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THREE DISTINCT APPROACHES TO SCORING A WAR FILM: A philosophical analysis of the music from Patton, Saving Private Ryan, and 1917


The objective in this monograph is to analyze and understand the musical language of three exceptional war films that were made two to three decades apart from one another. Questions that initially arise include: What kind of music belongs in a war film and why? Are there general trends or conventions followed for war film scores and, if so, how do the scores for Patton, Saving Private Ryan, and 1917 fit or not fit into that mold? The objective here is to not only look at the music itself, but to carefully examine the film to understand the intention of the composer, as well as potential challenges the composer may have been faced with in order to achieve the end result.

A musical survey of sixty war films was completed at the onset to establish commonalities and differences in the music for films in this genre. Some of these films date back to the 1930’s while others are from the past few years. Five musical cues from each of the three chosen films were analyzed and engraved reductions were produced. Segments of these reductions are used throughout the main written section of this document, yet the entire collection of fifteen reductions is included in Appendix I. This writer also conducted an interview with Thomas Newman, which is referenced in the 1917 chapter and the entire interview transcript is included in Appendix II.

Patton emerges as containing the most motivic-driven score of the three that also makes extensive use of the march, while Saving Private Ryan is structured largely around melodic prose and the hymn. 1917 is intended to feel like a ‘thrill ride’ and its music often lives in the present tense by varying levels of pulse and ambience. Therefore, this music describes and comments on very little of the action seen on screen, which would be subtly behind the plot. This document addresses the result of each of these three approaches and illuminate’s reasons for these compositional choices.

While these three films may ultimately have very little in common, musically, what unifies them is the composers’ careful attention to the narrative and its subtext. Given the importance of narrative and that each film contains one of its own, there can be no all-inclusive answer to the question, ‘What kind of music belongs in a war film?’

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