- Composed by John Williams
- Sony Classical / 2011 / 65:31
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse adapts Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel about the story of a horse’s experience during the Great War. The film follows the horse from his birth in Devon to his work on both sides of the conflict. The film has genuinely mixed reviews – most films labelled as having mixed reviews actually have a whole bunch which think it’s average, but this one seems to either be loved or hated. There’s clearly an inherent problem of a film whose central character is a horse – and whose director wants to build a genuine emotional connection between said horse and the audience – but for large numbers of cinemagoers this was a problem avoided and almost every review is agreed that on a technical level, the film is beyond reproach.
One of the technicians is of course the great John Williams, scoring the second Spielberg film of his eightieth year, and his 25th movie with the director overall. It is clearly one of the most important director/composer relationships that there’s ever been; perhaps its sheer longevity puts it beyond the other great ones (Hitchcock/Herrmann, Leone/Morricone, Truffaut/Delerue, Fellini/Rota etc). The significance of Williams’s contribution to Spielberg’s success can’t really be overstated – trying to imagine all those great films on which he built his name without the wonderful music written by Williams for them is very difficult.
Undoubtedly, War Horse is another wonderfully impressive effort from the veteran composer. The early scenes of the film – starting with “Dartmoor 1912” – give him an opportunity to explore English music, with hints in particular of Vaughan Williams. The theme introduced by the composer has hints of Far and Away, the orchestral setting brings memories of his great 1970 Jane Eyre music. It’s a wonderful start to the score, and when Spielberg talks in his liner notes of the “earth speaking through” Williams, one suspects it is this sequence which prompted it. This kind of pastoral music – the lovely use of winds in particular – is something the composer does so well, but hasn’t had all that many opportunities to do so (at least in his film music – it’s the sort of thing he has done more frequently in his concert works).
The theme developed through that opening track goes on to appear frequently through the score, most notably perhaps in “Plowing”, where it sits in a slightly triumphant-feeling arrangement. The 25 minutes or so of music which run from the start of the album to that moment are mostly somewhat light in nature, beautiful and generally warm; things take a turn in “Ruined Crop and Going to War”, which has a desperately sad air to it, a sense of resignation. Then, “The Charge and Capture” sees the tone become even darker, with Williams ushering in a powerful statement of horror through low brass and percussion; the prevailing mood is one of desperation, the effect fairly chilling.
Williams cranks the pressure up further in “The Desertion”, with the bass-heavy action music which opens the cue following the template of much of his action music of the last decade or so – it’s very dark material. Fortunately, Williams allows the listener a breather in “Joey’s New Friends”, with the score’s most playful passage offering a brief return to the lighter style of the score’s first section. The darker style soon returns, culminating in the tragic “The Death of Topthorn”, a powerhouse of a cue. “No Man’s Land” – after some atmospheric meandering – sees more action material, the familiar brass and percussion pounding away for all their worth.
The score’s third section – the final three cues, about 17 minutes – sees Williams tying up the various emotional strands he has been weaving through his music. It also offers an opportunity to hear the most fully-developed thematic statements of the score. “The Reunion” is very sentimental, but despite accusations to the contrary in some of the press, not schmaltzy. The slightly restrained version of the score’s main theme towards the end of the cue is simply gorgeous, vintage Williams. The composer wrings even more emotion from the theme in “Remembering Emilie and Finale”, in particular from the devastatingly direct nature of the solo piano variant in the middle of the cue.
I don’t suppose we’re likely to hear any more film music from John Williams apart from new Steven Spielberg films, so let’s hope the director keeps on cranking them out. The obvious problem with War Horse the film I mentioned above – that of establishing an emotional connection between the audience and an equine central character – is the challenge that Williams had to solve more than almost everyone else who worked on the film, and solve it he did, with music of great emotional depth. That the score on the album plays out along a very well-developed dramatic path – listening to the album really is like hearing a story told through music – is testament to his great gifts. The grand old man of Hollywood film music can still show the rest of the pack how it’s done. **** 1/2