In the early days of the film industry, it was hard to find a good scream. Before the invention of sound bites, directors who needed a blood-curdling shriek from actors often got rather paltry sounding yelps. That is, until Private Wilhelm entered the scene.
In the 1951 war classic Distant Drums, a soldier is dragged under water by an alligator as he wades through a treacherous Florida swamp. After the filming was completed, sound engineers recorded a series of screams that were added during post-production. Two years later, in The Charge at Feather River, a soldier named Private Wilhelm (played by Ralph Brooke) takes an arrow in the leg. Similar to modern sound engineering processes, the Distant Drums scream was resurrected from a vault and added to Wilhelm’s impalement scene.
What became known as the Wilhelm Scream is actually thought to be the handiwork of a popular television and screen actor named Sheb Wooley. He and other actors from Distant Drums were asked to contribute various sound bites to the film. Wooley later went on to play in classics such as High Noon with Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and the hit television series Rawhide. But it was Wooley’s contribution to radio, the hit song Purple People Eater that ultimately overshadowed his success as the originator of the Wilhelm Scream.
Over the years, the Wilhelm Scream has enjoyed something of a cult following. One of the scream’s biggest fans was Ben Burtt, the sound effects editor for the original Star Wars in 1977. While perusing the sound archives of Warner Brothers Studios (who owned the rights to the Wilhelm Scream), he came across the scream and decided to use it in his film. He became so fond of it that it became his signature sound bite in other productions including the Indiana Jones series, Them, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Howard the Duck, Willow, Beauty and the Beast, Batman Returns, Reservoir Dogs, Aladdin, A Goofy Movie, Toy Story, Hercules, Small Soldiers and Lethal Weapon 4. More than 50 years later, moviegoers can still hear Private Wilhelm scream.