The all-time greatest war movie themes

A great theme tune forms the backbone of any classic war movie, but which are the best? Here’s Mark’s selection…

When I was growing up in the 60s, there was a definite nostalgia for the war that stimulated the making of some excellent movies, mostly based on real events in World War II. But through some entirely inexplicable quirk of fate (or the fact that they had big enough budgets), many of them ended up with such evocative theme music. Just hearing some of the music stirs up the emotions.

I bought a few such themes on various movie soundtrack albums, but eventually hit gold with a record put out by Geoff Love and his orchestra called Big War Movie Themes. This has, without exception, some of the best examples of the genre.

I don’t really need an excuse to talk about war movies, so which were the most stirring themes? Here’s my pick of favourites.

633 Squadron

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Sod the Spitfire, when I saw this movie there was only one aircraft I wanted to fly, and it was the de Havilland Mosquito. The notion of hedge hopping across occupied Europe at nearly 400 miles an hour, causing untold mayhem on the Nazis, seemed positively idyllic when I was eight.

The movie pulls some actual events and some more fanciful ones together into a rather predictable yarn that has a love triangle, plenty of derring-do, and some half decent flying sequences. Where it’s quite horrible in my opinion is in the liberal use of back projection, often in sequences where it’s combined with location shoots where it wasn’t really necessary.

The poor optical composition and some very obvious model work sullies some of the excellent work done by those who shot the small number of remaining Mosquitos the production had access to. But along with the sleek and lethal combat aircraft, it’s also the great Ron Goodwin score that elevates the whole film. What I especially like about it is the sequence that starts the theme, where the descending pitch embodies a falling leaf, or in this case a rapidly descending aircraft.

It entirely emphasises the lyrical nature of the flying, and how starting out high, this aircraft could drop rather dramatically on its ground-based prey, before unleashing a formidable array of weaponry, which is where the main chords kick in. As such, it really embodies the excitement of a low-level ground attack, and the thrill of zooming away with flak shells bursting around you.

In retrospect, the music and the movie are implausibly jingoistic in places, and dramatically inhabited by panto villains, but that’s tempered to a degree by the horrific levels of attrition, as none of the crews make it back from the final mission.

It’s music with real gusto, if something of a cliché these days.

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The Battle Of Britain

A movie that uses music very effectively, from the opening imperial march, representing the pomp and circumstance of the Luftwaffe, to the more dramatic scoring of the combat sequences.

It’s another Goodwin score, and again he uses the drums to create a false machine-gun syncopation, but that’s to ignore some really inventive sections that are dispersed throughout the movie. I especially love the more majestic version of the theme that’s used over the end tribute to those who died in conflict, which reuses the previously worked score but slows it down dramatically to provide a more fitting salute.

In terms of Goodwin’s overall contribution to war movie music, this represents his decidedly better quality product.

The Dam Busters

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What I always find fascinating about the music in this movie is that it’s split between a very sombre phrasing, followed in quick succession with a rather inappropriately jolly section. Which, given the losses taken by 617 Squadron on the 17th of May 1943 during Operation Chastise, seems entirely out of place.

Yet it’s a firm favourite, and the opening bars of the music always make me want to make me use my fingers to intimate having flying goggles on, and spout inane radio chatter with a public school accent.

The Dam Busters March was written by Eric Coates, who is also well known for a piece called By The Sleepy Lagoon, which is synonymous with the radio show Desert Island Discs.

Even if the music is slightly odd to my ears, it seems to fit the movie perfectly. By modern standards, much of the character interaction does seem remarkably stilted, and the true-to-life naming of Gibson’s dog is appalling, but then, this was a different era.

For all its cinematic faults and cultural insensitivity, there is something about these events, the music and the movie portrayal that sticks in our national psyche so much more than a monochrome war movie made in the 50s really should. And, like that classic photo of St Pauls taken after heavy bombing, it now symbolises British resolve under intense fire.

I do hope Peter Jackson gets the undercarriage up on his remake soon.

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The Guns Of Navarone

I’ve already talked at some length about the exceptional quality of the music in this movie in my review of the Blu-ray, here. But it’s not just me that likes it, because on that disc, they even provide the version of the music that’s presented right at the start, but without James Robertson Justice yakking some nonsense about Greek mythology over the top of it. A piece of scoring that manages to seem both familiar and imaginative in its presentation throughout the story, it’s one of my personal favourites.

But be warned, there is a ‘singalong’ version with lyrics, which is diabolical, and should be avoided like a German patrol in occupied territory.

Lawrence Of Arabia

This David Lean epic is loosely based on the real exploits of TE Lawrence during World War I in the deserts of North Africa, and is a masterclass in both film direction and storytelling.

But it’s also got an epic, majestic theme that could have only come from the composing pen of Maurice Jarre. An almost unknown at the time, he manages to deliver a musical cue that’s not remotely military in style, and injects a small boatload of romanticism to both the character of Lawrence and the desert world he inhabited.

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However, given the ridiculous timescales Jarre was forced to endure – just six weeks to deliver some 120 or so minutes of soundtrack – he was forced to borrow some sections from already existing work. Most notably, that of Kenneth Alford and his 1917 work The Voice Of The Guns. As a movie, Lawrence Of Arabia is no less epic today, and its music will live on forever.

Bridge On The River Kwai

Another David Lean movie, this one painting an especially graphic picture of what happened to British soldiers unfortunate enough to be captured by the Japanese in Singapore. The music it’s best known for is called Colonel Bogey March, and is yet another creation of Kenneth Alford, written in 1914.

The way it is used in the film is especially effective, as it’s initially presented as being whistled by the POWs, before the music then eventually comes in to support their melody, with a counter one written by Malcolm Arnold which is known as The River Kwai March.

For the British, the Colonel Bogey theme had major significance, as it symbolised the country’s struggle against Nazi Germany, as the notion that, while battered and bloodied, the island wasn’t about to give in. This translated to this distant conflict where, despite the harshest treatment and conditions, they weren’t about to let the Japanese break them, even if they died in large numbers demonstrating that. The story is all about defiance, and music captures that mood perfectly.

Where Eagles Dare

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I know Clint Eastward hates this movie, but I love it to bits, even if the source they found to put on Blu-ray looks like a seventh generation print on Super-8 that Clint had previously stomped on in a car park.

This, then, is yet another theme from the exceptional stable of Ron Goodwin.

He used much the same technique he used in 633 Squadron and Battle Of Britain, where he creates a symphonic theme interspersed with drumbeats that sound like machine gun fire. What I especially like in this is the very gothic feel he’s injected in to the melodic elements; it’s most effective, and I personally think that the music is some of Goodman’s finest.

Apocalypse Now

Most people won’t remember the actual movie theme to this 1980 classic about the Vietnam conflict, but it made the German composer Wagner incredibly popular. The attack on the coastal village is a lethal ballet, and what would be better than to set it to Ride Of The Valkyries, from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen.

To make that seem somewhat less out of place, they have the music being projected by speakers on the attack helicopters as a form of psychological warfare. Here, it’s just a wonderful counterpoint to the action, as American firepower descends like the sisters of Brunnhilde on the poor Vietcong. As an antidote to all the death in that, after watching it you should then experience the same music in the Bugs Bunny 1957 classic, What’s Opera, Doc?

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I love the smell of napalm in the morning, and I love the use of this music in Apocalypse Now.

The Great Escape

What the best war movies manage to do is combine great stories with action and occasional humour, and The Great Escape manages to tick all those boxes. I mean, what other movie has Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Donald Pleasance? But they’re just the uber-stars in what’s basically a call to action for almost every British character actor of the period.

The legendary Elmer Bernstein created an instantly recognisable theme, which manages to convey that escaping from a prison camp in occupied Germany wasn’t something you did easily or quickly, especially if you wanted it to succeed. It’s a plod, interspersed with moments of blind panic. Bernstein is most famous for his Magnificent Seven Theme, but the one he created here is something very different, and combines elements of marching music with something slightly cheeky, which fits the mood of most of the movie.

Great music, and a wonderfully subversive film version of real events in World War II.   

Is Paris Burning?

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Jean-Paul Belmondo throws the Nazis out of his capital city with the help of Alain Delon and a bigger cast of film greats, as you might reasonably expect him to do given half the chance.

When I first heard this music I’d never seen the movie, which I then sought out. Given it’s a war theme, it’s delivered like some chocolate box Paris romance jingle, or something you might hear coming from a carousel. It’s not your standard fair, but it’s decidedly French in all respects, and rather charming for it.

The screenplay was a cooperative effort between Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola, and the meandering musical score is the work of Maurice Jarre.

Platoon

This is probably one of the most haunting pieces of music ever written for the screen, and the late Georges Delerue will be remembered for it indefinitely. How often it turns up in documentaries and other productions underlines how effective it is, and how it entirely breaks the war movie music mould.

As the movie tries to explain, the victims of war are all those involved: there are no exceptions. It’s powerful stuff that goes to the very heart of its subject.

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Honorable mentions: A Bridge Too Far (John Addison), Zulu (John Barry), Schindler’s List (John Williams), Das Boot (Klaus Doldinger), The Longest Day (Maurice Jarre).

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