Ranking: #55/111

Director: Billy Wilder (USA)

Genre: Historical Aviation Drama

Whenever I watch The Spirit of St Louis,I think to myself: “This is why we watch movies!” This atmospheric film has it all: drama, suspense, stunning cinematography, an inspiring true story, the recreation of aviation history, charming and insightful dialogue, thematic richness, scintillating acting, especially from Jimmy Stewart in the lead role, attention to detail in the mise-en-scène and an uplifting tone. The power of the cinematic narration, coupled with the masterful way the scenes have been designed and shot, make this a special work of film art. It’s an absolute gem of American cinema. The viewer is transported back in time to the period in American history when the world was about to change forever.

Billy Wilder transformed Charles Lindbergh’s autobiographical account of his historic solo, non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris into a dynamic and dramatic cinema. The narrative tension is sustained in a tight, well-modulated structure, with balanced use of flashbacks.

The Spirit of St Louis is an exquisitely rendered story of the triumph of aviation, technology and of the human spirit. The movie carries an air of absolute authenticity. It has the requisite attention to detail, first highlighting the challenges faced in building the plane and then the hazards of the historic flight.

Such was Wilder’s commitment to authenticity, that he had three replicas made of Lindbergh’s custom-built aircraft. He need one for shooting in the US, one for Europe and one for shooting in the studio.

Stewart effortlessly becomes a folksy version of Lindbergh in a one-off role that was perfect for him, and his performance added significantly to the movie’s chemistry. He was a passionate aviator himself, having been inspired by Lindbergh to become a pilot in the first place. Stewart had a distinguished career with the US Air Force.

The movie was filmed in CinemaScope to help convey to the viewer the epic scale of this aviation milestone. In addition, the colours achieved for the Big Screen with Warnercolor are rich. The night shot of Paris, as Lindbergh approaches his destination at dawn, is gorgeous, in one of cinema’s most uplifting moments.

The use of sound, too, is balanced and appropriate. Regarding camera work, there’s good variation between close-ups and far shots, as Wilder balanced the focus on Lindbergh’s character and humanity with the aviation cinematography.  

I found the flight itself to be breath-taking, along with the aerial photography. The Atlantic Ocean seems endless below the solo pilot! The hazards he encounters, such as ice on the wings and engine, only increase the tension. At one point, the single-engine aircraft loses altitude and Lindbergh must change course. Then, when he eventually gets back on course, his compasses malfunction. He is forced to navigate by the stars. The message is that this is a precarious flight. It is so vividly recreated that the viewer feels like they are there with Lindbergh. Then, as dawn breaks, he falls asleep! His life is in danger, as the plane starts slowly spiralling downwards. Some sun’s rays reflect off the mirror just in time to wake him up.

At last, he reaches land, but the dangers aren’t yet over. As he approaches the landing zone at Le Bourget Airfield, he sees city lights, but then becomes disorientated by spotlights panning across the sky. The great aviator starts to panic and whispers, in another moving moment in the drama, “Oh, God, help me!”

Finally, he lands safely and is mobbed, instantly becoming a hero, not just in America and France, but throughout the whole world. He had flown 3,610 miles in a time of 33 hours and 30 minutes.

I love the historical import of this magnificently portrayed story, too. Lindbergh opened up a whole new era of global aviation which helped to define the modern era. The age of flight had arrived.

A mega inspiring story and movie.