James Stewart was born to play Charles Lindbergh, who became the first pilot to fly solo from New York to Paris in May 1927. The only trouble was that the opportunity didn’t come for Stewart until 1956, when he was already 47, almost twice as old as Lindbergh when he made the famous flight. But Hollywood never let a little thing like age stop an actor from playing the role of a lifetime.
Stewart got to play Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, which was finally released in 1957 by Warner Bros. Although the definitive film of Lindbergh’s flight could have been made much earlier, filmmaking technology had reached a point to make that possible. It also helped that Lindbergh had published his own definitive account in his acclaimed 1953 book of the same name. This provided screenwriters Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes and Billy Wilder with the perfect outline for the film.
The Spirit of St. Louis is an odd film in Wilder’s filmography. Even though Wilder was already working on his own terms by 1956 – especially after the success of The Seven-Year Itch at Fox in 1955 – he still took the incredibly intensive job of directing a film that offered no surprises for the audience. It also offered him little chance to inject his trademark sexual innuendos and humor. But Wilder did find some gags in Lindbergh’s humble beginnings and gave character actors a chance to shine alongside his big star. Overall though, it does seem like Wilder just agreed to do it for the money and producer Leland Heyward enjoyed having a name in the director’s seat. Seeing Lindbergh take off is one of the most exhilarating moments in ’50s cinema and only a filmmaker with Wilder’s skills could pull that off.
Stewart also gives a good enough performance that it is surprising that he wasn’t even nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Sure he couldn’t have beaten The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s Alec Guinness, but roles like these usually would garner some kind of attention. Perhaps the film’s lukewarm response when it came out hurt his chances. All these years later though, it’s easy to see that Stewart put everything he could into playing Lindbergh. He definitely is way too old for the part and the blonde hair looks awful, but there’s no other actor who could bring out the boyish charms of Lindbergh. I also highly doubt that another actor could carry an hour of film in a cramped space like he did.
The film’s Oscar-nominated special effects also keep the film entertaining. It just looks so authentic, even though you can occasionally see blue outlines around the windows. Still, because so much second unit footage was shot at the real locations, it adds to the experience of seeing Lindbergh’s flight.
This isn’t a “Billy Wilder Movie” in the sense that we think of one, but it is still a classic Hollywood biopic that’s more enjoyable than modern movies that feel a need to present moral conflicts in every life. It sticks to the subject – Lindbergh’s history-changing flight – and doesn’t go beyond that. Sure, Wilder could have tried to make a movie about Lindbergh’s own questionable beliefs, but that’s not what The Spirit of St. Louis is about. It’s a movie about one of the truly inspiring moments in American history that we can be proud of without any reservations.