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Hymns for the FallenCombat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam$

Todd Decker

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520282322

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520282322.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Hymns for the Fallen

Todd Decker

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introduction lays out the structure of Hymns for the Fallen in broad strokes, noting the chronological scope of the study (35 war films made after the close of the Vietnam War), the subgenre (prestige combat films) and the book’s larger approach to film sound and film music. The three elements of the soundtrack—dialogue, sound effects, and music—and their relationship analytically within the book are also introduced. The book’s larger analogy between serious war films and war memorials, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is drawn by comparison of scenes from Hamburger Hill (1987) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). The formative impact of the Vietnam War on Hollywood combat film production is also noted. The figures of the American soldier and veteran are presented as central both to combat film narratives and to the target audiences for these films.

Keywords:   Vietnam War, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Saving Private Ryan, American soldiers, American veterans, film sound, film music, soundtrack, war films, combat films, war memorials

One night in 1979, Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs went to see director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. The film stirred Scruggs’s deep memories of the war. After a flashback at three o’clock in the morning to his own combat experience and the men who died beside him, Scruggs realized, “No one remembers their names.” He resolved the next morning “to build a memorial to all the guys who served in Vietnam. It’ll have the name of everyone killed.”1 And so, one veteran’s experience of a war movie inspired the making of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Designed by Maya Lin, the Wall—as it quickly came to be known—was dedicated in 1982 and soon thereafter began appearing in an ongoing cycle of Hollywood films about the Vietnam War—a cycle initiated, in part, by The Deer Hunter.

The 1987 film Hamburger Hill opens at the Wall after an initial, entirely sonic evocation of the Vietnam War. Over white titles on a black background, we hear a radio call for help: a unit taking fire requests assistance. They are promptly answered in the affirmative, after which the sound of a helicopter rotor—perhaps heading toward the embattled platoon—enters the mix. Informative titles set the date (May 1969) and location (Hill 937 in the Ashau Valley) as music by the minimalist art music composer Philip Glass fades in: a bubbling, rhythmic music, urgent and dark, featuring repeated minor-mode figures in the low strings with bursts of percussion and brass. All three elements of the soundtrack—dialogue, sound effects, and music—are activated in Hamburger Hill before a single image appears. Sound alone puts the viewer onto the battlefield, in a soundscape where music has a place beside radio chatter and noisy war machines.

Images begin to flash in alternation with title cards as Glass’s music alone plays on: the US Capitol seen from near the Wall; a black wreath (p.2) against the Wall’s black surface; a view down the Wall’s sloping pathway, uncharacteristically empty of visitors on a wintry, windswept day. The fourth image sets Hamburger Hill in motion. The camera tracks along the surface of the Wall; the names of the dead slide by at a speed no walker could hope to match. On successive cuts back to the Wall, the names appear larger. The combination of shot choice and music at Hamburger Hill’s opening effectively transforms the then still-new memorial into a cinematic experience. We are both at the Wall—the location is undeniably real—and experiencing the Wall as film. (For some among Hamburger Hill’s original audiences, their first experience of the Wall was at the movies.) As the credits come to an end, sound effects, radio voices, and gunfire reenter the mix, eventually displacing the music, which falls silent. The tracking shot along the Wall slowly cross-fades into a similarly paced tracking shot following American soldiers moving through the high grass of Vietnam. We move through a cinematic representation of the Wall into Hamburger Hill’s representation of the war. As one reviewer noted, “More than any of the films to come out about Vietnam, Hamburger Hill wants to be a memorial to our experience there—a cinematic headstone.”2

Hamburger Hill was written by Vietnam veteran Jim Carabatsos, whose original script opened with a dramatic scene at the Wall not included in the film. A young “AMERICAN FAMILY” walks toward the monument: a father and mother in their mid-thirties with two small children. In Carabatsos’s words, “The FATHER has his back to us (we never see him). He stops in front of the Memorial. … We can feel the emotion coming from the man.”3 On the soundtrack, sounds of the present (the children say, “Daddy’s crying”) and the past (“a staccato, STATIC-FILLED RADIO language”) overlap. As the children approach him, the father “[senses] them next to him and the RADIO VOICES STOP.” Sound, integral to the screenwriter’s conception, gives the viewer privileged access to the inner life of this man, who is, by implication, a Vietnam veteran. Carabatsos’s script also closes at the Wall: “The Father stands straighter … prouder … and helps his son plant a small American flag.”

Hamburger Hill as released does not end at the Wall but instead concludes with a long, quiet battlefield coda. The soundtrack goes almost completely silent once the objective of the battle—the strategically meaningless Hill 937—is taken. For four minutes the viewer sits in near silence, watching sustained close-ups of the three American soldiers who survive, one of whom slowly sheds a single tear (figure 1). No music guides our reflection on the film; no rounded melody hints at when this endless shot might conclude. Finally, helo sounds and radio chatter fade in over informative title (p.3)


Figure 1. A soldier’s tear: surveying the wasted landscape of Hamburger Hill and the “insane” American war in Vietnam

cards that sum up the battle and note, “The war for hills and trails continued, the places and names forgotten, except by those who were there”—some of whom, no doubt, were in Hamburger Hill’s original audiences. A second text follows: a 1970 poem by Major Michael Davis O’Donnell scrolls upward as Glass’s disturbing music, heard at the top of the film, returns. O’Donnell’s poem asks the reader to “embrace those gentle heroes you left behind” once “men decide and feel safe to call the war insane.” Glass’s music plays on, without abating in intensity, to the close of the credit roll. Critics heard this music as “stringent and grim,” “teaming and sobering”: the memory of Vietnam in 1987 was fresh and still troubling.4

The framing sequences with the young family in the draft script for Hamburger Hill eerily anticipate the opening and closing scenes of director Steven Spielberg’s World War II film Saving Private Ryan (1998)—a celebrated movie about a war the cultural memory of which stands in tremendous contrast with that of Vietnam. While Hamburger Hill opens at a memorial erected in the symbolic space of the National Mall, Saving Private Ryan begins on sacred blood-soaked ground: the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, where the names of the D-Day dead are listed one by one on tombstones. An aged veteran—by inference a veteran of the war—walks well ahead of his wife, grown son and daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren. The old man moves alone among the graves, finds the one he’s looking for, and falls to his knees. The only line of dialogue in the sequence is his son’s cry, “Dad.” Otherwise, composer John (p.4) Williams’s orchestral score carries the soundtrack almost entirely, alternating between restrained and sober brass fanfare-like figures and achingly sad string lines. Occasionally clarinets—a Williams favorite for moments of comforting—come to the old man’s aid. The movement back in time to the film’s D-Day landing battle sequence is abrupt, prepared only on the soundtrack, which shifts from a dissonant, dynamically growing tone cluster in the score to the crashing waves on Omaha Beach. Score yields to effects on a hard cut to the past.

At the close, Saving Private Ryan returns to the old man at the cemetery, revealed to be Ryan himself. Again, music mostly carries the soundtrack, except for a rather mawkish spoken exchange between Ryan and his wife. The narrative goes to black and silence on a drawn-out final cadence in the score, after which the end titles roll to the sound of a musical benediction by Williams, who composed a six-minute piece for orchestra and chorus unrelated thematically to the rest of the score and titled “Hymn to the Fallen.“ On the soundtrack CD, produced by Williams, “Hymn to the Fallen” is included two times: as the first and last track, with the film’s dramatic score sandwiched between. For the home listener, “Hymn to the Fallen” serves as prelude and postlude to reflection on Spielberg’s film by way of Williams’s score. And it works in the concert hall as well. I heard “Hymn to the Fallen” on an all-Williams concert given by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2013, and the audience’s reaction to it was markedly different from its response to the other pieces on the program. “Hymn to the Fallen” was received as more than just movie music: it carried a larger meaning. One could applaud not just Williams and the orchestra and chorus but also veterans, soldiers, and the sacred idea of sacrifice for the nation.

In his 2009 book Monument Wars, Kirk Savage describes the public monuments on the National Mall in Washington, DC, as speaking “to a deep need for attachment that can be met only in a real place, where the imagined community actually materializes and the existence of the nation is confirmed in a simple but powerful way.”5 Another place where the imagined community of the nation materializes is in the movie theater, where war films—especially the thematically serious war films made in the decades following the conclusion of the Vietnam War, grouped here under the subgenre rubric prestige combat films—have served a monumental function as sites of shared access to greater truths about the nation, specifically through the figures of the soldier and the veteran. This book describes in detail how music and sound function as constituent parts of the prestige combat film’s larger work of memorialization in the cultural realm of commercial cinema. As Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik note, historians must deal with “the (p.5) complexity of history, war, heroism, patriotism, memory, and the process of their representation.”6 Hymns for the Fallen traces an expressive sonic continuity in this “process of representation” for serious war films.

The three elements of the soundtrack—dialogue, sound effects, music—are treated in detail in the chapters that follow, although music proves to be of particular interest. Indeed, the prestige combat subgenre is thoroughly musical, much more so than the war films made by Hollywood before the Vietnam War. Parts 2, 3, and 4 of this book each take up an element of the soundtrack in turn. While dividing the analysis into these larger domains, the overall soundtrack mix remains a fundamental frame of reference. Each of the three elements only ever functions in the presence or absence of the other two, and I try throughout to account for this dynamic and its effect on sonic and musical meaning: listening selectively—as screenwriters, sound designers, and composers do—while also keeping the whole mix in mind—as sound mixers and directors do.

Part 2 considers dialogue, focusing in turn on how the soldiers in these films talk (chapter 3), on soldiers’ singing, listening, and talking about popular music (chapter 4), and on various sorts of disembodied voices (chapter 5). Part 3 considers sound effects: chapter 6 surveys the meaning-making sound of specific weapons and the mixing of battle scenes; chapter 7 compares sonic realizations of the helicopter. Part 4 deals with music. Here the differences between pre- and post-Vietnam war films are profound. Indeed, the American experience in Vietnam—the national ordeal of losing a war—effectively forced filmmakers and composers to create new musical conventions for the war film. Music in combat films about the Vietnam War made during the long cultural wake of that war—from the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s—demanded a sudden shift in genre conventions. Significantly, these innovative war movie music conventions crafted for narratives about Vietnam were then applied to other wars, from World War II to the Gulf War to the so-called Global War on Terror. Chapter 8 considers several kinds of unmetered musics that stand in stark contrast to the pre-Vietnam war film score paradigm of the march. Chapter 9 looks at triple-meter or waltz-time scores (heard in World War II films) and beat-driven electronic scores (used in films depicting the United States in the Middle East). Chapter 10 explores the single most important musical innovation in war movie music: the elegiac register, a kind of movie music originating in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and resounding into the present. The book concludes with a consideration of how music for the end titles has been used to close out nearly all prestige combat films in a reflective, fundamentally memorializing mode. (p.6)

Table 1. The Prestige Combat Film Genre


The Boys in Company C Go Tell the Spartans The Deer Hunter


Apocalypse Now




Hamburger Hill Full Metal Jacket


84 Charlie MoPic Casualties of War Born on the Fourth of July


Courage Under Fire


Saving Private Ryan The Thin Red Line


Three Kings


Black Hawk Down Band of Brothers


We Were Soldiers Windtalkers




Flags of Our Fathers Letters from Iwo Jima United 93


In the Valley of Elah Redacted The Kingdom


Miracle at St. Anna The Hurt Locker Generation Kill


Green Zone The Pacific


Red Tails Act of Valor Zero Dark Thirty


Lone Survivor


American Sniper

(p.7) Before these more focused discussions, part 1 contains two subgenre-framing chapters, each offering a broad overview of the thirty-five films grouped together as prestige combat films in this study. (Table 1 provides a chronological list of the films.) Chapter 1 sketches out important shared characteristics of prestige combat films outside of sonic matters. This topical and chronological overview grounds subsequent analyses of the soundtrack in industry, genre, visual style, and reception history and speaks in more detail to the memorial function of the subgenre. Topics discussed include the importance of the Vietnam War as a national trauma activating a necessary change in the Hollywood war film, the explicitly articulated serious intent of prestige combat film makers, the importance of authenticity (variously defined), and the ambiguous reception of these films by different audiences, especially young men. The chapter concludes with a brief profile of the four partially overlapping prestige combat film production cycles. Each cycle related differently to the changing figures of the soldier and the veteran. Chapter 2 presents a large-scale comparison of the films’ sonic and musical content, offering a bird’s-eye view, as it were, that reveals the musical nature of the subgenre, draws aesthetic connections between individual films, and introduces the book’s approach to film music and sound more generally. Discussions of specific topics in later chapters are pointed to parenthetically throughout.

Across the book, as in the paired analysis of Hamburger Hill and Saving Private Ryan opening this introduction, I draw on archival evidence (such as draft screenplays), media and scholarly discourse, ancillary texts (such as score albums), and close readings of image and sound tracks. A comparative approach predominates. Famous, widely discussed films—such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line (1998), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012)—are analyzed from different angles in multiple chapters as the book’s focus shifts from dialogue to effects to music. Lesser-known movies—such as Go Tell the Spartans (1978), Courage Under Fire (1996), United 93 (2006), and In the Valley of Elah (2007)—as well as cinematically produced cable television series—Band of Brothers (2001), The Pacific (2010), Generation Kill (2008)—are treated beside the signal war films of the last four decades. Readers interested in following a particular title through the book are directed to the index, where page numbers in bold connote sustained discussions of a given film. (p.8)


(3.) HH script, author’s collection.

(4.) Stanley Kauffmann, “Don’t Mean Nothin’,” New Republic, September 1987; Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter, 5 August 1987.