If ever discussed, the Wilhelm Scream is perpetually taken for granted. Frustratingly, the conversation around the stock sound effect often mimic so much of the limited frameworks through which we talk about genre itself. There’s not much of a distance between fans and detractors here. People who love the scream tend to cite its kitschy quality; the sheer novelty of such a ubiquitous easter egg. People who hate it describe it as a silly and lazy sound device whose only purpose is to take them out of the action for little more than a dumb joke.
Regardless of one’s feelings about the Wilhelm, there is no question that the sound always calls attention to itself. Here we see a fascinating tension between its simultaneous subtlety and crudeness. On the one hand, the sound is practically always diegetic. It is, more often than not, “emitted” by a maimed extra who’s either been shot or hurled by the force of an explosion or another character. On the other, the memetic nature of the sound makes its usage inherently meta. If you are even remotely familiar with popular American film (namely Star Wars and Indiana Jones) then you’re familiar with the sound. And if you’re familiar with the sound, you know for a fact that the extra being shot or hurled is not actually “emitting” that sound.
“Frustratingly, the conversation around the [Wilhelm Scream] often mimic so much of the limited frameworks through which we talk about genre itself.“
No one disagrees that the Wilhelm is a self-referential act–a device that demands to be noticed. The implication of that quality is a different matter, however. I don’t think the trivialization of the Wilhelm is really separable from the ways in which we talk (or don’t) about sound design in film. Because of how pervasively auteurism sidelines filmmakers who are not the mythical “writer-director,” aspects of production such as sound design (even more so than other crafts such as cinematography, editing and scoring) are criminally underappreciated. Think of how the Academy lumps its two (non-score) sound awards, Editing and Mixing, together and presents them literally smack in the middle of the ceremony, equidistantly from the ecstatic energy of the opening awards and the thrilling countdown of the final ones. The sound designer’s craft is rarely recognized in any significant shape or form by the mainstream.
Perhaps the reason people dismiss the Wilhelm, either through criticizing or reducing it to a meaningless joke, is because it is an unavoidable reminder that the sound designer does in fact exist. Or, at the very least, that they are not a mere silent, invisible trooper hunched over in a sound booth, doing nothing but mindless technical work to bring the auteur’s (sonic) vision to life. Like every member of a film’s production, sound designers are integral to the craft.
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We would not know the scream today if it weren’t for the labor (and humor) of sound designers. As fans of the Wilhelm already know, the sound is first heard in Raoul Walsh’s 1951 western Distant Drums, “emitted” by a man being eaten by an alligator. It becomes more visible (audible?) in Gordon Douglas’ 1953 The Charge at Feather River, another western, when a man is shot by an arrow while on horseback. The sound is used every now and then for the next couple of decades, but is not made famous until Ben Burtt, the legendary sound designer of Star Wars, comes across the scream in the Warner Bros. archive while studying at USC and decides to put it in George Lucas’ space epic. He christens it the Wilhelm after the minor character in The Charge at Feather River who “screams” when shot by an arrow. Later, it’s also used in the Indiana Jones films and the rest is history.
It’s tempting to think of the history of the Wilhelm Scream as little more than the history of an odd and comic sound being recycled for comedic effect. But it is also the history of sound designers affirming their integral role–their “voice” if you will–in the filmmaking process. Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, Rose Eveleth explains that there’s long been “a contest amongst sound designers to get the scream into their work.” Citing On the Media’s interview with sound designer Stephen Altobello, the article outlines how this is due to the fact that “often when directors notice The Wilhelm they demand it be pulled.” Altobello is particularly enthralled with “whoever put the Wilhelm into the Judy Garland movie A Star is Born,” a particularly legendary instance of the scream since it plays in a film within the film.
“Because of how pervasively auteurism sidelines filmmakers who are not the mythical “writer-director,” aspects of production such as sound design […] are criminally underappreciated.“
Writing for No Film School, V Renée eloquently puts it: “it’s more than just an inside joke among sound designers. It has become a way for filmmakers to tip their hat to the great filmmakers of the past. The Wilhelm Scream, really, has become an auditory distinction of cinema itself.” This is why it remains baffling to me why the production team of the latest Star Wars trilogy decided to retire the scream. Matthew Wood, the supervising sound editor on The Last Jedi, defended the decision by stating: “we’re letting the past die,” as Kylo Ren says. Beyond the strange decision to use a character the films insist is a fascist to justify a creative decision, this statement is immensely disappointing because the past the Wilhelm represents is neither a restrictive nor narrow one, but a testimony to nature of genre’s ability to be a living archive. In the particular case of Star Wars, the Wilhelm isn’t just the sound of sound designers, it’s also the sound of forgotten extras. We may not know the names of the stormtrooper who fell down a Death Star ditch in the first Star Wars or the Jabba thug who falls into the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi, but we will remember those scenes.
I, of course, do want to be careful that I don’t overly romanticize the Wilhelm, or deny the simple fact that it is a genuinely hilarious sound byte whose circulation and endurance is as much about sound designers having a good time with their projects as anything else. But I don’t see that truth as mutually exclusive with an understanding of the Wilhelm as a repeated instance of sound designers leaving their irrefutable mark on their films. Moreover, it is a perfectly miniature demonstration of how the logic, and beauty, of genre has operated throughout film history. After all, is this not a sound initially popularized by two westerns only to hit the mainstream due to massive blockbusters that, aesthetically, could not have existed if it weren’t for westerns?
It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the Wilhelm Scream’s function as a sound queue is a manifestation of genre itself. Genres thrive off of repetition and recycling: tropes, motifs, visual and sonic iconography. This is even moreso the case with the Wilhelm because it doesn’t actually belong to any single genre, but its very existence and trajectory reminds us of the inherently memetic nature of genre filmmaking. I see it less as a joke (though it is undoubtedly hilarious) and more of a poetic device that demonstrates just how much of film history can be encoded into the genres that we watch. Every time you watch a “genre” film (i.e. any film) you are experiencing the culmination of a visual history. You are never watching a single film, but always watching the genre(s) to which that film belongs unfold on the screen. And the Wilhelm is the very sound of that process.
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