I'm going to be honest with you. There's just no way I'm the best pilot in the world. I'm the second best pilot in the world.
Back in the early 1980s, when VCRs were still a new innovation, the first movie my family ever rented and watched together was The Great Waldo Pepper. I've never forgotten it, and now that it is available on DVD I looked forward to seeing it like seeing an old friend for the first time in years.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1926, and Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford) is eking out a living as a barnstormer, flying from village to village across Nebraska. A combination of Eddie Rickenbacker and P.T. Barnum, he amazes people with a few quick stunts, charges them $5 per head for airplane rides, and dazzles the young ladies with tales of his dogfight against legendary German ace Ernst Kessler. Never mind the fact that he didn't actually fly against Kessler; it's a good story, and he wishes he had been there.
Waldo's dream is to perform the one great stunt that hasn't been done yet—the outside loop. His boyhood friend Ezra Stiles (Edward Herrmann, Annie, The Lost Boys) is building a new plane, faster and more aerodynamic, that will allow Waldo to be the first to do it. In order to finish the plane they need money, so Waldo teams with his old barnstorming rival Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson) and Axel's girlfriend Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bull Durham, Thelma and Louise) to create a daredevil act that will land them a job with Dilhoefer's Flying Circus.
After tragedies strike their act and close down the flying circus, Waldo is permanently banned from flying. The days of barnstorming are over; flying is going to be big business, and the federal government has decided to step in and regulate the skies. Waldo and Axel head for California where they find work as movie stuntmen. Using a false name Waldo gets a job as a pilot on a movie about his idol, the legendary Ernst Kessler. Kessler (Bo Brundin) is working on the picture, but only as a technical advisor as he has grown too old and fat to play himself. However, the studio is allowing Kessler to do his own flying for publicity reasons, and Waldo is thrilled to finally meet Kessler in the air, even though it is only for a movie. He and Kessler form a close bond, and together they come up with their answer to the changing times around them.
When The Great Waldo Pepper hit theaters in 1975, it had a lot going for it. Director George Roy Hill (Slaughterhouse Five) and Robert Redford (The Way We Were, Indecent Proposal) had worked together on the award-winning 1969 hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and were fresh from their 1973 Oscar winner, The Sting. The script is by Oscar-winner William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride). Add in strong supporting appearances by Susan Sarandon, Bo Svenson, and Margot Kidder (Superman), and you should have the recipe for a great movie.
It all succeeds, to one degree or another, largely on the strength of the acting performances and some truly breathtaking aerial footage. Waldo makes his living doing aerial stunts, and the movie faithfully reproduces them on film. Remember, this came out in 1975, two years before George Lucas would revolutionize special effects with Star Wars, and long before the days of CGI animation. The aerial shots do have some problems, including some very badly looped dialogue, but for the most part they are effective and exciting.
Put it all together and you have a fun, enjoyable movie experience for the whole family. The story may be a bit of a stretch at times, but with Redford's easygoing charm and lots of exciting flight scenes, you will hardly notice. There are some poignant moments as well, along with drama and character development and all those things that adults seem to want when they watch movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all its excitement, there are some major problems with Goldman's script. Noted critic Pauline Kael has called the script "cold-hearted," and while I disagree for the most part, there are some moments that strike me as jarring and mean spirited. One is a prank that Waldo plays on his rival Axel. It is played for laughs, but Axel winds up with a broken leg, and there is a strong sense that he is rather lucky not to be killed. Similarly, after a beautiful girl dies in a wing-walking stunt gone bad, there is little remorse and indeed the owner of the flying circus is certain that it will be good for business.
However, the greatest faults lie not with the movie, but with the DVD presentation. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I watch a movie on DVD I expect it to look considerably better than it did on VHS or broadcast television. You could expect that, but you would be wrong. For starters, the original 2.35:1 picture has been cruelly mutilated into 1.33:1 pan-and-scan. For those keeping score, this means that you lose about 45 percent of the gorgeous aerial photography. Not that you will miss it much, as the fraction of the picture that you do get to see is often soft, grainy, murky, dark, and either washed out or oversaturated, depending on the scene. The picture overall looks flat, with no sense of depth or distance. Skin tones range from pale to very reddish; I suppose they might average out at something approximating natural tones, but that's no consolation. There are some major instances of strobing and chroma noise in clothing patterns, notably men's tweed hats and jackets. Chroma noise, you ask? Wasn't this supposed to be a thing of the past with the switch to DVD? Evidently not. Picture clarity runs from adequate to downright fuzzy, like those EP copies of rented movies you used to make when you were in eighth grade. There is simply no excuse for a movie that is only 25 years old to look this bad, especially on DVD.
The sound mix is not much better. Good Times (a misnomer if ever there was one) has given us a Dolby 1.0 mono mix for this disc. To be fair it is clear and you can hear the dialogue well, but it is disappointing as all get-out. I would have loved to hear those old-time biplanes racing around my living room, but it was not to be.
Extra content is almost nonexistent. There are two text screens of production notes. One deals with the movie, and if you have read this review there will be nothing new there for you. The other contains biographical information on Redford. Other than that there is…full color artwork on the front of the disc. Yippee. To top it all off, to add insult to injury, to pour just a little more salt in the wound, it all comes in the dreaded snapper case.
I feel like the guy in the old J. Geils Band song "Centerfold." My blood runs cold/my memory has just been sold/Waldo's on Good Times Video. If ever a movie cried out for a restored print, an anamorphic transfer, and a Dolby 5.1 audio remix, this is it. As it is, this is the worst looking disc I have seen to date, and I don't like it much. I wanted to recommend this movie. I wanted to tell you to enjoy it with your whole family. However, it saddens me greatly to say that I can not in good conscience recommend this hack job DVD to anyone.
The movie is acquitted, and this court expresses its thanks for the memories. Good Times has managed an incredible feat in making a movie look worse on DVD than it did on VHS, and for this they need to be punished. Lock 'em up and throw away the key; they're just lucky that we don't have the death penalty around here. Universal is convicted as an accomplice for selling the video rights in the first place, and they are ordered to get this picture back into their own custody so that they can do a decent DVD. While they are at it, a commentary track featuring Redford, director Hill, and screenwriter Goldman is strongly encouraged.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Good Times Home Video
• Production Notes
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