In the 1951 movie Distant Drums starring Gary Cooper, a small band of soldiers were crossing a swamp in pursuit of Seminole Indians. While wading through the Everglades one unnamed soldier was attacked and dragged underwater by an alligator. His last sound as he died was a startled scream.
In The Charge at Feather River two years later, a soldier named Private Wilhelm screamed in what sounded like alligator-assaulted agony when he was struck by an arrow. In fact, his cry of pained surprise was practically identical to unnamed soldier’s. Both men would soon be forgotten as a bit parts in B-movies, seen by relatively few moviegoers. But the holler they bellowed went on to be heard by millions— if not billions— of people worldwide.
Most movie studios will add sound effects for a film during post-production, and of course it’s not unusual for them to recycle sound effects from their archives. In the case of Distant Drums, six short screams were recorded in a studio and creatively titled “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams”. The fifth take was used for the alligator attack, and the others came in handy to give voice to some Indians shot during a raid.
Following the movie’s release, the distinctive scream was placed in the Warner Brothers sound effects library and used regularly in that studio’s films. Among many others, it was heard in Them! in 1954, Swiss Family Robinson in 1960, PT-109 in 1963, and The Green Berets in 1968.
Eventually a sound effect aficionado named Ben Burtt noticed the same scream wailing from the speakers of movie after movie. When he made the swashbuckler parody The Scarlet Blade in 1974, he decided he wanted to use the scream, so he lifted it from another film’s soundtrack. A few years later, he was hired to handle the sound effects for Star Wars, and during his audio hunting adventures he heard a familiar cry emanate from the Warner Brothers archive: the original Distant Drums scream. Delighted, Burtt began to regularly insert the dramatic outcry into the projects he worked on, including Star Wars. He dubbed it the “Wilhelm scream” in honor of the first named character to use it, and from there it found its way into cinema legend.
The scream soon became a kind of inside joke for Hollywood sound editors who started watching for places to insert it. Below are just a few of its appearances:
Star Wars (1977)
A stormtrooper is shot by Luke and falls down a shaft in the Death Star.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
1) A rebel soldier screams when his gun explodes during the Hoth battle.
2) Chewie knocks a stormtrooper off the platform of the carbon-freezing chamber.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
1) A Nazi soldier is thrown from the back of a truck into a windshield.
2) A soldier falls from the left side of the truck, ripping the canvas as he falls.
Barf uses a section of tubing to reflect four laser bolts back at guards. The fourth one screams.
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman punches a clown and moves him out of his way.
Toy Story (1995)
Buzz Lightyear is thrown out the bedroom window.
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
The were-rabbit has a rampage near the end of the film, and picks up Lady Tottington
Superman Returns (2006)
When the train set in Luthor’s basement is destroyed
Damn Interesting: The Wilhelm Scream (2007)
As the author realizes that the article deadline was tomorrow
Since it was first blurted out upon the world, the scream has been featured in over two hundred movies, TV programs, commercials, video games, and theme park attractions, and it has been heard by countless people. Notable filmmakers have also specifically requested the Wilhelm scream for their movies after learning of its history, including directors Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Peter Jackson.
The person who is the actual voice of the Wilhelm Scream remains a mystery, but many believe it to be the voice of Sheb Wooley. Wooley is most famous for his Purple People Eater, a song which was a number-one hit for six weeks in 1958. He dabbled in acting, and he had a small part in Distant Drums; in fact, he was one of only a few actors who were called back after filming for some vocal work on the movie. He died in 2003, but his wife Linda believes it was his scream. She is fond of saying that Sheb was very talented at performing screams, laughs, and “dying vocals” for the movies. If true, given the use of his scream in such an enormous number of films, it could be said that this obscure actor is one of history’s most prolific talents.
Sheb’s holler has joined a brotherhood of disembodied sound clips which frequently wander into sound editors’ booths. Other members include a thunder clap created for
the original one of the original Frankenstein movies, a sound which has been raised from the dead many times over since 1931; and a particular recording of the red-tailed hawk’s distinctive cry, a sound which is heard almost any time a tall mountain or sheer cliff appears on-screen. Like Sheb Wooley, the storm cloud and hawk which emitted these vocalizations may have passed on, but their disembodied celluloid echoes have given them a strange kind of immortality.