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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.189) 9. Metered
Hymns for the Fallen

Todd Decker

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

Having set aside the military march, serious post-Vietnam war films have explored other strongly metrical musics. Three World War II films have turned to triple-meter, or waltz-time, themes. Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers alike use tuneful waltz-time music to support a sentimental transgenerational agenda linking fathers and sons. The Thin Red Line supports the philosophical ruminations of soldiers with a group of triple-meter melodies that create a zone of quiet reflection. Twenty-first-century war films use beat-driven music to excite the audience physically and also to characterize new sorts of soldierly action—such as work at a computer—as exciting combat action. Beat-driven combat film scores for Black Hawk Down, United 93, and Green Zone are compared. Finally, an extended combat sequence from The Thin Red Line scored to a stately ostinato musical cue is considered as an extreme case of music taking the place of diegetic sound.

Keywords:   Band of Brothers, Flags of Our Fathers, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down, triple-meter music, waltz, sentimentality, military march, ostinato, beat-driven music, diegetic sound

Meter serves an organizing function in music and culture. William McNeill’s classic 1995 study Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History shows how central the military march was to the creation of standing armies and the nation-states raised by and made with them.1 War films lacking marches tacitly admit a failure of the nation-state to (literally) keep together. Confronted with US defeat in Vietnam and a country marked by military failure, PCF makers have drawn on various other strongly metered musics: waltzes, electronic dance beats, stately ostinatos. This chapter considers two general approaches to meter, each characteristic of a particular PCF cycle: first, the use of triple meter in the World War II cycle, and second, beat-driven scores in twenty-first-century PCFs. While similar musical approaches to scoring are highlighted in both these cycles, the expressive power of composers’ choices always inheres in the specifics of a given film. As with veil cues, similarly metered cues prove flexible in their meaning. The chapter concludes with a close reading of the central battle episode in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), the “Attack on the Bivouac,” set to an unchanging, strongly metrical cue. This thoroughly musicalized combat sequence, much of which unfolds in near or complete diegetic silence, offers an extreme counterexample to the effects-driven battles described in chapter 6. In Malick’s battle, music by Hans Zimmer drowns out most of the blasts and screams of a thoroughly ambiguous stretch of combat action, challenging the viewer to find a stable position on the spectrum between immersion and reflection.

The larger issues connecting all the films discussed in this chapter are as much structural as expressive: How do original scores displaying a high degree of metrical uniformity support and shape larger historical themes, cycle-specific combat actions, and viewer engagement? The answers to such (p.190) questions in films that do deploy marches are rather straightforward and limited. Traditional military music is not subtle. As used in war films, it has but two registers: march on proudly to victory, or march on with a jaunty air (perhaps suggesting some impudent resistance to the strictures of military life) that in the end also arrives at victory. Reacting to the loss of Vietnam, PCF scores use different strongly metered musics to tell markedly different stories.

World War II in Triple Meter

The long-lived World War II PCF cycle sets aside both marches and swing. What’s left? In three prominent cases, the answer is the waltz. The Thin Red Line, Band of Brothers (2001), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006) alike employ triple-meter themes in a moderate waltz-like tempo. The latter two share a sentimental transgenerational agenda linking fathers and sons, and the waltz—a dance music historically gendered female—works in both as unlikely musical support to these efforts. The Thin Red Line explores the existential state of soldiers somewhat suspended in time and history and employs triple meter to suggest a kind of floating equilibrium, where thoughts of life and death swim about in soldiers’ minds. Below, I first compare the triple-meter themes in these three PCFs, then chart how those themes are employed structurally to narrative and thematic ends. In all three cases, triple-meter melodies emerge as musical distillations of these films’ larger ideological projects: either framing the old for the understanding of the young, or presenting the dilemmas of soldiers as tied up in philosophical questions cutting to the heart of the human experience.

Seven writers, seven directors, and two cinematographers divided the duties of writing, directing, and shooting Band of Brothers. Only composer Michael Kamen’s creative voice runs across the entire series, unifying the whole by means of a medium—music—that specializes in expressing what cannot be put into words. Band of Brothers’s main theme suggests how precisely Kamen controls the emotional work done by the score. The theme is entirely diatonic: every pitch in the tune is in the F major scale, a compositional choice that yields a deceptively simple, perhaps even naive, tune. Dissonance—nudging the theme toward elegiac pathos—is created by means of pedal tones in the bass and repeated stepwise descending sigh figures in the melody that give this generally harmonious music an underlying hint of longing. The moderately paced theme played by an orchestra of mostly strings has a ceremonial, public quality, indicating the collective address of the series to the nation as a representation of the nation’s fighting (p.191) men. But Kamen’s melody is audibly waltz-like—it’s not too slow to dance to—and retains a certain tenderness, however grand the arrangement. Dance music, after all, is at once public and private: the waltz is a partner dance, its rather intimate embraces sanctioned by the social space of the ballroom. Like many waltzes, Kamen’s theme can be brought into the home. It works nicely as a piano solo and has been marketed as such; more than a few amateur pianists offer their versions on YouTube. Subtly mixed, wordless choral voices doubling the strings on the tune—perhaps an echo of Williams’s similarly scored “Hymn to the Fallen”—encourage the listener to understand the theme as song. It’s easy to fall into the habit of singing or humming along with the theme on its return at the start and finish of each episode, especially when binge watching Band of Brothers with friends or family. This aspect of Kamen’s theme has the potential to bond viewers to each other in the act of impromptu musical performance done with the show while also allowing each individual to supply their own meaning to a tune that comes with no lyrics attached.2

Clint Eastwood composed a monothematic score for Flags of Our Fathers. The film’s only melody is a diatonic tune, usually heard in triple meter, not particularly vocal given its many leaps. The tune is spare in its design, allowing for melodic embellishments, some filling in the long notes with graceful figures. The tune also includes a final melodic coda, similar to the short phrase tacked onto the end of Kamen’s theme for Band of Brothers. Both waltzes have closing phrases that signal the end while also extending the musical form. In Eastwood’s case, the coda is, at times, repeated and drawn out. His theme can be arranged to suggest musical closure as imminent but, for now, put off—until it does come to final resolution. In this respect Eastwood’s waltz is not dramatic but meditative and, importantly, finished—if at times reluctantly. It cannot be quoted in part but must be played in full, a formal requirement with implications for its use as narrative scoring.

The Thin Red Line overflows with music in triple meter for strings. Zimmer’s equivocal, at times tentative score offers a cluster of related triple-meter melodies heard variously on ten occasions, some for extended stretches, including at the film’s close. The group of themes are similar enough to warrant discussion as a larger aesthetic: all but one move at about sixty beats per minute, all offer rounded but not particularly tuneful or memorable melodies—one reason they blend into each other. In addition, an oscillating vamp figure, also in triple and sometimes incorporating harp, occasionally precedes or follows these melodies as introduction or coda, further blurring the distinctiveness of the individual tunes. There is, in short, a (p.192) slow, triple-meter register to Zimmer’s score, one element of the entire film’s moderate, restrained musical content. (The score album track “Light” combines many of these melodies into a kind of triple-meter medley.)

And so, while Kamen and Eastwood’s themes come to clear, emphatic cadences, Zimmer’s cluster of themes does not. The former pair offer consistent and satisfying closure the latter generally avoids. Kamen and Eastwood’s triple-meter themes are audibly dancelike, activating reminiscence of the waltz more directly than Zimmer’s meandering melodies. Since around the turn of the twentieth century, the waltz has served as a reservoir of nostalgia: old-fashioned, sentimental, feminine, domestic. It carried these qualities even in the 1940s, when most American soldiers were fans of big-band swing, a driving four-beat style of popular music. Kamen’s decision to make the score for Band of Brothers waltz instead of march or swing—a choice no doubt made in consultation with co–executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks—adds a precisely calibrated sentimental element to the series’ telling of the combat journey of Easy Company. Eastwood seems to have arrived at triple meter in his exploratory path toward a theme for the film. Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers use their waltz themes to similar formal and expressive ends, if in ways that reflect their different media contexts.

For all its cinematic production values, in formal terms Band of Brothers remains a television show, and so the musical theme that sticks most persistently in the ear is that heard over the opening title sequence—a formal element of many television series that proves important in Band of Brothers. Kamen’s waltz-time main theme is heard at the start of each episode and during each episode’s lengthy closing credits, which scroll in the manner of a feature film. In both sequences, music alone fills the soundtrack, in spite of several explosive, by implication noisy, images seen in the opening credits. This music—which critics heard as “lyrical” and an example of musical “ennoblement”—provides an overarching emotional continuity to Band of Brothers, literally framing each episode in waltz time.3 (As I discuss at length elsewhere, the main theme is also used for dramatic scoring across the series.)4

Visually, Band of Brothers’s opening titles function as a stylized scrapbook of images culled from the series. The viewer catches glimpses of battle but spends most of the titles peering into the faces of young men. Crucially, the meaning of the images in the opening titles changes as the series progresses. What begins as an assemblage of faces reacting to sights unseen gradually morphs into a memory book of important moments from the series captured in evocative stills. As the episodes go by, more and more of (p.193) the credit sequence images offer reminders of scenes already seen. The credits also keep alive the faces of characters who die or depart from the front line before the close of the series. Kamen’s hummable theme accompanies this entire process, always present to usher the committed viewer back into the community of Easy Company. Preserving signal scenes in a sort of musical amber—reflected visually in the distressed or antiqued images, many presented in a bluish wash—the main theme, heard musically whole, orders the characters and events of Band of Brothers under the sign of triple-meter motion that commits to no specific historical time period—this is not music of the 1940s—and that avoids excessive or melodramatic sentimentality by means of harmonic and melodic restraint.

Every episode except the last begins with documentary-style interviews with Easy Company veterans. The old men’s words are never given musical accompaniment at the top of the show, increasing the contrast with the musically rich main titles sequence. Only at the close of episode 10 are the veterans named—allowing the viewer to match each old man with his younger counterpart in the narrative—and only here does music play behind their words. The score withholds music from the old faces until the very end when, at last, they too are bathed in the waltz that has repeatedly supported the actors playing their parts. Not until our final encounter with the veterans do we—the viewers—have the feeling of coming fully to know them, matching their stories as embodied by young actors in the series to their actual old faces and voices, all to the sound of a melody ingrained in our ears over many hours spent watching Band of Brothers. This moment of sentimental recognition—finally knowing who’s who—is crucially supported by Kamen’s music. The film historian Thomas Schatz has described the inclusion of the veterans as “at once personalizing the narrative and injecting a sense of documentary realism,” adding, “as the series wears on, both the aged veterans and their dramatic ‘characters’ become increasingly familiar, and in an odd sense the older and younger versions of the Easy Company warriors gradually fuse.”5 Sustained visual attention given to old and young faces at the start of each episode, and Kamen’s sentimental waltz—nostalgic, by generic association, on first hearing, and specifically nostalgic to Band of Brothers after repeat hearings across the series—work a kind of alchemy in this “fusing” process.

In the opening moments of Flags of Our Fathers, just after Eastwood is heard singing a phrase of “I’ll Walk Alone” unaccompanied in the blackness, the score opens with the main theme played by solo piano against a high string pedal. In voice-over an older, male voice—unidentified at this point and never clearly locked into a speaker—warns the viewer not to (p.194) trust the easy black and white of war stories: “Heroes and villains. Most of the time they are not who we think they are.” The resolutely modest scale of the “heroes” of the film is established here in words and music. (The voice-over works as an entrée to Eastwood’s two films taken as a pair: Letters from Iwo Jima [2006] offers a “not who we think they are” lesson about the Pacific War’s “villains.”)

The triple-meter tune on piano, with a simple accompanying line for the left hand, returns at the film’s halfway point. After the Iwo Jima landing, the young corpsman Doc Bradley walks a wounded soldier to an aid station near the tide. The theme plays in a rounded form over images of the monumental task of those working just behind the front line, including soldiers doing graves registration. Doc’s perspective on these sights is emphasized for about half the sequence but several shots lose him on his way to the aid station, offering an unidentified POV on the scene. The viewer, in effect, takes a walk with and not with Doc, as he and the unmoored camera take time to reflect on the scene. Bradley’s walk ends with him standing before a row of dead bodies, which stretch to the horizon, the tune serving as a lullaby for sleepers who will never awaken. When the melody ends, Eastwood cuts to a Japanese artillery piece high on Mount Suribachi. It fires, and the film drops right into a running battle. The use of an explosive combat event to kick off a shift in the mix from music to effects, and in the narrative from reflection to action, could hardly be more bluntly done.

In the film’s final half hour, Eastwood’s main theme—heard only three times in the first hour and a half—begins to dominate the soundtrack, tying together a series of scenes that bring the narrative to closure. The main theme plays during twelve of the final twenty-three minutes (not including the lengthy final credits), accompanying dialogue, voice-over, and action. While the music for this long, slow, final movement is not continuous, repeated returns of the main theme—it makes eight prominent entrances—unify the closing sequences and, in particular, the story of Corporal Ira Hayes, a Native American Marine, one among the men who raised the flag. The theme plays when Hayes confesses his fear that Sergeant Mike Strank, who dies on Iwo Jima, would not be proud of him, and again when Hayes leaves the war bond tour after showing up drunk too many times. The theme’s coda, reminiscent of the end of a slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto with its slow harmonic rhythm, sustained strings, and limpid right-hand melody, fits well with the image of Hayes’s train pulling out of the station. A guitar version, with a bit of twang, accompanies Hayes’s walk from Arizona to Texas to tell the family of Corporal Harlon Block that their son was—as Mrs. Block believed—among the men (p.195) in the photo, and also plays over Hayes’s final days as a field laborer and his death from alcoholism. When the old John Bradley dies in a hospital bed—his son who researched the story of the flag raisers at his side—Eastwood’s theme is heard for the only time in a strings-only, contrapuntal texture that evokes the elegiac register derived from Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as used in Platoon (1986). With the final voice-over—an epigraph spoken by Bradley fils—the piano returns, playing the main theme as at the film’s opening. Bradley counsels the viewer in voice-over, “If we wish to truly honor these men, we should remember them the way they really were, the way my dad remembered them.” The elder Bradley dies just after recalling to his son how, after planting the flag on Mount Suribachi, the soldiers went swimming. The narrative of Flags of Our Fathers ends on the image of young soldiers on the beach at Iwo Jima. Scoring this scene, and so much of Flags of Our Fathers, with a delicate, lightly orchestrated waltz keeps the film firmly focused on the personal. The cliché of the final voice-over—“They may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends”—comes off as devoid of masculine posturing in this context where a persistent and modest, generically feminine, musical theme has reduced the legacy of the war to the personal—in the end, finding its deepest meaning in the relationship between a father and son.

Like almost all the many themes in the score for The Thin Red Line, Zimmer’s triple-meter theme group is applied freely and never linked to any single character. At various points it is tied to Bell and his wife—including playing behind remembered physical encounters between the pair and during her “Dear John” letter heard as voice-over. A long cue in triple, the only one paced above 75 bpm (beats per minute), plays when Captain Staros departs the film, telling his men in voice-over that they are his sons. On several occasions ruminative triple meter is attached to the graceful, gentle Witt, particularly in his role as a foil for the cynical, unbelieving Welsh. Triple meter first enters just after Welsh and Witt’s first of three talks. In the brig, reflecting on their conversation, Witt strikes a match in the darkness and utters the line, “I love Charlie Company.” Witt will, at film’s end, lay down his life for Charlie Company: Welsh will look upon Witt’s grave to the sound of a triple-meter tune and ask, “Where’s your spark now?” The notion of a spark within men was the subject of Witt and Welsh’s final conversation. Welsh asks Witt how he is able to believe, saying, “You’re a magician to me.” Witt replies, just as the by now very familiar triple-meter vamp begins, “I still see a spark in you.” The film follows this statement, made to rather equivocal music, with a complex visual-sonic conceit, all to the sound of triple-meter melodies. Welsh is shown walking through the (p.196) grassy slopes among his men. The unassigned Southern voice-over (described in chapter 5) begins to speak about death, noting, “Death’s got the final word” but that while one man only sees the pain, another man “feels the glory.” On the word glory Welsh looks down at Witt sleeping peacefully in the grass. The film’s final voice-over, spoken by the never-identified Southern soldier, is also accompanied by a triple-meter tune. Triple-meter music supports several of Witt’s ruminative voice-overs, in particular just after the first battle when he attends to wounded men by a river and wonders, “Maybe all men got one big soul.” The triple themes also play while Witt comforts the dying Keck (“You didn’t let your buddies down,” he tells the man who fell on his own grenade) and when he decides to sacrifice himself for Charlie Company by staying behind to distract a group of advancing Japanese (the Christlike Witt tells Fife, “You go on ahead,” reminiscent of Elias’s line “I’ll haul it for you” said to Chris early in Platoon). Malick’s construction of a kind of sensitive soldier’s oversoul—the combination of the unassigned Southern voice asking existential questions and Witt’s words and actions—is crucially supported by Zimmer’s triple-meter themes, which cycle, recycle, and vamp across the length of the film, setting a moderate pulse that doesn’t dance so much as flow. Zimmer’s cluster of similar melodies combine in a murmuring, slightly sad but sometimes hopeful, ever unrolling melodic stream—an analogue for the ruminations, spoken and thought, of the men who move through Malick’s Guadalcanal. The lack of clear closure and specific tuneful identity to Zimmer’s triple-meter melodies opens a musical space within which the collective stream of consciousness of the film’s tangle of voice-overs finds a place to dwell. In this formal respect, the expressive conceits of The Thin Red Line rely on the suspended stasis of music in waltz time.

Beat Drops in Twenty-First-Century Pcfs

The radio a soundtrack that adrenaline has pushed into silence, replacing it with a heartbeat.

—BRIAN TURNER, “2000 lbs.” (2005)

GWOT PCFs often foreground the heartbeats of twenty-first-century warriors in both the narrative and the mix. Beneath their gear, the “cool professionalism” of elite contemporary warriors resides in a vital and warm, sounding human body.6 Act of Valor (2012) and Lone Survivor (2013) alike foreground a SEAL heartbeat to clock a soldier’s survival: marking the limits of underlying human frailty, charting a “never give up” spirit. In Act of Valor the hearts of the LT and the Chief beat as one for a brief moment. The (p.197) Chief is gravely wounded at the end of the long final battle. In a context of subjective sound, we hear his heart beating. The film transitions to the mortally wounded body of the LT, who had thrown himself on a grenade. The heartbeat transfers to him and, in a long, slow zoom in on his unblinking eye, his heartbeat slows, then stops. The LT’s death—like that of the cherry Gardner in Platoon—is a sonic event. In Lone Survivor Marcus Luttrell’s heart rate is monitored by the medics reviving him after his rescue in a scene that opens and closes the narrative. At the close, when it seems as if Luttrell has died, the image and sound of his heart on a monitor secures for the viewer the assumed fact (given the film’s title) that he will, indeed, survive. The film’s tagline “never out of the fight” is reiterated here by Luttrell in voice-over. Luttrell’s restored pulse transitions into the instrumental introduction of Peter Gabriel’s cover of Davie Bowie’s “Heroes,” which includes a heartbeat-like double pulse in pizzicato low strings that transfers the effects-derived sound of the heart monitor into the film’s score. To more character-driven ends, American Sniper’s (2014) very minimal score activates a subtle representation of a heartbeat to suggest the ethical struggle Chris Kyle faces when confronted with killing women and children. The buildup to his first kill—a woman and her son approaching US soldiers with a bomb—is shown twice, first at the film’s opening (where his first shot launches an extended flashback to Kyle’s childhood and adult years before going to Iraq), then later to mark that the film is now set in the present tense. As he prepares to shoot the young mother and her son, a low beat begins in the score. This kind of adrenaline-suggesting touch is very unusual—indeed, only one of Kyle’s other encounters as a sniper includes it. Late in the film, during his fourth tour, he shoots a man about to launch a rocket-propelled grenade. A young boy steps out of the shadows and picks up the dead man’s dropped weapon. Kyle whispers to himself and the boy, “Don’t pick it up,” while a heartbeat pulses low in the score. The boy drops the weapon and runs; Kyle releases; the score falls silent. Kyle’s coach at the shooting range counsels him to pull the trigger in the space between heartbeats. Confrontations with the need to kill women and children make finding that space difficult—but not impossible—for Kyle. His first kill is a boy; his second, a woman. His spotter responds to the death of the latter with the words “fucking evil bitch,” perhaps speaking for some in the audience. Kyle shuts him—and those who agree—down, saying, “Get the fuck off me.”

Heartbeats are metered, rhythmically organized along a consistent, duple pattern. Heartbeat-like moments in PCF scores impose a meter that either communicates the subjective experience of a soldier or—more often, (p.198) especially in twenty-first-century PCFs (and action films generally)—administers a dose of adrenaline to the viewer. If the goal of military drum cadences historically was to keep marching men together in time, then the goal of much action-movie music in the twenty-first century is to set the viewer’s heart beating and pulse racing. Such metered music—beat-driven proves a better term—goes apparently unheard by the characters in these films, who negotiate dangerous and active environments with cool aplomb. When applied to the narrative context of the PCF—where death matters—beat-driven scores create a variety of effects. But these effects, like the thrilling music heard on the helo insertion in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), are for the viewer. This music goes unheard by the people inside the world of the film. It is for us—those watching and listening, those along for the ride.

Black Hawk Down (2001) is the defining beat-driven score. Not only does the film feature almost continuous music, but the music is relentlessly beat driven. Outside a few veil cues and one extended melody—titled “Leave No Man Behind” (see the next chapter)—the score is an assemblage of beats reminiscent in their structure and timbres of various electronica music styles. Composer Hans Zimmer himself mentioned “techno music” as a source for the score. A four-on-the-floor beat pattern, a signature electronica and electronic dance music matrix, predominates no matter the provenance of the timbres heard in Zimmer’s active textures. Like veil cues, Black Hawk Down’s many beats draw on a variety of distinct sounds: “exotic instruments” and “heavy rock guitar,” to list two also named by Zimmer.7 And while Zimmer suggested that these were sorted according to the two sides of the battle, the film generally moves too quickly between sides to keep such distinctions intact (as noted in chapter 7), creating an ambiguous context where, for example, Zimmer might link techno elements to the “high-tech American Rangers” while a film critic might hear instead “sinister Arab techno.”8 In the end, the goal seems to have been a continuity of beat-driven scoring, placed with prominence but not preeminence in the mix.

With continuity as the beat-driven score’s steady state, any moment when the beat stops acquires tremendous power. The best example in Black Hawk Down comes when a soldier, in the midst of a firefight in an exposed position in an alleyway, looks to the ground and sees a severed hand. The beat stops, as if even the score registers surprise at the sight. The soldier picks up the hand and puts it in his pocket as the beat drops right back in: little to no time to contemplate, only time to act. The Kingdom (2007), like Black Hawk Down almost continuously scored, includes a stopping of the beat that engages the viewer early on. The film’s opening credits are a (p.199) brilliant audiovisual summary of the history of Saudi Arabia and the United States, a mini-documentary combining multiple informed narrators, some futzed to sound like radio or television voices. The mix of real and specially recorded narrator voices—Will Lyman from the PBS show Frontline is heard briefly—combine with documentary footage, informative titles arranged timeline-fashion, and visually realized statistics to offer a crash course in the history of oil as a driver of American foreign policy. The pace of the narration and the visuals is perhaps intentionally too fast. And the techno-style music by composer Danny Elfman, mixed on par with the voice-overs, adds yet another level of intensity. With occasional percussive hits on the titles, the music only makes it harder to follow the welter of information and images. Viewers expecting an exciting Jamie Foxx action flick might just give up trying to follow what is clearly historical background and wait for the story proper to start. But even if viewers just let it wash over them, the combination of voice-overs, visuals, and music communicate a confusing and dangerous history between the two nations, a relationship with tension at its heart. The chain of voice-overs falls completely silent just before the representation of September 11, 2001, an animation of a passenger jet flying into the Twin Towers, taking the screen to black. Elfman’s driving beat stops completely on this blackout: sonically, the moment of impact is represented as a ceasing of sound. A more aestheticized representation of 9/11 as a history-stopping event with a long backstory is hard to find. The titles assume that no one in the audience needs an explanation for what’s represented.

Zimmer’s score for Black Hawk Down is built on the juxtaposition of different beats. Here the contrast between film score and score album is instructive. The score album for Black Hawk Down includes twelve tracks by Zimmer. Only one—“Hunger,” first on the album—reflects at any length the score as heard in the film. The others are extended presentations of beat textures heard in much shorter form in the film. For example, “Synchrotone” lasts more than eight minutes on the album, whereas in the film this distinctive, sizzling beat is heard six times: initially for a minute and a half over the end of the mission briefing and the Somali informant marking the target building, and after this never for more than a minute, in once case for a mere ten seconds. A similar situation obtains for the funky yet colossal track “Tribal War” and the jangly and exotic track “Chant.” These distinctive beats drop in and out of the film as needed. Most of Zimmer’s beats are not connected in any clear way with individual characters or plot strands. On the score album, beats heard briefly across the film are offered up in rounded musical forms, from which a DJ might easily sample. Is the album a remix (p.200) of materials from the score? Or is the score the result of sampling from the extended tracks on the album? And what about music on the album but not in the film? Are these beats Zimmer made then didn’t use (or need) or that director Ridley Scott rejected? Zimmer, in his words, scored the film “just after Sept. 11” and tried not to let 9/11 “influence the way I was working.”9 The differences between film score and score album might reflect this intense and contracted working context, with the beats serving as charged sonic units easily dropped into place for seconds at a time.

Other PCFs with beat-driven scores suggest a more through-composed approach, with composers crafting long, layered cues—often heard without change on score albums—that track the shifting intensity of a given film’s narration. John Powell’s United 93 (2006) and Green Zone (2010), Danny Elfman’s The Kingdom, and Nathan Furst’s Act of Valor fall into this category. A combat sequence from Green Zone is representative of these scores.10

Early in the film Chief Miller learns from the Iraqi civilian Freddy that a meeting of former Iraqi army officers is taking place nearby. Frustrated in his search for WMD, Miller says, “I wanna get something done” and Powell drops in a low, spare, triplet-pattern beat running at 121 bpm. This beat backs up Miller’s instructions to his team, which are partially heard in voice-over on images of the team loading into vehicles commandeered for the mission. Miller’s voice is completely calm. His men are mostly focused. When one asks how they know they’re not headed into a “fucking ambush,” Miller shuts him down: “We don’t. Get your fucking game face on.” Powell’s score abruptly drops down as well. The triplet figure cuts out on a shift to a less regular, drier rhythm, a musical “game face” of sorts. Beat-driven scores, built on layers of sound, can respond with great economy to dialogue or action by removing or adding a layer.

The music continues, at lesser prominence in the mix, on a cut to the Iraqi officers’ meeting. The beat stills entirely while the general, a major character in the film, speaks. Behind him, Powell’s score waits at the ready on a low pedal tone that develops into ominous three-note gestures. (One of the few differences between this cue in the film and the track “Meeting Raid” on the score album is a shortening of this long pedal on the latter. In preparing music from the film for listening, Powell—who produced the album—perhaps recognized that the pedal held for the general’s words in the film lasted too long in a music-only context.) After the general says, “Then we fight,” a new, slower beat drops, a looser texture moving at 90 bpm. This texture is wiped away on a cut to Miller and his men approaching in two cars. The cars cross the screen in time with the beat, the sound of each passing vehicle folding into the score, facilitating the initiation of a new beat—a nervous eighth-note (p.201) figure—moving at 180 bpm. Powell uses the tempo of the shot of the two cars to double the momentum of the beat, increasing the viewer’s sense of the impending battle. Similar intimate connections between beat-driven scores and diegetic events—vehicles driving past, guns being fired—are common. The tempo and texture of the beat changes abruptly twice more on discrete points of action cued by Miller: he cries out the command “Go, go, go”; he kicks in the house’s front gate. Powell doesn’t always speed the tempo up. Shifts to a slower but thicker or more aggressive texture also work to increase tension. These shifts on points of action suggest a musical correlative to what SEAL Matt Bissonnette describes as “throttle control. We go fast when needed, but then go back to being slow and quiet.”11

Once Miller and his men are inside the house, Powell peels off a few layers of the beat without slowing the tempo. The goal of the entire previous few minutes—bringing these two parties within shooting range—is nearing. The soundtrack quiets a bit, anticipating the gun battle to come. Then, a burst of drumming anticipates the initiation of fierce automatic weapons fire from Miller’s team. Here, music precedes rather than responds to action. On the action, during ten seconds of gunfire, Powell’s score falls silent, handing off to the effects track entirely. (On the score album, a huge, jangly, metallic beat fills these ten seconds. Powell perhaps scored the gunfire but director Paul Greengrass and the film’s mixer chose to duck it down entirely, giving the action climax of the sequence to the guns alone.) When the firing stops and the chase continues, the score reenters at the fastest tempo yet—282 bpm—before ceasing abruptly and entirely when Miller watches the general escape in a car.

The close coordination between action and the beat described here obtains for almost all of Green Zone. This adrenalized music undergirds action in a step-by-step manner, finely shaped to the edit of the image track. The resulting music has a satisfying musical shape when listened to in isolation on the score CD, where Powell both adjusted its proportions and filled a sonic climax given to the effects track in the film with analogous musical material.

How does this adrenaline-fueled beat add meaning to Green Zone? Who is it for? Given the frequent cutting between the Americans and the Iraqi officers (and a group of their wives and children), it is difficult to locate it definitively in the hearts of anyone in the scene. The score tracks the Americans’ actions and the general’s words but not in a way that suggests that anyone in the film’s world is feeling it. This music, like the sampled beats stitched into a whole by Zimmer in Black Hawk Down, is definitively for the viewer. Given their visual style, both films might have unfolded in (p.202) a more documentary-like manner with no music at all. Both feature sufficiently dramatic and noisy action that music—especially busy beats mixed with prominence—would seem an unneeded distraction. Yet both films’ soundtracks include a persistent musical layer, a beat-driven score fundamentally oriented toward the viewer. On a formal level these scores provide sonic continuity for disjointed crosscutting on the image track. In aesthetic, expressive, and ideological terms, these beat-driven scores elicit a heightened physical response in the viewer and generate excitement at—and forestall reflection on—combat action. The heartbeat in question is the viewer’s.

But beat-driven scores need not serve as devices for quasi-physical immersion. They can also offer necessary distance from especially fraught on-screen events. United 93—like Green Zone a Greengrass picture scored by John Powell—utilizes beat-driven scoring to trigger reflection in a very specific action context. Powell’s score is restrained in tempo, texture, and volume. With one exception—a bump in volume and musical energy in response to the line “Planes, plural” (admittedly on a cut to a shot of a jet engine)—Powell refrains from responding to specific dialogue or actions as he does in Green Zone. Indeed, there are few such actions to track in United 93’s narrative. Perhaps the most distinct musical moment comes when the score falls silent on a pulse of brass as the second plane hits the World Trade Center (as seen from an airport control tower in Newark and on television). There are no sound effects for this event, instead a general stilling of the score and soundtrack. As in the animated titles for The Kingdom, the opportunity to represent this particular September 11 sound was passed on by the makers of United 93. The silence after the image of the impact in both films represents the stunned reaction after the event rather than the sound of the event itself. In analogous fashion, the crash of United 93 in United 93 is rendered as music, not effects, although without any image of impact. Again, comparison of film score and score album proves revealing.

The final soundtrack mix of United 93 seems to have lowered or eliminated strong rhythmic elements originally in the score. The score CD includes many elements not audible in the film, where the score is usually kept low, creating a more subliminal disturbance for the viewer, perhaps more felt than heard given the dominance of low frequencies. The broad outline of events in United 93 was surely well known to most of the film’s original audiences. As summarized by the British novelist Martin Amis in 2008, “On United 93, the passengers were told about the new reality by their mobile phones, and they didn’t linger long in the old paradigm. … No, they knew that they weren’t on a commercial aircraft, not any longer; they were on a missile. So they rose up.”12 Greengrass’s presentation of the passengers on their phones then (p.203) rising up is decidedly restrained, as the discussion of the line “Let’s roll” demonstrated. Powell’s musical contribution to the film’s final minutes is worth considering, as it is a beat-driven music that—like Alexandre Desplat’s for the helo ride into and out of Pakistan in Zero Dark Thirty—is aimed squarely at the viewer’s experience of the events. Only here, music, heard with increasing presence as diegetic sound slowly falls away, activates reflection on unfolding action with a known ending.

Once United 93’s secondary narrative in various air traffic control centers has been resolved with the closing of US airspace, the film remains solely on the doomed plane. The passengers, aware that three other hijacked planes have hit their targets, make final calls to their loved ones, pray (as do the hijackers), and plan their counterattack. Powell’s music for this sequence is rhythmic and fast—about 190 bpm—but restrained and waiting, with long swells of brass that go nowhere. This music works as part of what Robert Burgoyne has called the “adrenalized stasis” of United 93.13 Indeed, most of the music in the film and the experience of the film as a whole can be understood within the notion of stasis. There isn’t much to be done but watch events unfold—events that are unknown to those in the story but known to the viewer. A beat-driven score, with its capacity to activate the viewer’s body at a physical level, perfectly answers the need in United 93 to present a series of events as both dramatic and known ahead of time, both unfolding in mystery and charged with excess meaning. The score consistently provides a subtly placed position both with the narrative’s characters (hijackers included) and outside the narrative, where the historic dimensions of the day’s events can be experienced at a respectful distance.

After almost ten minutes of calls, prayers, and planning, the score falls silent for a few seconds then restarts, at a slower tempo, with the passengers’ counterattack. The action from here to the end is furious—the plane is crashing throughout—but the score remains generally calm. The only sonic expression of panic, beyond the screams and shouts of the passengers and hijackers, is a diegetic sound effect, itself strongly metrical: the cockpit alarm, a fast electronic pulse (also heard in Black Hawk Down when helos are crashing). In sharp contrast, the final cue—titled “The End” on the score album—unfolds at a steady pace. On the album a riot of percussion—chaotic fills and riffs, none setting any larger pattern—are heard against a slowly and regularly moving string line at the top of the texture. Powell did not try to catch specific events of the final struggle: there are too many and the sequence as cut is too chaotic. As mixed for the film, almost all of the percussion “stem” was turned down or off. The chaotic noise of the struggle stands in for the percussion lines and all that remains audible for most of (p.204) the sequence is that top line, which rises and rises in pitch and prominence within the mix. It’s an excruciating more-than-five-minute combat sequence with an end the audience knows, a violent end communicated sonically rather than visually. In the film’s final shot, the camera—operating from an unattached POV—turns to look out the cockpit window toward the advancing fields of Pennsylvania. On a sudden blackout Powell’s rising string line resolves downward by a fifth, a conclusive melodic motion further strengthened by the cessation of the beat. The resolving line—closing on a final C sharp—renders the sound of the plane hitting earth. Importantly, by the time the plane crashes the soundtrack mix has tilted toward near-complete diegetic silence.

Who is the music for in the final five minutes of United 93? The slow-moving, slowly rising string line with its low but present pulsing beat cannot be said to characterize the passengers or the hijackers. Both groups are engaged in a furious struggle at odds with the almost processional unfolding of Powell’s top string line toward its conclusion. Instead, Powell’s music—apparently adjusted by Greengrass in the mix—asserts a kind of rhythmic calm over the scene. Stephen Prince’s conclusion about the film’s depiction of the killing of the pilots and stewardess early on applies here as well: the music and mix can be understood to function as part of the filmmakers “trying to protect the feelings of the families of United 93’s passengers and crew.”14 The film does not ask the viewer to get on United 93, but instead to observe what happened there. Beat-oriented music, especially at the close, offers a position outside the events from which to watch that is—importantly, in this PCF by an English writer-director—neither sentimental nor patriotic.

Beat-driven scoring also facilitates the representation of intelligence work as a form of combat. Many GWOT PCFs show soldiers and their kind peering at computer screens and video monitors. Subtle beats add sonic dynamism to the visually static image of a man or woman staring at a screen. Powell provided an early model in the cue “Miller Googles” from Green Zone. This thinking music runs at 113 bpm, with a big battery of percussion pounding away in what sounds like the next room. A very slow rising line and a slight increase in volume overall builds energy across an almost two-minute span. The line resolves at the close, when Miller (and the viewer) has absorbed the content of an Internet search. Similar thinking music is heard over a montage of the FBI team members in The Kingdom each doing slow, methodical forensic work.

A sequence of gradually more active thinking beats shapes the middle third of Zero Dark Thirty. The section begins when Osama bin Laden’s (p.205) courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s name is first uttered, a moment sonically highlighted by an unseen helo and the entrance of restrained but still active beat-driven music in the score. Over the next seventy minutes, Maya searches for and finds the Kuwaiti—consistently called Abu Ahmed in the film—and follows him to what she correctly believes is bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. The initial thinking beat accompanying and characterizing her search runs at 122 bpm. Immediately after Maya writes down the name Abu Ahmed, the beat enters very low in the mix and ties together a just over two-minute stretch of Maya watching multiple interrogations, most involving “enhanced” techniques. Here she comes to the conclusion that Abu Ahmed is close to bin Laden. The sequence and cue conclude on a cut to a toaster: a slice of toast pops up and Maya’s hand reaches for it. This point of punctuation is analogous to the Japanese artillery piece fired at the close of the beach scene in Flags of Our Fathers discussed above. In both cases, an explosive event—one very small, one very large—marks a point of articulation and a shift of soundtrack mode after a musically organized stretch of film representing a particular aspect of a given war.

The 122-bpm thinking beat returns after Maya manages to get Abu Ahmed’s mother’s phone number. An analysis of patterns in who calls the number begins, including a montage of phone circuits and server farms, all underscored with the thinking beat, which is here tied to the word tradecraft—a chapter title flashed on-screen. In the GWOT, intelligence tradecraft is combat: Desplat’s thinking beat characterizes such work as cinematic action. The beat simultaneously signifies the passage of a long stretch of time and, in its unpredictable small melodic motifs and dark, slightly sinister harmonic content, the painstaking work of intelligence gathering and analysis in a shadowy context. The beat returns some minutes later behind Maya’s verbal summary of her conclusions for her colleagues (and, of course, for the viewer). Desplat’s tradecraft beat is sufficiently interesting to function on its own but restrained enough to work behind important dialogue.

A new thinking beat enters the score after Abu Ahmed and his white SUV have been identified, his movements now tracked by a picket line of Pakistanis along the highway. A montage of their work—explained by Maya in a voice-over (which turns out to be the prelapped sound of her reading aloud an email summary of the search)—is accompanied by an especially layered tradecraft beat running at 172 bpm. As we get closer to bin Laden, the tempo and energy of Desplat’s beats increase. Soon the film arrives—abruptly—at bin Laden’s compound. Zero Dark Thirty’s long middle section prepares the viewer for the satisfying sight of the familiar (to many viewers) house in Abbottabad. (When I saw the film the first (p.206) time, I spontaneously pointed toward the house, as if to tell Maya, “There it is. You found it.”) The tradecraft beats drop out of the score at this moment, their work done.

Thinking beats grant a certain kind of GWOT combat needed cinematic urgency. As such, they are inherently pro military, even if, as in Green Zone, the diverse government entities fighting the GWOT are often seen working at cross-purposes. On a broader level, beat-driven PCF scores open the way toward the return of explicitly military music, easily evoked in the building of a beat texture around a snare drum cadence. Still, PCF scores that tilt toward traditional military marches are remarkably few. Predating electronica-referencing scores, the composer Nick Glennie-Smith briefly touches on a march cadence in We Were Soldiers (2002). Interpolation of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Minstrel Boy” for the end titles of Black Hawk Down puts a slow, snare-driven march into that film—a sound not heard in Zimmer’s narrative score.

Only Lone Survivor goes all the way. The film’s score, by the American post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, brings in a snare drum–heavy cadence on two occasions. The first (“Seal Credo /Landing” on the score album) plays behind the recitation of the “Ballad of the Frogman” and a montage of SEALs prepping for and heading into battle on a beautifully shot flotilla of five Chinooks (the kind of image that always indicates close Pentagon cooperation). Here the massive battery of snares suggests a recruiting commercial. The second snare cue (“Murphy’s Ridge”) accompanies Lieutenant Mike Murphy’s sacrificial climb to an exposed position where his satellite phone will work, enabling him to finally call for help. After he’s placed the call, and immediately after the surrounding Taliban forces begin shooting him—when it becomes apparent that he will die and that he is, in effect, already dead—a strong snare slips into the already-driving beat. This snare moves to the front of the mix on a complex series of shots linking all four SEALs, two of whom die at the same instant: Danny Dietz, shot at close range (we see the leader of the Taliban raising his rifle) and Murphy, shot from a distance, the impact of the bullets shown on his back and rendered in a quasi-musical sound effect as the final beat of the cue. Luttrell and Axelson, the other two SEALs, witness these events. Murphy’s death recalls that of Elias in Platoon: both men are in an upright position, where the impact of the bullets that kill them can be seen with clarity, although the former faces away from the camera, while the latter moves toward it. The contrast between Platoon and Lone Survivor inheres in the films’ very different plots leading to the witnessed death of a sympathetic character and the contrasting musical accompaniments for these parallel moments. Elias dies to Barber’s Adagio for Strings (see next chapter). (p.207) Murphy dies to the sound of a traditional military cadence. Lone Survivor’s narrative allows for snare-drum heroics that frame the act for what it is: one soldier’s meaningful sacrifice for his comrades. Significantly, the snare does not energize his heroic climb or his call for help. Instead it lends a beat-driven, rather than elegiac, sacralization to Murphy’s last moments.

Malick and Zimmer’s “Attack on the Bivouac”

The musicologist K. J. Donnelly has noted, “Sonic continuity is often the foundation for visual discontinuity, emphasizing the semiotic inter-reliance but aesthetic divergence of the two tracks.”15 As shown above, beat-driven cues play this role in the often extremely discontinuous image tracks of twenty-first-century action films. As often is the case, The Thin Red Line offers an example where a PCF trope is pushed to a breaking point—in this case, a strongly metered (but not beat-driven) cue heard in a context of near diegetic silence during sustained combat action: a running battle with US soldiers taking a Japanese bivouac full of sick, malnourished, even crazed soldiers. As Donnelly notes elsewhere, “Sequences that remove most diegetic sound often allow a strong interaction between a loud piece of non-diegetic music and a succession of images, returning momentarily to the aesthetics of silent cinema.”16 Such is the attack on the bivouac in The Thin Red Line. Zimmer provided an extended musical cue—“Attack on the Bivouac,” one of the longest on the film’s cue sheet—that serves as a structuring element outside the unfolding of violent combat events shown from both the US and the Japanese perspectives. The sequence is the antithesis of the immersive all-effects battles discussed in chapter 6.

Musically “Attack on the Bivouac” begins as rhythm only: a ticking sound, difficult to place as a musical sound coming from an instrument, more akin to the sound effect of a clock. This ticking was heard once before in sustained fashion in the score when the soldiers initially began their move into the interior of the island. It’s introduced very early in the film, on Witt’s first voice-over, as a diegetic sound effect linked to the clock in his mother’s death room. At the start of the bivouac cue, the ticking is thickened by soft, high wind and metal percussion sounds—again difficult to place as entirely acoustic instruments, and again a mix of effects and musical sounds. The tempo is quick: 240 bpm if the ticks are felt as the pulse; 120 bpm if they are understood to be eighth-notes against a quarter-note pulse (the latter interpretation makes more sense as the cue unfolds). The tempo of the cue is set here. It will not flag or rush for the next eight minutes, despite radical increases in the tempo of both action and cutting.

(p.208) The ticking accompanies two of the film’s most startling voice-overs, neither assigned with any clarity. The first, a conversation between two Americans:

“You seen many dead people?”

“Plenty. They’re no different than dead dogs—once you get used to the idea. You’re meat, kid.”

The second seems to be assigned to a Japanese soldier who is almost completely buried: only his face appears above the soil, like a mask tossed on the ground glimpsed through smoke. The voice-over seems to be the voice of Elias Koteas (not in his role as Captain Staros), although this recognition comes only analytically, when listening to the film with eyes closed. A shot–reverse shot sequence suggests that Witt hears the Japanese soldier’s voice, which asks, “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?”

As the voice-over ends, a low, slow-moving string line begins. This eleven-measure melody—spelled out in eleven whole notes—will cycle ten times, accompanying the entire battle sequence as an underlying ostinato (see musical example 1). The tune is odd. Its length is strange—most Western-style melodies are eight or perhaps twelve measures long. Its range is constricted—held within an interval of a fifth. Its harmonic implications are modal and therefore vague to the tonally conditioned ear: the second note (the “A”) is the prime and the biggest leap is a third, denying any strong bass motion that a leap of a fourth or fifth would bring. A regular if hypnotic movement between adjacent or near-adjacent notes, cycling at an irregular phrase length, this musical underpinning is realized texturally as a grand passacaglia or chaconne—musical works that unfold over many repetitions of an unchanging bass line ostinato—initially mixed with the sounds of weapons, then in a context of diegetic silence and voice-over. Major transitions in the battle action are synced to the end or beginning of the tune. Zimmer’s “Attack on the Bivouac” accompanies, or better fundamentally structures, a combat set piece moving at a furious pace with complicated, difficult-to-process shifts of camera angle and POV. Here the image track is organized at the level of the score by a musical structure of transparent simplicity. Given the almost aching beauty of the orchestration—mostly strings—the battle action is aestheticized in the interest of exploring both the American soldiers’ and the enemy’s response to the extremes of combat.


(p.209) Musical Example 9.1. Ostinato from “Attack on the Bivouac,” The Thin Red Line, composed by Hans Zimmer

The shape of the battle aligns with the shape of Zimmer’s grand ostinato-based cue: as detailed below, film form and musical form are intimately connected.

  • Iteration 1 plays in a context of diegetic quiet, with only the sounds of men grabbing ammunition or loading their weapons.

  • Iterations 2 and 3 play over American soldiers moving through a fog-filled jungle toward contact with the Japanese (shown prepared for battle at the end of iteration 1). The diegesis remains quiet: no jungle sounds, music dominates. This lyrical interlude is interrupted by the first bullet, which marks the transition between iterations 2 and 3. A soldier hears, indeed seems to watch, the bullet fly past him; the crack of its firing goes unrepresented. Partway through iteration 3, the firing begins with a tremendous crash of guns and very rapid cutting of hand-to-hand combat, including bayoneting. The score does not respond to this increase in the tempo of the action and cutting except to slightly grow in terms of texture and volume.

  • At the start of iteration 4, Malick begins to frame the battle in running POV shots that follow individual American soldiers through the bivouac, a space that will never be clearly delineated but remains a dynamic zone of movement. These men run and fire; the camera runs after them, keeping them in the center of the frame, their actions providing a point of reference within the surrounding furious action. The identity of the men we follow is only vaguely suggested, especially for a first-time viewer. Also included is a brief POV from behind a Japanese soldier manning a machine gun in a trench.

  • At exactly the start of iteration 5, in the process of following yet another American soldier through the melee, the camera swings right, distracted by the sight of a sick Japanese soldier being (p.210) defended by another, also evidently ill soldier weakly wielding a bayonet. Both are screaming, though their screams are not in the mix. In an odd abandonment of the camera’s previous following of a soldier, here the camera turns away from active combat and toward the plight of the suffering pair. At exactly this moment, a countermelody of three stepwise descending quarter notes enters on the soundtrack. The countermelody, with its suggestion of a sigh figure, is filled with consoling pathos and suggests the elegiac register. Cutting the sequence in sync with the iterations of the eleven-note ostinato allows the score to respond to new emphases in the images at a moment that is meaningful in musical terms.

  • Over iterations 5, 6, and 7, the dire situation of the Japanese becomes the central focus. The start of iteration 6 marks a moment of disturbing engagement with a surrendering Japanese soldier. He looks directly at the viewer, backing away as the camera—from the POV of an unspecified armed American—advances. The viewer is put in the position of a US soldier, afraid in the context of battle but also confronted by an enemy who is helpless. This is not the battle the Americans—or likely the viewer—expected. The Japanese are malnourished, naked, bordering on the loss of reason. Individual Japanese are laughing, crying, provoking individual Americans to just shoot them. One is meditating. But there are still threats to be dealt with: snipers in trees, soldiers defending trenches. The US soldiers are still fighting. The Japanese are still in the process of giving up. The battle ends with the suicide death of a Japanese soldier by grenade. It detonates—filling the screen with a flash and a brief image of the soldier’s face—on the eleventh and final note of iteration 7, a moment of musical arrival that clears the soundtrack for a return of the ticking heard at the start.

    The disjunction between music and image across iterations 5 through 7 puts the viewer in an odd position. We are, at once, trying to make sense of the scene—like the American soldiers, whose point of view dominates the camerawork and cutting—and called upon by the music and sound mixing and the evident distress of the losing Japanese to contemplate the sad state of the enemy, who present vignettes of liminal humanity. The contrasting tempos of the very fast image track and the measured and moderate score create a tension for the viewer that defies easy assimilation, even on repeated and out-of-context viewing.

  • (p.211) The suicide-by-grenade explosion restores the ticking from the start and the ostinato tune briefly drops out: the death of the Japanese soldier is the only conclusive event in the narration of the scene. But the tune reenters on its fifth note as a kind of coda to the battle. Iterations 8 through 10 are heard in a context of diegetic silence. The action remains violent and evidently noisy: close images of Japanese screaming, Americans shouting, all without sound. By now the melody, having underpinned many minutes of screen time, is subliminally familiar. Over this distanced image track, the unassigned Southern voice-over comes in asking his characteristic philosophical questions: “This great evil—where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root, did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbin’ us of light and life. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known?” Iteration 10 concludes on the image of Witt lifting up a Japanese soldier: a soldiers’ pieta blessed by the confirmatory final three notes of the ostinato. This image of succor and mercy is interrupted by a close-range gunshot—a diegetic blast intruding on the score, which has begun the tune again only to fall away into sustained chords. Only here does the metered music of the battle come to an end, on a seamless transition into an interpolated classical music cue: Charles Ives’s concert work The Unanswered Question (a moment taken up in the following chapter).

The attack on the bivouac uses slow-moving, deliberately metered music to accompany furious combat action. Much of the previous hour of The Thin Red Line builds to this moment of confrontation. This is ostensibly a war movie: this should be the battle we’ve been waiting for. But when they take the Japanese camp, the Americans discover an enemy destroyed by hunger, ready to die by their own hands. This representation of the Japanese contrasts mightily with stereotypes found in almost all combat films. In striking fashion, Zimmer gives elegiac pathos to both the American soldiers—none of whom are presented as gung-ho warriors, most of whom look terrified themselves as they take the camp—and the Japanese soldiers—a defeated company, many mourning the loss of their friends. Zimmer’s long, ostinato-based “Attack on the Bivouac,” to which Malick aligned key moments of screen action, effectively shapes the mentally and morally challenging experience of this unusual metered combat sequence from start to finish.


(2.) A less-than-subtle added text for Kamen’s tune, titled “Requiem for a Soldier” and sung by soprano Katherine Jenkins at a 2007 concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall in tribute to British troops fighting in the Middle East, (p.283) reveals an effort to assign specific ideological meaning to Kamen’s sentimentally vague waltz. (Jenkins’s performance is usually available on YouTube.) The stilted, cliché-ridden text speaks from the perspective of the present and addresses soldiers fallen in war, beginning, “I wish you’d lived to see /All you gave to me.” The lyric incorporates the phrase “band of brothers”—a bit of brand placement, albeit drawn originally from Shakespeare—and attaches the idea of fighting for “one shining dream of hope and love /life and liberty” directly to the soldiers themselves, describing a day when all, including soldiers fallen in war, will “live together, when all the world is free.” The Albert Hall version reassigns Kamen’s tune—a piece of pre-9/11 popular culture tuned to a highly specific exploration of the “Greatest Generation”—to the urgent ideological needs of the US and British coalition fighting, and at the time losing badly, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(3.) Caryn James, “Intricate Tapestry of a Heroic Age,” NYT, September 7, 2001; Todd McCarthy, Television Reviews, Variety, September 4, 2001.

(4.) See Decker 2016.

(5.) Thomas Schatz, “Old War /New War: Band of Brothers and the Revival of the WWII War Film,” Film and History 32, no. 1 (2002): 77.

(7.) Gina Piccalo and Louise Roug, “Scoring, Post-Terrorism,” LAT, 17 January 2002.

(8.) George Monbiot, “Both Saviour and Victim,” Guardian, 29 January 2002.

(10.) See Decker 2017a for analysis of a similar beat-driven cue in a non-combat film score from the Fast and Furious action franchise.