The Spirit of St. Louis is a 1957 aviation biography film in CinemaScope from Warner Bros., directed by Billy Wilder, produced by Leland Hayward, that stars James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. The screenplay was adapted by Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Billy Wilder from Lindbergh’s 1953 autobiographical account of his historic flight, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.
On May 19, 1927, after waiting for a week for the rain to stop, pilot Charles A. “Slim” Lindbergh (James Stewart) tries to rest in a hotel near Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, prior to a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. His friend Frank Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson) guards his hotel room door from reporters. Unable to sleep, Lindbergh reminisces about his time as an airmail pilot.
Flying to Chicago in winter, “Slim” lands his old de Havilland biplane at a small airfield to refuel. Despite bad weather, he takes off, unaware heavy snow closed the Chicago landing field. Lindbergh bails out after running out of fuel in the storm. Recovering mail from the crashed DH-4, he continues his journey by train. A salesman tells him two airmen just died competing for the Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight from New York City to Paris. [N 1]
Lindbergh calls Columbia Aircraft Corporation in New York, from a diner in St Louis, pretending to represent a group of prominent businessmen. Quoted a price of $15,000 (equal to $206,810 today) for a Bellanca high-wing monoplane, “Slim” lobbies St. Louis financiers with a plan to fly 40 hours in a stripped-down, single-engine aircraft. The backers are excited by Lindbergh’s vision and dub the venture Spirit of St. Louis.
The Bellanca deal falls apart when the company president insists their pilot must make the flight. Lindbergh approaches Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego, California. Mahoney, the company president, promises to build a suitable aircraft in just 90 days. With Ryan’s chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Space), a design takes shape. To decrease weight, “Slim” refuses to install a radio or other heavy equipment, even a parachute, and plans to navigate by “dead reckoning”. [N 2]. As the plane has no autopilot function the pilot cannot sleep during the flight. Workers at the factory agree to work around-the-clock to complete the monoplane in less than 90 days.
Lindbergh flies the new aircraft to St. Louis and then on to New York. He prepares The Spirit of St. Louis at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, ensuring that 450 gallons of fuel is on board for the trans-Atlantic flight. In the cramped cockpit, which does not allow direct forward view, the magnetic compass must fit above his head, so a young woman offers her compact mirror. “Slim” has the mirror stuck to the instrument panel with chewing gum, so he can read the compass. Furtively, Mahoney slips a Saint Christopher medal into a bag of sandwiches on board.
As the weather clears, The Spirit trundles down the muddy runway and barely clears some electric lines and treetops. Media attention is considerable and an American newspapers headline reads: “Lindy Is Off!”. Every hour, Lindbergh switches fuel tanks to keep weight balanced. As he flies over Cape Cod, he realizes he has not slept in 28 hours. He recalls past times when he slept on railroad tracks, short bunk beds, and under a windmill. When “Slim” begins to doze, he is awakened by a fly. Over Nova Scotia, he sees a motorcyclist below, remembering his own Harley Davidson motorcycle traded in as partial payment for his first aircraft, a World War I war-surplus Curtiss Jenny.
Over the seemingly endless Atlantic, Lindbergh remembers barnstorming across the Midwest in a flying circus. He flies over an iceberg. After 18 hours, the aircraft’s wings and engine begin icing up, and The Spirit of St. Louis begins losing altitude. The ice breaks off in warmer air and the engine is restarted. Back on course, his compasses begin malfunctioning, forcing him to navigate by the stars. By dawn, “Slim” falls asleep, and The Spirit, without an autopilot fitted, descends in a wide spiral toward the ocean. Sunlight reflecting off the compact’s mirror finally awakens him in time to regain flight control.
Seeing a seagull, Lindbergh realizes he is close to land. He tries without success to hail a fisherman below. Sighting land, he realizes he has reached Dingle Bay, Ireland. Pulling out a sandwich from the bag, “Slim” discovers the hidden Saint Christopher medal, and hangs it on the instrument panel. Crossing the English Channel and the coast of France, Lindbergh follows the Seine up to Paris as darkness falls. Finally seeing the city lights ahead of him, “Slim” approaches Le Bourget Airfield in the dark, becoming disoriented by panning spotlights aimed into the sky. He glimpses strange movements and lights below, in reality huge crowds of people and traffic in and around Le Bourget. Confused by this chaos, Lindbergh begins his landing approach, quickly becoming panicked. As he goes lower, he whispers “Oh, God, help me!” Landing safely and bringing The Spirit to a full stop, hordes of people rush his aircraft. As flash photography ignites Lindbergh is carried triumphantly on people’s shoulders toward a hangar. Exhausted from no sleep, “Slim” eventually realizes the crowds, numbering 200,000, are cheering him and his achievement. On returning to New York City, Lindbergh is given a huge ticker tape parade in his honor, with four million people, having become a national hero.