The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)




Director:     Billy Wilder.

Starring:     James Stewart (Charles Lindbergh), Patricia Smith (Mirror girl), Murray Hamilton (Bud Gurney), Bartlett Robinson (Benjamin Frank Mahoney, President Ryan Airlines Co. ), Marc Connelly (Father Hussman), Arthur Space (Donald Hall, Chief Engineer Ryan Airlines).

Jimmy Stewart does a great job as the young Charles Lindbergh on the first trans-Atlantic flight in his plane The Spirit of St. Louis.


Spoiler warning: below is a summary of the entire film. 

"In 1927 a young man, alone in a single engine airplane, flew non-stop from Roosevelt Field in New York across the entire North Atlantic Ocean to Le Bourget Field in Paris, a distance of three thousand six hundred and ten miles.  In this triumph of mind, body and spirit, Charles A. 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.  This is the story of that flight."

Garden City Hotel near Roosevelt Field, New York.  The place is packed with reporters filing their stories.  Everyone has been waiting seven days and nights for the rain to stop, so Lindbergh can take off.  Meanwhile, Lindbergh is in his hotel room upstairs.   Frank Mahoney sits outside his room making sure that the aviator is not disturbed.  He periodically checks in on Lindbergh, but always finds him still awake.  The guy is just too revved up to relax. 

While thinking about the upcoming flight, he remembers back to his days as an air mail pilot running routes from St. Louis to Springfield, to Peoria, to Chicago.  He had an old beat up DeHaviland airplane.

Flashback.  Lindbergh lands at an airfield where he is advised to put the mail on the train and lay over for awhile until the rough weather passes.  But Lindberg won't hear of it.  He fills his plane with gasoline.  Burt, the fellow helping him, calls Chicago to see if they have issued a weather warning, but so far Chicago has been silent.  Lindbergh gets in his plane and starts taking off.  Just then Burt gets a call that Chicago has issued a weather warning.  Burt tries to yell to Lindbergh that Chicago says no go, but it's too late.  Lindbergh is up and away. 

The weather gets so bad that the DeHaviland starts sputtering.  Lindbergh is forced to bail out.  The plane keeps circling and a couple of times almost hits the canopy of the parachute.  Lindbergh survives.  The plane crashes.  He goes the rest of the way on the train.  A traveling suspender salesman tells Lindbergh about the recent airplane crash.  The paper's headline says:  "Two Die in Gotham-Paris Plane Crash".  The pilot recognizes that this was the Fonck plane.  The salesman gives Lindbergh his business card. 

Lambert.  St. Louis Flying Field.  Lindbergh calls long-distance to New York from the local diner at the field.  He calls the Columbia Aircraft Corporation, Woolworth, Building, New York City.  He wants to buy an airplane that will fly long distances nonstop.  In fact, he is planning a flight from New York to Paris.  Lindbergh gets to see the president of the firm and he tells him about his plans and says he and a group of businessmen are considering buying their Bellanca airplane.  He asks the president about the price.

The price is $15,000 dollars.  And now all Lindbergh has to do is get a bunch of St. Louis businessmen to back his venture.  A flying student of his, Harry Knight, has arranged for him to meet some businessmen in the State National Bank.  He meets Mr. Bixby, the bank president, a newspaper publisher, Earl Thompson, Major Lambert and Bill Robertson.  The businessmen tell Lindbergh that they want to make sure that they are not bankrolling a suicide.  Lindbergh says he hasn't even contemplated suicide.  And the pilot is willing to put in $2,000 of his own money into the venture.  If they win the Orteig Prize of $25,000 dollars for the first flight from New York to Paris nonstopping, everyone will recoup their investment and then sdome.  The journey should take around 40 hours says Lindbergh.  The bank president suggests the name of the plane:  the Spirit of St. Louis. 

Lindbergh shows up unexpectedly at the offices of the Columbia Aircraft Corporation.  He gives the secretary his business card and she gives it to the president.  The business card totally confuses the president, because Lindbergh has given him the card that the suspender salesman gave Lindbergh.  He gives the president the right card now.  The president floors Lindbergh when he tells him that the company will choose the pilot.  Lindbergh gets angry and leaves without buying the plane. 

Dejected, Lindbergh returns by train to St. Louis.  He figures he's licked, but the bank president and investors suggest that they have their airplane custom built.  Lindbergh says it would take too long.  After all, he says:  "There are a lot of other flyers planning this flight.  Byrd, Chamberlin, Wooster and Davis and those two Frenchmen, Nungesser and Coli.   The investors reject this objection and say that Ryan Airlines Inc., out in San Diego, California can build the plane in 90 days or less.  In fact, they have already purchased the train ticket to San Diego and Lindbergh has to immediately jump on the slowly moving train headed to San Diego. 

Lindbergh shows up at the aircraft company.  He slowly walks in and no one pays any attention to him.  He asks where the boss is and then walks up to him.  Neither man introduces himself.  The president is Frank Mahoney.  The two men just start talking together as if they were old friends.  In front of Lindbergh, the chief engineer tells the boss that the big-wig from St. Louis should be coming in today.  Lindbergh finally says that he's the big-wig from St. Louis.  The engineer and the president are a bit mortified by this turn of events. 

Lindbergh works right along with the crew to build the plane.  He even gives suggestions to improve the plane.  The engineer informs Lindbergh that Wooster and Davis are now ready for their test flights.  This gives a sense of urgency to the project and the engineer and president decide to try to build the plane in less than 90 days.  Mahoney brings Lindbergh the news that Wooster and Davis were both killed while testing their airplane with a full load of gas.  Lindberg takes some quiet time to read the paper and mull it over, but the work continues on the Spirit of St. Louis. 

The airplane is ready to be tested.  They test it out at Dutch Flats.  The airplane is ready. 

Lindbergh says good-bye to the team.  He is shoving off for St. Louis and then New York City.  And then "we" will be going for the "big one".  He thanks the crew for all their hard work.  The group stands for a company portrait with Lindbergh, who is interrupted by a phone call from a reporter.  He asks Lindbergh if he is still going ahead with his project now that Nungesser and Coli have taken off and are already over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere.  Lindbergh's answer is yes.  Everyone stands for the photo. 

Lindbergh lands on Lambert Field, St. Louis.  He gets the news that Nungesser and Coli have crashed and perished.  The investors are there to meet with their pilot.  Once again, the investors want to know if this is going to be a suicide run.  They try to give their pilot an easy out, but Lindbergh won't have that. 

Back to the present.  Lindbergh's mind just won't rest.  He keeps going over the journey in his head.  He picks up the St. Christopher medallion that Father Hussman gave him.  He remembers just how bad a flight student Hussman was.

Flashback.  Father Hussman just can't seem to stop his pattern of diving and then rising, diving and rising.  Lindbergh keeps shouting at Hussman to correct the airplane's positions, but the father never seems to get the idea of the thing.  When they land Lindbergh tells Hussman that he just has no natural ability for flying and that he should quit taking lessons.  In fact, Lindbergh remembers Hussman as the worst student he ever had.  Hussman tells him that he wants to fly because it makes him feel he is closer to God. 

Back to the present.  Lindbergh decides that it's no use to continue trying to fall asleep.  He gets up and starts preparing for the flight.  Lindbergh decides not to take a suitcase or even the St. Christopher medallion.  Mahoney sticks the medallion in one of his pockets. The two men pick up the sandwiches for the trip from the hotel clerk.  They then drive out to the hangar where the airplane is still being checked over.  Slim, as they often called Lindbergh, refuses to take a parachute because that would be just 20 more pounds of excess weight. 

They need a small mirror and shout out for one.  A woman in the waiting crowd shouts that she has one.  They call the woman over and she gives them her mirror.  Lindbergh lets her sit inside the plane and answers a number of her questions. The weatherman wants Lindbergh to wait at least until noon to take off, because of the danger of fog, but Lindbergh rejects the idea.  He decides to go.  Lindbergh let's everyone know it's a go when he goes over to his airplane and says:  "Let's roll her out."  It's still dark outside. 

The crowd follows behind the plane and cars as the plane is pulled to the airfield runway.  Because of all the rain, Slim is worried about getting bogged down in the mud.  The plane is carrying 425 gallons of fuel.  Frank tells Slim not to forget his five sandwiches.  He puts the bag of sandwiches into the plane and sneaks the St. Christopher medal into the bag.  The plane's engine is started and Lindbergh starts revving the engine.  The aircrew give the plane a big push-off and the plane heads down the runway.   It's not a smooth take-off and he has the crowd worried, but he gets the plane into the air.  People listen to the radio for news about Lindbergh and his plane.  The headline in the newspaper is:  "Lindy is off!" 

Slim thinks he will make it to Paris in 38 hours instead of 40.  He has to keep switching fuel in the gas tanks to make sure the plane does not get unbalanced.  He is over Cape Cod, Massachusetts now.  After several hours of flying, Lindbergh notices that he is very sleepy.  He throws water onto his face in order to keep himself from falling asleep.  And it is sleep deprivation that proves to be his worst enemy on his journey. 

Flashback.  Lindbergh thinks about his boyhood days.  He would lay his head on a railway track and would not be bothered by a train passing by his head with only a foot of space to spare.  He also remembers when he was a flying cadet at Brooks Field, Texas.  He was so tall that his feet would stick out beyond the bunk.  He rigged up a device that could be slid into place and then retrieved to give him extra room at the foot of his bunk. 

Back to the present.  Lindbergh flies over Nova Scotia on his way to Newfoundland.  He really flies the airplane low and sometimes has to raise his plane up and over church spires.  He sees a lone man riding a motorcycle and shouts "Hey , hey!"  The fellow hears him, stops and raises his cap in tribute. 

Flashback.  Lindberg thinks about the time he drove his motorcycle down to Georgia to trade it in for an airplane.  He comes in to the hangar where the owner sells surplus army planes. He buys a Jenny for $440 dollars and the motorcycle.  He will fly the plane back to the mid-West.  He gets in but has a hard time getting the plane up and into the air.  The owner gets very nervous and his helper Pete drives him around following the airplane to see if Lindbergh will make it out of there.  When Lindbergh stops the plane, the owner tries to give him back his money after he learns that Lindbergh has never soloed before.  Lindbergh just takes off. 

Back to the present.  6 p.m.  11 hours from New York headed for St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.   He runs into fog hanging about the mountains and is a bit concerned, but he is able to fly out of the fog.  Suddenly he bursts out of the fog and can see St. John's as clear as can be.   

Flashback.  Lindbergh remembers the time he made money as a sky rider by giving airplane rides for the public.   He meets pilot Bud Gurney up in the sky and invites him down for dinner.  Bud tells Slim that they can make a lot of money with the flying circus.  Lindbergh likes the idea and is soon doing aerial acrobatics in the sky to thrill the crowds. 

Back to the presents.  The 16th hour of flight.  It's night time.  He flies over a couple of icebergs and wonders if he could land on one.  He has been awake for 40 hours and feels very tired.

Flashback.   He says he would never pass inspection today, not at Brooks Field anyway.  Lindbergh was assigned to Brooks Field as a flying cadet.  He remembers landing his cruddy old Jenny on Brooks Field.  The captain throws a royal fit.  He demands that the new arrival take that filthy crate off his field.  Slim complies with the demand. 

Back to the present.  He has been flying for 18 hours.  He suddenly finds himself in trouble.  Ice is building up on the wings of his craft.   He tries to climb out of the icy stuff, but the engine begins to stall.  So he heads down to warmer air.  In the warmer air the ice build-up starts cracking and flaking off with the wind.  He is about to ditch the plane, when he realizes that the ice is falling off fast.  He holds his course just above the ocean and gets himself out of trouble.  His compasses go out, so he has to fly by the stars. 

In the morning, he wonders how far he wandered off course.  He wants to know where he is.   It is harder for him to think now because of his sleep deprivation.  He is 25 hours from New York.  He starts falling asleep and waking up quickly.  Finally, he dozes off and the plane starts slowly heading toward the ocean waters.   He wakes up because of the sunlight shining off the little mirror into his eyes.  Still he doesn't perceive the danger right away.  It takes him awhile to realize he is way too close to the water before he takes action. 

He shuts off his engine and yells to some fishermen:  "Which way to Ireland?"  They don't answer.  He realizes that the fishermen may not even speak English.  He thinks he is too far south.  In the 28th hour, all of a sudden he sees some land.  He studies his maps and confirms that it is Dingle Bay, County Kerry, southwestern Ireland.  Once again he starts yelling "Hey" to fishermen off the coast.  He flies over Plymouth, England.

He finally decides to have some lunch and discovers the St. Christopher medallion.  He is pleased at the thought of Frank Mahoney placing the medallion in his sandwich bag. 

The coast of France, Cherbourg.  He turns northeast along the coast to find the Seine River.  He finds it and then follows the river upstream to Paris.  He gets in trouble when he switches over to a tank with little gas in it.  He corrects the problem and continues to fly.  It's night time before he see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Now he starts looking for Le Bourget to the northeast.  He can hardly see because of his sleep deprivation.  He has been flying for 33 hours and hasn't slept in three days. 

All of a sudden he sees  a lot of search lights beaming their lights into the sky.  The lights bothers his eyes.  He sees a sign on a roof saying "Le Bourget".  He then sees the air field and says he will land before he reaches the crowds.  For a while he forgets how to land a plane.  He remembers Father Hussman's prayer for landing and says:  "Oh, God, help me."   He lands and the crowds starts rushing out onto the field.  They completely surround the airplane.  They grab the pilot and drag him out.  He is then carried on the shoulders of some men to the hangar.  They keep shouting:  "Lindbergh! Lindbergh!"    Lindbergh is afraid they may destroy his plane trying to get souvenirs.  But no, the people start pushing the airplane to the hangar. 

The airplane is brought into the hangar.  Lindbergh comes in and walks over to it.  He touches it like he were touching a favorite horse.  The crowds outside are still calling out his name. 

Lindbergh comments:  "There were 200,000 people there that night and when we came back home, there were four million people waiting."  The famous pilot is given a ticker tap parade in New York City. 


 Good movie.  Who knew that the flight was such a test of a man's fortitude?  After seeing what Lindbergh had to go through, I'm glad I didn't have to do it.  His biggest problem was his sleep deprivation, made worse by his inability to sleep the night before the flight.  Then he had to fly through dense fog in mountain country.  His plane got iced over and he had to figure out fast how to get the ice off his plane.  Another time he falls asleep, and his plane nearly crashes into the ocean.  My wife also commented that she never knew the journey was so rough.  Both of us enjoyed the film.  (Also presented were the difficulties Lindbergh faced in trying to get the financing for his project and then to get the right plane.  He and his backers ended up having the airplane built from scratch.)  Lindbergh became the hero of the day.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:


1902  --  Charles Lindbergh born in Detroit, Michigan to Swedish immigrant parents.

1919  --  the Orteig Prize of $25,000 was offered for the first solo, non-stop crossing of the Atlantic.   It has been estimated that 81 people had flown across the Atlantic before Lindbergh did.

1922  --  Lindbergh quit a mechanical engineering program to enroll in a pilot and mechanics training program with Nebraska Aircraft.  He bought his own airplane, a WWI-surplus Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny".  He became a stunt pilot. 

1924  --  he started training as a pilot with the United States Army Air Corps.  He finished first in his class.

He became a lead pilot of an airmail route operated by Robertson Aircraft Co. of Lambert Field, St. Louis, Missouri.  He flew in a DeHaviland biplane known as the Spirit of St. Louis to Springfield, Peoria, and Chicago, Illinois.  He earned the reputation of being one who would deliver the mail under any circumstances.

1923 (April)  --  Lindbergh made his first night-time flight.

1927 (May 20-May 21)  --  Lindbergh became the first pilot to fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.  He flew from Roosevelt Airfield, Nassau County, Long Island, New York to Paris, France in his airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis.   The plane was designed by Donald Hall and custom built by Ryan Airlines of San Diego, California.  The trip took 33.5 hours. 

The President of France awarded him the French Legion of Honor.  Arriving back in the US, he was met by a fleet of warships and aircraft, which  escorted him to Washington, D. C. where President Calvin Coolidge awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

1927 (June 13)  --  in New York there was a ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue for the great aviator.

His public stature was so great that he became a spokesman for aviation and was a member of many aviation organizations. 

1929 (March 21)  --  he was presented the Medal of Honor.

Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, the daughter of diplomat Dwight Morrow.   In all they had had six children.

1930  --  son Charles Lindbergh, Jr. born.

1932 (March 1)  --  Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was kidnapped from the second story of the Lindberg house in the Sourland Mountains of New Jersey. Their were negotiations with the kidnapper. 

1932 (May 12)  --  the body of their dead boy was found just a few miles from the Lindbergh home by a truck driver who stopped in the woods to take a leak.  It is believed that the home-made ladder used to kidnap the child broke on the kidnapper's way down to the ground and the baby's head smashed into the house wall. 

1932  --  son Jon born.

1935  --  Bruno Hauptmann, living in the Bronx, New York City, went on trial for the murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.  There was an absolute media circus at the Flemington County Court House in Flemington, New Jersey.  Hauptmann was convicted of the crime.  

1935 (December)  --  the Lindberghs move to Europe. 

1936 (April 3)  --  Hauptmann executed.

1937  --  Land Lindberg born.

1940  --  daughter Anne born.

1942  --  Scott Lindbergh born.

1945  --  Reeve Lindbergh born.

1974  --  Lindbergh dies of cancer in Hawaii.




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