By MAURICE TOUGAS

Actor Jessie Gervais portraying Wop May while staring outside an airplane window
Jessie Gervais stars as the famous Wop May in “Blind Ambition”

Canadian aviation pioneer Wilfrid ‘Wop’ May’s extraordinary life is certainly worthy of a Hollywood film. But until that happens, a collection of Edmonton filmmakers have produced the next best thing – a 20-minute film with top-drawer production values, real aerial photography, and even an original musical score performed by a 50-piece orchestra. 

‘Blind Ambition: The Wop May Story’ debuted in November, and will soon be on permanent display at the Alberta Aviation Museum.

Edmonton filmmaker Frederick Kroetsch says, like many people, he knew something of the exploits of Wop May. One day a few years back, while visiting the aviation museum, he struck up a conversation with the museum’s then curator and Wop May expert Lech Lebiedowski.

“He started telling me stories about Wop May, but when he told me about Wop’s eye injury, I was like, we have to make this,” Kroetsch says. “It has an epic Hollywood feel.” (May suffered an eye injury in 1924, and spent his most famous flying years with limited vision.)

Wop May with an eye injury

That conversation started the process, and over the span of two years and roughly $60,000 in grants from the Edmonton Arts Council, the Film and Video Alliance, the National Film Board, Grant MacEwan University, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and the Edmonton Heritage Council (“everybody I could approach”, Kroetsch says) the funding slowly came together.

He found that pretty much everybody he approached for funding knew the name Wop May, and almost as many mistakenly thought that Wop shot down the legendary First World War German air ace, the Red Baron. 

“Every time I brought him up, people would have their facts wrong. I would tell them the true story, and they would give me money,” he says with a laugh. (May was being tracked by the Red Baron, and another pilot, Canadian Arthur Roy Brown, is officially given credit for shooting down the legendary air ace. However, evidence points to anti-aircraft fire from Australian troops on the ground as the real cause.) All of the “key creative” people on the project took no payment, he says.

The core group consists of Kroetsch, co-director and writer Tom Robinson, and producer/director of photography David Barron, who “really elevated this project by pulling together cameras and camera crews”. 

Kroetsch says he has never put in as much effort in a project, which is ironic in that the finished product is only about 20 minutes.

“If I had a million dollars with actors and dialogue, this would be a feature film, and I’m hoping one day it is.”

And it might happen. Kroetsch says he is working with a local writer to produce a screenplay about Wop May’s famous mercy flight to the hamlet Fort Vermillion in 1929, where a diphtheria outbreak was raging. May flew in an open cockpit in bitter January weather to deliver a life-saving vaccine, and a legend was born. 

“Every chapter of Wop May’s life reads like a Hollywood film – the Red Baron, the mercy flight, the Mad Trapper, what he was doing in World War II. All these things are fascinating.”   

The plane used in the flying sequences, a 1943 Boeing Stearman, came courtesy of Ted Reynolds of the Reynolds Heritage Preservation Foundation. Reynolds was the pilot, while Kroetsch filmed the flight from a Piper Cub.

They could have opted for a “green screen”, where aerial imagery is projected behind the plane. But “in the spirit of keeping it feeling epic and real, we mounted cameras on the planes and went flying.”

And it pays off. The aerial sequences are clearly the real deal.

The fact the documentary was produced on film, as opposed to digital or video, gives the film a big screen look. But it was a challenge, says writer and co-director Tom Robinson. 

“This was both exciting and nerve-wracking, as we need to get the shots right pretty much the first time  – otherwise it starts costing a lot of money – and then until everything had been processed and digitized I was quite nervous,” Robinson says. “Film is such a delicate medium; any bit of light, or a wrong temperature can ruin the medium.”

Film crew at work at the Alberta Aviation Museum
Filming on location at the Alberta Aviation Museum

Adding to the big budget feel of the film is the original musical score. John McMillan, a faculty member and graduate of Grant MacEwan, has worked on dozens film and TV soundtracks. He stepped up – for free – and composed an entirely original score. Because McMillan composed the score as an education project for MacEwan, he obtained a grant to record the score with a 50-piece orchestra, the Prague FILMharmonic. Yes, that’s Prague, in the Czech Republic. When the film is released on the museum’s website, Kroetsch hopes to include a link to the soundtrack because “it’s just that good”.

Although Robinson is very pleased with the finished product, he says 20 minutes doesn’t remotely cover to the Wop May story. 

“I feel like this is an excellent starting off point for anyone who wants to learn about Wop and Canadian aviation history, and I’m hoping we can bring it to various education institutions to teach new generations about some of the trailblazers who’ve come before us.” 

Sadly, the film has a tragic off-screen coda. 

Denny May, Wop May’s son, had been the keeper of his father’s flame for decades, and is interviewed extensively in the documentary. But he didn’t live to see it.

“Denny was supposed to watch it on a Friday,” Kroetsch says, “and the film was premiering in Edmonton on a Sunday. I was doing an interview with CTV, and they told me that Denny had passed last night without watching the film.

“As tragic as it is, at least he lives on in the film.”

Kroetsch has produced TV shows and feature length documentaries with much higher budgets, but nothing was as ambitious – or collaborative – as this project. The final credits read: “This was a monumental undertaking, and we needed every bit of help.” 

Or, as Kroetsch says, “It’s by the city, for the city.”

Film footage of Wop May flying with sunset in the background
In-Flight Footage from “Blind Ambition”