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The War Film Scores

War films have been around since the genesis of the moving picture: films as early as Birth of a Nation, Wings, and All Quiet On the Western Front examined war and its consequences from different perspectives. Not surprisingly, this film genre has offered the movie composer some interesting challenges: How do you balance patriotic themes with the moral ambiguities of war? How do you glorify victory amid mass destruction of human life? How do you reach inside the warrior's experience to express fear, resolve, bravery, heroism? These are things Elmer Bernstein addressed so eloquently in the war films he scored. He often used understatement rather than bombast to reflect the drama of war. But when it was needed, he could also write some of the most stirring and powerful martial music this side of John Philip Sousa.

Men in War (1957).

A film that completely strips away the romanticism of war and faces the fears, the cynicism, and the heroism of men in combat--head on. And no where did EB address the ambiguities of war better than in this film, directed by Anthony Mann. Set in Korea, Men in War is about a war-weary platoon led by Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan) trying to join up with other troops to launch an offensive. The central conflict occurs when the platoon comes upon a truck, and thinking it's abandoned, attempts to seize it for their long trek. But the truck is carrying a shell-shocked colonel, whom Sgt. Williamette (Aldo Ray) has been ordered to escort to a mobile hospital for treatment. Much has been written about a single sequence in this film, for good reason. As the platoon is forced to walk through a mine field, one would expect the music to be menacing and full of tension, perhaps achieved through dissonance. But Bernstein does the exact opposite: his music reflects the natural landscape through which these men move as if in slow motion. Solo woodwinds seem to chorus the birds, rustling leaves, and wind. This odd paradox works remarkably well, because we expect at any moment for this pastoral scene to erupt in violence, and it actually heightens the tension.

Men in War is one of those gritty, neo-realistic war films that we would see more of in the 1960s, in films such as Don Siegel's excellent Hell is for Heroes.

Kings Go Forth (1958).

Kings Go Forth is technically a war film, although this story of two men (Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis) vying for the affections of the beautiful Monique (Natalie Wood) could have been told against virtually any 20th century backdrop. (The setting is near the French Riviera, a rather inventive locale for a drama that takes place near the end of WWII.) Because of this, Bernstein very wisely scores this film as a human drama about racial prejudice, with strong military underpinnings. The main theme is a march, although it is unconventional in its refusal to carry a contiguous, melodic line; rather it serves as a suspended dramatic question asking which soldier will act with honor and decency, confront his own prejudices, and do the right thing. As the percussion rolls along, periodic 3-note phrases are answered by 8-note responses--in fortissimo. Frank Devol would use this approach very nicely in his 5-note leitmotif to The Dirty Dozen. Kings Go Forth is a good--not great--movie, but is well worth a view to hear Elmer, the dramatist, working his magic.

The Great Escape (1963).

A clear indication that lightning can strike twice. This is what happens when you again bring together a consistently good director, John Sturges, actors on the verge of superstardom like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, a great though uncredited storyteller/screenwriter named Walter Newman, and the hottest composer in the film industry. The Great Escape is a stunning achievement in film and film music. Upon its release, the film and its score were so critically heralded and applauded by the moviegoing public that they quickly became part of American pop culture. Everyone talked about Steve McQueen bouncing his baseball defiantly against the cell walls or tearing across the Austrian landscape on a motorcycle with the enemy in hot pursuit. And the jaunty Great Escape March soon became as instantly recognizable and imitated as The Magnificent Seven (see Postscript below).

Elmer's score is a textbook example of how music should work in a film. Because of the scope of the film and the important subplots, EB intuitively created leitmotifs for many of the prominent characters, but supported these themes with cues for the stirrings of clandestine activity in the prison camp at night, construction of the tunnels, the famous motorcycle chase, and dozens of other plot points. Here are but a few.

The Great Escape March. A masterpiece of composition, The Great Escape main title music perfectly foreshadows the story and characters we're about to see. As we watch the long German caravan transporting British POWs to Stalag Luft III, we hear the powerful introduction:

  • A huge unison A note played by brass, with an ascending 6-note call to action
  • A giant C# major chord answered by a phalanx of snare drums
  • Modulation to Bb major, with a dissonant note cluster and repeated call to action
  • Syncopated E major chords that sound like artillery shots
  • The tricky drop to Eb major to kick off the marching ostinato played by cello, double bass, and tuba (with that quirky Gb accidental).

Whew! This all happens in 20 seconds. Elmer was a master at key signature modulation--something he could do on a dime, without the least bit of discontinuity. It simply works.

At this point, the woodwinds begin tooting the infectious "toy soldier" leitmotif. I always thought this theme kind of thumbed its nose at the Germans, as if to say, we'll be dutiful POWs, that is, while we're launching the biggest mass prison escape ever attempted.

The march's "middle eight" is a rousing victory theme that is unabashedly patriotic and very moving, again showing EB's uncanny facility for melodic invention and orchestral might.

Then, the droning G note announces the stirring Cooler and Mole leitmotif (see below), followed by a reprise of the huge orchestra chords and modulation to F major. This time the toy soldier melody and harmony are covered by French horns, then by full orchestra, with a very smart countermelody played by the string section. Of course it ends as it started--with the syncopated chords.

The Cooler King and Mole. Some of the best moments in the film concern Hilts (the Cooler King) and Ives' (Mole's) multiple attempts to dig their way out of the compound. Hilts (played to perfection by Steve McQueen) is the sarcastic and impudent American flyer and Ives (Angus Lennie), a British flyer who is on the verge of emotional collapse. With snappy, exaggerated percussion and light-hearted woodwind lines, this music serves as a parade for the two cocky prisoners. Whenever they are ordered to or from the cooler by the prison officers, the theme follows the action as the British POWs look on with approbation and good humor, feeling solidarity and empathy for the two defiant soldiers. This theme music always precedes the moment when Hilts thumps his baseball up against the cell wall as if to declare to the Germans that "you can't break my spirit." This has to be one of my favorite cues in EB's overflowing repertoire.

Blythe (the Forger) and Hendley (the Scrounger). The scenes between Blythe (Donald Pleasence), the proper Englishman, and Hendley (James Garner) are the most touching moments in the film and are a perfect counterpoint to underlying escape planning and preparation going on around them. The theme for Blythe is as beautiful and serene as the world the soldiers left behind, and it lies quietly beneath their dialog as the Englishman describes his love of birdwatching and remarks how uncivilized it is to drink tea without milk.

Later, Hendley realizes that Blythe, who is responsible for all the escapees' forged documents, is going blind and will be considered a hazard to the operation. In a poignant scene, Hendley declares to the commander that he'll take responsibility for getting Blythe out with the others. We hear a slow legato variation on the Great Escape March articulating this act of compassion and heroism.

Digging the Tunnels. These have to be some of the most exciting action cues in Elmer's repertoire. As the tunnelers move the bags of dirt out of the tunnel, we observe Danny (Charles Bronson in one of his best roles) bravely facing his claustrophobia as he continues to dig risking more cave-ins. Bernstein gives us a coiled sounding six-note string figure answered by a three-chord brass chorus over marching snares. Another excellent cue accompanies the great tracking shot of Danny traveling through the tunnel on a wheeled cart, unraveling a spool of cable to measure his progress.

The Prison Camp. This is a brilliant leitmotif that Elmer uses to underscore exterior shots of the prison camp at night, implying that much activity is afoot after lockdown. The best use of this theme is the evening of the escape when Sturges' camera observes the lights from the guard towers, the barbed fences, and moonless night. Harp arpeggios lay underneath a chord progression of minor chords ascending in minor thirds (Am > Cm > Ebm > C). It's dark and brooding and perfect.

Danny and Willy. No doubt EB was a busy guy scoring the escape sequences (where Sturges follows multiple characters egressing via trains, trucks, bicycles, and on foot). Elmer seamlessly weaves the character leitmotifs into cohesive musical passages. Each time the story cuts back to Danny and Willy, we hear a short but beautiful pastorale in a I-IV-V-I progression that seems to signify that the two will gain their freedom. EB reprises this theme as the two climb aboard a cargo ship bound for anywhere but Germany.

Hilts and the Motorcycle Chase. In the most exciting sequence in the film, Hilts (McQueen) commandeers a German's motorcycle and two things occur simultaneously: John Sturges' camera climbs and goes wide and we see McQueen racing away across the rolling Austrian landscape. Bernstein mounts a Herculean piece of action music: strings stroking out eight-note triplets are answered by a volley of percussion. The whole orchestra then leans into an accelerated variation on The Great Escape March, cheering McQueen on as he looks for an incline steep enough to propel him over the barbed wire fence into Switzerland. You know he doesn't make it and gets tangled in the fence, but as the music signals the approach of what looks like the entire German army, McQueen pulls himself up, raises one arm, and smiles irreverently knowing he's kept the enemy busy chasing him and the other escapees all over Germany--which was the mission all along. The sequence (charged with Elmer's music) has become an indelible part of our movie-going consciousness.

The Great Escape stands with Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird as three of the greatest film scores in American film. Let’s call it Elmer’s Second Symphony.

Cast a Giant Shadow (1966).

As a rabid soundtrack collector, I came across the soundtrack for this film in the early 70s and quickly snatched it up. Having never seen the film, I played the LP over and over, captivated by the transparent weaving of its haunting Israeli folk themes into Elmer's stirring military leitmotifs. The Prologue is simply huge, beginning with a single mournful trumpet answered by a snare crescendo that leads into a Copland-esque brass fanfare. A cello and double bass ostinato accompanied by fluttering woodwinds serves as the foundation for a full string section playing the beautiful Israeli leitmotif. Even without seeing the movie, the power of this track quickly evokes images of a large army trudging through the desert of the Middle East.

I was particularly taken with the track titled Land of Hope, which is a more gentle approach to the main themes covered in the prologue. These leitmotifs, never sentimental, carry enormous passion and sadness and are clearly Bernstein's interpretation of two cultures locked in a centuries-old conflict. He deftly modulates these folk melodies into the military themes conveying the paradox of peace through war.

An interesting side note: my dad used to sneak a listen to the love theme from the film, Love Me True, whenever I wasn't around to guard my precious soundtracks! He loved that song, which appears early in the film during a nightclub scene between Kirk Douglas and Angie Dickinson.

Long before VHS tapes, I was able finally to catch Cast a Giant Shadow on television and have to admit it was disappointing. Apparently based on the true story of Colonel Mickey Marcus, an American soldier committed to the Israeli's fight for independence, the film is uninvolving and flat and merely feels like an overblown Hollywood production, particularly with superstar cameos and romantic subplots. The history the movie covers is important, and one wishes it could have been told with more clarity and passion. Skip the movie and buy the limited edition CD soundtrack.

Bridge at Remagen (1968).

Contains one of Elmer's most thrilling main title themes--a stirring snare corps-driven march that functions in a way almost completely opposite to The Great Escape March. The film is a fictionalized retelling of an important historical event near the close of WWII in the European Theater. The Allies are trying to seize control of the last bridge over the Rhein, to enable their troops to advance into Germany. The German high command, of course, wants to blow it up, but only after bringing thousands of its retreating troops home.

The main title sequence is primarily one continuous aerial shot of the river and the bridge. In perfect context to the film, EB's theme music this time is neither jaunty nor defiant. Rather, it captures the drama of two battle-weary armies with a weighty mission of such vital importance that it can practically end or prolong the war. Written in a minor key, and powered by what sounds like an army of snare drum percussionists, Elmer's march suggests the gravity of the mission and the willingness of an emotionally and physically spent army to finish what has to be done. It opens with EB's characteristic brass fanfare, from which the percussion begins its droning march in 6/8 time signature. Over barking low brass and string chords, Elmer's glorious melody is carried by a large string section.

The theme is repeated with little variation, then segues into a lyrical middle section--whose strings and woodwinds seem to mourn the human cost of war. This segment ends with a beautiful 7-note ascending phrase that suggests resolve to carry on. Once more for the main leitmotif, which ends with a brief intermezzo that again underscores the human tragedy through fluid harp and keyboard arpeggios and high strings. Then we are treated to two more reprises of the main theme, this time with really great brass counterpoint. The piece ends with the brass fanfare.

The remainder of the film contains many good music cues, but it is the central theme that we keep wanting to hear.


Through the 1960s, Elmer's music for war films and westerns had become the archetypes or models to which other composers sometimes referred in their own scores. And, because these archetypes were so widely known by the film industry and public, some composers paid homage to Bernstein's models by imitating them overtly, sometimes for comedic effect. In 2000, Nick Park's clay animation hit, Chicken Run, parodied the story and characters from The Great Escape in a hilarious plot concerning chickens planning and executing an escape from a chicken coop. Composers John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams produced an equally clever parody of Elmer's music from The Great Escape, with a few other musical references (Stalag 17 and The Guns of Navarone) thrown in. The Chicken Run march is a wonderfully zany imitation of the Great Escape march, with the cellos and double basses playing a similar staccato ostinato and the high woodwinds playing the chirpy melody, which is eventually carried by a choir of kazoos! Still, the composers put their very own stamp on the score, which is filled with great action cues and wonderfully orchestrated reprises of the march, and the result is well worth the price of the CD.


Contact the Author Copyright © 2008 Kevin Hughes
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