Monday 5 September 2022

Movie Review: The Spirit Of St. Louis (1957)

An elegant biography, The Spirit Of St. Louis is the story of the first transatlantic flight, a milestone event in the history of aviation.

On May 19 1927, 24-year-old pilot Charles "Slim" Lindbergh (James Stewart) endures a sleepless night at a Long Island hotel overrun by reporters. He is waiting for the weather to clear to attempt his life's ambition: a non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris. As sleep eludes him, Lindbergh recalls his early days as a passionate airmail pilot in the midwest. Upon hearing of a competition offering prize money for the first flight crossing the Atlantic, he convinces a group of St. Louis-based investors to back him. 

Lindbergh tries to buy a Bellanca plane from New York's Columbia Aircraft Corporation, but they want to select their own pilot. So he turns to the relatively unknown Ryan Aeronautical Company out of San Diego, and works with Ryan's chief engineer Donald Hall to design and build the Spirit Of St. Louis single-engine monoplane in just over 60 days. Once he takes off for the expected 40 hour flight, the sleep-deprived Lindbergh battles extreme fatigue in the cramped cockpit, and has to overcome fog and ice build-up while managing his fuel supply and navigating by dead reckoning.

The Spirit Of St. Louis is a finely crafted salute to a historic event and a legendary pioneer. Based on Lindbergh's book, director Billy Wilder allows the momentus story and the one central character to dominate. The sprawling 135 minutes establish the era's context and reveal Lindbergh's audacious personality, brimming with optimism, a can-do attitude, and unshakable belief in aviation's potential.

At 49-years-old James Stewart should have been much too old to play Lindbergh, but he just about gets away with it, helped by a slim physique and dyed hair. Stewart's voice acting shines during the seminal flight, with most of the action and tension confined to Lindbergh's thoughts and conveyed through narration. He effectively projects the uncertainty and self-doubt - sometimes bordering on pure panic - hiding beneath the sheer bravado of undertaking the flight alone, in unproven equipment, and with barely any navigation aids.

The special effects team also deserves credit: the film captures the allure of the early days of flight, Lindbergh learning his craft on ramshackle mail trips taking off from fog-shrouded muddy fields. The New York to Paris flight occupies the film's final third, cinematographers Robert Burks and J. Peverell Marley seamlessly stitching interior and exterior shots. Small moments, like Linbergh buzzing a fishing boat and screaming for directions to Ireland, then upon spotting land wondering exactly which part of Europe he is approaching, demonstrate the madness required to achieve greatness.

The film does suffer from some bloat: several flashback scenes add little to the story (the flying priest, the barnstorming/flying circus interlude) or go on for too long. The absence of any meaningful secondary characters forces Stewart to carry the full acting load, and the script (by Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Wilder) is happy to focus on an individual heroic achievement rather than seeking to acknowledge key supports. 

A worthy commemoration of a stunning accomplishment, The Spirit Of St. Louis is not perfect, but still completes a smooth flight.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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