Murder ballads

How war-movie scores capture the zeitgeist.

You'll hear the shells screaming, the guns chattering, the cries of men as they fall dead. You'll hear and you'll believe, despite all sane thought, despite the instinct for survival, that the men on that screen must move forward and die so that great things may happen. So that good may conquer evil, so that no death shall be in vain, so that all the waste will stand for something, they must not stop. And they don't. They continue to kill and be killed, and you are watching it all happen. Among the dozens of sounds coming from the screen, the music will emerge. Whether its role is colors-bearer, therapist, or demonizer, the war-film score is among Hollywood's most challenging music.

Historically, these scores have most often reflected the Marine Corps anthem, "The Halls of Montezuma," emboldening you with patriotic zeal at the thought of attack and in the heat of battle, and sounding the elegiac "Taps" when the good guys have fallen.

Yet these rousing, well-rehearsed tones have not always seemed as trite as they do now. These gung-ho sounds have won or been nominated for award after award for their ability to pull us willingly into otherwise unfathomable scenarios. In 1934, the first year that film scores had a separate category at the Oscars, among the nominees was Max Steiner's score for the WWI desert-based drama The Lost Patrol. During World War II, not a year went by without at least one nominated score coming from a war film, from the 1940 satire The Great Dictator to 1945's Objective, Burma!. The film composers led us onto the battlefields (as in 1941's Sergeant York, another of Max Steiner's efforts) and then, years later, away from them so we could grieve over our losses (as in Malcolm Arnold's work on 1957's Bridge on the River Kwai).

The onset of the Cold War brought newfound patriotism to Americans faced with the prospect of another large-scale conflict. The flag shone through in films like Patton, with scores that favored the notion of valor over the realities of battle. Even as we see the wasteland caused by the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Patton's theme, composed by Jerry Goldsmith, foretells distant heroism. Grandiosely constructed marches follow Patton's fight across Europe and echoing trumpets invade even the cemetery. The sounds are haunting, yet they also hint that perhaps God and the US Army are one and the same.

In 1986, Oliver Stone's Platoon accomplished a mainstream coup with the aid of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Played alone while a Vietnamese village burns, and again at the film's end as an undercurrent to Charlie Sheen's reflective monologue, this sorrowful piece invites the listener to enter the film's volatile world and come out unscathed. The violins become the cries of the living and the dead; there is no sense of purpose in them, only anguish.

After Platoon, no one cared to be treated with kid gloves anymore. Viewers of last year's Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line participated in the onscreen action like never before. These films—helped by their Oscar-nominated scores—created in the audience a sense of involvement that, while physically safe, was emotionally exhausting.

Despite the visual horrors that characterize Private Ryan, composer John Williams won't deny these soldiers their aural Valhalla. His "Revisiting Normandy" opens the film with memorial trumpets and drums, casting a pallor of honor and sorrow over whatever we're about to witness. The score immediately emerges as the film's therapist. It doesn't interfere with the battles, allowing us distance so that once what we've seen has properly sunk in, it can go about comforting us.

Williams' one throwback to the older, patriotic films is the sense of "higher purpose" he conveys, in brief, each time the squad sets out in search of the title character. The darkest moments come with the death of Wade, the group's medic and symbolic angel of the group. In his passing there is no honor, only the aftermath of bloodlust and a sense of doom. The following moments, with Williams' constant accompaniment, serve as the film's most intimately revealing ones, a time when the composer cannot leave us alone as he places us so close to those dying on screen. His flutes mark the time to cry, his woodwinds the time for apprehension, and his strings the eventual recovery.

In contrast to Williams' work on Private Ryan, Hans Zimmer's score for The Thin Red Line lacks a militaristic sense of honor. While reverent for the men's fates, Zimmer emphasizes the tragedy of their position. No one should want to be in their hell—and any heroism comes from the need for survival, not the quest for a medal. Zimmer treats Death with the same solemnity as Williams treats those who occupy Ryan's Normandy graveyards, yet Zimmer doesn't give his battle prelude any note of adventure. Instead, the music relays constant dread: Nothing good will come out of this futile slaughter to occupy one small patch of land. With its eerily innocuous presence, Zimmer's score acknowledges just that.

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