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The Wilhelm Scream makes it into 'Iron Man 2'

Alex Pham
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — On Sunday, "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau tweeted, "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 in theaters on May 7 with one of the most storied sound effects in Hollywood: a single-second, high-pitched 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 of them at hollywoodlost andfound.net/wilhelm. Among the films: "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Batman Returns," "Reservoir Dogs," "Toy Story," "Spider-Man," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "Hellboy" and "Poltergeist."

How did this quirky tradition get started? According to Lee's account, it began as a standard effect for a 1951 movie titled "Distant Drums" starring Gary Cooper. 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.

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." This is when the sound acquired its famous name: A soldier named Pvt. 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.

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