The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Great Waldo Pepper

Ever heard of barnstorming? Well, you should have so shame on you. In the 1920s, flying circuses traveled across America, pilots performing ridiculously dangerous (some would say suicidal) stunts and tricks to amuse and dazzle audiences. A movie I stumbled across on Netflix does a really good job giving a look at the dangerous world of barnstorming, 1975's The Great Waldo Pepper.

It's 1926 in Nebraska and Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford), a very talented pilot trying to create a reputation and name for himself, is scraping by. He flies all over the state, doing tricks and aerial stunts for anyone who will pay to see it, offering 5-minute rides for $5, all the money going toward the development of a new single-wing plane built by his friend and engineer, Ezra Stiles (Edward Hermann). Waldo has a bit of a rivalry with another pilot, Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson), especially when Axel moves into his territory, but seeing the business struggle and the money start to dry up, the pilot duo teams up. Their idea? Do something that audiences have never seen before, a stunt that will assure them a reputation and audiences wherever they go. Waldo and Axel intend to walk on their wings while flying thousands of feet up in the air.

I could be wrong -- and I often am -- but I believe this 1975 aviation flick sat in my Netflix queue for the last 10 months or so after I watched another aviation flick, 1965's Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. It's also the third pairing between director George Roy Hill and star Redford, having worked previously together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. This is a movie that loves its story, loves where it came from. It loves flying, aviation, the pilots, the history, any and all of it. If there's a surprise, it's that near the halfway point the story takes a surprising turn for the dark. The tone early on is light, a tad jokey, composer Henry Mancini's score adding to the fun, entertaining mood. The differences in tone work overall after the initial shock (and the scene that switches it up is a SHOCKER). Light and fun meets dark and surprising, I wouldn't think that would work, but it does.

Above all else, 'Waldo' is definitely worth seeking out because of some ridiculous aerial sequences. If this movie was released in the modern CGI (computer generated images) era, there would be no, NO, actual footage of the pilots, their planes and their tricks. But how about 1975? There weren't special effects like that. Everything had to be done for real or with some real cheesy-looking effects. The footage here is astounding. Hill and cinematographer Robert Surtees put their cameras up in the air with the planes and let the pilots do their thing. With the cameras mounted on the planes (or flying with them close by), it feels as a viewer that we're flying with them. Point of view shots really add to that sense of realism. Making it cooler? Redford, Svenson and the cast are up there too, one more authentic touch to an already authentic feel. We see pilots doing loops, some upside down -- one called an outside loop -- and others walking on the wings of their bi-planes. On a purely visual level, the film is a great experience.

Right in the midst of his acting heyday before he turned to directing more, Redford is at his best as Waldo Pepper, the pilot who wants more. He's able to do the drama, the comedy, all of it, playing a charming, likable rogue who becomes almost obsessed with making a name for himself. I wasn't quite sure what to expect out of the story going in -- only knowing it was about an early era in aviation -- so it caught me off guard when such an interesting character was leading the way. Much of that success comes from the dark twist the story takes near the halfway point, Redford's Waldo getting another layer or two to the character. If there's a weakness, it's the scenes with his former love, played by Margot Kidder, the scenes slowing the pace down with some attempts at drama. Mostly though, the character is great. He missed out on the dogfights in World War I and desperately wants to get a chance to be a hero, to be idolized no matter the inherent risks in a suicidal job. An underrated performance from Redford.

With an episodic story, we get plenty of other characters Waldo meets along the way. I really liked the rivalry turned friendship between Waldo and Svenson's Otto, two very talented pilots who are good on their own but may be better working together. The most dramatic part goes to Bo Brundin as Ernst Kessler, the famous German ace from WWI, a hero in Waldo's eyes who questions why he's been deemed a hero internationally by the public. Redford and Brundin have a couple great dialogue exchanges later, building to a surprising ending, slightly open-ended but it's easy to draw conclusions. A young Susan Sarandon has a supporting part as Mary Beth, a young woman Waldo meets and becomes part of the act with Waldo and Otto. Geoffrey Lewis makes the most of his smaller part as Newt, Waldo's former commander and a current Air Commerce inspector. And last, look for Philip Bruns as Dillhoefer, the owner of the air circus always looking for the next big thing in aerial stunts.

A very pleasant surprise for any number of reasons from Redford's lead performance as extremely talented pilot Waldo Pepper to the one impressive aerial sequence after another, one better than the last, especially in the final scene. Period correct planes, cool aerial stunts, it's a gem.

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975): ***/****

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