There comes a time when you experience a pain so great or a shock so intense, that you simply must drop all pretense of machismo and let out a high-pitched yelp. And thanks to Ben Burtt and many of the sound artists that followed in his steps, we all know what that sounds like.
Enter the Wilhelm, an inimitable cry of pain and alarm that has graced some of the biggest movies of all time. And to think, it all started with a hapless cowboy who thought to take time to fill his pipe when in the midst of enemy territory.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. See, I'm a big Star Wars fan (as, I suspect, is everyone reading this). And we Star Wars fans have an eye and ear for detail. So it didn't go unnoticed when a particular scream appeared once in each Star Wars movie The stormtrooper plummeting down the Death Star chasm; a trooper tossed from the freezing platform by an enraged Wookiee; a normally tight-lipped Weequay plunging into the grisly maw of the Sarlacc. It had to be more than coincidence. There had to be a story behind all this.
Star Wars fans tend to be Lucasfilm fans. We also flocked to see the adventures of Indiana Jones. We took in Willow, and even gave Howard the Duck a chance. Sure enough, that scream was in all those films. Something was going on. At the time, I took to calling it the 'Lucasfilm Scream,' because I hadn't heard it in other films.
But my research led me to more movies. Beauty and the Beast. Toy Story. Batman Returns.
It was the far-reaching scope of the Internet that brought me the answer. Discussions with fellow Fanboys directed me to a Bantha Tracks article, wherein Ben Burtt discusses a 'pet' sound effect that he often includes in his projects. He called it a 'Wilhelm'. He described it as being from an old Warner Bros. western, wherein a cowboy named Wilhelm gets shot in the leg with an arrow.
Armed with just that information, I was able to track down the name of the film on the Internet Movie Database. 1953's "The Charge at Feather River" was a run-of-the-mill western featuring Ralph Brooke as Wilhelm. I was dismayed when I read that it was not available on video. But thanks to the web, it didn't matter.
Someone online tracked down the satellite TV listings, and found it airing on AMC. I was able to secure a video copy, and watched in delight as the arrow hit Mr. Brooke, causing him to be the first known person to let out that cry. Much to my surprise, two other characters would also let out that yell in the same movie.
And so began the odyssey that would consume a frightening amount of my time, as I attempted to track down as many screams as I could, and compile it into one video file for the world to see.
This compilation, I freely admit, is not complete. There were some movies that I simply could not find. Jackie Chan's The Big Brawl (1980) is reported to have a Wilhelm in it. As does 1996's IMAX film, Special Effects: Anything Can Happen (directed by Burtt, incidently). A calibration laser disc called Video Essentials has the scream in its opening logo. There are reports that the scream is also in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and There's Something About Mary (1998).
So, enjoy the collected screams of Wilhelm. The audio and picture quality will vary from clip to clip, but you should be able to hear the scream each time. And if you can't, well, at least you'll know what part of the movie to listen closely to the next time you see it.
To view a compilation of films featuring the famous Wilhelm Scream, you can download these Quicktime Videos. To save them to your hard drive, right click and hit "Save Target As" High Quality 48 MB video, Lower Quality 27 MB video.