I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For the Wilhelm Scream

Above we have the best of several compilations available on YouTube of various Wilhelm Screams from a wide variety of movies and TV shows.

I was around ten years old when I first noticed the Wilhelm. On my umpteenth viewing of Return of the Jedi, I noticed that the scream Jabba's henchman makes as he falls into the Sarlaac pit sounded a lot like the scream the stormtrooper makes in Star Wars (A New Hope, if you must) as he falls into the bottomless abyss aboard the Death Star. Curious, I pulled out my tape of Star Wars, fast-forwarded it to the right moment (the days before DVD chapter skips were a real bitch for young obsessives like myself) and switched back and forth between Star Wars and Jedi until I was certain that the two screams were identical. At the time, I didn't really understand how sound in movies worked, and I figured they must have hired the same stuntman with a distinctive scream to play both parts.

Over the years, I watched more movies and kept hearing that scream, and figured it couldn't be the same actor/stuntman in every movie. Eventually, I learned what a Sound Designer does and figured that it must be a sort of inside joke or calling card for people who do movie sound. In my head, I called it "the Star Wars scream," even though I was pretty sure it hadn't been original to Star Wars.

Later still, I heard the term "Wilhelm Scream" without any particular context or description, other than that it was a movie thing. I knew, though, that the Wilhelm and the Star Wars scream must be one and the same. Since then, I've heard it in more and more movies. When Emily came across the term on the internets somewhere recently, she asked me (font of wisdom and useless trivia that I am), "What's a Wilhelm Scream?" I queued up Return of the Jedi to the appropriate point (now with DVD chapter skips!) and as the skiff guard fell to his doom and made his anguished cry, Emily said, "Oh, that scream!" She'd heard it a million times before without quite realizing it...and so have you, probably.

What I didn't know until today was just why it was called a Wilhelm Scream. Searching YouTube for the video compilation mentioned in Roger Ebert's most recent Movie Answer Man column, I came across this invaluable history lesson, and this (inferior) Wilhelm compilation, which answered that question. The scream was originally used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums - but more memorably used two years later in Charge at Feather River. In that film, it was the scream of pain emitted by, who else, Pvt. Wilhelm when hit in the leg with an arrow.

Ben Burtt of Lucasfilm has used it (or a variation) in all six Star Wars films (and yes, that clip of Han Solo pushing a stormtrooper through a railing that you don't recognize from any of the movies is, indeed, from the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special) and all three Indiana Jones films to date. Apparently, he's sworn off using it in the future.

But c'mon, you know there's just no way the Wilhelm won't make an appearance in Indy IV. It's as crucial to the formula as a scene where Dr. Jones risks injury to life and limb to retrieve his hat.