Review: The Great Waldo Pepper

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

I just realized I can’t remember how the line begins, so I’m going to fake it: “Technicians provide realism—artists supply truth.” “Technicians” almost certainly wasn’t the word but the rest is legitimate as a quote. A Hollywood director says it to Waldo Pepper, who was just too late to do his stuff as an ace in the Great War and now has a job, under a phony name, as a stunt flyer for the early talkies. Pepper has just pointed out that the wrong planes are being used by the movie squadron, which happens to be reenacting the legendary air battle he knows by heart and hearkens back to in support of his personal romantic code. George Roy Hill has left himself a lot of loopholes, as usual: The director who delivers the line is, or at least would be in many imaginable circumstances, right to prefer poetic truth to the documentary variety. But he’s wrong within the emotional context of the film, and he’s pompous and defensive to boot. But Waldo’s righteousness is somewhat compromised by our memory that he more or less opened the film by laying down a verbal account of the original battle, fascinating both his immediate, Nebraska farm family audience and its counterpart out there in the darkened theater, winning them and us with a charming blend of self-effacing softspokenness and ingenuous egoism, and shortly thereafter was exposed as a fraud for having cast himself in the story at all. But Hill implicitly tipped us to that particular con by preceding his Technicolor movie proper with monochrome archive stills showing aviation heroes giving up the ghost while stunting for movie cameras; this, plus our association of Robert Redford and Hill with that earlier, supposedly pleasurable screwing-over The Sting—similarly punctuated by (painted) illustrations of a movie crew filming con artists in their maneuvers—surely constituted some kind of fair warning.

But, but, but. The qualifications might proliferate further, and in the film they do. Perhaps Hill honestly has confused deviousness and ambiguity in his own mind. It’s tempting to accord him the benefit of the doubt, because a good deal of The Great Waldo Pepper is very pleasant to look at. Those bi- and tri-planes vouchsafe a marvelously personal means of relating to sky and countryside, and Robert Surtees’s attractive cinematography needn’t ladle on the honey-colored filters because the very sight of golden summer fields almost constitutes a nostalgic event in itself. And there’s not a process plate within miles unless the cofeature contains one: those characters climbing around on the wings really are climbing around on the wings, and more often than not we can see that the characters have not ceased to be represented by the players in the roles. So give these technicians points for realism but, despite Hill’s widely publicized confession that this film fulfills his longstanding love affair with the early daredevils of the air and his pointed use of a wide-eyed 1926 farmboy as our initial focus on the Great Waldo and all he embodies, the movie suffers from a breach of artistic faith. We’re clearly intended to sympathize with Waldo in his avowedly “dangerous” romanticism. He would have been in combat—and those who knew him then don’t doubt he’d have proved his mettle as a natural-born flyer—if he hadn’t been forced to offer flight instruction until the war was almost over. Similarly, he was valiantly trying to prevent the air fatality that later results in his being suspended by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. And when a lifelong friend is incinerated because of the carelessness and callousness of some air-show gawkers, we can relate to the helpless fury that leads Waldo to leap into a ready plane and buzz the crowd—which escapade precipitates his permanent grounding and forces him into pseudonymous stuntwork to the golden west of his midland homeground. Besides, he carries impeccable, almost Peckinpavian credentials: those ever-reliably non–life-enhancing corporate and government types are trying to paint a highway centerline down the sky; the era of freedom is ending.

Thematically Hill goes through the motions and even seems to be working toward a Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid finale in which Waldo and his opposite number, the German ace he used to dream he flew against, will give each other the gift of death over a Hollywood Samarra. But death is only a ploy in Hill’s movies. Butch and Sundance crack wise for the last time and leap into exultant freezeframe before the offscreen fusillade is heard; Hooker and Gondorff, the young and the not-so-young, get up off the floor and grin like frat rats after a chug-a-lug. Waldo, known to be in the air by an old hero buddy turned CAA man, may or may not ever want to land again, may or may not have flown himself into and through his fondest fantasy: he disappears into a cloudbank, his own black-and-white photo appearing amid the previous archive shots: “Waldo Pepper, died 1931” … while the pseudonymous George Brown, maturation complete, survives? … What ought to be acceptable, even admirable, as an adroitly ambiguous ending rings false instead, because Hill is ducking out on the audience again and, worse, on himself. For he cosmeticizes death, and he can’t quite admit that he and his protagonist are at least as close to those deridable crowds seeking death-as-spectacle as they are to the hero-worshipping Nebraska farm lad. It’s right, somehow—and I can’t tell whether this reflects directorial intention or not—that Kessler the German, reminiscing about the Lola whose name appeared on his WWI plane and the facsimile he’s to fly in Hollywood, says that he has always continued to look for her in the … and in Bo Brundin’s accented reading I can’t tell whether it’s “crowds” or “clouds.” Hill is similarly confused.

RTJ

THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER
Direction; George Roy Hill. Screenplay: William Goldman, after a story by Hill. Cinematography: Robert L. Surtees. Aviation supervision: Frank Tallman. Music: Henry Mancini. Production: Hill.
The Players: Robert Redford, Bo Svenson, Susan Sarandon, Margot Kidder, Edward Herrmann, Phil Bruns, Geoffrey Lewis, Bo Brundin.

Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson


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