VIDEO ARCHIVES WEEK: The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the March 28, 2023 episode of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here. There’s another take on this movie here.

Directed, produced and co-written — with William Goldman — by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThe Sting, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Slaughterhouse-Five, Slap ShotThe World According to GarpFunny Farm — what a career!), The Great Waldo Pepper stars Robert Redford as Waldo Pepper, a pilot who spent World War I teaching other pilots instead of being in combat. He feels a sense of loss as he settles back into American life, a malaise that he takes out on his rival Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson) before they become friends. A stunt goes wrong, sending Waldo back home to his girlfriend Maude (Margot Kidder), who hates when he returns, because it’s always when he’s hurt. Her brother Ezra (Edward Herrmann), however, is excited because he thinks that his monoplane plans can make Waldo famous.

Until then, Waldo and Axel start working in Doc Dillhoefer’s (Phillip Bruns) air circus, which has an act where Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon) will wear a barely there dress, climb out on the wing and have the wind tear her clothes off. Well, that’s the idea. She ends up falling to her death, grounding everyone and bringing an investigation from Newt Potts (Geoffrey Lewis).

Ezra joins the circus and brings his monoplane, hoping to be the first person to an outside loop — an aerobatic maneuver where a vertical circle is entered from a straight and erect level flight with the canopy pointing out of the loop — before he crashes on his third attempt. As he lies in the wreckage, a member of the audience flicks a cigarette into the gasoline-soaked crash scene, burning Ezra alive. As he screams in abject pain, with no one helping him, Waldo kills him to stop his agony. He jumps in a plane, despite being grounded, and buzzes the crowd before crashing himself.

Waldo and Axel go to Hollywood, where they get a job shooting recreations of the air battles of the War to End All Wars alongside German air ace Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin). During shooting, the two men — both bitter at the world — find something of their past in the sky and begin a dogfight without weapons, instead crashing into one another. Waldo wins their fight and the two men salute one another as Waldo learns that his plane has no landing gear, which means one more crash.

This was made without models. Those are real planes.

Hill flew as a U.S. Marine Corps cargo pilot in World War II and was a lifelong pilot, so this was a passion project for him. He had Svenson and Redford do each sequence with no parachutes or safety harnesses so they would experience the real feeling of flight. It’s amazing that this happened, that no one was hurt and that they agreed to it. In no way would that ever happen today. Well, unless we’re discussing Tom Cruise.

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