Oct. 14, 2007 — -- You've probably never heard of it by name, but if you saw "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" or even "Toy Story," you've heard the Wilhelm scream.
Hollywood's best known sound effect has been heard by millions of people who probably don't know that they're listening to a little piece of film history.
Watch Brian Rooney's report on the Wilhelm scream tonight on "World News." Check your local listings for air time.
The scream was recorded in 1951 for "Distant Drums," a western directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Gary Cooper as a captain who leads a group of soldiers on a mission to defend 19th century Florida settlers from Seminole Indians.
During one scene, a soldier is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator and he screams the whole way down. The soldier may have died, but a new star was born.
After "Distant Drums," the scream stayed quiet for a couple of years until 1953, when a soldier named Pvt. Wilhelm (played by Ralph Brooks in "The Charge at Feather River") got shot in the leg by an arrow. Sound editors needed a good scream and decided to reuse the one from "Distant Drums."
In fact, the scream worked so well, it became a go-to for sound editors. The blood-curdling shriek was heard in "Them!" in 1954, "Land of the Pharaohs" in 1955 and "The Green Berets" in 1963, without anyone catching on.
Nobody, that is, except Ben Burtt, a budding sound editor and sound effects buff at the University of Southern California. Burtt started to notice the distinctive scream popping up everywhere.
While researching in the Warner Bros. sound archives, he tracked down the original recording and called it "Wilhelm" after the soldier in "The Charge at Feather River."
Burtt decided to continue the tradition of sticking the scream into soundtracks. He got it into many of the films he worked on, including all of the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films.