Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Story of the Scene: Star Wars (1977)

How did a Warner Brothers stock sound effect become an in-joke amongst movie sound editors and movie geeks after being revived for the original Star Wars? Who screamed the Wilhelm scream?

To be frank, it’s a fairly insignificant moment in Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is on the Death Star, lair of his nemesis Darth Vader. He's fighting a running battle with the white-armored Storm Troopers and now he’s come to a vertiginous drop at the end of a corridor. He's firing upon the Storm Troopers on a similar position just opposite. One Trooper falls into the abyss between them and there’s a strangulated slightly high-pitched cry.

Welcome to the Wilhelm scream, used in over 130 films since the 1950’s.

This was the moment when it became currency again, a cult item, a moment of Hollywood history and a piece of pure Hollywood kitsch.

The man who put the scream in Star Wars is Ben Burtt. During his sound design work on Star Wars, Burtt was looking through the Warners archives. He came across an almost forgotten 3-D film called Distant Drums, made in 1951.

During a scene in which some soldiers are wading through the everglades, one is savaged by a waiting alligator. This is the first ever use of the Wilhelm Scream. Why is it called the Wilhelm scream? Burtt called it that after finding a subsequent use in The Charge at Feather River (1953) where it is issued by one Private Wilhelm (played by Ralph Brooke) after being shot in the leg.

For years it was only ever heard in Warner Bros films. It can be experienced in Judy Garland’s A Star is Born amongst many others. After Burtt started using it as a leitmotif in all of his movies it became much better known. For a long while Joe Dante employed it as a favored zombie cry in his films. More recently he has abandoned its use; now everyone is in on this former industry joke, a bit of sonic badinage between special-effects geeks.

During the editing of
Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino called for a break when he was told all about the history of the scream - just as he was using it himself. By coincidence a TV channel was playing it that very afternoon, and Tarantino called time, crowding into a nearby room with his sound crew so he could watch Distant Drums.

So who screamed the Wilhelm scream? The most likely candidate is Sheb Wooley, most famous for the song The Purple People Eater which sold 3 million copies in 1958. Originally a bit-part actor, he played the uncredited role of Private Jessup in Distant Drums and was it seems hauled into Warner's for some post-production screaming.

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