Story of the Scene: Star Wars (1977)

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The Independent Culture

How did a stock Warner Brothers sound-effect become an in-joke after Star Wars? Why won't Joe Dante use it? Why did Quentin Tarantino break off mixing Reservoir Dogs because of it? Who screamed the Wilhelm scream?

Luke Skywalker, on the Death Star, fighting off Storm Troopers, comes to a vertiginous abyss. A Trooper falls, and there's a strangulated, high-pitched cry – the Wilhelm scream, used in more than 130 films. Ben Burtt put it into Star Wars; he was looking through the archives when he came across a 3D film called Distant Drums (1951), featuring its first use as a soldier is savaged by an alligator. Burtt called it the Wilhelm scream after finding it in The Charge at Feather River (1953), where Private Wilhelm (Ralph Brooke) is shot in the leg. For years, it was only heard in Warner films. Joe Dante employed it as a zombie cry, but abandoned it because everyone's in on the joke.

Editing Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino was told the history of the scream as he was using it. By chance, Distant Drums was on TV– and everyone took a break to watch it.

Who screams it? Probably Sheb Wooley, famous for the song "The Purple People Eater", who'd been in Distant Drums. It was probably a post-production scream.