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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
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.
I first saw this film in the theater almost 30 years ago and have caught
it a few times on TV since. Finally, I was able to find a DVD copy on E-Bay
(apparently it is not currently available on DVD through normal means) and I
am glad I did so. This movie has stood the test of time. It is both fun to
watch and has some depth to it - it is not just a piece of
The casting is excellent - not a single actor is unfit for the part. Redford's looks and charisma, coupled with the fact that while he is still pretty young he does have a few visible age lines, make him perfect for the part of a debonair flyboy, ten years removed from World War I, who is stubbornly resisting the increasing regulation of flying as a profession. Bo Svensen is a great complement as the slightly older, more experienced, and more even-keeled Axel Olsson. Geoffrey Lewis' Newt Potts, Pepper's old squadron commander, represents the future that Pepper is trying to avoid. Ed Herrmann is the embodiment of the "seat of your pants" spirit of the early aircraft producers. Phil Bruns is a convincing "carnival barker" as Doc Dillhoeffer. And the Swedish actor Bo Brundin puts in a great turn as Ernst Kessler, German fighter ace turned barnstormer, who has long since realized that the bravery and chivalry he found in the air (both among comrades and opponents) is rarely found on the ground.
Kessler is based on Ernst Udet, the second-highest scoring German ace of WWI. Udet barnstormed after the war, had a shortened version of "Lola" painted on his Fokker D-VII, and had a fight similar to the epic battle that is an important subplot in the movie. Thus it is a nice touch that Udet is shown in the opening photo montage. (It's also good that no sequel was made - I'd hate to see the Kessler character return to Germany, join Hitler's Luftwaffe and commit suicide.)
This is also notable, on a personal level, as the first place I ever saw Susan Sarandon. I've been a fan ever since. Hell, she still looks great.
The flying sequences are magnificent. There's no CGI here, folks. These are real aircraft - beautiful replicas of Curtiss Jennies, Standard E-4's, and of course the Sopwith Camel and Fokker Triplane (plus a few others) - doing real stunt flying. The talented stunt pilots are credited under the umbrella of Tallmantz Aviation, which I'm guessing was formed by legendary stunt pilots Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz. Tallman himself flew in this film (and died in a crash three years later; Mantz died making "Flight of the Phoenix," another of my favorite flight movies, in 1965.) And the climactic sequence, while it may seem unlikely to some, is actually based (perhaps loosely) on a similar incident that occurred during the filming of either "Hells' Angels" or "Wings" in the late 1920's. The only possible anachronism that I can spot is Kessler's stunt plane, which looks a little too advanced for 1928. But I could be wrong there.
Beautiful aircraft, great flying sequences, fine acting, and even a real plot - what more could you want?
Anybody who likes old airplanes, stunt flying or just plain adventure
and an interesting story should like this early Robert Redford film.
Redford plays the "The Great Waldo Pepper" as he barnstorms from place to place in the early 1900s. You see some wonderful bi-planes and the interesting characters who flew them. The most flamboyant person in this story is "Axel Olsson," played by Bo Svenson. He and Redford are intense competitors and the competition between the two is fun to witness, especially with humor thrown into the mix.
This film is noted for sporting a very young and beautiful Susan Sarandon who makes a very memorable exit from the film! Except for an excessive amount of usages of the Lord's name in vain, this would have been an excellent family film. Other actors whose names you might recognize in here are Edward Herrman, Georffrey Lewis and Margot Kidder.
This is a great movie, from a very special era in movies, and contains
an all-time great scene that speaks to the darker nature of humanity.
SPOILER AHEAD!! I speak of the scene where Ezra Stiles, Waldo Pepper's
best friend has crashed, and he is trapped in his plane, which has
caught on fire. Waldo is trying to free him from the burning plane. A
crowd of onlookers, who came to watch the aerial show, has gathered
around the burning plane, staring while Waldo tries to free his best
friend. THey do nothing but stare while Waldo screams at them, begging
for their help.
The faces of the onlookers provides an insight into human nature: the blank, staring faces of the Midwestern peasantry, rapt at the sight of the trapped Stiles burning to death. Waldo frantically tries to enlist their help in dragging Stiles, to no avail.
Waldo finally has to brain his trapped friend so that he will not burn alive while still conscious.
First I must say that this beautiful movie handles the wide screen
format extremely well, to watch it on TV comes near to an act of
profanation. The lines, the colors , the surfaces, the sun that always
seems to be low above the horizon ... The Great Waldo Pepper really is
a work of cinematic art.
Secondly I would really like to know how the idea for this script developed. It looks like the aviation business is a metaphor for the movie industry. I would not be surprised had director and co-scriptwriter George Roy Hill put many personal feelings and experiences into it. Aviation stands for freedom. But even in the title scene the constant fear of being forcefully grounded becomes evident the main character, aviator Waldo Pepper, talks an overawed boy into getting a canister of gas for him with the promise of a free tour above the landing strip. Cute, at first sight, but also curiously grim. It immediately started me wondering how the boy could manage to carry the full canister over the required long distance.
The wish to be free and be able to fly off sets ever more demanding conditions. People get bored with acrobatics, they want to see blood. The artists comply, because they are ambitious but also because they know that it is the only way that allows them to continue. Time moves on and it becomes evident that commercial air service will put an end to the adventurous phase of aviation. Hollywood seems to be the only way out. Acrobats are needed as stunt-men there. The grindhouse routine of the dream factory is not to their liking, but what else can they do? On a set Waldo Pepper meets a famous German flyer he idolizes. Much to his surprise this Erich von Stroheim character is deeply in debt. In the air, I see heroism, chivalry and a spirit of comraderie", rasps the German, but on the ground ..." He just limply shrugs. The final quixotic showdown between Pepper and the German is a natural and very good ending of this surprisingly deep" and rather pessimistic movie that offers far more than nostalgia.
This movie is made by some of the same players that made Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid (Writer, Director and Actor). Unfortunately, it
doesn't have nearly the acclaim. Perhaps because the ultimate tone of
the movie is darker, the movie still captures that fun that permeates
In terms of the aerial stunts and flying sequences, not only does the hold up to the modern movies like 'Flyboys', it is in fact, much better. Visually just as complete, you also know these are the real deal.
The script is brilliant. At the end of this film, one is forced to wonder why this level of movie so rarely is ever seen today.
You can read the other reviews for plot points, and details. Suffice to say that if you are a fan of movies with planes, actions, love, tragedy cool war history lover, or Hollywood of the early thirties, you'll eat this movie up.
Now lets get a DVD of this that is worthy!
How can this film barely have more than a single page of comments?
Redford in his youthful heyday, following the success of Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid, Susan Sarandon as the female lead, and yet,
apparently, so few have ever seen this that less than two pages covers
comments. Major urging: see this film.
Extremely well written and directed, even better acting, all stunts by human beings and not computers, and beautifully photographed. The only weakness is that due to audience availability, this film is hard to find on DVD, even at Blockbuster. Similar to The Hill, absolutely the best acting performance by Sean Connery, but try and see it. Major hint to those who have missed Waldo Pepper: never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, attempt the double loop, especially in a plane. Today, July 28, 2007, we had two crashes at the Wisconsin and Ohio Air Shows. Death isn't just in the movies when doing stunts in a plane.
This is a well shot film (the light in the Prarie scenes are beautiful)
about why people love flying and how it gets into their bones to the
point where they will take great risks with their lives as well as
Redford looks heroic and every bit the Ladies Man especially in uniform.
The aerial sequences are terrific with some really risky stunts and shots. Made in 1975, there are no CGI effects - everything is real and raw.
I felt the film to be a little slow at times but it's a film for grown ups so we can take that speed, can't we?
Scott A. Frisina's review on the main page is as good a synopsis as anyone can give - that's how it is - read it then see this excellent film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As someone who loves the notion of flight as adventure to the extent of
having been in a microlight, hot-air balloon, helicopter, twin-seater
single - propeller aircraft, best of all a twin-prop civilian charter
flight over the Grand Canyon, and lover of the devil-may-care spirit of
1920's America, this particular movie celebrating a barnstorming
"flying-circus" troop was always going to be right down my street, or
should that be flight-path... Throw in heavyweight participants hot
from "Butch Cassidy..." and "The Sting", like director George Roy Hill,
screenplay writer William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy" only) and of course
Robert Redford in the lead and you just know this one is going to
straighten up and fly left.
The film title and introductory scenes where we first see Redford's "Pepper" character are however deceptive. These entertaining almost playful scenes where we witness Pepper's good-natured rivalry with fellow-flier Bo Svennson not only for the patronage of the target awe-struck thrill-seeking populace of little-town Americans but also for, of course "the girl", Susan Sarandon in an early role, have a touch of whimsy, even sentimentality as Pepper takes a hero-worshipping young tyke up for a spin.
However the film grows more serious as it continues, as we are made aware that in the end this is a business and that to make money and outdo rival companies for daring, the Barnum-type owner/entrepreneur Dilhoeffer (well played by Philip Bruns) exhorts Pepper and his confederates to ever more dangerous stunts with nary a thought for the consequences (health and safety doesn't get a look in here!). The outcome is predictable as first of all, Sarandon and later Pepper's friend, boffin-type aircraft designer Stiles die horribly in stunts which go disastrously wrong, leading the film to its ultimate and overriding motif about the "otherness" of people like Pepper, gifted with a rare talent but with a bent for living on the edge, outside everyday society.
Such people are of course rarely long for this world, as is tacitly underscored at the end where we learn of Pepper's death at a young age from a commemorative picture on a wall but are overall left with a great admiration for all those risk-taking individuals from those times, unforgettable photographic images of whom (you know the ones I mean, wing-walking or even playing tennis on bi-planes, workmen casually eating sandwiches on girders atop the under-construction Empire State Building etc) can still draw gasps of admiration from people like me living our ordinary, mundane earth-bound lives.
The cinematography is fantastic, thirty years before "The Aviator", the air stunts are brilliantly pulled off and photographed. Redford is at his winning best as the "out-there" Pepper and he's well supported by his band of high-flying misfits. Part of me was repelled however by the seeming disregard for the deaths of Mary Beth and Stiles by Dilhoeffer, Pepper etc not to mention the rubbernecking general public and believe a little more humanity could have come through in the writing.
On the whole though this is a charming, greatly entertaining movie, not without its darker side and for me belongs in the same air-borne formation with "Only Angels Have Wings" and "The Aviator" as a classic movie celebrating the lives of those fascinated by and/or who make their living in the skies above. Mere days after Captain Sullenberger's near miraculous emergency descent into the Hudson river, amen to that!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Now that flying seems such a mundane, everyday way of getting people
from A to B, it is strange to recall that there was a time, not so long
ago, when it seemed far more magical. In the twenties and thirties
aviation represented what space travel came to represent during my
childhood in the sixties and seventies- mankind's most thrilling new
adventure. The aviator-poet John Magee was able to write in his sonnet
"High Flight" that while flying he had "slipped the surly bonds of
Earth" and "put out my hand, and touched the face of God".
"The Great Waldo Pepper" is a film which, like the more recent "The Aviator", captures some of the excitement of those days. It is set in the world of the "barnstormers", troupes of pilots who would perform stunts to entertain the crowds. This was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s, and many of the barnstormers were former fighter pilots from the First World War; the troupes became known as "flying circuses", after the squadron commanded by Manfred von Richthofen, Germany's greatest ace. At first their stunts were relatively simple ones, but as time went on the crowds became more demanding and the pilots were expected to perform increasingly dangerous manoeuvres, sometimes verging on the suicidal. The proprietor of the "flying circus" featured in the film puts it simply. "I'm not selling good flying. I'm selling sudden death." The film charts the exploits of the title character and his two great rivals, Axel Olsson (an American but presumably originally from Scandinavia, to judge from his accent) and Ernst Kessler (a German loosely based upon another real-life flying ace, Ernst Udet). Pepper's rivalry with these two men stems from the fact that they both had distinguished combat records during the war, whereas he served in the American forces but was employed as an instructor and never saw active service. (His rivalry with Olsson, however, does not prevent them from becoming close friends).
At the beginning of the 1920s flying was an almost entirely unregulated activity, but during the decade it became more commercialised as the first airlines and air mail services were launched and tighter regulations were introduced in the interests of public safety. After a young woman is killed in a dangerous stunt that goes wrong, Pepper loses his pilot's licence and is forced to abandon barnstorming. He is, however, unwilling to give up flying altogether, and travels to Hollywood where he becomes a stunt pilot under an assumed name. He learns that Kessler and he are both working on the same film, a wartime aviation drama, and that they are due to re-enact a famous dogfight between British and German planes. Somehow, they manage to turn their film sequence into a real-life duel.
The film was directed by George Roy Hill and starred Robert Redford, who had previously worked with Hill in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting". (Unlike those two films, however, this one does not co-star Paul Newman). One of Redford's greatest assets as an actor was his amiable, boyish charm, and that is much in evidence in this film, especially during the more comic first half. He plays Pepper as charming and debonair, with an insouciant, devil-may-care attitude, in contrast to the more level-headed Olsson and the gloomy, saturnine Kessler. Kessler has fallen on hard times after Germany's defeat; his pessimistic attitude is due to the fact that he was a hero in wartime but has become a nobody in peacetime. (Something similar happened to the real Udet, who went on to join the Nazis and ended up committing suicide). His character comes more to the fore in the second half of the film which is notably darker than the light-hearted early scenes.
There are excellent performances from Redford and from Bo Brundin as Kessler. (Olsson is played by Bo Svenson; are there any other English-language films where two major male characters are played by actors named Bo?) The main attraction of the film, however, is not the acting but the magnificent flying sequences, all of which were performed using real aircraft, not models or special effects. (It is said that the actors performed all their own stunts, including wing walking, which must have given the film's insurers some nervous moments). It is these exhilarating scenes which give the film its excitement and much of its emotional power, making it a fitting tribute to the pioneers of aviation. 7/10
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