Max Steiner: They Died with Their Boots On

by admin on November 14, 2009 · 0 comments

in Soundtracks

by David Aspinall

Moscow Symphony
William T. Stromberg, cond.
Marco Polo 8.225079

What is missing in most modern film music hits one with 3D clarity about thirty seconds into this new Steiner recording. Passion. Many (including Royal Brown, Aaron Copland, and Irving Bazelon) have dumped on Steiner for his obviousness and “mickey-mousing”‘ - that is, a kind of musical copy-catting (sorry for mixing metaphors!) of the screen goings-on. Well, I’ll admit Steiner often resorts to devices that, to some, will seem like clichés - e.g. the Crazy Horse motto heard almost immediately in Boots‘ main title - but all composers have their stock devices. Rozsa has his call-and-echo, Herrmann his pounding or articulated sevenths, Morricone his wordless soprano and staccato cello, and even Royal Brown’s deity, Shostakovich, an entire barrel full of mannerisms. There are good clichés, apparently, and not so good. I would submit that, vis a vis the film score, the good cliché is that musical device which heightens the dramatic force of the scenario. In other words, what is the impact on the screen?

In the case of They Died with Their Boots On, I would submit again that the marriage of music and celluloid has born few more exalted offspring. When Steiner met a sympathetic subject, whether misunderstood monster (King Kong), superior Bette Davis soaper (Dark Victory, Now, Voyager), or tragedy that transcended Hollywood’s melodramatic midrange (A Star is Born, Gone With the Wind), he could rise to extraordinary eloquence. As Davis herself said of the man who wrote scores for nineteen of her films, Max understood drama better than anyone in Hollywood.

Therefore, if Steiner is acknowledged as master of the cliché, then They Died with Their Boots On is his masterpiece. This musical depiction of the fictionalized life of George Armstrong Custer, from West Point to last stand, is right up there with The Charge of the Light Brigade in its cathartic combination of pageant, heart-rending lyricism and heart-stopping climactic tragedy. Indeed, no less a specialist than Tony Thomas cited Boots‘ love theme as the “Steiner love theme par excellence”. And a beauty it is, but there’s that undercurrent of impending loss to make it something more. Never more so than in the parting scene of Custer (Errol Flynn) and his wife Libby (Olivia de Havilland), each desperately attempting not to let the other know that they know this is the last goodbye. Solo violin and strings carry the love theme while muted trumpet alarums foreshadow the tragedy to follow, the orchestral climax synchronizing with Libby’s collapse as both Custer and camera abruptly pull away from her and the threshold of their home.

What follows is hardly less masterful. A staggering shot of the Seventh Cavalry coming over the Black Hills at sunrise, their swaggering musical mascot Garry Owen uneasily hovering over an orchestral abyss of shifting harmonic underpinning, punctuated and hastened on to doom by the unsettling effect of six shrieking piccolos, the voice of Crazy Horse and his Sioux hordes. This sequence, and the subsequent Little Big Horn, are among the highest examples of film direction, editing and epic photography - and all elevated beyond mere technique by Max Steiner’s cinemusical mythologizing.

If the rest of the score doesn’t achieve these heights, it is all expertly laid out and quite dazzling in its variety. Some will chafe at the usual Steinerian resort to traditional melodies, but that is not really a musical judgement, rather a matter of taste. I’ll take another round of Garry Owen or John Brown’s Body - especially in Steiner’s invigorating treatments - over many modern film composers’ wimpy “originals” anytime.

It is ironic that we more and more frequently go to Moscow to hear the music of vintage Hollywood. The performance here is committed and proficient. If the players cannot match the galvanizing impact of the original soundtrack (never released commercially), or even of Charles Gerhardt’s recreation of the film’s climax (RCA’s Classic Film Scores for Errol Flynn), it is no reflection on the quality of the musicians. For the heightened impact of the original is no doubt a function of theconviction of its performance, not the competence of its execution, or even the inherent quality of the musical raw materials. In the final analysis, when the film was as good as this, Steiner was moved and, inspired, moved us. Poor Shostakovich, under the Soviet glacier, and most modern composers are given little at all with which to emotionally connect. However intellectually interesting the motions they go through, therefore, they seldom touch our emotions. I suspect it has something to do with the death of heroism in our century, but that is a subject for another day.

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