One doesn’t generally reach for the word lyrical when describing a ’70s TV movie, but the adjective suits The Winds of Kitty Hawk, which dramatizes the adventures of flight innovators the Wright Brothers with a touch of poetry thanks to evocative locations, a lilting musical score, and a quietly insistent leading performance by Michael Moriarty. How much artistic license was taken with facts about the Wrights and their competitors is a discussion for another space, but whether or not The Winds of Kitty Hawk is wholly accurate, it’s a gently compelling drama. Set at the dawn of the 20th century, the story sprawls across several summers during which the driven Wilbur Wright (Moriarty) and his indefatigable brother, Orville (David Huffman), visited the titular location in the Carolinas to refine their groundbreaking flying machines.
The scenes taking place in Kitty Hawk are the film’s most engrossing, because the otherworldly location of endless sand dunes buttressing an ocean accentuates the magic involved with advancing the human species. As the picture makes clear, the Wrights didn’t invent flying machines, but rather perfected them in important ways; this nuance powers the plot, because the Wrights are in a race with other inventors to register the crucial first patent on a fully realized airplane. For example, just when the Wrights seem close to a breakthrough, they fall into competition with fellow aviation innovator Glenn Curtiss (Scott Hylands), whom the film portrays as stealing his best ideas from the Wrights and thereby snowing millionaire Alexander Graham Bell (John Randolph) into backing a Curtiss vehicle instead of a Wright Brothers vehicle.
As directed by the prolific TV helmer E.W. Swackhamer—who obviously benefited from better material than he usually got—the picture does a fine job of balancing character study with procedural minutia. So, just as the picture contrasts the superhuman determination of Wilbur with the more grounded pragmatism of Orville, the picture toggles comfortably between small scenes of the Wright Brothers working out mechanical specifics with larger scenes of, say, Curtiss and Wilbur squaring off in high-stakes flying contests. The film’s re-creations of early planes merit special mention, because whether these vehicles are shown in long shots via miniatures, in close-ups via partial mockups, or in medium shots via full-size replicas, the illusions The Winds of Kitty Hawk creates are just good enough to give viewers a sense of what it must have been like to rise from the sand dunes and cruise along air currents. Designed as a loving tribute to the Wright Brothers, rather than a probing examination, The Winds of Kitty Hawk is more inspirational than educational—but it’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
The Winds of Kitty Hawk: GROOVY