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Great Waldo Pepper, The (DVD Review)

23 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$14.98 DVD
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Robert Redford, Bo Svenson, Susan Sarandon, Bo Brundin.

Historically significant as both a star-power footnote and something close to aviation-buff nirvana, this cult box office underachiever has finally received its DVD due, though you’d never know it from the way Universal has hidden the news. No widescreen movie deserves to be released in cruddy pan-and-scan, but god-awful Goodtimes’ 1998 version of Pepper thoroughly mangled cinematographer Robert Surtees’ splendid work — to the point where any halfway trained eye could tell something was woefully wrong starting about one or two seconds after the opening credits.

Surtees — gee, all he did was shoot King Solomon’s Mines, Oklahoma!, Raintree County, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show and a few score more to make it solid guess that he (and not some R.F.D. demographic that Goodtimes was apparently trying to placate) just might know how the movie was supposed to look. What’s more, this uneven drama with equally undeniable compensations was an extremely personal project for director George Roy Hill, an airplane lover and one with enough box office clout in the mid-1970s to get his movie’s funky old prop jobs in the air.

But now for the star-power footnote. Paul Newman and Robert Redford made three movies each for Hill — the first two, of course, being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Newman’s solo effort for the director was 1977’s Slap Shot — considered a comedown then but subsequently a huge home favorite for three decades (and with a role reputed to have been the star’s personal favorite). Pepper, which came earlier, was Redford’s solo effort for Hill, and the story has been told that preview audiences (foreboding the future) were rudely taken “out” of a picture they had been enjoying by a shock incident that takes place around the movie’s halfway point.

As an odd and even clashing mix of early aviation comedy-drama, Pepper reminds me a little of John Ford’s 1957’s The Wings of Eagles — a movie I also respond to (much more, in fact) despite its own whiplashing tone. Both films deal with flying daredevils who find humor in physical pain and aren’t particularly successful with women — against large-scale storytelling that contains some of the finest stunt flying in the history of the screen. A major difference is Eagles’ emotional resonance vs. Pepper’s chilliness.

The earlier film begins with Navy man John Wayne landing a seaplane on a swimming pool at the admiral’s lawn party — probably one of the dozen most memorable scenes of my moviegoing childhood. The stunt flier employed was Paul Mantz (later killed filming the original version of The Flight of the Phoenix) — who, with Frank Tallman (with whom he founded Tallmantz Aviation) was the most famed stunt flier ever. Tallman (later killed in an air mishap as well) supervised Pepper’s flying sequences from presumably the ground, and they are spectacular. My favorite is a pioneer plane more or less driving down the main street of a small town, as the comely assistant to leads Redford and Bo Svenson, a very young Susan Sarandon, is perched on the wing. You can imagine the reaction of stunned local merchants and customers looking out windows and front doors.

Pepper’s period spans the post-World War I era all the way through the 1920s, with Redford’s title character obsessed with the heroic efforts of onetime German flying ace Ernst Kessler. (It’s just a guess, but the casting of actor Bo Brundin as fictional Kessler probably makes this the only major studio release ever to have two of its top three male roles played by guys named Bo.) Through another weird veer-off in the story, the two men end up meeting in a turn of events that ends up consuming the final fifth of the movie. It’s probably not what paying customers intended to see, but is still intriguing — to a point. Waldo learns that even idols have ex-wives draining their pockets, and the look of Kessler’s shabby suit (or jacket) on a torso at least a couple sizes too large for it tells a lot about the fallen hero’s state. Not that, by this time of the story, Waldo’s is much better.

As opposed to all-out liking the picture, I’m instead sympathetic to it, though it’s possible that an extra 20 minutes (somewhere) might have fleshed out the characterizations or given it some wiggle room to figure out a consistent tone. My best guess is that Hill and writer William Goldman share the movie’s shortcomings — though it makes me wonder anew why, for all of the latter’s esteem, All the President’s Men is the only great movie to have a credited Goldman screenplay. (Given that 1969 also saw The Wild Bunch, the delayed U.S. release of Once Upon a Time in the West and even the iffy but generally irresistible True Grit, it’s tough to make a case that Butch Cassidy is anywhere near the best Western of its year.)

Ultimately, the visuals here are the thing, and the old Goodtimes release did to them what the barn door does here to Waldo/Redford’s face when it flies into and through a barn Buster Keaton-style as he dangles on a ladder from a plane. (Great bruise-y makeup, by   the way.) Even without extras, this DVD is a beaut, though for some reason, the opening credits tune is different from the one on the Goodtimes disc – even though, far as I know, the score was a Henry Mancini original. Some musical rights questions remain a mystery to me – almost as much as one as why anyone would ever want to watch pan-and-scan.

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