Have you ever noticed while watching Moviesfilms like Star Wars how the screams all sound the same? That's because they are the same. It's a stock sound effect being played over and over again - a sound editors' in-joke. And this sound effect, known as the Wilhelm Scream, dates back over 50 years to a little-known Western made in 1951...
The Warner Bros western Distant Drums was directed by Raoul Walsh and starred Gary Cooper as Captain Quincy Wyatt, who leads his men into the Everglades to rout a tribe of Seminole Indians threatening early settlers in Florida. During one scene in which the soldiers are wading through a swamp, one of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. As is usually the case in the film business, the character's screams were recorded later. Six pained screams were recorded, and the effect was so good that the recording was archived into the studio sound-effects library, and re-used in many other Warner Bros productions.
The Spreading Scream
Up until the mid 1970s, the scream was used solely in Warner Bros films. However, when sound-effects fan Ben Burtt was hired for Star Wars in 1977, he did research into the sound effects departments of many studios. Already aware of the existence of the scream, he eventually found it in the Warner Bros library labelled as 'Man Being Eaten By Alligator'. Burtt incorporated it into the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films as well as many other films he worked on as a personal sound signature1.
The scream gradually became familiar to sound editors the world over - although it has never been commercially available and only a few studios have the masters of the Wilhelm Scream, the effect has been frequently 'borrowed' from one studio's movies to be used by another.
After 2005's final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith, Ben Burtt announced that with the completion of the Star Wars films he would no longer be using the scream, but it continues to gain popularity without him. A complete list of Wilhelm Screams would be too long to go into here, but the effect has appeared throughout the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, in Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill Volume 1, in two parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Two Towers and The Return of the King) and most recently in Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End.
So, Who Was Wilhelm?
Well, one thing's for certain - his name wasn't Wilhelm. That name was made up by Ben Burtt after a soldier called Private Wilhelm who let out the scream in The Charge At Feather River (1953) - two years after Distant Drums was made.
Ben Burtt did a lot of research with Warner Bros to try to discover the identity of the mysterious screamer. After looking through the Distant Drums paperwork, reviewing names and listening to voices, the most likely candidate seemed to be the musician and character actor Sheb Wooley (1921 - 2003). He played the uncredited role of Private Jessup in the film, and was one of several actors assembled for additional vocal duties after filming had wrapped. Although there is no way to confirm he is the vocal artist behind the scream, he seems the most likely candidate.
Sheb Wooley died of leukaemia in Nashville, Tennessee in 2003, aged 82. His scream continues to be heard in new films every year.