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Sherlock’s Classics: Film Review – The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

MML

Stars: ****

Hugely underrated and overlooked on its release 40 years ago, ‘The Great Waldo Pepper’ is the bittersweet and thrilling tale set in the early days of flying of a biplane pilot, Robert Redford, who just missed out of flying in WWI and takes up barnstorming, then later a movie career as a stunt pilot in silent films in the search for his quest and the glory he had missed.

Eventually he gets the chance to prove himself in a silent film depicting the dogfights in the Great War against his real life hero, the German WWI flying ace Ernst Kessler, inspired by real German ace, Ernst Udet, who was the second highest ranking after Baron Von Richthofen.

Following the huge success of both ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘The Sting,’ director George Roy Hill decided to indulge in his passion on the pioneering days of flying with ‘The Great Waldo Pepper,’ and along star Robert Redford and a screenplay by Oscar winning ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ screenwriter William Goldman, they took to the skies, much to the eventual shock and dismay of the studio.

The great models for all air pictures are William A. Wellman’s 1927 classic ‘Wings’ and Howard Hughes’ 1930 epic ‘Hell’s Angels,’ both filled with jaw-dropping flying sequences that have not been equalled.

They were all there in the air, during which numerous pilots were killed, and never since have stars, actors, pilots, cameramen and stuntmen been put in such life threatening danger, until ‘The Great Waldo Pepper,’ there are also no studio bound green-screen takes, trick shots of actors in planes, and remember, CGI did not exist then, everything you see is real.

Director George Roy Hill, a former Marine pilot himself, took to the air himself while directing, and yes, that’s actually Robert Redford climbing out on a wing at 6000 feet without any safety harness or parachute, and co-star Edward Hermann strapped in the plane during an outside loop.

Also starring Susan Sarandon and Margot Kidder, along with a cast of spectacular flying machines, the end result is a tremendously exciting, gob-smacking, poignant exciting and ultimately haunting valentine to not only a special breed of person, but to a  filmmaking process that no longer exists, much to the delight of studio executives, and a classic film from an all too neglected filmmaker that has finally found a firm and respected place out of the diminishing graveyard of too many classics.

LISTEN: Robert Redford on wing-walking with no parachute

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