‘The Spirit of St. Louis’: James Stewart Flies a Special Plane

Billy Wilder brings to film Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the North Atlantic.
‘The Spirit of St. Louis’: James Stewart Flies a Special Plane
Jimmy Stewart with the aircraft replica used in the film, "Spirit of St. Louis." (Warner Bros.)
5/17/2024
Updated:
5/17/2024
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G | 2h 15min | Drama | 1957

Prompted by his father, young James Stewart went to Princeton University instead of pursuing aviation in the U.S. Naval Academy. But his life did include flying. Off screen, he fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot. Onscreen, in Billy Wilder’s film, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” he played aviator and U.S. military officer Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 was the first to fly solo, nonstop, across the North Atlantic.

Naturally, Wilder’s film has no spoilers. It’s named after Lindbergh’s aircraft, which in turn was named in honor of a group of St. Louis businessmen who financed the 3,610-mile flight. Fittingly, the film opens with a text of homage, “In this triumph of mind, body and spirit” Lindbergh influenced the lives of “everyone on earth—for in the 33 hours and 30 minutes of his flight—the air age became a reality.”

Charles Lindbergh prior to his flight in the Spirit of St. Louis. (Public Domain)
Charles Lindbergh prior to his flight in the Spirit of St. Louis. (Public Domain)

Lindbergh (Stewart), trying to snatch some sleep in a hotel room in Long Island, New York, the night before his flight, reminisces through flashbacks, about his experiences as an airmail pilot, flying instructor, and stunt flyer, and how he came to befriend Frank Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson), now standing vigil outside his room to blockade pesky reporters.

Hotelier Raymond Orteig offers a $25,000 reward to the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Lindbergh’s so keen to have a shot at it that backers put up the $15,000 needed to buy a plane. But the company willing to sell their plane wants their own pilot. Desperate, he contacts Ryan Airline Company’s Mahoney who offers to custom-build a plane “in 90 days or less.” Lindbergh’s spirit brightens as the plane is built in quick time. Then, just as he starts test runs, dark clouds settle around the contest. Six competitor flyers wind up dead; perhaps because they’d carried too much fuel or kit. Or too little.

Lindbergh isn’t much of a believer, but as his risk-filled flight starts, Mahoney slips a St. Christopher medallion into his sandwich bag; Mahoney says that the saint helps wayfarers “across bridgeless waters.” From then on, it’s Lindbergh and his plane against the vagaries of the sun, wind, rain, ice, and snow, as he battles drowsiness, fatigue, and blurred vision. He uses a compass heading, allowing, and correcting every 100 miles, for drift, by watching the waves and wind direction.

Both Lindbergh and Stewart were over 6 feet tall, served as U.S. Air Force pilots, and retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Watch Stewart make a gag in the film about his height as proof of his single-mindedness.  
Charles Lindbergh (James Stewart), in "Spirit of St. Louis." (Warner bros.)
Charles Lindbergh (James Stewart), in "Spirit of St. Louis." (Warner bros.)

Not Really Solo

In 1941, Stewart joined the U.S. Armed Air Forces after years as a civilian pilot, and flew as many as 20 missions over Nazi Germany. When discharged in 1945, he had two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals, and had achieved the rank of colonel. Unsurprisingly, in what would have been inconceivable in the case of ordinary actors, Wilder films Stewart stepping in and out of cockpits, landing, and taking-off, often in a single take.

Wilder shows that there’s little that’s solo about solo flights, and little that’s single-handed about single-handed feats. Supporting the achievement of one are the creativity, courage, conviction, and resilience of many. Designers race against the clock deciding what’s too heavy, what’s too light, what’s too big, and what’s too small. Technicians make, test, and put together every bolt, brace, bearing, dial, valve, lever, and switch to withstand the push, pull, and rattle of long-haul flight. They’re humble enough to learn from mistakes and to keep trying. And someone pays for every drop of fuel to last that extra mile, and that extra minute. Rightly, Lindbergh thanks his team before take-off, “in a sense we’ll be flying the Atlantic together, all of us.”

Charles Lindbergh (James Stewart) in his plane across the Atlantic, in "Spirit of St. Louis." (Warner Bros)
Charles Lindbergh (James Stewart) in his plane across the Atlantic, in "Spirit of St. Louis." (Warner Bros)

Wilder makes an otherwise dreary long-haul flight interesting, whether it’s Lindbergh joking to himself or confiding in a housefly that’s hopped on for the ride. Franz Waxman’s score makes even the mundane feel momentous.

Lindbergh’s flight, stripped to the bare necessities (without the benefit of futuristic autopilot features, or even a basic parachute or radio) demonstrates that, when called, man can shed much of technology and its trappings and rely more on his senses and instincts.

Wilder’s also saying that those who last through life’s toughest journeys do so because they assume as accomplished, even what hasn’t been attempted. Yet they’re not weighed down by a bulky ego, and they have enough gas in their tank of courage to go the distance.

Poster for "Spirit of St. Louis." (Warner Bros.)
Poster for "Spirit of St. Louis." (Warner Bros.)
You can watch “The Spirit of St. Louis” on Amazon Video, Apple TV, and Vudu.
‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ Director: Billy Wilder Starring: James Stewart, Bartlett Robinson MPAA Rating: G Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes Release Date: Feb. 21, 1957 Rated: 3 stars out of 5
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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture.
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