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Epic films are larger than life. They project into the movie screens with an aura of greatness what the human spirit is able to aspire to, and what it can ultimately is able to endure.

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” (Gone with the Wind, 1939)

Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler turbulent love affair during the Civil War and Reconstruction is the most successful film in box-office history. Max Steiner’s haunting and spectacular “Tara’s Theme” is a true musical treasure, and one of the most famous melodies in film history. The score for which “the father of film music” is possibly best known, led to the conversion of many skeptics. The film producer David O. Selznick, who has previously been opposed to original film scores, turned into a true believer, as revealed by his well-known comment “really fine musicians are recognizing that scoring is a new form of musical art.”

“May God grant me vengeance, I pray that you live till I return” (Ben-Hur, 1959)

Miklos Rozsa blessed the ultimate Biblical epic with a powerful, magnificent, and glorious score. “Circus Parade (Parade Of The Charioteers)” during the chariot race is not only the climax of this blockbuster film, but also possibly the pinnacle of all epic film music. Watching this movie in the big screen is one of my childhood’s treasured cinematic memories.

“He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior…He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey” (Lawrence Of Arabia, 1962)

Maurice Jarre’s evocative, majestic and breathtaking score is a film and musical composition masterpiece. The sweeping, romantic, and exotic overture is epic on a grand scale. The melodic music mesmerizes you like the incredible power and vastness of the Arabian Desert.

“Now take back the soul of Denys George Finch Hatton, whom You have shared with us. He brought us joy…we loved him well. He was not ours. He was not mine.” (Out Of Africa, 1985)

The inspiring, lavish, and all-encompassing music for this epic romantic drama film is one of the most memorable scores ever written. “Main Title (I Had A Farm In Africa)” is stunningly beautiful with gloomy undertones that are somehow emotionally over-whelming. Only a very skillful master like John Barry could conjure in melody the fundamental nature of Denys and Karen’s relationship. The composer of Somewhere in Time (1980) and Born Free (1966) had an incredible gift to transport us to other times, and to melodically depict the astounding African scenery “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

“So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.” (The Mission, 1986)

The film portrays the moral and spiritual conflicts faced by Jesuit priests converting natives of South America into Christianity, as they are confronted with the need to conform to Portuguese and Spanish politics of colonization and slavery. The natural beauties of the Iguazu pierced by a crucified priest flowing down the falls.  The ugliness of human sin and suffering transformed through religious penance into the beauty of liberation. A slave trader reading about charity and pure love in Corinthians Chapter 13, right before choosing to take up priesthood. Robert Bolt (a former Marxist) deciding to write the script of a stirring religious movie. An inspired Ennio Morricone producing exquisite acoustic splendor through violin and oboe. As Cardinal Altamirano, one has to see the hand of God in all these labors of love.

Although some may argued that the golden era of epic films has passed, I believed that as long as humans can hope, dream and love new epic masterpieces will continue to be forged. Don’t despair; new epic musical works of genius will continue to reach our ears and our hearts for years to come.Image

Notable Epic Film Scores

Captain Blood (1935) – Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Alexander Nevsky (1938) – Sergei Prokofiev

Gone with the Wind (1939) – Max Steiner

Henry V (1944) – William Walton

Ivan the Terrible (1944) – Sergei Prokofiev

Captain from Castile (1947) – Alfred Newman

Samson and Delilah (1949) – Victor Young

Quo Vadis (1951) – Miklós Rózsa

Ivanhoe (1952) – Miklós Rózsa

The Robe (1953) – Alfred Newman

Prince Valiant (1954) – Franz Waxman

The Ten Commandments (1956) – Elmer Bernstein

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) – Malcolm Arnold

Ben-Hur (1959) – Miklós Rózsa

Spartacus (1960) – Alex North

King of Kings (1961) – Miklós Rózsa

El Cid (1961) – Miklós Rózsa

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – Maurice Jarre

Taras Bulba (1962) – Franz Waxman

Cleopatra (1963) – Alex North

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) – Dimitri Tiomkin

Becket (1964 film) – Laurence Rosenthal

Lord Jim (1965) – Bronislau Kaper

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) – Alfred Newman

Doctor Zhivago (1965) – Maurice Jarre

A Man For All Seasons (1966) – Georges de la Rue

War and Peace (1966) – Nino Rota

The Lion in the Winter (1968) – John Barry

Ryan’s Daughter (1970) – Maurice Jarre

Papillon (1973) – Jerry Goldsmith

The Wind and the Lion (1973) – Jerry Goldsmith

Barry Lyndon (1975) – “Sarabande” from Suite in D minor (HWV 437) by George Frideric Handel

Gandhi (1982) – George Fenton, Ravi Shankar

A Passage To India (1984) – Maurice Jarre

Out of Africa (1985) – John Barry

Henry V (1989) – Patrick Doyle

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – Vangelis

Braveheart (1995) – James Horner

The English Patient (1996) – Gabriel Yared

Titanic (1997) – James Horner

Joan of Arc (1999) – Éric Serra

The 13th Warrior (1999) – Jerry Goldsmith “”Valhalla”

Gladiator (2000) – Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard

The Passion of The Christ (2004) – John Debney

Troy (2004) – James Horner (replacement score) / Gabriel Jarred (rejected score)

Alexander (2004) – Vangelis

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Harry Gregson-Williams

The Painted Veil (2006) – Alexandre Desplat

Tristan & Isolde (2006) – Anne Dudley

Atonement (2008) – Dario Marianelli

Australia (2008) – David Hirschfelder

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During the 1940s and 50s, gifted directors together with Hollywood legends (Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart) crafted stylish crime dramas combining the following elements:

– a deceitful, manipulative, double-crossing, but extremely beautiful and sexually appealing lady (a “Femme Fatale”);

– a cynical, and ethically compromised male main character, usually (but not necessarily) a private eye, or a detective;

– a visual style that emphasizes black-and-white photography, high-contrast lighting, distorted shadows, dark city streets, cigarette smoke, and fog.

The French critic Nino Frank coined the term “Film Noir” in 1946 to describe these films.

 

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) dramatically descends her grand staircase and, proving she has completed her plunge into a delusional state of mind, delivers the film’s most famous line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of the greatest films of American cinema, stands at the pinnacle of the “genre”. Franz Waxman composed a poetic, reflective and unforgettable score for the movie.

 

“Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love.” Columnist Waldo Lydecker, police detective Mark McPherson, playboy Shelby Carpenter and every other man in the film will fall under the love spell (and eventually become obsessed with) the beautiful and highly successful advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), or with her notorious portrait. Composed over one weekend by David Raksin, the exceptionally sophisticated and haunting title theme song “Laura” will become one of the most recorded and performed songs of the 20th century (lyrics by Johnny Mercer). It clearly has become one of the film’s most endurable legacies. Both Laura (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (above) were honored in 2005 as two of the top 25 film scores in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years of Film Scores” list.

 

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” (Written by Orson Welles to be delivered by his character Harry Lime). The Theme from The Third Man (1949) is simply brilliant, full of suspense, shadowy betrayal, and postwar fear. Anton Karas wrote and performed the score using only the zither (a string musical instrument). It was no cuckoo clock; it easily topped most international music charts in 1950.

 

“The Fault… is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves…” (William Shakespeare).

Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is a psychoanalyst at a mental hospital in Vermont. She protects the identity of an amnesiac patient accused of murder. Miklós Rózsa bejeweled the famous dream sequence (designed by Salvador Dalí) of the film Spellbound (1945) with one of the most moving, thrilling, passionate and beautifully paranoid orchestral scores ever composed. Although the score won the Academy Award, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t like the music because “it got in the way of his direction” (quote from Rózsa).

 

Finally, I would like to highlight the scores from two late film noirs: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958). Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini, two young and upcoming composers at the time, crafted these works of genius. Bernstein’s furious jazz and orchestral score done in collaboration with the Chico Hamilton Quintet is one of the top film music masterpieces in the 1950s.  Mancini’s crime jazz score is sinister, sleazy, swinging, and very cool.

 

 

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Notable Film Noir Scores

 

The Letter (1940)- Max Steiner

Rebecca (1940) – Franz Waxman

The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Adolph Deutsch

High Sierra (1941) – Adolph Deutsch

Laura (1944) – David Raksin

Double Indemnity (1944)  – Miklós Rózsa

Spellbound (1945) – Miklós Rózsa

The Lost Weekend – (1945) – Miklós Rózsa

Mildred Pierce (1945) – Max Steiner

The Big Sleep (1946) – Max Steiner

The Killers (1946) – Miklós Rózsa

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – George Bassman

Dark Passage (1947) – Franz Waxman

Brute Force (1947) -Miklós Rózsa

Force of Evil (1948) – David Raksin

Key Largo (1948) – Max Steiner

The Third Man (1949) – Anton Karas

White Heat (1949) – Max Steiner

Sunset Boulevard (1950) – Franz Waxman

The Asphalt Jungle  (1950) – Miklós Rózsa

D.O.A (1950) – Dimitri Tiomkin

Strangers On A Train – (1951) – Dimitri Tiomkin

Suddenly (1954) – David Raksin

The Night Of The Hunter (1955) – Walter Schumann

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Frank DeVol

The Killing (1956) – Gerald Fried

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Elmer Bernstein

Touch of Evil (1958) – Henry Mancini