Listen up, sound geeks! Wilhelm Scream in ‘Iron Man 2,’ says Favreau

March 22, 2010 | 10:48 p.m.

On Sunday, “Iron Man 2” director Jon Favreau tweeted something that was music to the ears of sound geeks: “The Wilhelm Scream is in.”

It was one small sentence for Tweetdom, but one loud message for sound geeks.

The message means “Iron Man 2” will arrive at theaters on May 7 with one of the most storied sound effects in Hollywood — a single-second, girlish shriek from the 1950s known to sound supervisors as “The Wilhelm Scream.”

The pained wail has appeared in more than 140 movies, according to Hollywood historian and sound editor Steve Lee, who maintains a list here. Among the films: “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Batman Returns,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Toy Story,” “Spider-Man,” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Hellboy” and “Poltergeist.”

Jon Favreau filmmaker

To hear the Wilhelm Scream in action, check out the You Tube montage above.

How did this quirky tradition get started? The Scream (with apologies to Edvard Munch) began as a standard effect for a 1951 movie titled “Distant Drums” starring Gary Cooper, according to Lee’s account. The film is set in Florida in 1840 and the sound was used when a soldier is bitten by an alligator while wading through the Everglades. It was recorded in six takes but it was the fifth version that eventual went on to make Hollywood sound history.

For two years, the sound clip sat in silence in the Warner Bros. archives, until it was used again in a movie called “The Charge at Feather River” (originally released in 3-D, for you film nerds out there). This is when the sound acquired its famous name  — a character named Private Wilhelm lets loose with the scream when he takes an arrow in the leg.

The Wilhelm Scream really caught fire with legendary sound supervisor Ben Burtt, who created the sound effects for “Star Wars” and won Oscars for his work on “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Burtt began using the sound snippet as a kind of calling card and then other sound specialists, as an inside joke, found excuses to sneak it into their projects. Think of it as an old-school Easter egg.

Favreau, challenging his audience to a sound hunt, later tweeted, “The Wilhelm Scream was used in Iron Man 1. Anyone know where?” Feel free to leave a comment here if you know the answer.

— Alex Pham

(Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.)


John Dykstra

John Dykstra talks about his fav scene in “Star Wars”

The secret of those “Sherlock Holmes” jawbreakers

Ken Ralston’s favorite effects enterprise? It wasn’t “Trek”

Stan Winston and the tricky business of Legacy

Voker Engel’s model effort on “Independence Day”

PHOTOS: Jon Favreau in 2008 (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times). John Dykstra with “Star Wars” model (courtesy of John Dykstra).


18 Responses to Listen up, sound geeks! Wilhelm Scream in ‘Iron Man 2,’ says Favreau

  1. Smith says:

    Great article! What would Hollywood be without the Wilhelm?!?

  2. Lisa C says:

    I had long wondered about this thing I had only read about on IMDB triva. Interesting article and great montage.

  3. Waldo says:

    How long until someone from the MPAA starts cracking down on this sound effect's unlicensed use?
    (Actually I shouldn't give them any ideas. I'm guessing they'd only go after independent producers tho)

  4. Osmosis says:

    I bet the Wilhelm in IM1 was by the mom driving the minivan thrown by Iron Monger. Haven't seen it since it came out but I'd put a bit of money on it.

  5. Parente says:

    Nice article :)
    In Iron Man one, the scream is during Iron Mans' flamethrowery escape from the cave.

  6. Anyone who does what Ben Burtt has done is awesome in my book.

  7. Claude says:

    I think I know where the Wilhelm Scream was used in Iron Man 1 : just before Tony Stark woke up in the cave. Is that it?

  8. Simon says:

    Great article. I had no idea it was in IM1, but this gives me a good excuse to re-watch it again.

  9. Dr. SH4NK says:

    its when iron man saves those viligers from the militans in afganastan or some arab coumtry and shoots hits cool gun thing making one the soilders fly through the air five bucks says thats right

  10. Josh L. says:

    The Wilhelm is so completely overused and cliché. It was cool back in the 70's and 80's when only a few sound editors were using it but now it's so identifiable that it pulls me right out the film.
    Why not just throw in Johnny Weissmuller's tarzan yell too? It sticks out like a sore thumb.

  11. Sheldon says:

    And of course, Xavier Grillo-Marxrach featured the Wilhelm in every episode of The Middleman – "fighting evil so you don't have to!"

  12. Adam Greensage says:

    Yes, I have a question: Why is this a good thing?
    Are there 'Wilhelm Scream' fanboys out there? Or are most viewers like me…. rolling their eyes every time they here that thing, wondering why the filmmakers were too cheap to actually loop something new?
    Points deducted, Jon. No one in their right mind could remotely care about this.

  13. Bill says:

    FYI, best guess and a lot of detective work attributes the voice of the Wilhem Scream to Sheb Wooley.
    If you're too young to know who that is, look him up!

  14. Randy Henderson says:

    It's in Garland's A STAR IS BORN. too, on the movie that is playing when she walks into the screening room

  15. Sama-El says:

    It is also on Avatar if I heard correctly, when this huge animals start killing the robots with the people

  16. Chuckyl says:

    They left out in the montage the scene in Return of the Jedi where an imperial soldier takes the toolchest in the chest and goes over the rail–probably because the stuntman actually DID the Wilhelm live on stage!

  17. Lawrence Brown says:

    Informative article, which mentioned (not like today's print version) the fact that "The Charge at Feather River" was, and is, in 3-D! In the same vein, some further detective work needs to be done on another classic sound clip, namely "The Bird," whose keening call has been heard in countless jungle movies. Anyone who tracks down the origin of this seminal sound snippet deserves our eternal respect!

  18. muttonchops says:

    I'm looking for the E.T. scream, when elliot first sees him, not when his sister sees him. All I can find is the Drew Barrymore scene. I wanna start a collection of funny screams. So far, I have the Wilhelm and the guy melting in Robocop.

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