The Great Waldo Pepper
|The Great Waldo Pepper|
Theatrical release poster by Gary Meyer
|Directed by||George Roy Hill|
|Produced by||George Roy Hill|
|Written by||George Roy Hill
|Music by||Henry Mancini|
|Editing by||William H. Reynolds|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Release dates||March 13, 1975|
|Running time||107 minutes|
The Great Waldo Pepper is a 1975 drama film directed, produced, and co-written by George Roy Hill. Set during 1926–1931, the movie stars Robert Redford as a disaffected World War I veteran pilot who missed the opportunity to fly in combat and his sense of dislocation post-war in the America of the early 1920s. The movie questions the concept of heroism, essentially by seeing it as a quality rather than a deed. Margot Kidder, Bo Svenson, Edward Hermann and Susan Sarandon round out the cast.
World War I veteran Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford) feels he has missed out on the glory of aerial combat after being made a flight instructor. After the war, Waldo had taken up barnstorming to make a living. He soon tangled with rival barnstormer (and fellow war veteran) Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson).
Enemies at first, Waldo and Axel become partners and try out various stunts. One of these stunts, a car-to-plane transfer, goes wrong and Waldo is nearly killed after Axel is unable to climb high enough for Waldo's body to clear a barn and Waldo slams into it. Waldo then goes home to Kansas to recuperate with an earlier lover Maude (Margot Kidder) and her family. Maude, however, is not happy to see Waldo at first; because every time she does, Waldo is injured in some way. But eventually they make up and are lovers once again. Meanwhile, Maude's brother Ezra (Edward Hermann), an old friend of Waldo's, promises to build Waldo a high-performance monoplane as soon as Waldo is well enough to fly it. Waldo's goal is to be the first pilot in history to perform an outside loop, and Ezra feels that Waldo can do it with the monoplane he built.
In the meantime, Waldo recuperates and rejoins Axel and the two eventually get a job flying for a traveling flying circus owned by Doc Dillhoefer (Philip Bruns). In an effort to attract bigger crowds, Dillhoefer hires Waldo's and Axel's friend Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon) to act as the show's sexual attraction. As the show moves from town to town, and the crew practices new stunts; they experience problems, errors, and crashes. As a result of the death of Mary Beth during a wing walking stunt, Waldo is grounded by an inspector of the newly formed Air Commerce division of the Federal government, a man from Waldo's past during the war named Newt (Geoffrey Lewis). Tragedy occurs at the Dillhoefer Circus when Ezra attempts the outside loop in his monoplane. He crashes on the third attempt and the crowds rush out of the stands to see the wreckage. Some of the spectators are smoking as they watch Waldo struggle to free Ezra. One of the cigarettes is flicked into gas as it leaks from the plane, eventually burning Ezra to death as no one helps Waldo save him from the wreckage. With that, Waldo goes on a rampage, jumps in his plane and begins buzzing the crowd because they refused to move away from the burning wreckage, which leads to permanent grounding of Waldo.
However, this doesn't stop Waldo from flying for long. Using an alias so that he may continue flying despite being grounded, Waldo gets a job as a stunt pilot in a Hollywood film depicting the air battles of the Great War. Famous German air ace Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin) has also been hired by the producers, as a consultant and to fly a Fokker Dr. I replica. The disillusioned, bitter and heavy drinking depiction of Kessler is based on the real German ace and stunt pilot Ernst Udet. During filming of a famous wartime duel, though their aircraft is unarmed, Waldo and Kessler begin dogfighting in deadly earnest, using their airplanes as weapons, each repeatedly colliding with the other—Waldo in a Sopwith Camel, Kessler in the Fokker. Eventually, they both realize that their planes are too damaged to land. Instead of further fighting, each salutes the other, and flies his own way. As the sound fades, the last shot of the film is of a page in an album. One of the pictures is of Waldo, and beneath it is a caption that reads, "Waldo Pepper. 1895–1931".
- Robert Redford as Waldo Pepper
- Bo Svenson as Axel Olsson
- Bo Brundin as Ernst Kessler
- Susan Sarandon as Mary Beth
- Geoffrey Lewis as Newt, Air Commerce guy
- Edward Hermann as Ezra Stiles
- Philip Bruns as Dillhoefer
- Roderick Cook as Werfel
- Kelly Jean Peters as Patsy
- Margot Kidder as Maude Stiles
The movie was a passion project for director George Roy Hill who was a pilot. He and William Goldman had what Goldman described as "a huge falling out" during the middle of Goldman writing the screenplay but they managed to complete the project.
This movie was filmed in Elgin, Texas. Aerial sequences were filmed at Zuehl Airfield near San Antonio which was not too far from Fort Sam Houson where the pioneering silent aviation classic Wings was shot in 1926-27. Several aerial scenes were also filmed over the Sebring, FL Airport; (also known for the 12 Hours of Sebring, Le Mans-style endurance race). Hill, who flew with the U.S. Marine Corps, made sure stars Bo Svenson and Robert Redford did each sequence with no parachutes or security harnesses. He wanted them to feel what it was like to fly vintage aircraft. No one got hurt during the air scenes. Of course, at times Hill had to comply with safety rules; as when he shot the Mary Beth death scene, Susan Sarandon was placed out on the wing of one of the planes for Mary Beth's "fear shots" and then replaced by a dummy to depict Mary Beth falling off the wing to her death.
The film has only been available on DVD since 2010. There are no extra features in the DVD.
The film opened to mixed to good reviews, and the biggest praise went to the film's aerial sequences, including the climatic fight between Waldo Pepper and Kessler. The scene featured a real Sopwith Camel and a Fokker Triplane and was patterned after a real air dogfight between German pilot Ernst Udet and French ace Georges Guynemer that happened in 1917.
- The Great Waldo Pepper at the Internet Movie Database
- The Great Waldo Pepper at the TCM Movie Database
- The Great Waldo Pepper at Box Office Mojo
- The Great Waldo Pepper, rottentomatoes.com