Friday, June 11, 2010

Reenactment: The Great Waldo Pepper

A man's work is nothing but the long journey to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart (Albert Camus)

Who knows why certain films stick in the memory? From my childhood, I have peculiarly vivid recollections of a handful, many of which are predictable, like The Wizard of Oz, because it was on every Christmas, or Star Wars, because it was a cultural phenomenon. In other cases, the memory is not of the film itself, but of some particular aspect of the experience of watching it, as is the case with Woody Allen’s Sleeper, for example, which is the only film I can remember my mother laughing at, when we watched it on television together late one night.

For me, one of these Proustian films is The Great Waldo Pepper, released in 1975, although I saw it a few years later, again on television. It was a pet project of its director, George Roy Hill, who was finally able to get it made because of the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and because one of the stars of those previous films, Robert Redford, was also committed to Waldo Pepper. It is sometimes described as a box-office flop, although Wikipedia says that it made $20,000,000 on a $5,000,000 budget, which doesn’t sound like a flop to me (having said that, the film is almost unknown now and difficult to obtain: my DVD is a German edition).

The Great Waldo Pepper tells the story of the titular character, played by Redford, who is trying to make a living as a pilot immediately after World War 1, when aeroplanes were still sufficiently novel that aerial circuses could draw crowds regularly. This way of life is coming to an end, however, as the film progresses (it starts in 1926 and ends in 1931). In fact, the plot is based upon familiar tropes of modernisation, in which bureaucracy, technological advancement and capitalism (in this case the establishment of a regulatory body that issues licenses for pilots and the growth of modern airlines) marginalise the individual and the pioneer spirit, a story structure that is instantly recognisable from the canon of Sam Peckinpah, although Hill’s milieu and characters are much more benign than Peckinpah’s.

This is all fairly predictable (although probably not to the pre-teen version of myself), but the film’s great strength is its commitment to reenactment. There are very few special effects shots or blue screen work used for the flying sequences. Rather, almost all of them involve pilots performing incredibly dangerous stunts in replica aircraft, whose accuracy to period standards was immediately apparent to me, since I was an enthusiastic assembler of miniature model aeroplanes.

Waldo arrived too late to participate directly in the air war in France, so he attempts to relive it vicariously by inserting himself into his retellings of historical incidents: in particular, a famous dogfight in which the German ace Ernst Kessler (probably inspired by Ernst Udet) shot down four out of five pursuing Allied airmen, before letting the fifth go unharmed when his final opponent's guns jammed. This too is a familiar trope: the heroic (because individualistic) ‘knights of the air’, whose chivalric treatment of their opponents contrasts sharply with the indiscriminate industrial death meted out below.

In Waldo’s retelling of the story, he of course takes the part of Madden, the only Allied survivor, and it is not until he crosses paths with someone who was actually in France that his charade is revealed. From Waldo’s point-of-view, the lie is justified because, 'It should've been me'. One might say that Waldo upholds Aristotle’s distinction between history and poetry: history is inferior because it is limited to what actually did happen, whereas poetry concerns itself with the loftier subject of what should or must have happened.


There are two sequences in this film that stuck with me as a child, and then again later, when I rewatched the film on VHS as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. The first is when Waldo’s friend and colleague Ezra, attempts to perform a demanding stunt, the ‘outside loop’ in a monoplane of his own design, a plane and a stunt that were intended for Waldo, who is forced to watch from the ground due to his temporary suspension from flying after an accident in which a woman died. The outside loop involves tipping the plane into a vertical dive, and then levelling out halfway through the manoeuvre upside down, then climbing back up to the original starting position. It is much more difficult than a conventional ‘loop-the-loop’ (an ‘inside loop’), because the G-forces are much greater, as is the required engine power and the resulting stress on the plane’s wings. After several abortive attempts and near-misses, Ezra stalls out in the last phase of the manoeuvre, as he attempts to push the plane back up over the top, and plummets to the ground. Before Ezra has even hit, Waldo is off running to the crash site, but he is followed closely by the excited crowd.

Ezra is alive, but trapped in the wreckage. As gasoline spills, and Waldo tries to get him out, Ezra becomes hysterical. ‘Waldo, they’re smoking, they’re smoking!’, he shouts at the rubberneckers around the plane holding their cigarettes, and then, as the inevitable happens and the gasoline ignites, ‘Waldo! Don’t let me burn! .... I'm burning, Waldo!’ Waldo knows it’s too late. He can’t get Ezra out now, it’s impossible, there’s nothing he can do, so he picks up a piece of wood, and brings it down, hard. Then he pushes through the crowd and makes for a plane. Furious, he takes off and swoops down low, right over the heads of the crowd, who are now gathered around a funeral pyre. Waldo’s impetuous behaviour seals his fate. He has flown without a license, and moreover, in a deliberately reckless manner, so now he is banned permanently. In a bitter coda, we learn that Kessler, who is now working in America as a stunt pilot, has successfully performed an outside loop with another flying circus.

Ezra's death illustrates the role of empathy and catharsis in dramatic performance, or rather the idea that a certain kind of performance – the spectacle – does not permit true identification, but rather encourages voyeurism, a debased kind of pseudo-empathy. As we watch a war film – say, the opening of Saving Private Ryan – we are, according to this critique, little better than the spectators surrounding Ezra’s crashed plane. Our pleasure is derived from how closely these simulated deaths resemble actual deaths, but unlike the participants, who commit their whole bodies to the experience, and who risk injury and death in doing so, we do not really have anything at stake, existentially, and that is why our voyeurism is immoral. Ezra’s death in The Great Waldo Pepper is not a reenactment, but it does teach us that true empathy requires us to be involved directly. Among the spectators, only Waldo really feels Ezra’s predicament, and the consequence of that identification is that he must kill Ezra. 'Waldo! Don't let me burn!'

After this debacle, Waldo moves to Hollywood to join his friend Axel, who is working there as a stuntman. But temptation arrives in the form of a film about the famous dogfight with Kessler, Eagles Over France, perhaps inspired by Howard Hawks' infamous Hell's Angels, in which Kessler is flying his own stunts in a replica of his black and yellow Fokker Triplane. Axel, who still has a license, will play the part of McKinnon, the fourth Allied pilot to be shot down, whose plane caught fire, and who jumped without a parachute rather than burn to death (the parallel with Ezra is obvious and intentional). Waldo, under a pseudonym, and at Kessler's particular request, takes the role of Madden, the man whose story he had previously appropriated.

On the night before before the staging of the climactic dogfight, Waldo reviews the film’s props, protesting – like any good military reenactor – that they are inaccurate. The director, Werfel, replies loftily, 'Anybody can supply accuracy. Artists provide truth'. On the set, Waldo runs into Kessler, who confesses that his post-war career, so successful on the surface, is really only a series of distractions from a deep-rooted sense of failure. Kessler is heavily in debt (for gambling, we presume), and he drinks too much. He can barely remember the events of the famous dogfight, which was over in a few minutes, even though he lives his entire life now in the shadow of that brief moment of pure, immediate impulse.

This too is a trope: a sort of inverse version of trauma, in which a character can never return to the moment of his origin, to that which makes him who he is, or rather to the moment in which he was most himself (precisely because he was not aware of being so), and is therefore condemned to live out the rest of his life as a series of increasingly inauthentic attempts to recapture (to re-enact) that experience. Kessler’s disillusionment both complements and puts the lie to Waldo’s sense of temporal dislocation. Waldo arrived too late: he lives his life in the knowledge that his exemplary experience, the event that should have publicly confirmed his sense of himself, actually happened to someone else, before Waldo could get there to claim it. Kessler’s exemplary experience also happened to someone else: that is, to a version of himself that he no longer recognises, from whom he is alienated irrevocably ('Aren't you playing yourself?', Waldo asks him, but a handsome younger actor takes Kessler's place on the ground). In Waldo’s case, the original experience is doubly lost, because his participation in it is a fiction.


The second clip that stuck with me from The Great Waldo Pepper is excerpted in the video above, and it shows the climactic re-enactment of the dogfight between Kessler and Madden, the latter played by Waldo. This dogfight is, however, preceded by Axel’s big moment, in which he reenacts the crash dive of the doomed McKinnon, the pilot of the fourth plane that Kessler shot down.

Axel’s scene establishes clearly what is at stake in the more elaborate confrontation that follows. Axel has a parachute of course, but he is instructed by Werfel, the director, to wait until the plane is 'really on fire' before jumping, and not to pull the cord until the last possible moment, so as not to ruin the shot. 'Of course, you could not pull your chute at all, that way he'd be sure to get the right effect', Waldo comments sarcastically. Axel obeys Werfel's instructions, and, as a result, breaks his leg upon impact, but he is alive, and Werfel is delighted at the footage. Axel therefore reaps the monetary reward for his successful reenactment of McKinnon’s death. Everyone wins, but the message is clear, as Waldo's remark indeed suggests.

Battle reenactment is the exemplary form of reenactment because a battle is an exemplary event, which is why histories that are invested in the idea of the event tend to concentrate on wars. There is, however, one crucial difference between a battle and its reenactment: in the latter, the intention is to mimic the effects of the battle, that is, fatalities, as closely as possible, but without actually replicating them. If someone dies in a battle reenactment, then it has failed, but the measure of its success is in how close it can go up to the edge of killing the participants, without actually killing them. Authenticity is the primary value in reenactment, but in a battle reenactment, authenticity equals death. Reenactments of battles are therefore not entirely dissimilar from the aerial spectacle in which Ezra died, in which the attraction is similarly related to the risk of death. It is no surprise, then, that the confrontation between Waldo and Kessler is staged as a sort of gigantic game of chicken, in which the two dare each other to see who can go furthest.

This experience is only available to men (they're called 'dogfights' for a reason). Women are marginalised, and indeed trivialised, throughout The Great Waldo Pepper. Just prior to the clip above, Axel’s girlfriend asks stupidly, ‘What’d they do that for?’ when Kessler and Waldo throw their parachutes away before takeoff, and she later repeats, ‘I don’t understand. What are they doing?’ Kessler and Waldo, by contrast, have now reached a point of perfect understanding, where silent gestures are sufficient (see here for another discussion of silent masculine communication).

What Waldo and Kessler realise is that, to truly commit to their reenactment, they have to commit to its logic. They have to try to kill each other. Since the director has unfortunately failed to provide them with ammunition, the only way they can do this is to use their planes as weapons. Thus their reenactment departs significantly from the literal truth of the original events that give it meaning, but this is not important. What matters is their implacable understanding: their joint suspension of disbelief. If the audience is in fact composed of voyeurs, who cannot truly identify with the participants in a reenactment, then the audience is completely irrelevant to its success or failure. Waldo and Kessler therefore begin their game by turning their back on the audience, as they leave the camera plane far behind (although they are nonetheless being followed by another camera plane, the one directed by George Roy Hill).

In an actual battle, the participants are compelled to kill each other by the logic of their situation, but one of the distinguishing features of a reenactment is that the participants cannot be compelled to do anything. If they choose to risk death, as Waldo and Kessler do, then, precisely because they choose freely, their actions are more meaningful, existentially, than those of the participants in the original events. (This choice finds its exact equivalent, however, in the original battle, in which Kessler chose not to kill his helpless opponent.) Kessler can therefore relive the most intense moments of his life, but this time consciously, in the full knowledge of how meaningful they are; Waldo can finally prove that this is who he was meant to be. But this time, the ending is different. McKinnon (Axel) lives, whereas Kessler and Madden (Waldo) are going to die.

But while the film understands this, its staging of the dogfight is also tied up in the underlying paradox. The film can’t show the deaths of Waldo and Kessler, because Hill, like Werfel, does not actually want to kill his stunt pilots. Indeed, this climactic dogfight is the only sequence in the film that obviously incorporates blue-screen inserts for the close-ups. Even so, Hill takes considerable risks. That plane in the air really does have damaged undercarriage, and the stunt pilot is therefore really going to have to perform a controlled crash-landing to bring it down. As with Werfel and Axel, Hill has asked his pilots to go right up to the edge – not to pull their parachute until the last possible moment, metaphorically – but he can’t ask them to step over it.

Thus the film does not end with the deaths of Waldo and Kessler. Rather, it adopts what I call the ‘Butch Cassidy’ gambit (after Hill’s earlier success). It freeze frames just before the point of no return: just before Butch and Sundance are riddled with a fusillade of bullets, just before Kessler’s damaged wing finally disintegrates. The film is an arrow pointing towards that which it can never represent directly: death, or perhaps, the lived experience of that past encounter with death, whose singularity is irretrievable, because by definition what is singular can never be repeated. In dramatic terms, therefore, the real climactic moment is not death, but the recognition of solidarity in the face of death: the salute that Kessler gave to the helpless Madden pounding on his jammed guns, before peeling off into an unknown, and therefore free, future. In Kessler’s case, his fate leads him back inexorably to that same moment in the future, where Waldo is waiting for him.

Dramatically, therefore, death is not sublime. Instead, it is an anti-climax. As the music comes in on the soundtrack, as Waldo and Kessler separate, and Waldo is left completely alone, we cut to a board of photographs of famous aviators (the clip above ends just before this cut), which we have already seen at the beginning of the film. This time, however, we linger on Waldo’s portrait, where, if we are really paying attention, we can see the dates listed after his name: ‘Waldo Pepper, 1895-1931’. Parenthetically, I might note that I couldn’t be sure that I remembered this detail correctly when I rented the VHS tape in the early 1990s, so one of my goals in doing so was to pause it to confirm that Waldo had indeed ‘died’ in the dogfight with Kessler.

I don’t mean to imply that any of this was going through my head the first time that I watched The Great Waldo Pepper. I probably experienced the film in much the same way that Kessler experienced the dogfight on which his fame rests. But as I grow increasingly interested in the idea of reenactment, I try to explain the source of its fascination by looking back at the films and books that drew my attention as a child. Perhaps I too, like Kessler, am condemned to reenact an original (in the literal sense of the word) experience; but, like Waldo, my ontological priorities are reversed: the fiction comes first, and it is only the resulting reenactment that confirms the truth of the fiction, which in this case means rewatching the film repeatedly and trying to work out why its conclusion still moves me.


Greg St. Pierre said...

One never knows upon what one will stumble. I read with interest this treatise of yours on Waldo Pepper, a most enjoyable piece concerning one of my favorite films. As in your case, Ezra's untidy death stayed with me though the years. Having to summarily dispatch one's best friend is something I hope never to have to contemplate.

By the way, if this genre interests you, I'm working on a film about Battle of Britain fighter ace Robert Stanford-Tuck, based on his biography Fly For Your Life.

Again, sir, great article.


Jonathan Walker said...

Thanks for stopping by, Greg. I will look out for your film.

John Crisp said...

I too was moved by this film. I flew a plane on my 8th birthday and knew I would be a pilot. I saw this movie a year later and like Waldo was captivated by Ernst Kessler's triplane in the scene when he walks around the hanger. I decided then I would own a yellow and black Fokker Triplane. I completed it two years ago and now fly it.

John Crisp