With Naxos and many other labels carrying so many CDs dedicated to film music, my mind has wandered over all those memorable musical sequences in movies that so affect me no matter how many times I see them—or simply hear them on recordings.
One of the great weddings of the music on the soundtrack and the dramatic event on the screen comes at about the middle of “Viva Zapata.” The title character (Brando) is arrested at a home in the village and tethered to a horse so that he is forced to keep pace with the rider. One man, Anthony Quinn, picks up two stones and begins to strike them with a steady beat. By some form of mental telepathy, the rest of the village gets the idea and does the same.
As the steady beat of the stones is the only sound heard, the music begins to creep up very slowly, building to a climax as more and more peasants begin to follow the cortege. Just as with Ravel’s “Bolero,” the steady crescendo portrays perfectly the growing number of people surrounding the police—until at the climax (I believe the music ends on an unresolved chord), the rider, for once an intelligent Mexican law enforcer, simply lets Zapata go to save his own skin and that of his men. The composer, Alex North.
The use of a crescendo is used to stunning effect in the Agincourt sequence of Olivier’s “Henry V” with its score by William Walton. We see from the side the French knights lowering their lances and beginning to advance at a very slow pace. Olivier had decided not to use any sound effects, so the music reproduces the sound of the hooves with a BOOM-pum, BOOM-pum bass ground. Only after several bars do the rest of the instruments make their statement. Even if one just listens to the CD recordings of this sequence, one can hear the heaviness of the French armor and the acceleration of the steeds as they hurtle towards their destruction in the shower of arrows that comes just at the climax of the music.
Of course, having said that, I must mention the scene and indeed the music that inspired the Henry V sequence: the Battle on the Ice in “Alexander Nevsky” with its Prokofiev score. In fact, one should play any of its many recordings and then hear the Walton music, which is too good to be called mere imitation.
Someone once commented on some television documentary long ago how absurd yet how convincing is the music to the sacrifice sequence in the original “King Kong.” Of course, first all that is heard is drums. Then slowly, an entire symphony orchestra is introduced very carefully; and those used to film music think not a whit about any discrepancy.
One of my favorite film composers is Miklos Rozsa, who gave us the scores to “The Jungle Book,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” “Quo Vadis,” “El Cid,” and even Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (with that haunting theme melody). To me, some of the most thrilling music in all films is in “The Thief of Bagdad” when Rozsa depicts the Genie with Sabu clinging to his hair flying through the sky to “the roof of the world” so the little thief can steal the All-Seeing Eye. (Shots of the Grand Canyon below help enormously, but even the musical alone in this sequence is breathtaking.)
If I was pressed to choose a “desert island” CD of film music, I would not hesitate to choose the Georges Auric score to “La Belle et le Bete.” Never has a realistic telling of an old supernatural tale (those who know the film will understand the paradox) been so well supported by a score that matches its magic and grandeur so perfectly. I can only urge those not familiar with it to see the film (now available on an expensive Criterion DVD) and hear the score alone on a Naxos budget-priced CD.
I would very much appreciate if any readers would let me know their favorite musical moments from original film scores (not those that draw from the music of the past, a topic I want to deal with separately).