Lights, Camera, Action… Just don’t forget the music

Churchill

Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many, to so few.   Spoken by Winston Churchill, these words ended a speech he gave on 20 August 1940.  At a time when Britain was expecting a German invasion, he referred to the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force pilots fighting the Battle of Britain, the pivotal air battle against the German Luftwaffe. With the battle won a few months later and German plans postponed, the Allied airmen of the battle ultimately became known as “The Few”.  To put this into context, ‘the few’ numbered approximately 3000 with 2353 being British Airmen. The remainder was made up of pilots from across the British Empire, as well as exiles from many conquered European nations, particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia.

In September 1969, just two months after Neil and Buzz went to the moon in a slightly different sort of aircraft, a British film was released, imaginatively titled ‘The Battle of Britain’. This film was ranked as the top film in the UK for around 6 months after its release, but despite grossing $13 million at the box office, it still failed to make a profit.  Roll forward 48 years and  Ridley Scott has decided there is in fact some money to be made out of flying some spitfires around a film set and is proposing a new Battle of Britain film.

The problem back in 1969 was not the film but the music.  Earlier in the year, when most space craft were filled with dogs or monkeys, William Walton settled down to eat a bowl of cornflakes.  Whilst doing so he opened his copy of the Daily Telegraph and discovered that his score for Guy Hamilton’s film had been ditched.  As one might expect this caused a bit of a ruckus at the Walton breakfast table, so much so that Laurence Olivier threatened to take his name off the credits unless Walton’s music was reinstated.

After much to-do which involved men in suits having emergency meetings, a compromise was struck: Ron Goodwin would write the score but Walton’s cue for the climactic Battle In The Air sequence would remain.   In fairness, Goodwin was no stranger to writing film music, particularly for war films.  His credits include 633 Squadron, Where Eagles Dare and Operation Crossbow.  And so the film was released with just one track by Walton.  Luckily 30 years later another film company scrabbled around in the attic and found Walton’s original score for the film along with a recording made by Malcolm Arnold. It is now possible to buy a DVD with the film set to both scores.

I’m not sure who is being commissioned to write music for Ridley Scott’s version – Hans Zimmer is probably in the frame particularly as he has just come up with some music for Dunkirk.   But we should not forget the genius that is John Williams as he has also written music to accompany people being shot at on beaches.

I’ve long been of the opinion that a good soundtrack is key to any film.  There are of course some films where the soundtrack can sometimes be more memorable than the film it relates to. Purple Rain springs to mind – I confess I don’t know much about Prince. Nevertheless I’ve heard the title track, but couldn’t tell you anything about the film!

The best films are those which pair a great picture with a top notch soundtrack.  Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter is perhaps one of the most well known examples.  It was not a stand-alone track to begin with. Instead, it was featured as a tune in the track “Prologue” for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, before being played in the end credits. The theme was very well received and was interpolated in every Harry Potter film score by subsequent composers, such as Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, and Alexandre Desplat. It is also featured in the score to the last four Harry Potter video games composed by James Hannigan.

For me, the best soundtrack ever written is The Dambuster’s March by Eric Coates.  The irony of this is that Coates hated the idea of film music and was in fact just trying to emulate the style of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches.  For some time now there has been talk of Peter Jackson remaking the film.  I’m assuming it would have to have the same main theme, because without that I would almost guarantee the film would be a complete flop.