Hollywood’s best known sound effect has been heard by millions of people who probably don’t know that they’re listening to a little piece of film history.
“It’s an inside geek joke among sound designers,” says Matthew Wood of Skywalker Sound ” one that’s shown up in everything from “Star Wars” to “Blades Of Glory”.
There is little doubt that you have heard the Wilhelm Scream dozens of times in different movies and television shows without realizing it. It began as a Warner Brothers stock sound effect, believe it or not back in 1951. and has been used in well over 100 movies and dozens of television shows, and even numerous video games.
As is usually the case with the making of a movie, sound effects are often edited into the film soundtrack later in the studio. During a scene in the 1951 motion picture “”Distant Drums” starring Gary Cooper, some soldiers are wading through a swamp in the everglades, one of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. To create the sound for this scene six short pained screams were recorded in the studio in a single take. The can containing these screams was labled “man getting bit by an alligator”. After “Distant Drums,” the recording was archived into the studio’s sound effects library. The scream worked so well, it became a go-to for sound editors. The blood-curdling shriek was heard in many movies without anyone catching on.
In the 1953 film “The Charge at Feather River”, the scream can be heard when a soldier named Pvt. Wilhelm (Ralph Brooke) gets shot in the leg by an arrow. Up until the mid-70’s, the scream recording was used exclusively in Warner Brothers productions. One person who noticed the same distinctive scream reoccurring in so many movies was sound effects fan Ben Burtt. When Ben Burtt was later hired to create sound effects for “Star Wars”, he had an opportunity to do research at the sound departments of several movie studios. While at Warner Brothers looking for sounds to use in the movie, he found the original “Distant Drums” scream – which he called “Wilhelm” after the character that let out the scream in “Charge at Feather River”, and this is where the scream first got its name.
Since that time the scream has been passed around to friends of Ben Burtt who likewise work in the industry and the rest is as they say history. The scream appears in an astonishing long list of movies (more than 100). After finishing up the last “Star Wars” film and beginning work at Pixar, Ben Burtt has announced that he will no longer be using the Wilhelm scream. Is this the end of an era for the scream? There is no indication that it will be silenced anytime soon. It continues to be heard in new films every year. Watch for it.
Here is a short video explaining the history of the Wilhelm:
If you would like to see a short compilation on the use of the scream one such video appears below: