Waldo Pepper (Robert Redford, his impish grin working overtime for good measure) doesn’t have a death wish, but he comes pretty close to it. Grounded to instruct pilots during the height of the Great War and sent into combat too late to see any real action, Waldo now travels the Midwest, barnstorming across Nebraska in 1926 as people are just starting to get used to airplanes. At Waldo’s first performance of wing-walking, the audience watches appreciatively, although a couple of guys in the crowd note that they saw someone do the same thing upside-down just last week.

Waldo has missed the curve again, hitting his stride as a stunt pilot as the government starts forming regulatory bureaucrats, imagining highways in the sky for commercial airlines, and taking the postal service to the clouds. None of that malarkey is for our man Waldo, who instead plans on bigger, better stunts, like the infamous outside-loop — a feat no man at the time has yet accomplished.

Waldo and his aviator pals are attempting to recapture that sense of purpose. Late in the film, prior to a spectacularly mounted fake dogfight that turns real for its participants, William Goldman’s screenplay stops for German flying ace Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin), Waldo’s hero and the sole man he considers a better pilot than himself, to tell the story of his only defeat. For all his missions totaling 70 planes he shot down, Kessler is most famous for losing with honor: An American pilot had the drop on him, but his guns jammed. Kessler recognized the bravery in his opponent, saluted him, and flew off. It’s such a great story that it’s being turned into a movie, and Waldo pretends he was that pilot on the other end.

The world only makes sense to Kessler in the skies, he tells Waldo. Both men and the others who come and go (usually dying young, according to an opening photo album with pictures of flying stuntmen and the crashes that did them in) through Waldo’s career valley know this fact. They try to reclaim the sensation, and the age-old question is modified just a bit: At what price recreated glory?

The film is the story of a series of missed opportunities and tragic mistakes but told with the improbable gusto of a showman. The crowd, bored by the now-commonplace sights of loops and a 3,000-foot “death spiral,” wants more. Luckily for them, the pilots need the money — but, more importantly, the attention.

Director George Roy Hill (a pilot himself in the Marines during World War II and the Korean War) has a dedication to the period, the personalities, and the art of flight that is impossible to ignore. The aerial stunts are real here. There are no soundstages, mattes, or rear projectors. When Waldo climbs out on the wing, thousands of feet in the air with the patches of farmland like a checkerboard below, that is Redford doing it. When Waldo’s designer and friend, Ezra (Edward Herrmann), attempts the outside-loop in a homemade monoplane, that is an actual plane cutting its engine into a freefall dive, pulling up while the pilot is upside down, and stalling just before breaking free of the straight-up climb. When Waldo’s competitor and later partner, Axel (Bo Svenson), takes his girlfriend (Susan Sarandon) out to advertise for a flying circus, there is a biplane flying low in between buildings with a woman hanging on, frozen in fear, to the wing.

In other words, it isn’t only the last dogfight of The Great Waldo Pepper that astounds with its devotion to authenticity and a sense of aviation intimacy (Hill’s camera rides in, flies next to, or distantly observes but is always with the planes). Daring the director of Ernst’s story to keep up, the final sequence sees Waldo and Ernst set off to battle in the skies — not for money, honor, or respect but because of instinct.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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