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Madolyn Smith Osborne,
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Max von Sydow,
A biplane pilot who had missed flying in WWI takes up barnstorming and later a movie career in his quest for the glory he had missed, eventually getting a chance to prove himself in a film depicting the dogfights in the Great War. Written by
Keith Loh <email@example.com>
A richly detailed period film, "The Great Waldo Pepper" is a wonderful tribute to the early days of American pilots and aviation done with a Norman Rockwell tone.
What is the allure of the skies? Everything else, money, love, companionship, takes a backseat to the thrill and exhilaration Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford) and his fellow pilots experience when barnstorming over mid-west America, circa 1934. Director George Roy Hill, one of the best in the business, explores this feeling but gives us no easy answers. As the story of Waldo Pepper unfolds, we must decide for ourselves what motivates these aviation pioneers to climb into their Curtiss JN-4 biplanes and stunt for the public.
Part of the answer might lie in the fact that many barnstormers of the 1930's had been combat pilots in the First World War. They were young, eager and reckless. Up there, they found a sense of honor and chivarly and more than a few fancied themselves as knights of a new age, their steed now made of fabric, wood, bracing wire and powered by 100 horses spinning a propeller. After the war they came home, happy for the war to be over but missing a feeling that had taken hold of them over the skies of France. Through his original story and an outstanding screenplay written by William Goldman, George Roy Hill has beautifully captured the character of these men and the era in which they lived. And, sadly, occasionally died.
The on ground relationships between the characters have depth and are very believable. Consider Waldo Pepper and his closest childhood friend, Ezra Stiles (wonderfully played by Edward Herrmann). Waldo is a pilot, first and foremost. Ezra, who is also a pilot, prefers designing aircraft to flying. Together, they attempt to design, build, and fly an aircraft to be the first to accomplish an aerial maneuver known as the outside loop. In a conversation while watching an airshow, Waldo questions the feasability of Ezra's design (it's a monoplane in an age when monoplane designs were considered inferior to biplanes). Ezra counters Waldo's questions, in true close friend fashion, with the design stunts Waldo attempted when they were young which caused Waldo injury, concluding with "then don't tell me how to design aircraft". This scene contains humor and also adds depth and believability to their friendship.
The aviation sequences are just as believable and very real. When this film was made in 1975, there were still limitations to special effects. Every shot and scene of the pilots and aircraft are real (and there are quite a few) and incredible. There are no "bluescreen" shots. With every close-up of Robert Redford in the cockpit, you can see he is really in the air. As good as computer effects are today, I still can't see how this could have been done any better. There was also a strong desire on the filmmakers part concerning accuracy. These are aircraft really are JN-4s, Sopwith Camels, and Fokker Triplanes. All period aircraft. And my hats off to Hollywood stunt pilot Frank Tallman (who has passed away since) and his crew for the outstanding stunt flying accomplished in this film. Hollywood legend has it that Mr. Tallman actually ended up in the hospital with two broken legs because of an air accident with high tension wires which occurred during filming.
This is an overlooked, wonderful film. It is both drama and comedy, elements which George Roy Hill and William Goldman bended beutifully together, as in their previous work, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". "The Great Waldo Pepper" is a very heartfelt, human story which captures an era of freedom in the skies which we will, sadly, never see again.
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