Monday, October 05, 2015

Music For Grown-Ups

The other morning I found myself admiring The Cruel Sea, for the umpteenth time. So many British war films of the 1950s perpetuate the myths that were created to boost morale and have a crass, triumphalist tone. However, The Cruel Sea feels like a film for grown-ups.

One of the key elements that helps to define the film's tone is one that I suspect many people overlook: Alan Rawsthorne's marvellous score.

Take this scene for example, in which HMS Compass Rose is making its maiden voyage. In the hands of a lesser composer, the music would probably be very upbeat and bombastic, but Rawsthorne has written something far more interesting:

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(For some reason, the clip doesn't play on some phones)

When a handful of dockyard workers cheer from the quay, instead of adding a patriotic flourish, Rawsthorne's music emphasises the pathos of the scene, with the young, inexperienced officer shyly half-saluting in reply, as the small, vulnerable corvette leaves the safety of its harbour. The atmosphere reminds me a little of a Ravillious painting, from his time as a War Artist.

The use of music is also particularly effective in the next clip, setting the scene, but also knowing when to quietly bow out so that the most harrowing moments take place in silence. The two sailors are the brother and husband-to-be of a widow called Mrs Bell:

video

And in the film's key scene, there is no music at all. Jack Hawkins doesn't need any help:

video

Of course, the brilliance of The Cruel Sea is a team effort and with names like Eric Ambler, Charles Frend, Michael Balcon, Jack Hawkins, Denholm Eliot, Virginia McKenna and Nicholas Montsarrat, it would be hard to produce a dud. But I think Alan Rawsthorne's score is definitely the icing on the cake, imbuing the narrative with a bleak, resigned stoicism.

These days, far too much film music is usually cliché-ridden and uninspiring, with an emotional palette that rarely progresses beyond happy, sad, in love, danger, funny and mysterious. Indeed, in music, 'filmic' is now a euphemism for overblown, melodramatic and sentimental and when I hear the soundtracks for films like Lord of the Rings, I feel a sense of despair.

I'm not sure exactly why the rot set in, but I'm pretty sure that it all went wrong after Star Wars, but that's a rant for another day.

17 comments:

Chris said...

I think a lot of things went wrong with the movies beginning with Star Wars — but then I'm one of those grumps who think that the introduction of color was the beginning of the end. In any case, I'm putting The Cruel Sea on my to-watch list.

Roger Allen said...

" I'm one of those grumps who think that the introduction of color was the beginning of the end."

The great Russian film-maker Alexei German said that sound had come into movies a hundred years too soon and colour two hundred years too soon.

The other problem with music in contemporary films is it doesn't stop. I was watching The Loves of Joanna Gooden with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams recently and the surprising thing is how little music there is and how carefully it's placed. I'd guess that - as with Rawsthorne, himself a distinguished composer - they were paid and then allowed to choose what to do, whereas modern scores are probably paid for by the minute.

Steerforth said...

Chris - I wouldn't go that far. The early colour era saw some wonderful films and the cinematography was often particularly striking as the directors were exploring the challenges of a new medium. The 1960s and early 70s were a golden age for quirky, unusual films, e.g John Schlesinger's Sunday, Bloody Sunday. But by the late 70s, a new conservatism had definitely taken over - perhaps the VCR was putting more pressure on the industry, or maybe the talent was moving into television. I don't know.

Roger - I agree, the music is relentless and it's usually incredibly banal, with some dreadful anthem on the strings accompanied by Lion King-style percussion, as if we need to be told what to feel because the narrative isn't up to it. Vaughan Williams wrote some wonderful film scores, but I'm not sure that he completely understood its role - apparently, when he watched Scott of the Antarctic, he was quite put out that the actors kept talking over his music!

Chris said...

Steerforth - I'm only half-serious, although I have to say that the '60s and '70s, in general, aren't my favorite movie era, at least in regards to American film. (I just think, for instance, of the difference in quality between the much-ballyhooed Julie Christie version of Far from the Madding Crowd and the recent Carey Mulligan version, which I think is much, much better, although no one seems to agree with me.) Sixties-era films often seem to me to be too impressed with their own cleverness. But once Spielberg and Lucas came along things only got worse, honorable exceptions always aside.

My favorite movie in the last few years, Ida, is black-and-white.

MikeP said...

Excellent post, Steerforth. Makes me long for the days when proper composers - eg Walton and Arnold as well as RVW and Rawsthorne - did film scores.

I have a theory that the current fashion for bombastic, often rather martial scores came in with The West Wing. Have a listen to the theme on YouTube if you can bear it, and you can hear echos of dozens of film scores since. Fake Aaron Copland.

Brett said...

Wonderful, thanks for your commentary and the clips.

PAL said...

I'm glad you like the spirit of The Cruel Sea and Rawsthorne's perfectly matched film score as much as I've always done. Rawsthorne belonged to a generation of composers suspicious of the Elgarian grand gesture, and his very distinctive musical language always undercuts it - passages like the main title music for the film are about the nearest he gets to it. It's very British in its understatement.I find the downbeat ambience can be irritating over a long work, but it's perfectly matched to the dour anti-heroism of the film. I've always thought The Cruel Sea embodies very accurately what most British people must have felt about the war at the time - a nasty, drab, endless business that had to be seen through - and epitomised in the way Jack Hawkins rages against "This bloody war".

Steerforth said...

Chris - I think both Spielberg and Lucas reacted to the modernism of their youth, hankering back to the films they loved as children. Lucas cited the dreadful Flash Gordon as an influence. Spielberg is a tragic case, in that he has never topped the brilliance of his first film - Duel.

MikeP - Odd how old-fashioned the intro sequence seems - it wasn't that long ago. But I think the bombast began in the 80s and really hit it's stride in the 90s, with nonsense like Braveheart. The Coplandesque sound, which I suppose Copland fashioned from Stravinsky and folk tunes, probably set the tone for most American film and TV music for decades and I rather like it.

Brett - Thanks. Glad you liked it.

PAL - I agree that the appeal of Rawsthorne wears thin after a while. I have a CD of his symphonies and they can feel a little relentless. The 2nd Symphony - the 'Pastoral' - is particularly bleak, from start to finish. But as you say, the music perfectly captures the sense of quiet resignation that must have pervaded life in wartime Britain, particularly during the early years.

The main theme of the film is particularly good and all credit must go to Philip Lane for recreating the score by ear, after the original sheet music had been lost.

joan.kyler said...

My husband and I have noticed that the 'background' music in many films and television shows these days is so loud that it overwhelms the dialog.

mahlerman said...

Restraint, and an absolute refusal to follow the trodden path were the hallmarks of this not-quite-great British master. I don't feel the black & white-v-colour question is particularly relevant, but what is unquestionably true is the tiresome obsession in many American films with smothering the visuals in music telling us how we are supposed to be feeling (afraid, excited & etc) - this, along with trying to sell us something we have already bought. Rawsthorne (and RVW and others) created music that was woven into the very fabric of film. Today's so-called superstars of the genre - John Williams, say, or the late James Horner - are creative pigmies compared with, say, Copland or Arnold (another wildly underrated composer) and, as many know, plagiarism is not the least of their crimes. If you are musically 'clever', you can hide Shostakovich, Mahler, Richard Strauss et al under a bit of slick orchestration; simples.

Steerforth said...

Joan - Yes, it's ridiculous, and the louder and longer it gets, the less impact the music has.

Steerforth said...

Mahlerman - Yes, I often hear fragments of carefully disguised classical works, for example, the beginning to this Star Trek film rips of the first movement of Shostakovich's 10th, before moving on to Holst's Mars - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT-wunjnEXA

I agree that Arnold was underrated. Fortunately, works like the 5th symphony are now being treated with the respect they deserve, as well as the film music, but it's too late for Arnold. Some of the contemporary reviews of performances I've read are shockingly hostile and ignorant.

John Williams' music certainly isn't a patch on his predecessors, but I can't help wondering if he was compelled to be bland by the demands of Hollywood. Jerry Goldsmith's scores for films like The Illustrated Man, Planet of the Apes and Patton were marvellous and highly original, but the music he wrote after 1980 is generally dull (although nowhere near as bad as James Horner and Howard Shore).

As far as Rawthorne's concerned, I admire his strong, individual voice - I can tell I'm listening to a Rawsthorne piece within seconds, but it rarely touches the spot. I don't know why.

Paul said...

You're close with Shostakovich; the overture for Star Trek VI is supposed to be based on Stravinsky's Firebird.

Kathryn Quinton said...

I was reminded of the score for The Third Man the other day. A stroke of brilliance

Steerforth said...

Paul - Interesting that the source is acknowledged, although I still think it sounds uncannily like the beginning of the 10th.

Kathryn - Yes, that's a very imaginative use of music. Quite bonkers on one level, but it adds to the film's sense of alienation. Having a moment of high drama accompanied by that strangely banal tune works brilliantly.

Martin Hodges said...

Well observed, Steerforth. It's one of my all-time favourites, too.

Resolute Reader said...

Leaving aside film and music for a moment. The novel on which Cruel Sea is based is probably one of the greatest, and frequently under-rated, war novels ever written.