Wings shared the first Best Picture Oscar with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, and in a sense that honor has haunted the film. It’s hard to stand on your own when you’re continually being compared to one of the best movies ever made. It turns out that Wings, though no Sunrise, is also nothing to sneeze at. It’s far more conventional in many ways, but still hugely thrilling and also more sophisticated than its reputation suggests. Sure, this is mostly propaganda, a self-described memorial to the men who sacrificed their lives in World War I, but at the same time it’s honest enough to include a scene—60 years before Born on the Fourth of July—in which a returning soldier makes a tearful confession to the family of a lost pilot. Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen are the small-town rivals who end up in the same squadron, and the film largely follows them through their training and eventual missions. Clara Bow tags along as the girl-next-door who ends up delivering medical supplies on the front, where she continues to pine for Rogers’ pilot. Bow has great comic timing and an impish spunk, so it’s refreshing that she wasn’t left to pine back home. There is a nice use of technique throughout, including a fancy tracking zoom over the tables of a nightclub that Rian Johnson borrowed for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but the real stars are the flight scenes. Director William Wellman and cinematographer Harry Perry, working with about a dozen photographers, capture an airborne sense of elation and occasional moments of sublime composition (a profile shot of Rogers in his open cockpit, three other biplanes staggered behind him in the distance, nears perfection). One sequence ends with four planes softly disappearing into a mountain range of clouds, followed by the intertitle: “On the high sea of heaven.” When Wings is at its best, this isn’t hyperbole, but description.