' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

“The Great Waldo Pepper” opens in 1926 with its eponymous barnstorming pilot (Robert Redford) dropping out of the Nebraska sky and taking locals, young and old alike, for airplane rides to make a few quick bucks. The jaunty martial music score, Waldo’s flying scarf and Redford’s smile evince Americana, which seems to be furthered when he spends the night on a family farm and regales his hosts about staring down German WWI flying ace Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin) in the sky so many years ago. Even as Waldo’s telling it, however, the exactness of the details and the heightened nature of Redford’s countenance gives away the game. Sure enough, a few scenes later, in telling the same tale to a local girl, he gets called on the carpet, the story revealed not so much as rubbish as a true tale belonging to someone else. And though eventually we learn that Waldo really was in WWI, he participated as a flight instructor, not a flying ace. And so if barnstorming ultimately proves to be on its last legs, it is not simply Waldo’s livelihood that is being squeezed out but a yearning to turn his self-invented myth into a reality, which marks director George Roy Hill’s adventure spectacle as a kind of tragedy of absurd hubris, one the film itself ultimately proves oddly insistent on embracing rather than skewering.

Even if the opening feels like high times, it quickly becomes apparent how barnstorming is on its way out, as Waldo squabbles with a rival pilot, Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson), though tight circumstances force them to team up, ingratiating themselves into Doc Dillhoefer’s (Philip Bruns) flying circus by concocting daredevil air stunts. These stunts come to include Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon), the girl who comes between Waldo and Axel. She is one of only two female characters, neither of whom are really characters at all, as Mary Beth exists mostly as the sideshow attraction she becomes and Waldo’s sometime girlfriend Maude (Margot Kidder) mostly just exists to spotlight Waldo’s wandering, wayward ways. This is not to criticize the casting practices of director George Roy Hill’s film nor screenwriter William Goldman’s man-centric intentions. No, this might not necessarily be a movie just for boys but it’s definitely just about boys, dumb boys with their heads in the clouds.

In a way, Hill, as director, has his head in the clouds too. If “The Great Waldo Pepper” is nothing else, it’s a vehicle for incredible, indelible stunts, with speedy, upside down flying, barrel rolls, Waldo momentarily bringing the climactic “Flying Down to Rio” airshow to life all on his own, and a person-to-person switch from one mid-flight plane to another. This happens when Mary Beth is enlisted to fly on one of Axel’s biplane wings, first flying right down a city street to rile up the citizens and bring them out on the street to watch. But when she freezes up and will not come off the wing, meaning Axel is unable to land with the plane’s weight thrown off, Waldo goes up in a different plane to rescue her. The sequence lives up to its description, shot in such a way to emphasize the filmmaking’s authenticity, from below and above, mostly forgoing close-ups so that you can literally see them in the air with the foreboding ground far below. It is sensational if simultaneously disconnected from the implied denunciation of death as spectacle, which becomes “The Great Waldo Pepper’s” curious undoing in a conclusion where Pepper and Kessler, working as stunt pilots in Hollywood to make a living, finally face off.

The government bureaucrat, Newt Potts (Geoffrey Lewis), who shows up to keep Waldo Pepper on the ground is not portrayed as villainously as Peck in “Ghostbusters”, but he is clearly a signal of the forthcoming regulation of the sky, what the film, in its wistful looking back, cannot help but see as a more beautiful time. It is a time that these men honestly believe in, epitomized in Kessler’s monologue proving that the story Waldo co-opted as his own was, in fact, real, suggesting an inverted “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, not unlike the climactic dogfight, one fought without guns for the benefit the movie camera that begins as pretend and then turns real too. If it’s a sequence intended as bitter elegy, it is instead wholly consumed by its own romance, concluding not on the ground but among the clouds, the movie itself lost to them too, Pepper and Kessler not plunging to their doom, literal or otherwise, but elevated to a place amongst the heavens.

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