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Hacksaw Ridge
  • Composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams
  • Varèse Sarabande / 2016 / 54m

The (to put it mildly) distasteful personal episodes may have cost Mel Gibson a lot of his fans and a lot of his reputation, but few could deny that he’s a very talented filmmaker and he’s directed some powerful films.  His latest, Hacksaw Ridge, follows the life of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served in World War II in the Battle of Okinawa, where despite refusing to bear a firearm he rescued 75 comrades from the battlefield and was later awarded the Medal of Honour for his extreme bravery.

Gibson’s previous films have all featured very strong scores, three of which were by James Horner who was very excited about working on this one before his untimely death. Gibson then enlisted John Debney – his Passion of the Christ composer – to write a score and he too seemed very excited about working on the film, but for reasons yet to be made public his music was dumped and Rupert Gregson-Williams found himself on board the project with very little time left to write and record his score.

Rupert Gregson-Williams

Rupert Gregson-Williams

Reaction to it has been very mixed – those who have seen the film have been generally positive, those who have experienced it only on album generally less so.  Interestingly, I (in the latter camp) find it quite hard to imagine this music in this film, but that doesn’t influence my listening experience to the album, which is of course sold as its own commercial product.  It’s very unusually structured, divided into three very distinct and largely unrelated parts.

After the opening “Okinawa Battlefield” introduces the very Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven-like main theme, with a strained cello solo and various acoustic and electronic effects, we get into the first of the three sections in the second half of the cue, which is very obviously “inspired by” (to put it kindly) Thomas Newman, passages of elegant strings and winds alternating with more upbeat rhythmic sections including guitar writing and some much smaller folksy moments, a blend of The Horse Whisperer and How to Make an American Quilt and in truth various other very clear Newman influences.  They are very fine film scores to take inspiration from, but there’s nothing approaching their wonderfully rich melodies here, instead it’s more of a textural and harmonic resemblance – the ketchup, perhaps, but not the meat.  This score’s main theme is heard often in this section and it’s effective enough, at its best when in a more romantic setting such as in “A Calling”.  I’ve no idea if this is what Gregson-Williams’s natural musical voice is (I haven’t heard enough of his solo music to form an opinion), or if he’s in temp-track territory, but either way it’s all very warm and pleasant and there’s some emotion on display.

All of a sudden, the second (mercifully, shortest) section of the score arrives with a very literal bang and without warning in the titular ninth cue – the elegance gone, all light gone, we’re now in Batman v Superman territory, modern Remote Control musical misery and oppression as the horror of war dawns in the film.  It’s an effective enough way of conveying that horror but it’s aural anathema to me.  I’d much rather have heard a more musically-interesting approach to it all, but I do accept this is a valid alternative – it just isn’t something I ever want to hear outside a film.  (James Horner most certainly is missed.)  The sonic atmosphere is chilling, electronic effects are used to add a disorientating slant to it, the brass and (sometimes Japanese-influenced) percussion growl away – it’s really not my cup of tea.

Thankfully, it’s not long before the third and by far the most surprising (and amusing) section, which starts in “I Can’t Hear You”.  Here, we’re very firmly back in old-school Media Ventures territory, with cheap power anthems frankly rather unbelievably (to someone who hasn’t seen the film) being used to convey this extreme real-life heroism, King Arthur meets The Last Samurai.  It’s all very good fun actually, a welcome throwback to an era I would never have thought at the time I would welcome a throwback to (but I didn’t know then what I know now about the direction things would head in).  It’s simplistic music of course, with no depth and no emotional grip to hold on to, and even the tunes are extremely familiar, but as a standalone piece of entertainment it does have something to offer.  My favourite track on the album is probably the end title piece “Historical Footage”, which serves as a coda and does briefly have a bit of James Horner to it, particularly in the vocal style, and offers the most genuine and heartfelt emotion in the score.

As I said, it’s an extremely unusual album in the way it’s structured, but the bulk of it is actually perfectly entertaining.  I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to go below the surface a bit more, those few minutes in the middle really are very off-putting, and there are very clear influences over nearly every minute of the score, all of which mean it’s never likely to be seen as more than a middling effort – I have to say my initial reaction was more muted still, but on closer examination I’ve been able to shed my preconceptions and just enjoy it for what it is, which is a shallow but entertaining modern action score with some highlights that more than offset the low ones.

Rating: ***

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  1. Momo (Reply) on Friday 11 November, 2016 at 17:45

    Have you listened to the soundtrack for Battlefield 1 yet, James? I heartily recommend it if you enjoyed the old Medal of Honor soundtracks. It’s got some surprisingly soft and beautiful moments of restraint throughout, as well, which keep the album interesting. It’s my game score of the year 🙂

  2. Kalman (Reply) on Wednesday 4 January, 2017 at 18:44

    I really liked the movie and although I haven’t heard the album, the music in the film was very good. Mostly in the second part of the film, during the war scenes.

    A nice gesture from Gibson: in the end credits you can read: “In loving memory: Andrew Lesnie and James Horner”.