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William Wellman was a WWI pilot who used his military experience to direct the war drama ‘Wings’ in 1927. It was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture

Stefan Andrews

William Wellman was a distant descendant of Francis Lewis of New York, one of the signatories of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. He had a rather eventful four months as part of the French Air Force during WWI and afterward forged a successful career for himself in Hollywood.

At first, Wellman served as an ambulance driver during WWI but later was assigned as a fighter pilot at the end of 1917. He was the first American to join the N.87 Escadrille in the Lafayette Flying Corps, a squadron which featured American pilots who flew bona fide on the French side. It was in this unit where he picked up his fabulous nickname “Wild Bill.” Noted for three confirmed kills, plus five probable ones, William was decorated with the Croix de Guerre from the French military. On 21 March 1918, Wellman was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire. He survived the crash but needed to return to the States after medical treatment.

Corporal William Wellman as a first American fighter pilot in N.87 squadron of the France Air Service at the Western front, 1917, photo credit

In the States, Wellman was deployed at Rockwell Field in San Diego where he taught air combat tactics to new pilots. He was too late to fly for the US Army Air Service himself. During weekends, he would fly his Spad fighter to Los Angeles, using a polo field in Bel Air as a landing strip. People around him noticed his skillfulness and promised that they would recommend him to some casting studios in Hollywood. William was also interested in entering the film industry after the war, and that’s what he did.

The first notable appearance of Wellman on film came when he took the role of a young officer in the movie Evangeline in 1919. However, he was fired for slapping the actress Miriam Copper, who was the wife of the movie director, Raoul Walsh. ‘Wild Bill’ considered it “unmanly” to be an actor; he hated watching himself on the screen and aspired to become a director instead.

Wellman in a captured German Rumpler, From Wellman’s 1918 account “Go Get Em”, a book he published about his time being at the French Air Force

 

Wellman worked his way up the ladder. His first uncredited directorial debut followed in 1920 for Fox’s The Twins of Suffering Creek. In 1923, he was credited for the first time for directing The Man Who Won and Second Hand Love. These were low-budget films, but the real deal came in 1927 when he was approached by Paramount and was asked to direct a war drama dealing with fighter pilots during WWI, entitled Wings. The plot culminated with the major Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which was fought from 12-15 September 1918. The script seemed to be a perfect match.

Photo of biplane fighter aircraft Spad VII. Wellman used one of these to fly from San Diego to Hollywood during weekends

Wellman’s weekly payment was $250 to direct the movie, and he also took the role of a German pilot. During the making of the film, there were 3,500 soldiers, 65 pilots, and 165 aircraft employed. The film went well over budget and over schedule as Wellman was determined to make it perfect; this was a cause for tension in the studio and at one point he was about to be fired. It took more than a year for the film to be completed, but once it was released, it was highly successful.

Wings introduced several pioneering new developments to the art of filmmaking. These included a newly invented camera mount that was secured to plane fuselage and a motor-driven type of the camera used to shoot actors as they were flying. Towers up to hundred feet in height were also used to shoot low-flying planes and combat on the ground as well. Stunt pilots were not able to appear in close-up shots. Hence the leading actors also needed to learn flying for the film. The silent movie also helped Gary Cooper on the path to stardom, as he was cast in a small role.

Wings (1927) film poster.

Wings (1927) film poster.

 

The film made history as the first of two films which won Best Picture at the very First Academy Award in 1927.

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Wellman was not invited to the ceremony as he was still angry with the studio. In 1937, he picked up another Academy Award for A Star is Born.