Anyone interested in how far we've come with motion-picture special effects — and not always for the better — may want to take note of the timely releases of "Red Tails" and "Wings" within just a few days of each other.
"Red Tails," a new film in theaters now, is a big World War II action flick from producer George Lucas — yes, that George Lucas — about African-American combat pilots during World War II, the largely unsung heroes of the Tuskegee Airmen.
"Wings," making its DVD/Blu-ray debut (it's about time), is an ambitious 1927 silent epic about American combat fliers in World War I, the first movie to tackle this airborne subject and the winner of the first Academy Award for best picture.
Though based on historical facts, both pictures are fictional; both are ultra melodramatic, embracing a lot of wartime-movie cliches; and both are at their best when they are in the air.
Of course, "Wings" has an excuse for embracing its tropes. In 1927, they weren't yet overused cliches — and a case could be made that this film helped establish them. The character interactions in "Red Tails" play like an old John Wayne wartime picture, probably not the best selling point in 2012.
Also, when "Wings" is in the air, it's really in the air. While "Red Tails" relies on whiz-bang digitally animated enhancement (the planes sometimes move like "Star Wars" TIE fighters), the aircraft in "Wings" aren't faking it.
What you see are real biplanes, dozens of them, circling through the clouds and actually engaging one another. No miniatures, no paintings and no rear-projection, as would become the standard a few years later. This is the real deal.
Those who are blindly enamored of computer graphics imagery and the modern cartoony look that so many movies take on today may ask, so what?
Most young people raised on CGI don't know the difference when they see massive numbers of soldiers in, say, "300" — those background dots created on a computer screen, along with some of the land mass. They should take a look at "Spartacus," for example — the 1960 film, not the current cable TV show — and note that every crowd scene really is made up of flesh-and-blood human beings on a real, massive landscape.
When they said "with a cast of thousands," they meant it.
To compare the airborne skirmishes in "Red Tails" with those in "Wings" is to be blown away — by the 85-year-old silent epic.
Not that I'm against CGI, mind you. In fact, this new restoration of "Wings" — released on the 100th anniversary of its studio, Paramount Pictures — looks fabulous, thanks to no small amount of digital magic.
Technicians meticulously labored over the damaged duplicate negative, sprucing it up in a big way, attempting to replicate the original release prints that included tinting for various scenes and flashes of yellow flames for machine-gun fire (the original-release film prints were hand-painted on a frame-by-frame basis).
All of which serves to make even more vivid the sequences of long-distance formations in the sky, the dogfights with biplanes swooping in on each other, guns literally blazing, and close-ups of the actors in the cockpits, emoting as they flew the planes themselves with cameras attached to the nose.
You may be asking, where did the planes come from?
According to John Douglas Eames' book "The Paramount Story," in 1926, just eight years after the end of World War I, the studio gained unprecedented cooperation from the U.S. Army Air Corps. After agreeing to shoot on location near San Antonio, the film crew had access to literally hundreds of airplanes and thousands of extras — soldiers who were in training at flight schools.
They also had a director in William Wellman who was a decorated combat pilot, a veteran of the war with some specific ideas about how the film should be shot.
But Paramount was taking a chance with him, as Wellman was a bit untested at that time, having directed a dozen or more low-budget pictures — but nothing like the extravagant epic that was "Wings."
It turned out to be a safe bet. As mentioned, "Wings" would go on to win the first best-picture Oscar, but it was also a huge box-office hit, running for two years in theaters around the country. (Wellman would go on to helm classics in several genres, including "Nothing Sacred," "A Star Is Born," "The Ox-Bow Incident" and "The High and the Mighty," among others.)
Paramount's hope was to make a film about The Great War that would stand up with two earlier successes from competing studios — MGM's "Big Parade" (1925) and Fox's "What Price Glory" (1926), both focusing on ground troops.
"Wings" not only accomplished Paramount's goal but it also provided a lasting work, one that all these years later remains enthralling and feels surprisingly real.
As for "Red Tails"? Check back with me in 85 years.