Music drives films of any kind to the next level. An actor with a sub-par performance can be elevated (to a point) with correctly utilized music to back him up. A scene with zero tension can be ratcheted up a thousand times with just a few strings and distant wind chimes. Just as important as when to put music in a film is when not to put music in a film, a technique that was popular with Alfred Hitchcock and is becoming popular again today. For this article, the definition of a “war film” is going to be kind of loose, as the music is the main subject of discussion.
War movies generally fall under two categories, but like any broad, sweeping artistic category, they realistically probably fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two.
First is the style of music composition that is loud and serves to drive the action forward; it can push the emotion and intensity beyond what could be felt had the director chosen silence instead — there are things in a war you just can’t replicate on film, so music can help bridge that gap. This is the “Tears of the Sun” type music that was more popular in older movies, some of which are the greats — who can forget “Platoon” and its climactic ending with death of Sgt. Elias? The music can be sad, but it can also be strong like in Hans Zimmer’s “Gladiator” or Junkie XL’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” My favorite, and I would argue one of the greatest film scores put in a movie, was the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, masterfully composed by Howard Shore.
As time has gone on, movies have sought less to focus on film-type drama, and more to reflect realism. Music, for its ability to push scenes and emotions to heights that simply can’t be replicated visually and audibly, can also threaten to yank the realism out from under the audience. A lot of war films these days have a common theme: the very real, visceral and grotesque nature of war, and the brotherhood that is born from it. Many films, especially in their action sequences, keep music out and instead focus on the sounds of staccato gunfire, sliding in the dirt, or incoming mortar rounds. These are movies like “Saving Private Ryan” as seen below, or in more recent years, “Lone Survivor,” parts of “13 Hours” and the firefights in “Sicario.” There may be underlying tones, but you’re not getting the distinctive overtures that you would find in the previous category.
“Black Hawk Down” is a good example of both, that perhaps leans more toward the realism without musical style for its action (most of the time), and lets the emotion seep in afterward. Something about that particular cadence reflects reality in my personal experiences — emotions are booted out the door in combat, and then they come flooding in later.
Here is an excellent breakdown by YouTuber wilcox2146 on how a scene from “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” can be drastically changed with different music. After the original sequence, where the forces on the ground are miraculously rescued, they change up the tone. The second iteration (which is quite good) makes it feel as if the battle is just beginning. The third makes it seem either like a hopeless last stand or like the orcs are somehow victims to the slaughter. The final version is similar to the original in that it feels like victory has already arrived. The alternate music is pulled from other scores, so they are obviously not tailored to this particular film, but it serves as a good example of the effect music can have.
Watch it here (all other sound effects have been stripped)
Videos courtesy of YouTube.
Featured image courtesy of Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures.