Where’s Waldo Pepper?

  • videoarchives
  • March 28, 2023

The Video Archives Podcast isn’t afraid to walk the wing! This week we’re covering the exploits of the second greatest pilot in the world, The Great Waldo Pepper. Quentin, Roger & Gala discuss the three types of characters in director George Roy Hill’s filmography, the incredible aerial stunts, why this film crash landed with audiences, and what Hill and writer William Goldman have to say about chivalry, heroism, and the decline of the era of exploration. I’ve got family photos and VHS boxes on today’s Counter Talk, so let’s get ready for takeoff…

This week is all about Waldo, but before I get started…look at the bootleg Last Run tape Gala picked up! Using one of those excellent Last Run posters as the front cover, and a newspaper ad as the back cover – a clever way to get some juiced-up movie copy in there.

By now regular listeners have probably realized that the Video Archives film selection often breaks down into “Quentin movies” and “Roger movies” (and, sometimes, Quentin selections that he’s sure will become “Roger movies”). Quentin is a George Roy Hill fan and admirer (and his breakdown of the thematic consistency of Hill’s filmography is a highlight of the episode), but The Great Waldo Pepper is a Roger movie through and through, not only one of his favorite films but one he shares a personal connection with. Here’s Roger’s namesake Roger Roberts circa 1935, one of multiple pilots in his family.

Roberts doesn’t look too far off from Redford in these production stills Roger brought. To this day, The Great Waldo Pepper is beloved by aviation historians as the rare film that gets the details of biplane flight right.

The aerial sequences in the film, staged by the legendary Frank Tallman, are worth the price of admission alone - they’re all staged with real aircraft, and create this incredible tension where you can’t watch but you can’t look away.

Roger laments in this episode that co-screenwriter William Goldman was let down by the final film, and in particular, regretted the choice to kill a character the audience loved. In Adventures In The Screen Trade (an absolutely essential book for any Video Archives fan), he wrote of the audience’s reaction to the death, “There was silence in the theater. But not the silence of a group held in suspense. No. They were furious. They felt tricked, they felt betrayed, and they hated us.”

Quentin tells a remarkably similar story of his experience watching Pepper in theaters; it’s no wonder Hill and Goldman never worked together again. But I’m with Roger that the death is an essential fulcrum point for this story of loss and disappointment. From then on, you realize what looked like a lightweight romp full of stunts and hijinks up to that point had been a tragedy hiding in plain sight, and Redford’s eternally handsome smiling face is a mask hiding his shame. That may not make for an easy crowdpleaser, but it’s a deeply affecting film.

Roger actually brought in the script for The Great Waldo Pepper, which was published in book form; few writers in any medium are as readable as Goldman.

Andrew Horton’s book on George Roy Hill is also a must for understanding one of the great auteurs:

All of George Roy Hill’s films deal with nostalgia to varying degrees, juxtaposing their flawed characters against a shared, idealized past, but Waldo Pepper is the most explicit about making the seductive draw of nostalgia a central theme of the story. The art of Waldo Pepper plays into the nostalgia perfectly, pitching the film like a Depression-era flying circus. This MCA box is one of the most handsome VHS boxes we’ve featured, framing Redford’s timeless movie star features in an oval vignette on an old-newspaper-yellow backdrop. You only notices the disaster reflected in Pepper’s goggles on second look:

Don’t read the back until you’re ready to have the film’s heart-stopping, controversial climax spoiled for you:

Everything about this official Waldo Pepper poster is perfection - the typeface, the painterly images, Redford’s hero pose, and Pepper’s self-assigned epithet “The Second-Greatest Flyer In The World.”

Of the alternate posters, this Czech one is my favorite, playing into nostalgia in a very different way by depicting Pepper’s aerial antics like an early 20th century comic strip:

Today’s Video Archives Merch spotlight comes from listener Andy Hageman, an professor from Iowa! He writes “Thought I'd share a Video Archives merch moment as I snapped a fast selfie while teaching a unit on Editing in my Intro to Film Studies course today. I'm assigning an episode of the podcast later in the semester and am eager to see what reaches different students. Thanks to all of you on the team for one of the most wonderful sources of cinema love!”

Next week, tune into the After Show for some all-new movie discussion (on a movie that couldn’t be more different from Waldo Pepper)…until then, make sure you rate and review us on Apple, Amazon and Spotify (it really helps the show!), and follow us on Twitter and Instagram. See you next week for more Counter Talk.