The origin of the Wilhelm scream, the most famous sound effect in the history of cinema

Domagoj Valjak
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Sound effects are an integral part of every film and TV series; they are often crucial in conveying atmosphere and building tension. In 1963, an Academy Award was created for Best Sound Editing to acknowledge its critical role. Films that have won this award range from Goldfinger to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World to the most recent recipient, the sound editor for Dunkirk.

In the early days of cinema, sound effects were not embedded in the film: pre-recorded sounds were played from analog discs while the audience was watching.

Pioneering sound effect designers, known as Foley artists, would sometimes perform the sounds during screenings, in real time. Numerous sound effects have been archived over the years, but most contemporary sound designers painstakingly create their unique effects from scratch. Still, some instantly recognizable sounds, like the Wilhelm scream, have become so iconic that numerous filmmakers still use them to add extra flavor to their creations.

The Wilhelm scream is arguably the most famous sound effect in the history of cinema. As of the beginning of this year, the scream appeared in as many as 372 films and numerous television series. Some of the popular classics of late 20th and early 21st century cinema, including the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and The Lord of the Rings franchises, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, and even Disney’s Toy Story feature this popular stock sound effect. However, although many people are familiar with the scream, most are unaware of its origin and its road to popularity.

Mari Aldon and Richard Webb sit on a motorboat when visiting the castle during “Distant Drums”

The first film to feature the Wilhelm scream was the 1951 western Distant Drums, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Gary Cooper. At one point in the film, several soldiers are slowly walking through a dark swampy terrain and one of them was fatally attacked by an alligator. At the moment when the hidden beast surprises him and drags him underwater, the soldier lets out the first known instance of the iconic scream. The actor who portrayed the soldier didn’t perform the sound effect itself. The person responsible was Sheb Wooley, an actor and musician who worked on the film as a voice extra. However, at the time when Distant Drums was released, the scream wasn’t recognized as a particularly interesting or innovative sound effect.

Two years later, it was re-used by the sound designers who worked on another western, The Charge at Feather River, which was directed by Gordon Douglas. When the post-production was finished, the sound became a part of the Warner Brothers stock sound-effect collection and numerous filmmakers started incorporating the scream into the sound palette of their films. Still, no one seemed to notice the sound effect’s slightly comical uniqueness until more than 20 years later.

Ben Brutt. Photo: :IG-100 CC By 3.0

The famous scream was popularized by the Star Wars franchise. In the mid-1970s, a sound designer named Ben Burtt was in the midst of creating the sound palette for George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope. He stumbled upon the Wilhelm scream and realized that many filmmakers had used since the 1950s: he decided to pay homage to the sound effect by incorporating it into the groundbreaking sci-fi classic. The scream can be heard in the now famous scene in which Luke Skywalker shoots a Stormtrooper aboard the Death Star and the unfortunate trooper falls off a ledge.

While trying to pinpoint the origin of the sound effect, Ben Burtt wasn’t able to uncover any details on the creator. He believed that the scream first appeared in The Charge at Feather River and named it the “Wilhelm scream” after Private Wilhelm, a character from that film who can be heard uttering the scream after being shot with an arrow.

Publicity photo of Sheb Wooley, the actor who portrays Private Wilhelm in The Charge at Feather River,

After appearing in A New Hope, the sound effect immediately rose to worldwide popularity among filmmakers, sound designers, and film lovers. Many Hollywood directors have been using it to spice up their films or to simply pay homage to its legacy, and it also appeared in countless B-movies.

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Sadly, Sheb Wooley, the original Wilhelm screamer, never received any particular praise for the creation of the most famous sound effect in the history of cinema.