Director George Roy Hill was such a fervent airplane enthusiast that he persuaded two of his most acclaimed collaborators, screenwriter William Goldman and star Robert Redford, to join him in making this passion project celebrating the daredevils who flew biplanes at exhibitions across the country during the barnstorming era. (The trio’s previous joint venture, released in 1969, was a little something called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Set in the 1920s, the picture focuses on Waldo Pepper (Redford), a World War I veteran whose military service was unspectacular. Driven to prove he’s a world-class flyer, Pepper becomes a barnstormer, performing wild stunts for spectacle-hungry crowds that are equally thrilled by crashes and triumphs.
During this early stretch of the film, when Pepper builds a friendship with fellow flyer Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson) and struggles through a fraught romance with Maude (Margot Kidder)—who hates the risks Waldo takes—Hill achieves two impressive storytelling feats. First and most obviously, he captures the joy of flight with terrific aerial photography. Secondly and more subtly, he captures the lonely quality of men who follow an inner call toward personal achievement. Redford is the perfect actor for communicating this notion; an iconoclast who has spent decades cultivating personal mystique, Redford understands self-definition.
Considering that Hill could easily have translated his fascination with barnstorming into a lightweight adventure film—in addition to Butch Cassidy, he and Redford made the endearing 1973 romp The Sting (which was not written by Goldman), so frothy entertainment is undoubtedly what audiences expected from this particular paring of actor and star—it’s impressive that Hill elected to go so dark. In fact, some might argue he went too dark. Goldman has often told the story of how a preview audience turned on the movie during a shocking scene involving Pepper and a terrified, wing-walking stuntwoman (Susan Sarandon). Yet viewed beyond the context of its initial release, when audiences wanted Redford to play only golden gods, The Great Waldo Pepper is a nuanced and thoughtful film that unflinchingly depicts the costs of individualism.
As the story progresses, for instance, Pepper endures a string of accidents that cost him his pilot’s license and force him to pursue work as a movie stuntman under an alias. Goldman’s writing excels in this last movement of the picture, since Goldman has often said the theme that touches him most is “stupid courage”—boldness in the face of certain doom. The Great Waldo Pepper isn’t a perfect picture, with some of its episodes connecting more strongly than others, but it’s a unique celebration of one filmmaker’s romantic visions, seen through the prism of a star and a writer who were eager to help their friend realize his dreams of soaring through the sky, cinematically speaking.
The Great Waldo Pepper: RIGHT ON