Music in the movies: Elmer Bernstein

In our latest Music in the movies column, we celebrate the work of Elmer Bernstein, the composer of classic themes for film such as The Great Escape and Ghostbusters...

An immensely talented musician at an early age, Elmer Bernstein was taken under the wing of composer Aaron Copland and found himself enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard School. Looking set to have a successful career as a concert pianist, his plans were put on hold when he was assigned to the entertainments unit of the US Air Force in World War II, where he arranged material and composed original material for broadcasts.

It’s this newfound talent that lead to his post-war employment as a composer for national radio, and ultimately paved the way for his career as one of the all time great composers.

Bernstein passed away six years ago, leaving behind an incredible body of work spanning over fifty years. Throughout that time he was nominated for an Academy Award fourteen times, winning once in 1968 for his work on Thoroughly Modern Millie, which, whilst it’s excellent, isn’t included below.

Here are my favourite Bernstein scores:

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The Magnificent Seven series  

A western reinterpretation of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven is one of the best remakes of all time. There’s a prominent guitar sound that drives this fantastic score. Bernstein described this as a collaboration between him and his mentor, Alan Copland. The result of this collaboration is very strong, indeed, and this is one of Bernstein’s finest efforts listened to in isolation.

The score earned Bernstein an Academy Award nomination and the main theme has been used by a number of artists and in a number of sources over the years, including an appearance in a Marlboro advertising campaign, Moonraker, Spaced and The Simpsons, as well as being sampled by Big Audio Dynamite.

Bernstein would also return to compose scores for the sequels, which suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Rather fortunately, the scores didn’t suffer such a fate. Whilst retaining themes and sharing similarities to the first score, the sequels provided enough of a change to be considered great additions in their own right.

Full of the guitar work, horn blasts and strings heard in the first, these are fantastic scores that create a great sense of atmosphere and dramatic tension and are some of the finest scores of the western genre and of all time.

To Kill A Mockingbird  

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This is an incredible score, for an incredible film. Bernstein’s score for Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s literary classic beautifully embodies the spirit of Jem and Scout with a warm and inquisitive tone backed by a mixture of strings, brass, piano and winds.

It’s so easy for pieces like this to seem over played and over sentimental, but this is a great example of a score subtlety pulling the strings without becoming too overbearing. Beautifully judged and beautifully performed.

The Great Escape  

Admittedly, the main theme for The Great Escape was a glaring omission from the Iconic Movie Themes piece we ran a while back. A huge oversight on my part, as it could be argued that more people have heard that theme than have seen the film, although pretty much everyone’s seen this, right?

Main theme aside, the soundtrack is strong from start to finish, full of dramatic passages and moments of inspiration. Various characters also have their own leitmotifs, which make this an incredibly rich score that rewards repeat listens.

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True Grit  

With the Coen brothers remake set to be released later this year, with Jeff Bridges donning the eye patch and playing the role of Rooster Cogburn, the role that saw John Wayne win his only Oscar, I thought it would be an ideal time to revisit the original. It’s a fantastic film that also boasts an amazing score and marked the screen debut of Glen Campbell, who was Oscar-nominated for the song, True Grit, composed by Bernstein.

The music in the film is wonderfully arranged and as subtle as some of his previous efforts. The score released to accompany the film isn’t tracks lifted from the film, but rearranged by Bernstein to make it more of a coherent listen.

The remake will be scored by regular Coen brother’s collaborator, Carter Burwell, and whether he uses any of Bernstein’s themes remains to be heard, but given his track record, a solid and emotive score is to be expected.


Having built a reputation composing some of the greatest dramas in cinema, Bernstein was also adept at providing excellent musical accompaniments to some of the best comedies and this is one of his finest forays into composing for the genre.

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Part straight faced action score and part parody with romantic undertones, this is an interesting mix that serves the film well. Sadly, this isn’t one that I particularly enjoy away from the film, as large portions seem to play for the punchlines that, without the accompanying jokes, simply aren’t there. Still ,within the context of the film, this really is brilliant and the title theme is among the best pieces Bernstein composed.


Although composing for a comedy, Bernstein seems to approach the material as he would a drama. Here he recalls elements of Goldsmith’s Patton score as well as some of his own previous work such as that for The Great Escape, creating a militaristic march that wouldn’t seem out of place in either of the two aforementioned films, or any other war movie for that matter.

This deadpan score heightens the comedic brilliance of Bill Murray and John Candy that’s seen on screen.


For another Bill Murray-starring comedy gem, and one of the all time geek greats, Bernstein created a supernatural sounding score that’s playful and unsettling in equal parts, using the ondes Martenot, synthesisers and orchestration, creating an intriguing but hugely effective mix.

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The score has had some criticism directed at it over the years, but it’s one that I feel is an incredibly good fit and it’s a shame that the widely available accompanying soundtrack to the film features very little of Goldsmith’s work.

Far From Heaven

The final score of Bernstein’s career saw him compose for Todd Haynes 2002 film Far From Heaven and earned him another Academy Award nomination.

Part of the theme is a reinterpretation of his work on The View From Pompey’s Head and is as understated and beautiful as his work on To Kill A Mockingbird. As a whole, the piece is something of a slow build, but perfectly encapsulates the themes explored on screen with an incredible amount of nuance. A combination of technical brilliance and restraint, this is a fitting finale to a brilliant career.

Of course, given Bernstein’s long and successful career there will be many omissions from this article. Please add your favourites below…