Blog Directory CineVerse: The plane truth

The plane truth

Friday, April 12, 2019

Surprisingly, not much has been written about Billy Wilder's 1957 biopic "The Spirit of St. Louis." Do a Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB search of critical reviews and there simply aren't that many out there. Yet this film is worthy of closer and more detailed introspection, as many believe it's an underrated feature deserving of reappraisal over 60 years later. We attempted the effort this week at CineVerse and came away with these conclusions:

What did you find memorable, unexpected or distinctive about this film?
  • Despite its long runtime, it isn’t a soup-to-nuts comprehensive biography of Charles Lindbergh, who actually had some controversial politics (he admired the Nazi party and was decorated with a Service Cross of the German Eagle by Hermann Goering in the 1930s). This biopic doesn’t cover his youth or introduction to aviation, or even what happens immediately after his historic flight.
  • There are very few characters in the film. Like “Castaway” starring Tom Hanks, this picture would rest heavily on the shoulders of one actor, James Stewart, who appears by himself throughout most of the film.
  • Stewart pushed hard to be cast in this role, even though he was 47 and Lindbergh was 25 at the time of the flight. But Stewart is one of the greatest actors in film history, and he served as an Air Force pilot during World War II, flying combat missions and being promoted to Brigadier General years after the war.
  • This is a very different kind of movie for director Billy Wilder, better known for his sexy comedies and films noir. This movie is not comedic or sexy or witty in that unique Wilder way, and it lacks a crunchy and deep cast of characters like many of his other films. It’s unlike virtually every other picture he ever did.
    • Ponder, as well, the challenges the filmmakers faced here, especially keeping the audience interested in such a static, claustrophobic environment: much of what we see occurs in a tiny cockpit occupied by one man. H ow do you tell this story cinematically? By presenting lots of spectacular aerial footage, by giving Stewart something to play against and talk to (a fly), by introducing threats and dangers, and by changing camera angles and alternating shots inside and outside the plane.
  • Consider that the picture had to meet with Lindbergh’s approval; he had several scenes cut that would have added colorful details and fleshed out his character more.
    • For example, according to DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson: “The movie was meant to begin at the Flight Line at Edwards California, where the assembled Air Force Brass and test pilots heard a "This is Your Life" tribute to old "Lucky Lindy". The flashbacks would all come from this platform, with either Lindbergh telling his story or one of the generals doing it for him. After Lindy lands in Paris and stands staring at his plane, the movie would return to Edwards Air Force Base for a spectacular finish, a fly-by of planes representing the entire history of aviation, until the sky is pierced by the military jets of 1957.”
Themes prevalent in this movie
  • The risks and rewards of being a pioneer or trailblazer
  • Determination, grit and courage in the face of dangerous odds
  • The loneliness that sometimes plagues those with elite skills
  • Other films that “The Spirit of St. Louis” brings to mind
  • The Right Stuff
  • Amelia and Amelia Earhart
  • The Flying Irishman
Other key films by Billy Wilder
  • Double Indemnity
  • The Lost Weekend
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Ace in the Hole
  • Stalag 17
  • Sabrina
  • The 7 Year Itch
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Some Like it Hot
  • The Apartment

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