Barnstorming From the Heartland to Hollywood – The Great Waldo Pepper

The Great Waldo Pepper, directed by George Roy Hill and written by William Goldman, is a film I only discovered a couple of years ago and man, do I wish I had it as a kid.  Just like how Raiders of the Lost Ark made me want to be an archaeologist, and Spider-Man made me want to be bitten by a spider, The Great Waldo Pepper made me wish I were a pilot.

Like Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels, The Great Waldo Pepper is worth a watch for the spectacular stunts alone. Released in 1975, the film follows Robert Redford as a pilot right when the magic of flying seemed to be wearing off, seeming more and more normal to his flock of potential customers. This is the end of what was called “Barnstorming”, where pilots would travel from town to town, taking passengers for rides, always willing to show off.  Made, obviously, without the helping hand of computer generated effects, I can’t think of any other film where you’ll see Robert Redford wing-walk on a bi-plane at 6,000 feet with no parachute. The stunts here start at edge-of-your-seat and only get more impressive as the two-hour film continues on.

A bit of a warning: if you’ve tried Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and found you’re a heartless misery-guts who can’t handle something that twee and sentimental, then maybe The Great Waldo Pepper isn’t for you… Because if ever there were one big twee, sentimental with a touch of the bittersweet cornball film, this is it.

But that’s Goldman’s trick. He did it in Butch Cassidy and he’s done it here. He pulls you in with just how fun everything is, all the more exciting with the ever-charismatic Robert Redford taking the wheel, and then he hits you smack in the face. William Goldman is a master of the kind of Hollywood fakery that had been perfected by the likes of Billy Wilder. Stories that are, from the way the characters speak to the relatively straightforward way the stories unfold, total artifice and not pretending to be otherwise. But within that artifice is a core of real emotional truth, reality where it really counts.

In interviews, William Goldman is notoriously down on his own writing and The Great Waldo Pepper certainly hasn’t swung clear of his ire. He’s said he would never have written it if George Roy Hill hadn’t been so into planes, but this isn’t a script written by someone uncaring of the story or its characters. Goldman is one of the few screenwriters who’s ever flawlessly walked the tight-rope between light-heartedness and tragedy. It’s something he attempted here again and, admittedly, in Waldo Pepper it’s a harder pill to swallow.

Hill and Goldman seem to have tried their best to establish the stakes and danger of the film’s premise. The opening shots show a wall covered in black and white photos of pilots, their ages beneath, all implied to have died young. But that doesn’t soften the impact when, around halfway through the picture, death brutally enters. Goldman’s talked of how one particular moment in the film seemed to have been taken by the audience as a betrayal, too dark for what they thought the first half had promised them.

But while Goldman may think this is where he failed, I think this is exactly where Waldo Pepper succeeds. It took me back to when I was a kid, when I was watching Star Wars, or James Bond, or Indiana Jones for the first time and I was still learning the classic story tropes, everything was still a discovery, not a thing came already expected. Waldo Pepper doesn’t wear its twists and its subversions like badges of honour, none of that on-the-nose Avant Garde genre-breaking attitude you tend to get. It’s just an exciting adventure and one that’s still surprising and unexpected no matter your age.


Written By Tom May

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