The Man and His Wings
William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture
by William Wellman Jr.
February 2006, 208pp, 6x9
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-0-275-98541-7
$45, £35, 40€, A62
eBook Available: 978-0-313-04314-7
Please contact your preferred eBook vendor for pricing.

When former World War I flying ace William Wild Bill Wellman directed the war epic Wings, he invented techniques still used to film aerial combat and earned the first Oscar for Best Picture in the process. In this revealing biography of the maverick director, Wellman’s son recounts the extraordinary life this often-overlooked visionary of early Hollywood.

William Wild Bill Wellman was not Paramount Pictures’ first choice to direct the World War I epic Wings (1927), but as a former aviator and war hero, he was the right choice. Despite months waging epic battles of his own with studio executives, Wild Bill managed to finish the big-budget war saga by inventing many of the techniques still used to film aerial battle scenes. The film, starring Clara Bow, broke box office records and earned its studio the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Considered by many to be the last great film of the silent era, Wings has been cited as a major influence on such directors as Martin Scorsese and Robert Redford. Its director, who went on to direct the likes of John Wayne, James Cagney, and Gary Cooper, later earned an Oscar for writing one of Hollywood’s most loved (and often remade) films, A Star is Born. In this biography, the director’s son, William Wellman Jr., reveals the war hero, family man, occasional prankster, and underestimated visionary who changed Hollywood forever.

Augmented with personal correspondence from Wellman’s own World War I tour of duty as a fighter pilot, on-set photographs from Wings and other classic Hollywood films, and anecdotes from the back lots of the early studio system, this unique work traces the way in which the first Best Picture’s director used his own war experience to bring a war epic to the screen. The versatile director also excelled at comedies such as Nothing Sacred (1937), and had a lasting influence on the gangster genre with The Public Enemy (1931), starring James Cagney. With the recent release of Wellman’s later aviation classics, Island in the Sky (1953) and The High and the Mighty (1954), both starring John Wayne, Wellman is gaining renewed attention and appreciation from a new generation of film enthusiasts. The book ends with a detailed Filmography of more than 75 classic films directed by Wellman.


"[A]n affecting portrait of a young man learning to shoulder the sky and using that experience to shoulder a career that was more intense and interesting than those most of us know. Bill Wellman was of a generation that came to the movies not from film school but from life and always knew they could go back where they came from without regret. It made them bolder, braver--and, God knows, less pretentious filmmakers than those who came after them. And bolder, braver, less pretentious men as well."—Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2006

"[A]n amazing book, part fond memorial, part family scrapbook--packed with unseen photos, mementos of Hollywood's Golden Age, and letters from the front--whose intimate, handmade feel is part of its enormous charm. Wellman's critical rehabilitation is long overdue: let's hope this riveting book will get the job under way."—DGA Quarterly, 00/00/00

"With The Man and His Wings, author William Wellman Jr. pays tribute not only to his father, who died in 1975, but also to the maverick creative spirit that drove him....Like any good book about movies -- and this most definitely is one -- it makes you want to see the subject's films, whether for the first time or for the 50th."—Winston-Salem Journal (NC), August 6, 2006

"The first Academy Awards announced in 1929 went to William Wellman's 1927 anti-war epic Wings, the film which invented many techniques still used to film aerial battle scenes: Wellman went on to direct other films and stars, but WINGS remained his opus. Man and His Wings, The: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture could've been reviewed in our film section, but is featured here for its inclusion of family documents, mementos and personal correspondence from his father's World War I background to reveal the military influences of a director who would change Hollywood forever. A fine behind the scenes look at both Wellman and World War I experiences."—California Bookwatch, June 1, 2006

"If there is one through-line in Wellmans career it is his devotion to aviation, and this book focuses largely on his life-changing experiences during World War One, when he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps in France. Fortunately his letters home were saved, and they provide the most personal and revelatory passages in this volume. They are accompanied by previously unpublished family photos. Wellman, Jr. then illustrates how his fathers life experiences informed his work behind the camera, leading up to his production of the World War One aviation epic Wings in 1927. The Man and His Wings is a slender but welcome addition to the film history bookshelf, all the more so since Frank Thompsons excellent career study of Wellman and the directors autobiography (A Short Time for Insanity) are out of print."—Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy Leonard's Picks, January 1, 2006

"What makes the book remarkable is not the Hollywood material but the director's experiences during World War I. In 1917, Wellman was a borderline juvenile delinquent from Brookline, Mass., when he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps and was assigned to the famous Black Cat squadron, a group of 15 pilots, all of whom were French except Wellman....Wellman Jr. combines an unfinished autobiographical manuscript of his father's and the wonderful letters from World War I to bring us a fascinating book about a man whose type is extinct in show business today."—Palm Beach Post, April 30, 2006

"Wellman's letter from France in World War I are a great discovery and add much to this rip-roaring tale of the early movies."—Kevin Brownlow, author of Mary Pickford, Rediscovered and The Parade's Gone By...

"Wild Bill Wellman was one of a kind, and so is this chronicle of his life and adventures leading up to the making of Wings. I was especially touched by his letters home from France during World War I; now I understand a bit more about the young heroes he depicted on screen."—Leonard Maltin, author of Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide and Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia: Career Profiles of More Than 2,000 Actors and Filmmakers Past and Present

"The story of William Wellman is the story of a great adventurer who became a great director. The Man and His Wings documents both halves of the equation, with an unprecedented intimacy, fueled by Wellman's correspondence from the airfields of France during World War I, and his own oral histories and unpublished manuscripts. It's primary Hollywood history, of course, but it's also primary military history, as told by a man whose superb eye for character detail and epic sweep was already in evidence as an astonishingly intrepid pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps."—Scott Eyman, author of Lion of Hollywood and Print the Legend
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