Nebraska 1926, and aviator Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford) takes to the skies, hopping from smalltown to smalltown, entertaining the folks who live there. Typically he will fly over the houses to announce his arrival - after all, it's not often a plane is seen overhead there - then land and begin his spiel, talking up his achievements and telling them what a fantastic time they will have if they pay him to take them up in his plane. Then, once his day is through, he will often be invited back for a meal where he can tell his wartime stories. It's a grand life...
But all good things must come to an end, and The Great Waldo Pepper states that most expressively in one of the major flops of star Redford's career, not that he was anything other than perfect for the role. Script author William Goldman believed he knew the reason for that, and expounded on it in his classic book Adventures in Screenwriting, but the truth was the whole film took a long look at what it meant to be a hero, whether in real life or in the movies, and was not entirely impressed with what it saw. Not that Waldo and his ilk were depicted as idiots, quite the reverse, but the sympathies were weighed up against the sacrifices and derring-do was found wanting.
This being the nineteen-seventies, where the Vietnam War was winding down with America the losing side, it was only natural movies with such themes would look back to what was erroneously thought of as a simpler time to see where it had all gone wrong as after all, the Allies had won the First World War all those years ago. But by setting their film some time after it was over, with the survivors of combat who had found a talent in flying they were reluctant to let go, director George Roy Hill and Goldman were able to muse over their heroes and ask, as so many had done before, what happens to them once the fighting has stopped? The answer to that in the case of the stunt flyers was that they could not give it up.
But let's not forget we were seeing actual, modern day (for 1975) stuntmen performing amazing feats for our entertainment here, in this movie. Rickety biplanes are pressed into service for truly hair-raising activities, and we hardly needed the tragedies that take the rest of the story to unfold to let us in on the idea that what was going on here was dicing with death, all for the sake of cinema. That included performers getting out of the planes in mid-air to walk across the wings, and such was Hill's desire for realism that there were barely any special effects shots here at all - Redford and co-star Bo Svenson were among those taking part, for added authenticity.
So if there's so much spectacle here, why did it fall out of favour so badly almost from the minute it was released? Goldman, as mentioned, pinned it down to the fateful scene where Susan Sarandon's character is invited to become part of the stunt flyer's act, yet the plot could have survived this if it hadn't followed it with an even grimmer sequence hot on its heels. All the way through an unease with the public who demanded better, more outrageous entertainment shows through, likening those who ask their "stars" to put their lives on the line in whatever field to those who will ask their soldiers to go off to war, and an accusation like that can turn an audience off to your movie. By the stage Waldo is part of the Hollywood industry, he meets the greatest fighter ace ever (Bo Brundin) and they reach an understanding that they are better than those who watched them and pushed them into service, leaving the film uncomfortable for many reasons, but oddly haunting for its admirers. Music by Henry Mancini.
American director, more at home with character than story, with a wide range of subjects under his belt. He started in television and theatre, and his first films were stage adaptations, but with The World of Henry Orient he appeared to find his voice in film. Other nineteen-sixties work included the epic Hawaii and musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, but he enjoyed a monster hit with light hearted western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.