Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Billy Wilder
Cinematographer: Robert Burks and J. Peverell Marley
by Jon Cvack
This film was a failure when it first came out, with Jack L. Warner stating “It the most disastrous failure we’ve ever had”, only pulling in $2.6 million of its $6 million dollar budget Many blamed the casting of 47-year old James Stewart in the role of 25-year old Charles Lindbergh. Not knowing any of this before I went in - I was surprised. This is a great and beautiful film; part chamber drama, part bio-pic, and part epic tale. For a story that is simply about a flight over the Atlantic from New York to Paris this was a thrilling (and yes, I’m aware that at the time it was a huge deal. My point being that at 135 minutes I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect).
James Stewart dies his hair blonde and plays a determined and death defying Charles Lindbergh, as one of the earliest proponents of air travel, understanding its vast potential. The movie takes you back to an era when these types of international races were things to celebrate, with Wilder including the Times Square footage of Lindberg’s parade, where millions of people marched into the streets, celebrating his victory. A similar race would carry out toward space, with America championing once again. When I hear activists and politicians talking about the need for a climate change race I couldn’t agree more. It’s moments like this - where the entire country could gather together and celebrate magnificent accomplishments - that is currently missing from the American collective. The recent SpaceX landing was a perfect follow up to this film. I just wish more people cared.
The story is told in a nonlinear manner, cutting back and forth between Lindberg’s start as a pilot and his mission to fly across the Atlantic. We see him as a stunt pilot, offering $5 rides at public fairs, and joining others in walking the wings and taking the aviation to its utter limit. Beneath it all is an unexplainable reason as to why someone could be so attracted to air travel, explored during a moment in the grass when Lindberg and Bud Gerney (Murray Hamilton; later as the Mayor in Jaws) share a moment’s reflection. There’s a freedom to flying and utilizing the nascent technology, unsure of where it’ll lead, knowing it’s the future. Lindberg’s tenure as a stunt pilot eventually fades as, I assume, the work slowed down as planes became more ubiquitous. He turned to mail delivery and flying lessons. It’s the former that opens the movie, as Stewart gets caught in a thick fog and has to abandon ship.
Knowing that there’s a race to fly across the Atlantic, Stewart visits countless banks, looking for an investor for his intercontinental plane. The scene made me recall the moment in Contact when Jodie Foster lobbies an investment firm for the money to finance her search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Stewart tries to smoke a cigar to blend in with the Money Men, choking on the few tiny puffs he receives, before finally getting approval.
He enlists the help of an engineering company, greeting the President as he fries fish on a piece of scrap metal, heating the pan with a blowtorch. It’s a scene that sticks in your head as many of Wilder’s film does, in which he finds the small moments that add that additional layer which elevates him to greatness. This is most apparent during the flight, when Stewart fails to get any sleep the night before, not wanting to think about the forty hour trip that lies ahead of him. Throughout the film I was wondering how Wilder would make it interesting - a man sitting in a plane isn’t the most exciting concept. You could see Wilder trying to defend the idea to his investors as much as Lindberg defended himself to the bankers. After seeing the marvelous and exciting way they built the plane, creating the engine from scratch, doing everything in their power to make it as light as possible, creating everything from a form of periscope so Lindberg could navigate, to using a mirror in order to look at the compass since a different method would add needless weight to the hardware’s design.
The morning of the flight is one of the most beautiful from the period, as a gentle haze sits above the dewy grass, with the dirt runway now a slog of mud and puddles. A scene succeeds when you absolutely know it will and yet you still question whether it can. As the crew pushes the plane out the runway, the plane starts up, and Lindberg begins accelerating, knowing that if he doesn’t make it past a certain point he’ll crash into electrical wires - I was blown away by Wilders ability to fuse great cinema with tension and beauty. Of course, Lindberg takes off, and in moments, as the engine’s white noise cuts in, Lindberg recalls that by the time he lands, he won’t have slept for almost 60 hours. With nothing to do except stay awake and keep course, we immediately realize how difficult it is.
The first of Stewart’s inner dialogues was his fascinating calculation of how many times the engine would combust across the forty hour trip - moving from the combustions per second and eventually reaching per hour, discovering it’d be over a million times on a plane that’s never been tested. Soon the exhaustion creeps in and remains for the rest of the flight. After hearing about the few others who had died attempting the trip, you discover that probably wasn’t mechanical or bad flying, but due to falling asleep. Wilder’s direction in this section is miraculous.
Not being sure of this actually happened - Wilder has Lindberg joined by a fly, allowing Lindberg to express his thoughts and strategies out loud. If this fly never existed, we would have had to listen to an entire inner monologue, instead this minute element was added, and like Wilson from Cast Away, we see the creature as a passenger rather than an insect. Eventually, Lindberg falls asleep, with the plane spiraling downwards. Rather than relying on a crazy special effects sequence - although there’s some - Wilder awakes Stewart by having the sunlight reflected upon the compass mirror (which was given to him by Amelia Earheart), flashing past his eye and eventually waking him up. It’s a beautiful and poetic moment, perfectly encapsulating the film’s themes of spirituality and friendship. Lindberg is an atheist in the film, which is incredible both to know and to see included, and Wilder never necessarily offers a conversion. He respects Lindberg’s belief and the respect Lindberg gave to the others.
As the planes reaches the Irish Coast, exhaustion really begins to seep in. The fly now leaves, and though abrupt and seemingly insignificant, we as the audience then start to feel the exhaustion - as Stewart’s eyes start to close and as the engine continues to hum. By the time he reaches Paris, not knowing there’d be any celebration at all, Stewart struggles to make out the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people beneath him. Although there are matted out plane effects, I wonder if these were added by the studio, as Wilder captures some of the most beautiful, real plane footage, over what looks to be Europe. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the big screen.
Lindberg finally lands, with the French charging past the barriers and carrying him off. It’s difficult to think of what it meant - that people no longer had to take the week long trip across the Atlantic and risk their lives doing so. In this era of hyperconnectivity, I think Lindberg’s flight was one of the most significant reflections of things to come.
I’m truly don’t get why the film failed. Wilder had followed this film up after a truly unbelievable string of back to back successes - Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch (the range alone of these films is remarkable). The Spirit of St. Louis is not as perfect as those, but it’s as close as you can get without joining their ranks. Although 1957 had some great American films - Paths of Glory, 12 Angry Men, The Bridge Over the River Kuai, I just don’t see what would have drowned this picture out and provide such ill-success. Especially given that Around the World in 80 Days had just won Best Picture the year before it - though maybe people had enough of air travel. This film remains underrated. I pray to see it in a theater - Wilder’s use of cinemascope would make it absolutely breathtaking.
BELOW: It's this takeoff that really makes ya wish you were watching it on the big screen
Thoughts on films, old and new
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