The Spirit of St. Louis (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Spirit of St. Louis
The Spirit of St. Louis- 1957 - Film Poster.png
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by Leland Hayward
Written by Charles Lederer
Wendell Mayes
Billy Wilder
Starring James Stewart
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography Robert Burks
J. Peverell Marley
Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • April 20, 1957 (1957-04-20)
Running time 135 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $6 million (US)
Box office $2.6 million (US)[1]

The Spirit of St. Louis is a 1957 biographical film directed by Billy Wilder and starring James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. The screenplay was adapted by Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Billy Wilder from Lindbergh's 1953 autobiographical account of his historic flight, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. Along with reminiscences of his early days in aviation, the film depicts Lindbergh's historic 33-hour transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis monoplane from his take off at Roosevelt Field to his landing at Le Bourget Field in Paris on May 21, 1927.


On May 19, 1927, pilot Charles A. "Slim" Lindbergh (James Stewart) tries to rest in a hotel near Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York. He has been waiting for a week for the rain to stop so he can attempt the first successful nonstop solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. While Lindbergh tries to fall asleep, his friend Frank Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson) guards his hotel room door from reporters who have also been waiting for a break in the weather. Unable to sleep, Lindbergh reminisces about his recent days as an airmail pilot flying from St. Louis to Chicago.

Flying to Chicago in winter, Lindbergh lands his old de Havilland biplane in a small airfield to refuel. Despite the bad weather, Lindbergh takes off, unaware that the Chicago landing field has closed due to snow. Lindbergh's aircraft ices up and stalls, forcing him to parachute out with the mailbag. He continues his journey by train and meets a suspender salesman who tells Lindbergh that two airmen just died competing for the Orteig Prize to be awarded to the first pilots to fly from New York City to Paris (or in a reverse direction[N 1]), nonstop.

From a diner at Lambert Flying Field in St. Louis, Lindbergh calls Columbia Aircraft Corporation in New York City, pretending to represent a group of prominent businessmen. Lindbergh is quoted the price of $15,000 (equal to $203,649 today) for a Bellanca aircraft. For the next six weeks, Lindbergh presents his idea of entering the competition to St. Louis financiers and prominent St. Louis citizens, explaining he can cross the ocean in 40 hours in a single-engine aircraft if he strips it of all non-essential weight, allowing room for extra fuel tanks. The men are excited by Lindbergh's vision and name the aircraft, Spirit of St. Louis.

At the request of his backers, Lindbergh travels to San Diego, California to check out a small aircraft factory, Ryan Aeronautical Company. There he meets Mahoney, the president of the company, who promises to build him an aircraft in just 90 days. At the factory, Frank, Lindbergh, and Ryan's chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Space) agree on a design. To decrease weight, Lindbergh refuses to install radios or heavy equipment and plans to navigate by "dead reckoning". [N 2]. In the race to complete the aircraft ahead of schedule, workers at the factory agree to work 24-hour shifts. Lindbergh learns that two pilots, who were vying for the Orteig Prize, were killed during their flight test.

When the Ryan aircraft is complete, Lindbergh flies his new aircraft to St. Louis, and then on to New York. Unable to sleep, Lindbergh leaves his hotel room and goes to Roosevelt Field, where his aircraft is being filled with three hundred gallons of fuel. To decrease weight, he even eliminates the parachute. Because of limited space in the cockpit, the magnetic compass was placed in an awkward position. A young woman offers her mirror, which is then glued into place for the pilot's view. When Lindbergh is not watching, Mahoney slips a Saint Christopher medal into the pilot's lunch bag.

With the weather clearing, Lindbergh and the heavy Spirit of St. Louis trundle down the muddy runway and barely clear the treetops at the end of the field. Every hour, Lindbergh switches fuel tanks to keep the weight load balanced. As he flies over Cape Cod, he realizes he has not slept in 28 hours. He remembers back to times when he slept on railroad tracks, on short bunk beds, and under a windmill. When Lindbergh begins to doze aboard the Spirit of St. Louis, he is awakened by a fly. When he flies over Nova Scotia and sees a motorcyclist below, he remembers his own Harley-Davidson, which he traded for his first aircraft, a war-surplus Curtiss Jenny.

As Lindbergh flies over the seemingly endless Atlantic, he remembers barnstorming across the Midwest and performing dangerous stunts in a flying circus. At the 16th hour, as darkness descends, he worries that an engine cylinder might crack from the cold. The sight of a "white ship", which he soon realizes is an iceberg, is evidence that he is near the Arctic Circle. After 18 hours, the aircraft's wings ice up and the engine stalls. The Spirit of St. Louis begins to drop, but the ice breaks off in the warmer air and he is able to restart the engine. Back on course, Lindbergh discovers that his compasses are malfunctionings, forcing him to navigate by the stars. By dawn, he is so tired he falls asleep, causing the aircraft to circle and descend, but sunlight reflecting off the mirror awakens him in time to regain control.

After Lindbergh sees a seagull and realizes he is close to land, he tries without success to hail a fisherman below. He soon sights land and determines from map features that he has reached Dingle Bay, Ireland. As he reaches for one of his sandwiches, Lindbergh discovers the hidden Saint Christopher medal. Hanging the medal on the instrument panel, he flies on, crossing the English Channel and then up the coast of France, following the Seine to Paris. Once again the engine cuts out, from lack of fuel, but he is able to recover by switching tanks. Evening descends and Lindbergh finally sees the lights of Paris ahead of him. As he approaches Le Bourget Airfield, he is confused by the spotlights. He doesn't understand that the strange movements below him are actually crowds of people. Exhausted and panicked, Lindbergh makes his descent whispering a prayer, "Oh, God help me!" After landing, hordes of people rush to Lindbergh, blind him with camera flashes, and carry him off triumphantly to the hangar. Tired and confused, Lindbergh eventually realizes that the crowds are cheering for his great achievement. When Lindbergh returns to New York, he is given a huge parade in his honor.



Jimmy Stewart with the aircraft model used in the film

When production began in August 1955, Jack Warner offered the role to John Kerr, who turned it down.[4][N 3][5] Numerous sources indicate that Stewart was lobbying Warner Bros. executives for the role of Lindbergh as early as 1954,[4] when he was already in his late 40s, and that he even underwent a strenuous diet and regimen to look more like the real 25-year-old Lindbergh of 1927. Stewart had a lifelong passion relating to Lindbergh and aviation, having related in later life, that the "Lone Eagle"'s flight was one of the most significant episodes of his youth, leading him to seek a career as an aviator.[6] Stewart (with hair dyed blond) was ultimately cast as Lindbergh, but his age was pointedly an issue in post-production reviews.[7]

In order to accurately depict the transatlantic flight, three replicas at a cost of $1.3 million (equal to $11,444,845 today) were made of the "Spirit of St. Louis" for the various film units stateside, in Europe, and for studio work.[8] A similar Ryan Brougham was bought by Stewart and modified with Lindbergh's supervision. It was donated to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan by Stewart in 1959,[9] and a second replica at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.,[10] The third replica is displayed in the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.[11] Filming took place at the Santa Maria Public Airport in Santa Maria, California, at what is currently the site of Allan Hancock College. A non-flying replica for ground shots was also built, and hangs in the Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport.[12] Aerial sequences were directed by Paul Mantz and taken from a North American B-25 bomber converted as camera platform for photography.[13][N 4]

In order to begin work, a small preproduction crew was sent in August 1955 to New York, to film at Roosevelt Field in Long Island, and later, aerial sequences over the Appalachian Mountains in Nova Scotia and at St. John's, Newfoundland, recreating the initial stages of the transatlantic flight. Principal photography began on September 2, 1955, with filming taking place at L'aérodrome de Guyancourt, near Versailles, which would stand-in for le Bourget. Difficulties with Stewart's schedule led to the abandoning of aerial sequences that had been planned with the veteran pilot actually flying one of the replicas over European locales. Ultimately, staged scenes using a mock-up in a soundstage would have to suffice. The schedule was disrupted throughout the fall and only resumed in November when Stewart had completed two other films. The original 64-day schedule ballooned into a 115-day marathon as weather and the star's unavailability hampered the production, with final sequences shot in March 1956.[15]

Aaron Spelling appears as Mr. Fearless in an uncredited role, that marked his early forays into acting.


Previews had not been promising, and when released in April 1957, after being in production for 20 months, The Spirit of St. Louis was a box-office failure mainly due to its huge budget (running at $6 million, more than twice the original budget). Garnering mixed reviews, with Bosley Crowther at The New York Times praising the "... exciting and suspenseful episodes" while noting Stewart's performance as Lindbergh did not convey the human side well. "We see very little of his basic nature, his home life or what makes him tick. As Mr. Stewart plays him, with his usual diffidence, he is mainly a type. That's too bad, for after all these years of waiting, it would be interesting if we could see what it was about the fellow that made him uniquely destined for his historic role."[16] However, the film was commended for its special effects and James Stewart’s competent performance. In 1957, Time magazine described the film in these words, "Stewart, for all his professional, 48-year-old boyishness, succeeds almost continuously in suggesting what all the world sensed at the time: that Lindbergh's flight was not the mere physical adventure of a rash young 'flying fool' but rather a journey of the spirit, in which, as in the pattern of all progress, one brave man proved himself for all mankind as the paraclete of a new possibility."[17]

In recent years, the film has regained some of its lustre and a modern reevaluation has centered on the characterization of Lindbergh and the methodical depiction of the preparations for the momentous flight. The Smithsonian Institution has recently screened the film as part of its "classic" series and the DVD rerelease in 2006, with remixed and digitized elements and a small number of special features, has evoked commentary such as "captivating" and "suspenseful."[18]

Awards and honors[edit]

At the 1958 Academy Awards, Louis Lichtenfield earned a nomination for Best Special Effects. The film has also been ranked #69 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers.



  1. ^ The Orteig Prize offered by Paris hotelier Raymond Orteig, could be claimed by aviators completing the flight in either direction.[2]
  2. ^ Dead reckoning estimates position by using a previously known position and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time and course.
  3. ^ An urban myth has developed involving James Dean. After completing the film Giant in mid-1955, James Dean was reputedly asked to play the role of Charles Lindbergh, but Dean died in an auto accident on September 30, 1955, before filming on Spirit of St. Louis could begin. At the time of his death, Dean was 25, the same age as Lindbergh was when he made the famous flight across the Atlantic.[4]
  4. ^ On a bet from Stewart, the director Wilder flew on top of a biplane for a wingwalker stunt.[14]


  1. ^ "Top Grosses of 1957". Variety, 8 January 1958, p. 30.
  2. ^ "Fate of Nungesser Still a Mystery." The New York Times, May 17, 1927, p. 3.
  3. ^ "Credits: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)}. IMDB. Retrieved: November 28, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c Pickard 1993, p. 176.
  5. ^ IMDB entry and DVD liner notes
  6. ^ McGowan 1992, p. 10.
  7. ^ McGowan 1992, p. 64.
  8. ^ Phillips 2009, p. 180.
  9. ^ Bryan 1996, p. 192.
  10. ^ Hardwick and Schnepf 1989, p. 60.
  11. ^ Kaercher 2005, p. 116.
  12. ^ Andersen 2004, p. 300.
  13. ^ Flying Magazine, September 1958.
  14. ^ Phillips 2009, p. 184.
  15. ^ Phillips 2009, pp. 180–183.
  16. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "Movie Review: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)." The New York Times, February 22, 1957.
  17. ^ Jones et al. 1970, p. 189.
  18. ^ The Spirit of St. Louis DVD. Hollywood, Warner Bros., 2006.


  • Andersen, Elmer L. A Man's Reach. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University Of Minnesota Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8166-3739-3.
  • Bryan, Ford Richardson. Henry's Attic: Some Fascinating Gifts to Henry Ford and his Museum. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0814326428192.
  • Eliot, Mark. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5221-1.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure and Alfred E. Twomey. The Films of James Stewart. New York: Castle Books, 1970.
  • Kaercher, Dan, ed. Best of the Midwest: Rediscovering America's Heartland (Insiders ' Guide). Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot, First edition, 2005. ISBN 978-0-7627-3699-7.
  • McGowan, Helene. James Stewart. London: Bison Group, 1992, ISBN 0-86124-925-9.
  • Phillips, Gene D. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder (Screen Classics). Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8131-2570-1.
  • Pickard, Roy. Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. ISBN 0-312-08828-0.
  • Smith, Starr. Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot. St. Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2005. ISBN 0-7603-2199-X.

External links[edit]