November 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Objective Burma
 Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by William T Stromberg
 MARCO POLO 8.225148 [71:38]
  Amazon USA

The versatile Franz Waxman won a deserved Academy Award nomination for this gritty, heroic score. I remember all the fuss this excellent and unusually restrained war film made on its showing here in the UK. Listening to this music, I wonder if it more than Errol Flynn, in one of his finest, understated roles, was to blame for inflaming British veterans emotions and ire? But I jest. Certainly this score reflects the spirit of the times; the film was made in 1945. It is very gung-ho; but it is also correspondingly down-beat for much of the screenplay as the paratroopers' luck runs out and everything looks bleak as the Japanese close in and rescue aircraft continue to miss spotting them

Charles Gerhardt in his Classic film Scores series for RCA recorded a brilliantly thrilling reading of 'Parachute Drop' from Objective Burma! as part of the 'Captain Blood - Classic Film Scores for Errol Flynn' album (GD80912). This same episode on this new album may not have quite that impact but it is that much more accurately reconstructed and played so that Waxman's intentions are splendidly realised. He said, "…the sequence …where the paratroopers jump from the plane to pursue their mission…the music must be descriptive in character. The zig-zag figurations in the violins more or less characterise the jerky, abrupt movements of a man who is jumping from a plane. The hundreds of bodies floating in the air descending in different directions gave inspiration for this violin figuration. Later the main theme joins in unison, and after everybody is safely on the ground, this same thematic material is developed in fugato played ponticello pianissimo by the strings until the end of the sequence."

The opening 'Main Title - Opening Scene - Briefing in an Hour' introduces all the major themes. A huge gong followed by statements of the Burma theme suggest the exotic locale (although Waxman wisely eschews the use of clichés of the pentatonic scale, temple bells and wood blocks). Trumpet flourishes set the military atmosphere and a persistent drum roll, incorporated in the 'Shock' theme presages dangers to come. But it is the Paratroopers March that impresses. This march will pass through a series of mutations as the screenplay unfolds. At the start of the operation it is all swagger, confidence and optimism. After successful completion of the mission but during the danger-filled retreat to base the March becomes less defiant, more trudging but determined, then as things worsen it becomes ever more despondent. Nervous and edgy material insinuates its way into 'Take off - in the Plane' as the paratroopers anticipate their mission.

The Moscow players are responding more and more effectively to Stromberg and Morgan's direction as this Marco Polo Film Music series progresses. Witness the virtuoso string playing in, for instance, 'Killing the Sentry-Getting Ready' when they play swiftly moving staccato agitated material, and blocks of plucked figures (rather like rows of soldiers) -- every hair-line thin note is razor sharp.

It is a tribute to Waxman's immense skill how he can create so much tension and suspense using single solo instruments, a block or a xylophone, or with a quiet string tremor. Similarly he can create a jungle picture with just a solo woodwind twittering or a droll elephantine figure on the brass (offering much needed comic relief). His score magnificently, sensitively, touches all the heroism and tragedy of Flynn's weary, besieged soldiers, their emotions descending from jubilation to disappointment, to disillusion, to despair. He also vividly paints the off-stage brutality of the Japanese. One of the most affecting moments in the score is the quiet, moving elegy for the journalist Williams. Impressive too are 'The Invasion - the Landing' as reinforcements and rescuing troops arrive at last the closing with a muted yet still optimistic restatement of the main title music and a reprise of the parachute jumping music. In the concluding 'The Camp-Finale', the music underlines the soldiers sense of weariness and relief, while the sound of taps mournfully commemorates those that have fallen.

The notes in the 32 page booklet are exemplary, well up to what we have come to expect in this series with articles covering not only a track-by-track analysis but also 'The Making of Objective Burma!' and a description, by Rudy Behlmer of the score from which I lifted the quote from Franz Waxman above, and a portrait of the film's director Raoul Walsh. The point is well made that the story of Objective Burma! was practically wholly transposed to the 19th century and to the Second Seminole War in Florida in another Warner Bros film starring Gary Cooper, Distant Drums (1951) for which Max Steiner contributed another magnificent score. (A recording of this score was reviewed on this site last year). It is interesting to compare Steiner's music with this terrific Waxman opus.

Now, Mr Morgan, after this success, what about a new complete recording of Waxman's The Spirit of St Louis and The Nun's Story? Excellent.

Ian Lace


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