Film Score Friday: ‘War Horse’ by John Williams

Often times a filmmaker and a composer find a shared voice, a common approach that allows both to make the project they share truly remarkable. One of the highest profile partnerships is that of Steven Spielberg and John Williams, arguably the two greatest artist in their chosen fields. This winter brings us not one, but two brand new collaborations between these two heavyweights, and today we are going to dig into the first of the two, War Horse.

I was extremely excited when I began listening to this music, every time Williams composes music for a Spielberg film there is a good chance he is crafting something remarkable. The first 25 seconds of the War Horse score immediately let me know this music would be no exception. The score is classic Williams, with a somberness that is just subtle enough to be noticed, but not get in the way of the idealistic sheen that Williams uses so well.

The main theme of War Horse is beautiful, Williams is the greatest theme writer in the history of ever and some how he manages to still do it to this day. The theme is simple, but evocative of early 20th century hopes and dreams as well as the nobility of the soliders fighting in the first two world wars. Which makes sense due to the fact that the film is about the incredible journey of a boy, too young to enlist going to the war torn trenches in France to save his friend, the titular horse. 

As with any good Spielberg/Williams project there is some fantastic action music in this score. I love when Williams can write some fast paced action/chase music, and there are a few places in this score that stand with some of the best action pieces Williams has ever written. I think those pieces were given an extra boost by the fact that one of the film’s main characters is a horse. The music has a fast pace and I bet it has to do with the fact that it likely accompanies some awesome World War I horse action!

I am also a huge fan of how Williams puts together his albums. There is rarely wasted space, and the whole thing often works as a separate listening experience. Most of that has to do with the fact that Williams is a very visual composer, his music easily puts images into your head. People often knock his music because it “tells” you what to think. I disagree, Williams music highlights the emotion, it doesn’t manufacture it.

Also, all the tracks are between two and a half and eight minutes! None of that 35 second track crap that so often pops up on score albums, thank you Mr. Williams for thinking about the album experience and putting together actual length musical chunks for the album.

This music is fantastic, but my one gripe with the album is another Williams staple, spoilerific track titles. ‘The Death of *****’ seriously? It is like ‘Qui-Gon’s Noble End’ all over again, albeit on a much smaller scale. This obviously wont be an issue in a few months, but be forewarned when you read the track listing on any Williams album.

Three Favorite Tracks:

The Desertion by John Williams – This is one of the first great action music tracks on the album, and probably a bit of a spoiler track name too. I really love the build up and pay off in this track, it starts of quite and small but quickly builds to a fast and frantic action that might be over quick, but man does it get your juices flowing. Then it softly lands into more quiet and soft sounds, only this time with a heavier string presence. It is all together a very stirring piece of music.

No Man’s Land by John Williams – This track starts off with some rather eerie strings, giving a quite but wholly unsettled feeling. It lingers for a while, almost too long before it jumps into more awesome action music. The themes written for this film work very fluidly in both big sweeping moments and loud exiting action moments. The action music in this particular track also have a slight Hans Zimmer sound at first, which then transforms into full on John  Williams greatness by the end. It is very neat to kind of hear a little bit of both action music styles in the same track.

The Homecoming by John Williams – One of the greatest things Williams does that is often overlooked in today’s cinema environment is a fantastic closing credits suite. If you want to hear the War Horse music in a perfect little nutshell, ‘The Homecoming’ is it. It starts with a very fun bit of music that likely plays as a return home for our characters and then later transitions into my absolute favorite version of the main theme, using trademark big sweeping strings and capping it all off with a beautiful little bit of rustic woodwind. So good.

Least Favorite Track:

The Death of **** by John Williams – I found it very hard to determine a least favorite track this week. The music might be a little repetitive from track to track, but when I thought of any specific track to point out I just can’t bring myself to calling the music out. So I went with the superficial title qualm I had. Yep that damed spoiler title knocked this otherwise nice track down to the dog house.

In all this is more classic music by Williams, I expect yet another Oscar nomination and maybe even win for the Maestro with this great score. The only minor knock keeping this from a perfect five for five is it’s lack of truly iconic hooks like Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Harry Potter. Ultimately that is probably too harsh, because the music works very well as is, and the subject matter likely didn’t warrant anything else. But I am grading a fantastic score against some of the greatest ever written.

Final Score for War Horse

4.5 out of 5

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