- The Wilhelm Scream is one of the most famous sound effects in film history, first used in the 1951 movie“Distant Drums.”
- Since then, it’s become an insider trope used in over 100 Hollywood films today.
- We spoke with Jonathan Kuntz, a film history professor at UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television, to find out how the scream got its name and became synonymous with action films.
Narrator: Does this scream sound familiar? That’s because it’s used in over 100 films. It’s a movie trope called the Wilhelm Scream.
Jonathan Kuntz: The Wilhelm Scream is maybe the most famous sound effect in Hollywood, that is used when characters are shot or fall off high places in action films.
Narrator: The scream made its first appearance in a 1951 film called “Distant Drums.”
Kuntz: And there’s a moment in the film where a character is dragged into the swamp, and they wanted a particularly blood-curdling scream.
Narrator: Now, this was just one of many different screams in the film.
Kuntz: To make a film, you need a sound effects library, a collection of sound effects. And you’re going to use them in different parts of the film. Maybe in one part of your action film, you need a two-second scream, but in another part of your film, you might need a one-and-a-half-second blood-curdling scream.
Narrator: Producers had cast members record a variety of different screams. But there was one man’s scream in particular that stood out among the rest.
Kuntz: It’s usually credited now to Sheb Wooley, who was a kind of a western style character actor and a novelty singer who appears in “Distant Drums.”
Narrator: But its first appearance in 1951 wasn’t the scream’s shining moment. That happened when it was used again in the 1953 film “The Charge at Feather River.” A character named Private Wilhelm was shot in the leg with an arrow.
Kuntz: And that’s how it got named the Wilhelm Scream.
Wilhelm: Yeah, I’ll just fill my pipe.
Narrator: Since then, the sound has been used in more than 100 films. Why? Well, for one, it’s cheaper and easier to reuse preexisting sound effects.
Kuntz: You have to give credit to Ben Burtt, the wonderful sound designer, who’s been working on the biggest films in Hollywood since the 1970s, a close associate of George Lucas. He is the one who really discovered the Wilhelm Scream and researched out its origins.
Narrator: Burtt used the scream in a memorable moment in “Star Wars.”
Kuntz: When Luke Skywalker fires at the Stormtrooper.
Narrator: The scream actually appears in all of the original “Star Wars” films.
Kuntz: And then it became an in-joke.
Narrator: The scream then spread to many other famous films.
Kuntz: Steven Spielberg picked up on it and used it in many, many of his films. And then it just went crazy, of course. Peter Jackson uses it in “The Lord of the Rings.” It even shows up in “Toy Story” and “Reservoir Dogs.”
Narrator: The sound is now famous among film buffs.
Kuntz: I think you can go on YouTube and see compilations of dozens of Wilhelm screams. I mean, it has its own Wikipedia entry. And so, for people that love movies, this is part of their enjoyment of it, is finding this little insider detail.
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