A black-and-white, silent movie from 1927 might seem a strange choice as a festival opener, but then, as we were informed in the introduction by a member of staff, it was the first film, and the only silent film, to win an Oscar ("unless you count The Artist, which I don't"), and has been freshly and lavishly restored by Paramount. (We were also warned that there was an 'Intermission' title card halfway through, but we wouldn't be pausing, so don't stand up and start wandering around!)
The film tells the story of a rich boy, a comfortably well off boy, the girl from out of town and the girl next door, plus a comedy Dutchman, as the shadow of war falls across their lives. The three men go off to train as pilots (the Dutchman flunks and reenlists as a mechanic), ending up on the Western Front. Rich Boy and Well Off Boy are both in love with Out Of Town Girl. Out Of Town Girl loves Rich Boy but is kind to Well Off Boy. Girl Next Door loves Well Off Boy. Well Off Boy sees Girl Next Door as a slightly annoying friend. Teddy bear mascot gets left behind in the rush to mount up for the Big Push. Tragedy inevitably ensues.
Obviously I went along for the planes, but the whole thing was surprisingly good. I was expecting exaggerated facial expressions and buckets of melodrama; I got subtle humour, funny dialogue and some surprisingly sweet and touching moments. A few incongruous ones, too, like the repeated glimpses in the aviation recruitment office of a line of bare male bums awaiting medical inspection, and one character dying amidst much pathos only to have his body put on a cart drawn by a large and happy dog.
The flying scenes were particularly well done, and I found them far more stirring than any CGI dogfight (although the way some of the pilots gurned when they were 'hit' made for a few inappropriate chuckles). At one point two planes collided in midair and I gasped and turned my head away, which isn't bad for an 85-year-old film. The flames and machine gun fire were a startling bright orange against the monochrome, and I assume were painted on by hand afterwards.
A real treat, and I wish I were seeing more of the festival (only one other film really appealed, and I'm seeing that on Sunday). Gosh, though, the BFI spoils you for the rustling, talking, texting and underfoot popcorn of mainstream cinema. There'd better not be any of that when I go to see the new Bond.