While motion pictures may still be less than 150 years old, we’ve made the most of our time with the format and have created countless films and television shows since the technology was created. It’s safe to say that visual media is now the dominant form of entertainment around the world, with the hype surrounding the releases of new film and TV projects often reaching a fever pitch. Who can forget the excitement around new seasons of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones? For better or for worse, the internet goes wild every time a new Marvel or DC movie comes out; people wait with bated breath for the announcement of a new project from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright; to see which of their favourite heroes will be brought to the big screen by Marvel or DC; to find out which tremendous new director is going to bring us a landscape-shaking new film, like Emerald Fennell or Chloé Zhao. However, not everything that has come out of the creation of cinema has been good; and while there are countless ideas I could be alluding to here, I am referencing one thing in particular today:
The Wilhelm Scream.
Originally recorded in 1951 for the film Distant Drums by the actor Sheb Wooley for a scene where a man is dragged into a river by an alligator, The Wilhelm Scream was made famous in 1953’s The Charge At Feather River, when Private Wilhelm is shot through the knee with an arrow, ending his career as an adventurer, and launching one particular sound effect into the cultural stratosphere. Part of the reason why the scream became so synonymous with The Charge At Feather River is not because Private Wilhelm’s arrow to the knee was particularly iconic, but because the same sound effect would be used two further times within that one film, and all for different characters; the use of such an identifiable scream on three occasions within the same film is going to make it stand out. However, that didn’t make it stand out as much as Ben Burtt did.
Ben Burtt was one of the sound designers on a small, independent film called Star Wars: A New Hope. While looking through the sound library for practical effects for the action scenes (required since micing up the stormtrooper helmets was not practical), Burtt stumbled upon a scream called “Man being eaten by alligator” and promptly placed over a scene of a stormtrooper falling from a platform after being shot by Luke Skywalker. Burtt renamed it for the film which made it famous, and LucasFilm would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in every single Star Wars and Indiana Jones film, and they wouldn’t be the only ones; the Wilhelm Scream appears in Captain America; The First Avenger, Toy Story, Batman Returns, Family Guy, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and so, so many more; and I am happy to tell you that I hate it.
I watch a lot of films. If you’re going to have the arrogance to think that anyone will care what you think about them, then you really have to make sure you’re watching as many as possible. I would watch films every day if I had the opportunity; if this was my job, I would relish in that happily. There are a lot of things that can take a person out of a film; a strange line delivery, unconvincing CGI, an overly confusing or convoluted plot point are all common gripes about a film that ruins its own believability. For me, nothing removes from the action more than the sound of the Wilhelm Scream. The fact that the noise has become more than a sound effect, even becoming more than a trope is what does it; it’s essentially a meme at this stage, and while LucasFilm’s original use of it may have been perfectly innocent, it has become a cinematic in-joke which has, frankly, gone too far. There’s even a band called A Wilhelm Scream, referencing the over-used effect in a very bold and clear way. In an interview with Insider in November 2018, UCLA Film History Professor Jonathan Kuntz states that the Wilhelm Scream is, “for people who love movies… part of their enjoyment of it is finding this little insider detail.”
It’s now January of 2022, and I’m here to tell Professor Kuntz that his assertion has to be incorrect. The Wilhelm Scream has served its purpose over the last 70 years, and it’s time for less distinctive screams to come to the fore – but let’s not make any more sound effects into memes, unless we’re planning to only use them as a joke, please, Hollywood. And even then… we should maybe rethink that.
To watch the referenced Insider interview, which features its own history of the Wilhelm Scream, please click here.