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Seven years after writing one of his most extraordinary scores, for Patton, Jerry Goldsmith took on the challenge of scoring a biopic of another of the great WWII generals, Douglas MacArthur. He saw it as an interesting challenge, how to revisit a superficially similar thing but do it in a different way. And while in truth MacArthur cannot compare musically to Patton, one has to take into account that Joseph Sargent’s film is not nearly as good as Franklin Schaffner’s. Following MacArthur from the Pacific battles of WWII to his ultimate removal from the Korean war, it is elevated by Gregory Peck’s fine performance but is not nearly as ambitious nor moving as Patton. (Remarkably, Goldsmith would score another film about MacArthur a few years later, Inchon – a completely different score again.)

One thing the two scores do have in common is that they both feature a grand march as their main theme. MacArthur’s is more traditional John Philip Sousa territory than Patton’s (whose echoing trumpets are the stuff of legend) but it does have a USP of its own, which is the unique rhythmic opening achieved by a pianist manually hammering the strings inside the piano. I was lucky enough to see Goldsmith conduct numerous concerts over the years and it was always a slightly amusing moment seeing the pianist having to contort himself to achieve the effect (sadly in later years Goldsmith replaced it with a more conventional piano intro). The main body of the march is full of military might and is a great ear-worm of a tune, one which gets stuck in the head very easily.

Jerry Goldsmith

It doesn’t appear all that often through the body of the score, and when it does it’s usually as source music, but interestingly the B-section of the theme is heard a little more frequently. The bulk of the score itself is actually rather subdued – centred around a nostalgic theme which represents MacArthur’s respect for the military traditions of West Point (the film is told in flashback from a visit in later life to the training facility). That theme does appear quite frequently – I find its subtle performance in “Change is Inevitable” to be really quite moving. “I Shall Return” is a wonderful piece, emotional and full of feeling without feeling at all manipulative (one of this composer’s great gifts). And what of the profound sadness evoked by “The Prison”, echoes of the magnificent Papillon perhaps in the way the strings are layered to achieve the desired effect. One of my favourite tracks is the melancholic “New Era”, with Goldsmith subtly incorporating the traditional Japanese melody “Sakura Sakura” – he had previously based his main theme for Tora! Tora! Tora! on the same tune, but it’s fair to say it sounds radically different here.

There is precious little in the way of action music, which must have been a surprise to those buying the score in 1977 – there is some though, and when it appears it is typically the composer doing one of his trademarks of building action cues out of little cells of the score’s main theme. Listen to “The Landing” – all these different ideas coming and going, playing off each other, each directly attributable to one or other aspect of the main theme but forming something really quite different when heard like this. Jerry Goldsmith really was a remarkable film composer.

For many years, MacArthur was one of the hardest Goldsmith albums to find on CD – Varèse Sarabande’s straight reissue of the LP was only in print for a very short time. Decades after it was last available for purchase, Intrada has finally been able to put the score back in print – and better still, as well as reissuing the original album recording, they have also put out the film score recording, which is quite a different beast. It’s not so much the music in the film recording which wasn’t on the album (though the dynamic new recording of “Hard Gained Ground” from Lonely are the Brave is magnificent, and fits in surprisingly well with the MacArthur score) but how different some of the pieces are between the two recordings – sometimes it’s something subtle that’s in one but not the other, whereas some of the tracks are really quite different. The film recording is generally a little starker, if that’s the right word – even in the main title, the effect used when the orchestra first kicks in just gives it a different feel. I won’t go on about all the differences other than to say it’s almost like discovering the score again for the first time, having become so familiar to the album recording over the last 30 years (and for many people it will be even longer than that).

Usually when there’s an album recording available which differs from the film recording, not surprisingly the album one makes for a far superior listening experience – think of Goldsmith’s own Capricorn One, or John Williams’s The Fury – but with MacArthur it’s not at all clear-cut. They’re quite different experiences, but I’m not sure I could choose one over the other – I’m delighted to now have the chance to hear both. While MacArthur is not a score full of grand theatrics – indeed, a surprising amount of it is rather low-key – it is one where there is always something interesting happening. It will never be considered in the same breath as Patton in terms of quality, but let’s not beat around the bush – Goldsmith at his very best was on a different level from anyone else, and even when composing more like a mere mortal as he does in MacArthur there’s still so much to appreciate and enjoy. Needless to say, this is an essential purchase for the composer’s fans.

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  1. A Busy Man (Reply) on Tuesday 26 March, 2024 at 03:00

    This is a surprisingly great listening experience on the old LP. Great variations on the theme and emotionally evocative.
    Thank you also for stating that Tora Tora Tora’s theme is based on Sakura.Sakura. No one seems willing to state that outright despite it being an excellent musical idea. And it’s awesome that Goldsmith keeps the continuity going here. (I also think The Chairman might be a riff on Sakura Sakura, which is maybe less appropriate….)