Of God and Country” a vintage biographical profile on “Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend,” a classic cartoon “Porky’s Preview,” the vintage short “Lions for Sale,” and Gary Cooper film trailers.
If you don’t have an anti-Silent Film bias, this collection is a good one. I would give “The Big Parade” and “Wings” an 8 out of 10, and “The Dawn Patrol” and “Sergeant York” a 7 out of 10. But if you’d ask me which film I enjoyed the most, as a lover of old swashbuckler’s I’d have to say “The Dawn Patrol.” Given the other films and the fantastic packaging, the “World War I Centennial Commemorative Collection” merits an 8 out of 10.