The Great Waldo Pepper (USA 1974)

Director: George Roy Hill

Starring: Robert Redford, Bo Svensson, Bo Brundin, Susan Sarandon, Jeffery Lewis, Edward Herrman, Philip Bruns

Cinematography: Robert Surtees

Music: Henry Mancini

Screenplay/Story: William Golding, George Roy Hill

In one line: Pilot tries to adjust to life after wartime service.

Commentary (Warning - spoilers throughout) 

Waldo Pepper (Redford) misses out on World War 1 combat after being made a flying instructor.

After the war, he uses his stunt flying skills taking people for flights over the farmlands of Kansas and other mid-west states. Competition with other flyers with similar money-making ideas leads to Pepper joining forces with Axel Olsson (Svennson) and joining a travelling airshow owned by the wily Dilhoefer (Bruns).

As the public become quickly blasé about each barnstorming innovation, Dilhoefer is forced to think up ever more outrageous stunts. He tries using 'pretty ladies' as wing walkers and when Mary Beth (Sarandon) loses her nerve and falls to her death, Pepper is grounded by federal aviation inspector Newt (Lewis).

Pepper continues flying and when his friend Ezra is injured in an airshow accident, Pepper clears the rubber necking crowds by buzzing them with his own plane. When Ezra's plane catches fire, Pepper is forced to mercy kill his friend before the man burns to death.

Pepper's licence is revoked forever.

Working under an assumed name, Pepper becomes a Hollywood stunt pilot. He meets up with WW1 ace Kessler (who is also struggling to make a living after the war). During the film Pepper has told a number of people about  a legendary duel he fought with the legendary German airman, although this a tall tale of wish fulfillment.

 In the final scenes of the film, Pepper fights out the air duel with Kessler for real....


In many ways TGWP is a companion piece to Butch Cassidy rather than the not very convincing The Sting.

Goldman's story is essentially about not being able to hold on to the past and the problems of advancing technology and increasing bureaucracy on the frontier spirit.

Redford is not the most likeable of leading men, but his aloofness works in his favour here, because Waldo Pepper is a man with a secret to hide, and is living a lie to help him through the difficulties of post war life. Waldo Pepper has not been scarred by war, but his time in the services has defined him as a human being and once taken from the familiar  routines of the air corps, he has to fight to make a living like everyone else.

The film failed financially after a strong opening weekend. Goldman suggests that the death of Sarandon's character - and Redford's failure to fulfil the basic function of the male star by protecting the female lead - led to catastrophic word of mouth criticism amongst the American film going public.

The comic scenes fit uneasily with the darker strands of the story. Sarandon's death is a sad moment in the film, but when Pepper has to beat Ezra's brains out (Ezra is trapped in the wreckage of his plane and his screams remind Pepper that his greatest fear is of burning to death), the whole tenor of the film becomes difficult to accept.

There are some great flying scenes courtesy of (genuinely) legendary flyer Frank Tallman (I remember the Clapperboard special - whatever happened to Chris Kelly?) and there's a wistful, melancholic feel to much of the film which makes it a perfect Sunday afternoon film. 

Decent. (SV 2010)