The early 20th century was a landscape of progression in more ways than one, with swirling progressive attitudes forging new paths and breeding new revolutionaries. As the feminist movement saw landmark changes and shifting social norms, prohibition began to be questioned and an air of cultural change drifted throughout the Western world. The same could be said for the gay rights movement, making small steps towards progression despite continued oppression through the 1920s and ‘30s.
Marking constant shifts in behaviours and attitudes towards oppressed communities, such fluctuating attitudes were reflected in cinema yet mediated by harsh censorship rules that by today’s standards seem archaic. Thomas Edison’s landmark 1896 film, The Kiss, for example, was accused at the time of being a threat to morality, cited by the Roman Catholic Church as “shocking”, and described by a critic at the time as being “absolutely disgusting”. Over 30 years later came another significant cinematic kiss, the first gay kiss in film history, appearing in William A. Wellman’s 1927 film Wings.
Wellman’s film was joined by an increasing amount of progressive art that questioned the reality of current gay rights, including English author Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian-themed novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. Wings is a romantic war drama that follows two air force pilots in WWI each vying for the attention of a beautiful young woman, whilst slowly discovering their own passionate love for one another. Referred to as a ‘friendship’ throughout the film, perhaps to dodge censorship regulations, it is abundantly clear that it is more of a romantic connection and one that ends with a dramatic kiss in each other’s arms.
“You know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship,” Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) utters, to which Dave (Richard Arlen) replies: “I knew it – all the time”. Perhaps a subtle (or not so subtle) reference to the gay undertones of the film’s subtext, the scene itself is a powerful one, showcasing the last moments of the two lovers’ relationship alongside a sombre stringed score. By carefully towing the censorship line, Wellman’s silent film manages to capture one of the earliest pieces of LGBT cinema, exploring the repressed desires of two men caught in both the physical conflict of WWI, as well as the mental turmoil of a forbidden relationship.
Wings was, as a result, incredibly well-received and acclaimed as an excellent piece of cinema first and foremost. The fact that there was little controversy surrounding the kiss itself is a testament to the film, a moment well contextualised within a larger story. This was not a provocative moment of cinema, but a mere natural conclusion to a harrowing love story. The film is today remembered not only for its pioneering attitudes toward LGBT conversations but also for its technical prowess, becoming a significant benchmark for the future of technical air-combat sequences. So influential was the film that it became the first-ever winner of Best Picture in 1929, the only silent film to ever win the award.
Wings reflects a growing sympathy for LGBT stories by placing the key relationship at the heart of the romantic wartime film and would later represent a pioneering waypoint in the history of civil-rights cinema.