You've probably heard this scream dozens of times and don't know it. It's an absolutely absurd scream -- starting off mid-pitched and gritty, then gliding way up into a girly whine. Sounds like he's in considerable pain. You won't notice it unless you're listening for it-- but once you start listening, you'll think it sounds absurd and out of place.

As far as anyone knows, its origins are in a 1951 film called Distant Drums -- it happens when a man is eaten by a crocodile. But since then, it's appeared in plenty of movies -- particularly, those made by George Lucas. For example, Star Wars, it appears in the scene where Luke and Leia are blasting Storm Troopers across a pit in the Death Star; one of them is hit, falls into the pit, and you hear it.

It also appears in Toy Story; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Howard the Duck; The Wild Bunch; Spaceballs; and even A Star is Born. It's a ridiculous sound effect, and it's apparently become a bit of a game among sound editors to add it into any project they can. Often, they say, when directors notice it, they'll demand that it be pulled.

So go watch Star Wars and look for it. Then watch the other movies it's in. It's great. There's also a QuickTime clip floating around the net that showcases all it's uses called "Son of Wilhelm". Check it out. The Wilhelm is really a part of movie history, goofy as it is.

Pedantic Star Wars fans (as if there was another kind) couldn't help but notice that at least once in each of the movies, during various personal disasters, the exact same screaming sound effect was heard. Looking for some Lucasfilm conspiracy, sources began recounting manifestations of the mournful yell in other George Lucas productions - the Indiana Jones movies, Willow - even Howard the Duck! For a time, the ululation was even known simply as the "Lucasfilm scream." But records would inform this new name...

Eventually either a dedicated researcher or a pathetic longtime fanboy with an eidetic memory dug up or recalled a brief blurb in Star Wars fanzine Bantha Tracks almost 20 years ago, issue #17 of August, 1982, where long-time Lucas sound guy (official titles something along the lines of Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Effects Editor) Ben Burtt confessed the guilty game he was playing with the soundscape of the greatest cinematic portrayal of Joseph Campbell's Journey of the Hero:

    "I tracked down an old movie scream I loved as a kid. I call it a 'Wilhelm' after a character in an old western who got an arrow in his leg and let out that scream. {P_I's note: that same scream is heard twice more in that same lacklustre movie.} Every time someone died in a Warner Brothers movie, they'd scream this famous scream. That scream gets in every picture I do as a personal signature. In Star Wars, the stormtrooper who pitches off the Death Star screams that scream. In Empire, a Wilhelm was screamed during the Hoth battle."
But then something odd happened - people began finding occurrences of the Wilhelm in other, non-Lucas movies - many of them predating Burtt's career. Lots of them - ranging in period and scope from 1950's atomic ant horror flick Them! to Tarantino's breakout gangster film Reservoir Dogs to schlock record-breaker Titanic, Batman Returns, The Fifth Element, Poltergeist and a whole bevy of recent Disney animated movies - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

What started as an observence in some subtle pattern repetition in the Star Wars trilogy busted open the doors to an exposé of a half-century of recycled sound effects - sometimes presented in homage, to show influences or as a gag, but seemingly often because sound effect folks were just too lazy to record a new scream. Perhaps I am unfair - perhaps they felt that this one pre-verbal exclamation of primal rage and angst was the epitome of the recorded scream, that after this keening wail no subsequent scream could compare.

The whole thing is more than a little silly, but this extra contextual information may well increase your enjoyment of otherwise-lacking movies (hey - rewind it! yeah, there - that's good ole Wilhelm again!) for decades yet to come.

Wilhelm was played by actor Ralph Brooke in 1953's western "The Charge at Feather River" - his last filmed role. Though Ralph himself didn't voice the influential cry, for whatever reason (perhaps this is the best-known or most-available of its early uses) that particular character from that particular movie has had the entire phenomenon dumped on it - a curious retroactively-resurging legacy for an actor who's been dead for 38 years.

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