The Wilhelm Scream

The other night my 12-year-old son roped me into the first 30 minutes of Return of the Jedi, director Richard Marquand‘s 1983 conclusion to George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy.

And while I could dedicate an entire post to the movie’s shortcomings (one word: Ewoks), I only want to mention a quick moment as a springboard to another topic altogether, a moment that will forever have me and my kids nodding at each other knowingly.

Remember when the first of Jabba the Hut’s henchman falls into the Sarlacc’s mouth, that vagina dentata-looking thing right out of a David-Cronenberg nightmare that doesn’t seem to faze 12-year-olds because a) they have yet to go through puberty and b) it’s prone to loud belches?

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More importantly, do you remember the poor slob’s scream? If not, it sounded exactly like this:

 

You may be familiar with it; many are without knowing why.

It’s called “The Wilhelm Scream” and it’s an inside joke perpetrated by Ben Burtt, the four-time Oscar winner who, along with Walter Murch, Gary Rydstrom, Randy Thom and a couple of others, is among the premier sound designers in modern cinema.

I first stumbled upon the Wilhelm some years back when one of my kids got a book entitled The Sounds of Star Wars for Christmas:

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As you can see, it’s one of those interactive thingies that allows you to punch in a code next to a still from the movie and–voila–the appropriate sound effect plays out a little speaker.

Being a conflicted film snob and therefore unable to control myself, I spirited the gift away from its rightful owner (who, frankly, didn’t seem to mind), threw on a pair of headphones and began reading about and sampling the hundreds of Star Wars’ sound effects Burtt painstakingly crafted by manipulating incredibly disparate elements he’d recorded over the years, elements such as shoveled mud, raccoons in a bathtub, biplanes, stock explosions from Road Runner cartoons, thunderclaps, roaring lions, a howitzer blast and a trumpeting elephant, to name but a few.

The Wilhelm didn’t show up until late in the book. And while I laughed at its absurdity, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d heard it before. I had, of course, many times, but where? Luckily the book provided a nice summation of the scream’s history, which is thus:

When Burtt was younger he kept noticing a peculiar shriek in the science fiction films and westerns he’d watch on TV.  Eventually he dubbed it the “Wilhelm” in honor of a cavalry private named Wilhelm who, packing his pipe in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River, suffers this ignominy:

Over time Burtt became so intrigued with the scream that he decided to track down the original effect at Warner Bros. Studios.

“I had an idea that perhaps the first time the scream was used was in a 1951 film called Distant Drums, with Gary Cooper,” he explains in The Sounds of Star Wars.  “It was used for a guy being eaten by an alligator. So I finally asked the Warner Bros.’s library if they would send me a sound of a man being eaten by an alligator. It turns out that they actually had a card in their library with that designation on it–and lo and behold, it was the scream that I’d been looking for.”

And here it is:

While at USC Film School, Burtt started putting the Wilhelm into his student films, a little inside joke between him and another student. And when he finally became a full-fledged sound editor he continued the tradition, using the scream as a “personal signature” in many of the films he worked on, including all six Star Wars films, the Raiders of the Lost Ark quadrilogy and WALL-E.

Others have since gotten in on the joke, including a bunch of Burtt’s sound-designer peers and a handful of directors, including Joe Dante, Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson. Here’s a sampling of movies including the infamous Wilhelm:

So the next time you’re flipping through cable and stumble across the Wilhelm…now you know.

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