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The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Loosely based on a true story, Guy Ritchie’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare tells the story of a secret WWII mission – commissioned by Winston Churchill – to take out an Italian ship docked on a small island off the west African coast and thereby cut off a key supply line to German u-boats in the Atlantic. I say “loosely” because in Richie’s hands we get a comic book-like telling of the story full of his trademark banter between the gang.

The director’s composer of choice in recent years has been Chris Benstead, who has supplied a succession of good scores for Ritchie’s films. This is his best yet. Part of it is up-tempo jazzy caper-type music (you can easily imagine it in a Daniel Pemberton score) – and part of it, quite magnificently, is an homage to Ennio Morricone and his western scores.

Chris Benstead

Loads of film composers have either been inspired by or directly aped or parodied Morricone’s music over the years – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it done better than here. From the lonesome whistle which opens “A Team of Misfits”, the score’s opening cue, I got a great big smile on my face; and we go through the remainder of the piece with various little shakes and rattles being added, the strum of a guitar – it’s brilliantly authentic, not referencing any Morricone score in particular but coming across like a blend of Il Mercanario’s famous “L’arena”, A Fistful of Dollars with the trademark little motifs recurring and then the whistle of – well, almost any of them.

Then in “Operation Postmaster” Benstead adds an epic choir to the theme – we’re getting towards “The Ecstasy of Gold” now – and later in “Fernando Po” he introduces manic saloon guitars like in Faccia a Faccia. He is clearly familiar with the great man’s body of work across all the westerns – usually a director’s “make it sound like Morricone” request gets some The Good, the Bad and the Ugly rewrite – this is a proper homage, lovingly done. The pair of cues “Resist the Gravitational Pull” and “U-Boat Contretemps” together play like a big gundown sequence and, much later, the rhythmic heartbeat which goes through “A Bag Full of Nazi Hearts” is a device appropriated by many others over the years, but which was invented for film music by Morricone and used brilliantly here.

Even if that’s all the score had to offer I’m sure I would love it, but it isn’t – the driving rhythm of “Apple Rescue” accompanied by Bond-like screaming trumpets is one of a series of really good, dynamic action cues. The array of percussion and what sounds like a Hammond organ which define the more caper-like pieces are stylish and classic; there’s even a bit of brilliant big band swing (“Officers Fancy Dress”) and it isn’t just shoved in as a token nod for a bit of source music, it’s creative and full-bodied and brilliant. And dotted through the score is what I assume is an homage to another great film composer – John Barry – thanks to the use of the cimbalom, which I always associate with Barry (in particular his non-Bond spy movies of the 1960s).

By the time we get to the big finale, a great reprise of the score’s main ideas, that smile which formed after a couple of seconds of the opening cue remains as broad as ever. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with an album – I just want to listen to it over and over again. This is, by a distance, my favourite film music album of 2024 so far.

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