Will men fly through the sky in the future without seeing what I have seen, without feeling what I have felt? Is that true of all things we call human progress—do the gods retire as commerce and science advance?
The Great Waldo Pepper, a chronicle of barnstorming in the 1920s, prompts reminiscences of an era when flying was more sport than business. Baseball had its Babe, tennis its Bill Tilden, golf its Bobby Jones, but Charles Lindbergh belonged to all. "We measure heroes as we do ships, by their displacement," said Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. "Colonel Lindbergh has displaced everything...has lifted us into the freer and upper air that is his home."
In a movie that purports to depict post-World War I life as it was in that "freer and upper air," it is ironic—and incomprehensible—that Lindbergh is given no mention. Not even when Waldo (Robert Redford) and his flying circus pass through Little Falls, Minn., Lindy's childhood home. He was, after all, a wing walker and barnstormer himself before the historic New York-to-Paris flight in May 1927. He parachuted to safety from disabled planes on four occasions, earning the nickname "Lucky Lindy."
Barnstorming was destined to be short-lived because, as Lindbergh sensed, the airplane would become a fixture in American life. Now we seldom look up when one passes overhead. The Great Waldo Pepper takes us back to a time and place when people did look up, specifically Nebraska in 1926. As the film opens, a small boy is romping across farmland when he hears the hum of an airplane engine. Ho-hum now, but something mysterious, almost mythical, then. He tracks the descending craft across the countryside until it lands in a field where the townsfolk have gathered. Redford leaps from the cockpit, flashing that almost illegal smile of his, and cries, "Hello, good people!" Swoon.
Waldo Pepper is at its best in the air. Stuntmen treat us to wing walking, car-to-plane transfers, the outside loop and beautifully orchestrated dogfights. The "death spin" of Ernst Kessler (10 full turns as a 1918 J-1 Standard plummets from 3,000 feet) is riveting.
Waldo Pepper treads uncertain ground, however, when it comes down out of the clouds. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Pepper trying to prove that he's the best, better even than Kessler (Bo Brundin), World War I German flying ace. It is yet another case of "the kid" versus "the king," strongly recalling The Hustler, The Cincinnati Kid and Downhill Racer. Rarely do movies about sport ring as true off the playing field as on (The Hustler being an exception). The climactic dogfight between Waldo and Kessler is scenic but predictable.
These inherent difficulties are in no way aided by the cast's performances. Redford plays Waldo by recycling former roles—a likable, rather vacant golden boy. This character served well enough in The Candidate, but something more is called for here. He lacks the "vitality of his illusion," as Nick Carraway might put it, Brundin sports a lovely German accent as Kessler, but that's about it. Only Bo Svenson, as Waldo's friend, and Margot Kidder, as the girl Waldo comes home to, lend warmth and credence to their parts.
Worse, though, is the preachiness of the movie. One scene drones on as Kessler explains his love of flying: "In the sky, I've found—even among my enemies—courage, honor and chivalry. On the ground, there is only...." Give us a break, Ernst.
Flying can be an elegant pastime, like gymnastics, ice skating or ballet. Yet, unlike these, the human has an equal partner in his venture—the plane. In this respect, the sport of flying is comparable to modern-day motor and yacht racing. Even here, there is a difference. Ask someone who won the Indy 500, and he will answer "Johnny Rutherford." Ask who won the America's Cup, and the reply is "Courageous." Ask Lindy who made history in 1927, and there is no hesitation: "We have made this flight across the ocean"—not I or it.
The Paris flight was a triumph for Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. A unique harmony existed between man and machine, and Lindbergh underlined the mutual dependence by entitling his account of the trip We. Although popular myth would have us believe otherwise, Lindbergh's first words after 33½ hours in flight were: "Are there any mechanics here?" His first concern was for the plane. This respect, admiration, indeed, love for the craft seems foreign to us now. Today's enormous machines may perform more impressive feats, but they do it casually and without heart. They scorn affection.
Lindbergh's mark was bested in just two weeks, but that did not diminish the achievement. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it nicely: "In the spring of 1927, something bright and alien flashed across the sky...and for a moment, people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams." If nothing else, Waldo Pepper serves as a fond reminder of those dreams.