I don’t know about you, but I have always loved the music for war movies, many containing rousing marches and tremendously high octane action cues, the composer having to compete with explosions, crashes, gunfire and all sorts, but this genre of movies has always yielded some excellent music which is not only serviceable within the context of supporting the movie itself but also the genre has given us the film music collector so many memorable themes which have endured over the years and still today entertain and delight many.
This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Royal Airforce, so I thought how I could mark this milestone birthday on MMI, well what better way than to maybe mention a few titles of movies that involved the courageous personal of the RAF. The best way I thought was to review THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN soundtrack or to be more precise, soundtracks, because there were two, the first by Sir William Walton being rejected by the producers and replaced with Ron Goodwin’s now classic score. The only part of the Walton score that remained on the movie being BATTLE IN THE AIR, which itself has attained the status of being an iconic piece of movie music, because of its high quality and because of the notoriety that surrounded the controversial decision to reject the rest of the score.
BATTLE OF BRITAIN was filmed in three countries, England, Spain and France, the movie cost over thirteen million dollars to make and was produced by Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fitz, released in 1969, the movie recounts the tense and uncertain days during the summer of 1940, when Hitler unleashed his formidable Luftwaffe on England, and the brave and courageous pilots, ground personal that against all the odds flew and fought off the overwhelming German forces and saved the island from invasion. The film was directed by Guy Hamilton, the film was a faithful re-creation of the events with superb aerial photography by Johnny Jordan and Skeets Kelly whos talent and attention to detail was second to none, along with the collaboration of assistant director, Derek Cracknell and the excellent cinematography of Freddie Young.
The film boasted an all-star cast, which at the time of the films release read like a who’s who of British cinema, Sir Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Kenneth More, Susannah York, Robert Shaw, Ian McShane and Edward Fox. Lord Olivier who portrayed the Air Chief Marshall, Hugh Dowding was well respected as an actor and film maker and at his request the producers engaged Sir William Walton to compose the score for the movie. Walton was certainly no stranger to writing music for films, he had written the scores to several motion pictures including THE FIRST OF THE FEW which told of the creation and development of the Spitfire aeroplane which played such a vital role in the Battle of Britain. Walton had also written the scores for HENRY V, HAMLET and RICHARD lll for Olivier which were popular amongst film music devotees and critics alike.
However, Walton took so long to write the music that the producers were becoming concerned, and when they realised how short the composers score was (they were thinking of soundtrack album sales) they decided to engage a second composer in the guise of Ron Goodwin who had made his mark on the world of film music via his infectious theme for MISS MARPLE and the now iconic 633 SQUADRON. He was deemed to be perfect as composer for the film because he had also been successful with his soundtracks for WHERE EAGLES DARE and THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, and he was able to write quickly.
Walton had not scored a movie for some thirteen years when he was offered BATTLE OF BRITAIN and because he was slow and methodical he asked his friend Malcolm Arnold to assist him with at first the conducting and later Arnold not only acted as director but also as orchestrator and at times composer on the score, if one listens carefully one can hear Arnold’s distinct musical fingerprint within certain cues on the score. Walton was said to be terribly upset and offended by the rejection of his score and it was thought that all tapes of the recording sessions were lost or destroyed but recording engineer Eric Tomlinson had rescued copies of these and stored them away and although they were damaged in places they were eventually restored for release on a Ryko enhanced CD.
Goodwin in my humble opinion made an excellent job of the score in a short period of time, and in my opinion must have heard some of Walton’s score whilst spotting the movie as there is a definite homage within some of the cues to style of Walton, as in the use of woods and strings and brass. Whether this was accidental or done out of respect for the great composer I do not know but remembering how amiable Goodwin was I would like to think it was the latter. Walton’s score ran for just nine cues, whereas Goodwin’s score boasted some nineteen cues on the compact disc, both scores were released by Ryko on one disc, and listening to the Walton score now I fail to see what was wrong with the actual music apart from there not being enough of it. I remember going to see the movie at the REGENT cinema in Brighton and in the intermission was able to buy the Goodwin soundtrack LP on the U.A. label in the foyer of the cinema. It has remained one of my favourite scores, and the RYKO CD showcases the differing styles of both composers when scoring the same movie. The film was also issued onto DVD and on the disc, there is an option for one to watch the film with either the Goodwin score or with Walton’s music. I have to say Walton’s score is surprisingly supportive of the film and oozes with a regal sounding richness and just a hint of that stiff upper lip that is expected of us Brits in situations that seem to be most dire or hopeless. Goodwin’s score too has some wonderfully crafted and stand out moments, THE LUFTWAFFE MARCH for example and the central theme for the movie which is a highly charged full piece for driving strings, trumpets and horns.
But BATTLE IN THE AIR by Walton for me personally is the stand out piece within the film, as the music takes centre stage as there is no sound of gunfire, plane engines or explosions, it is just images of the RAF against the Luftwaffe over land and sea accompanied by Walton’s music, which is urgent and at times chaotic but essentially this is truly masterful film scoring. Andre Previn once said. “If they can reject the music of Walton, what chance do us mere mortals have”? So, I would recommend the RYKO disc to any one without a second thought, that is of course if one can still get it.