Wilhelm: A Plea for Respite
So there I was, in my local infiniplex, watching the new Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds. There’s a fair bit of action in the movie, much of which is part of a film-within-a-film called “Nation’s Pride,” wherein a Nazi war hero takes out a couple hundred Allied soldiers from a bell tower. As each soldier was shot, and fell, and screamed, I found myself thinking, “okay, which one of these guys gets the Wilhelm Scream?”
And, lo and behold, within a scant few minutes, there it was, accompanying some poor sap falling out of a tower window.
For those of you who don’t know, The Wilhelm Scream has been an inside joke for film sound designers for years. Originally recorded for 1951’s Distant Drums, it was used as a stock effect for other films in the 1950s including The Charge at Feather River in 1953, where it was the death cry of one Private Wilhelm. When sound-design icon Ben Burtt located the original recording in the 1970s he named it after Private Wilhelm.
Burtt used the Wilhelm Scream recording in the first Star Wars film, and then in the Indiana Jones movies, and the rest of the original Star Wars trilogy, among others. It became kind of a trademark for him. Soon his friend Richard Anderson began using it as well. And soon after that it seemed like every sound guy in Hollywood was sneaking it into fight scenes, chases, battles and so on. And if you were in the know, it was a cool moment while watching a movie to suddenly hear Pvt. Wilhelm show up.
When Burtt started putting the Wilhelm Scream in his films it was his little signature, an in-joke, a bit of fun. Now every sound designer has a file somewhere on his hard drive called “wilhelm.wav,” and he finds a place to drop it in to every action film he works on. I’m guilty of it myself. Hell, I had a guy getting hit by a train onstage and there was a Wilhelm Scream hidden in the cue someplace. Made the director giggle every time he heard it. It became a clichè, sure, but it was a sound guy’s clichè.
But recently, the secret’s gotten out. There’s a thread on the IMDB messageboard for Basterds that asks “Did you hear the Wilhelm Scream?” I’m sure every major action film’s IMDB messageboard has such a thread.
And that’s the problem.
It’s not a sound guy’s in-joke anymore. It’s not a cool little surprise, a bit of ear candy for the hardcore film fans. It’s become part of the vocabulary of action films: where will the Wilhelm Scream show up?
I fear the Wilhelm Scream has jumped the shark, as it were. Let’s try to get away from it for awhile. Just a year, maybe. Maybe in 2010 (the year we make contact), sound designers could abstain from tossing the Wilhelm Scream into every action film that comes their way (Does Ben Burtt get a pass? I am on the fence about this). After that we can all go back to raking the unfortunate private across the audio coals; hell, put him into a romantic comedy for all I care.
But give the poor fellow a break for awhile.