The Great Waldo Pepper
William Goldman has written about seeing his original screenplay shown to an audience for the first time. Everything was going well, the audience was with him, enjoying the flamboyant antics of the barnstormers and flying circuses of the 1920s. Robert Redford was at his most dashing, romance was developing between him and Susan Sarandon. Then they were doing a wing-walking stunt … and Susan falls off. She’s dead.
People began leaving the theater. I don’t know if it was quite a flood, but it was clear that a lot of people just didn’t want to see the love interest in her coffin at around the midway point. This wasn’t Psycho, after all. The people were expecting a funny romp with those magnificent men in their flying machines, and a romantic relationship leading to, probably, a happy ending. Goldman said he learned a lesson from that and, though he is known in his novels for completely pulling the rug out from under you (such as in The Color of Light, where the whole idea of what you thought was going on is suddenly shown to be wrong in the last fucking sentence!), he vowed never to do that again in a movie.
It didn’t bother me. I mean, I was shocked, and saddened, but I never considered leaving. Her death made it more real. Up to that point it had been comic, and tons of fun, and after that it got fairly grim, but that was okay, too. It was the story, after all, of a boy who never grew up, a man who wasn’t much on the ground, but who lived to fly, and was the second-best pilot alive.
The first-best was a WWI fighter pilot named Ernst Kessler, a living legend who had shot down 70 Allied planes. Waldo had missed the fighting, and was bitter about it. He always told the story of how Kessler, having already shot down four of a man’s wingmates, spared his life when his guns jammed. Sometimes Waldo claimed it was him whose life was spared, but only when talking to rubes; the story was well-known to any barnstorming pilot.
So after the tragedy Waldo is grounded by the brand-new CAA, gets in more trouble, and ends up in California as a stunt man and stunt pilot, under a different name. And who should turn up as advisor on a movie about the very battle Waldo obsesses about but Kessler himself. And there Goldman pulls another shocker. We expected Kessler to be a dashing, blonde Germanic God, a Hitlerian ideal of Aryan genetics. What we get is a balding, paunchy, self-effacing, wry, sort of burnt-out fellow who is $40,000 in debt, and doing just as badly on the ground as Waldo is. He is a man we immediately like. And it sets up the final duel between two men who respect, even love each other, and both know there will never be a better day to die, or a better way, than having it out in the clouds …
There are many things to like here, but the bottom line is that even if it were a bad story, badly written and badly acted (which it isn’t), I would be wild about it because of all the flying in all those little wood and canvas kites these crazy men piloted in those days. All the stunts were filmed with real planes, no models, and most of the shots of the stars were actually filmed in the air, too. (There are a few shots that you can tell were done on the ground with a big fan blowing, but they don’t stand out.) So Robert Redford and Bo Svenson really were up there in the planes, and stepping out of the cockpits onto the wings. You can see their faces. The actual wing-walking was done by stunt pilots, of course, and some of the shots of Sarandon were obviously a dummy, but still, you have to look a long way to find better stunt flying. This was a labor of love for the director, George Roy Hill, who was a pilot in the Marine Corps during WWII and Korea.