Cross of Iron (1978)

Composed by Ernest Gold

Cross of Iron is a dark World War II film directed by Sam Peckinpah. Cross of Iron has received attention as one of the few Hollywood films to follow a group of German soldiers, and also one of the few to take place on the Russian front. The plot sees Sergeant Rolf Steiner (Lee Marvin) butt heads with the arrogant and aristocratic Prussian Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell). Stransky is out for an Iron Cross and is willing to risk his men’s lives to get it. A major Soviet offensive sees Steiner and his platoon stranded in enemy territory and they have to take a journey to make it back to their unit. Cross of Iron is a decent flick. Despite what was at the time an original WWII setting, it doesn’t have much meat to offer in terms of characterization and messages. The ending, however, has some wonderful dark humor that displays the madness of war. Composer Ernest Gold offered a bittersweet war score.

Gold introduces the main melody in “Steiner’s Theme.” Steiner’s theme does not aim for heroism, nor does it suggest the military aggression of the German Wehrmacht. It is rather a morose piece which underscores the plight of the German rank-and-file in the most horrid front of their war.  “Main Title” stars a children’s choir. They sing a classic German folk song, “Hanschen Klein.” These innocent passages are used for irony, playing over Nazi imagery and war footage. Gold further inserts portions of heroic martial music (perhaps an actual snippet of a Wehrmacht tune?) to further underscore the high hopes Germany had when embarking on its conquest of the East. Continue reading

Glory (1989)

Composed by James Horner

Edward Zwick’s 1989 historical drama Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments of the Civil War. It might be the best Civil War film out there, with the emotional hook of seeing blacks overcome prejudice by proving themselves men through military service. The battle scenes are among the most accurate in Civil War films (thanks to the director’s careful attempts to select extras and reenactors that look like actual soldiers). This film is also held up by some top-notch acting from the likes of Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and a wide range of talent. It definitely put a lot of eyes on Denzel Washington and got him an Academy Award. It’s not entirely accurate, as most of the characters are fictional. In fact the 54th Massachusetts was mostly made up of free Northern blacks, but the movie put in a lot of ex-slaves both for dramatic effect and to represent the wide spectrum of the 200,000 black Americans who fought in the war. Another strong aspect of the film is James Horner’s score.

James Horner’s music for Glory is both highly reverential and deeply emotional. The music is dominated by sweeping strings, military drumbeats, and bugles and trumpets for more dramatic military scenery. Of great importance to the score is the Boys Choir of Harlem. It was traditional for composers to seek out highly respected English boy choirs, but Horner believed this film should have an American one. The kids got a paid air ride to California to work on the music and reportedly their scoring sessions with Horner left many of the crew members (including director Zwick) in tears. Horner implements the choir frequently, usually to underscore the noble purpose of the 54th, but also to give “Charging Fort Wagner” a climatic, epic feel. Horner incorporates pieces of period music, usually in the form of fife-and-drum marches. Reviewers have pointed out, sometimes in an accusatory manner, that Horner borrowed classical pieces of music for this score. However, Horner infuses his recreations of classic music with so much of his voice and passion that they still stand out on their own merit. I’ll get to these as I run through the themes and album. The commercial album is a tight 42 minutes. There is some missing material, but most of it is source music and the original compositions are already well represented on album. There also isn’t much in the way of action music which is actually standard for many modern war films but is different for Horner, who would later give the likes of Windtalkers and Enemy at the Gates lengthy and melodramatic action pieces. Continue reading

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Composed by John Addison

A Bridge Too Far is a three hour war epic in the vein of Longest Day and Battle of Britain. Instead of focusing on a major Allied victory, however, it covers the failed Operation Market Garden. Eager to finish the war before 1945, the Western Allies conceived of a plan in which paratroopers would seize vital bridges in the Netherlands and hold then until the rest of the army, spearheaded by the British XXX corps and its tanks, could fight through and secure their gains. Through the Netherlands the Allies could get into Germany and take the fight to the heart of the enemy. However, poor intelligence and resulting unexpected mishaps led to one of the last major Axis victories of the war. This is an amazing film which would have gained more attention and box office revenue if not for its proximity to Star Wars. I really believe it deserves more attention from film and history buffs. It has an all-star cast and lots of great action. It does a wonderful job explaining the ins and outs of the battle, though some points are disputed in the realm of historical debate.

The movie’s music is no slouch either. As with Longest Day large portions of the film are unscored, but composer John Addison has a little more to work with and makes the most of his spots. Before anybody criticizes the score for being a dated rah-rah affair, too heroic for a military tragedy, they should know something about Addison. He was actually a veteran of the battle, having served as a tank officer in the XXX Corps, and asked for a chance serve as composer. Naturally the idea of an actual veteran scoring one of his own major life events was too good to pass up. The result is a heartfelt and sincere score, steeped in heroic fanfares without losing sight of what a tragic event Market Garden was for the paratroopers stuck in Arnhem and the unfortunate Dutch civilians caught in the crossfire. This is the type of war score that is sadly missing from today’s genre offerings, which refuse to engage in such catchy heroic scores for fears of being labeled jingoistic. Continue reading