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The Wings: A 100-Year-Old Gay Silent Film

by CHARLIE PURCELL

Welcome to the uncharted waters of 2016, a year that promises an increasingly frustrating election cycle, plenty of climate change horror stories, and the moment everyone stops being impressed that hoverboards are real. Oh, and a bunch of gay-themed movies are going to hit the screen.

Star Nils Asther in a scene from the film.

In the last few years, we’ve seen this subgenre explode with indie films, critical darlings, and mainstream hits. Cinema has become gayer than ever, and more and more of the silver screen’s queer characters are well-rounded and non-stereotypical. We’ve come a long way from the universally negative gay characters of movies past.

It’s a brand new age of queer cinema, so what better time to rediscover some of the forgotten gay films of the past century? Perhaps we can find something French and depressing… Or a grainy Western with homoerotic undertones… Or a locked room mystery with a couple coded gays thrown in for good measure.

How about watching a gay silent film from exactly 100 years ago?

Director Mauritz Stiller on set with his crew.

Director Mauritz Stiller on set with his crew.

 

For those of you who might doubt that such a movie exists, let me draw your attention to The Wings, a Swedish film from 1916 about a gay sculptor, his bisexual model and lover, and a manipulative rich lady who gets between them. It’s silent, so there’s plenty of big eyes and longing glances, and there’s of course a super-dramatic ending where (spoiler alert) the gay artist dies in a flashing storm. In other words, it’s a typical silent film, but with a suspiciously modern love triangle at its center.

And let me repeat, this film is a century old. For anyone who has seen a black-and-white film where gayness was merely hinted at (in scary or demeaning terms), the existence of this movie is a real eye-opener.

The Wings was based on a Swedish novel by Herman Bang (one of Henrik Ibsen’s best friends). While the book took a lot of liberties, it was supposedly based on the life of Auguste Rodan (the guy who sculpted “The Thinker”), a French guy who finally married at the age of 77, just weeks before his wife died and months before he died. Rodan is, of course, one of the most famous sculptors of all time, and this story is based more on the idea of his life than the actual reality of it.

Director Mauritz Stiller.

Director Mauritz Stiller.

The Wings was one of the first films to use a framing device at the beginning and end. It was directed by Mauritz Stiller, a man who, while alive, was considered one of the greatest silent film directors in the world. He discovered Greta Garbo, renamed her, and brought her to America. After his death, though, he’s probably most famous for having a misspelled name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Maurice Diller), a mistake that no one seemed to notice until the late 80s.

Unfortunately, most of this 70-minute film is now lost forever. Only about 30 minutes survives, but a late 80s restoration pieced together the rest of the film with still photos and recreated title cards. However, anyone curious about this film can always watch the remake!

Michael is a 1924 German film (also silent) that retells the same story. It’s directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Danish director who made two of the greatest silent films of all time (Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc). The plot is basically the same (same melodrama, same downer ending), and the entire thing is up on YouTube for anyone to watch!

Perhaps the most fascinating part of watching a gay silent film is discovering how much is spelled out versus how much is implied. For instance, the film shows the sculptor and the model when they first meet, and the chemistry is instant and obvious, but then it skips forward an unspecified amount of time to after they’ve established some sort of relationship. This can get a bit frustrating, but it’s certainly more explicit than anything else made in that time period. Besides, this fill-in-the-blank approach to storytelling is just something that comes with silent films. You watch these little moments (longing glances, two male hands almost touching), and you piece the story together in your brain.

Of course, silent films aren’t for everyone. Modern audiences often view these films as education rather than entertainment. But the fact that these two films exist at all (or, in the case of The Wings, once existed) is a pretty great message for the young gay people of today. The past wasn’t always a parade of intolerance, and there were times when our stories were being told on the big screen long before we were even born.


Charlie Purcell is an American living and working on beautiful Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania. He’s a teacher by day and a writer by night. His latest novel, a road trip romance called Rev Your Engines, will be available on Amazon next month. For updates on his novels and short stories, visit ThisIsCharliePurcell.blogspot.com.

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