Poor Ron Goodwin. His name in film music history will forever be associated with the junking of William Walton's score for "The Battle of Britain" in 1969 - a decision he had no role in but which has long caused him to be denigrated as the "hack" hired by dull-witted Hollywood producers to replace a work of film music art. The 1999 release of the complete score, including Walton's contributions, shows Goodwin's efforts in a somewhat better light. He might not be in Walton's league, but his efforts on that film gave it a much-needed musical core.
Turning to Goodwin probably seemed a natural move -- after all, he'd already written first-class action scores to several World War II potboilers, including "633 Squadron," "Operation Crossbow" and "Where Eagles Dare" - the latter an Allied-forces actioner penned by Alistair MacLean (the Tom Clancy of his day) and starring the unlikely duo of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.
As guilty pleasures go, this one's a hoot: Burton and Eastwood impersonate German officers to infiltrate a Nazi stronghold high atop a mountain where they must rescue an American general before shooting their way back to safety. Audiences were well advised to check their credulity at the door. But those who did were in for quite a show -- with no small credit owing to Goodwin.
Make no mistake: this is basic, programmatic film scoring. Goodwin's music is nothing if not functional, starting with the main title opening with a single snare drum tapping out an insistent cadence. The simple theme in low brass that follows is developed in a rising fugue, strings and horns alternating on the seven-note motif. The impact adds tension while simultaneously suggesting a heroic mode. It's all so simple, yet so effective. Goodwin uses this same tension/heroic theme in several cues, 'Pursued by the Enemy' and 'The Chase to the Airfield - providing in the process a textbook example of thematic action-cue scoring. Swirling strings are almost enough to induce altitude sickness in the cue 'Ascent in the Cable Car.'
The final cue consists of three incidental dance pieces that - if programmed into the overall mix, - would offer pleasant interludes amid the rest of the score's consistent sturm und drang. At barely 40 minutes, this recording doesn't quite wear out its welcome. One wishes, in fact, that Chapter III might have managed to find some other Goodwin
score to match up with 'Eagles' on this disc. His earlier "633 Squadron," for example, would have been a great addition - but alas, that wasn't an MGM film. Most of Chapter III's film score releases have featured dual scores by the featured composer - Goldsmith, Jarre, Schifrin, for example - and frankly, that adds to their attraction, given that each score is no more than the original LP soundtrack. To their credit, Chapter III producers have, at least, improved on their liner notes - here with a contribution from the always-informative Jeff Bond.
Gary S. Dalkin adds:-
Ron Goodwin is one of the great British film composers, though his wide-ranging achievements in both film and light music have tended to be overshadowed by his ability to write indelibly catchy themes; particularly for such 1960's war dramas as 633 Squadron, Battle of Britain and this title under review, Where Eagles Dare. Indeed, with other gems such as the 'Miss Marple Theme' ('Murder at the Gallop' from the 60's features, not the 80's TV series), Frenzy and The Trap (now known as the music from the London Marathon) Goodwin may well be second only John Barry as Britain's master of theme tunes.
Adapted by Alistair MacClean from his own novel, Where Eagles Dare was a WWII espionage action adventure on the grandest scale. MacClean had already provided the story of the massively successful The Guns of Navarone, so Where Eagles Dare was brought to the screen as a no-expenses spared blockbuster starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, then the probably hottest young star in the world. The action revolves around a top secret allied mission to rescue an American General holding the plans to D-Day from a German mountain fortress, and contains some of the most exciting set-pieces of any war movie.
The film runs 158 minutes including an intermission with entr'acte music and a considerable amount of underscore. This CD however presents a direct reissue of the original soundtrack LP, and thus misses the opportunity to provide a more complete presentation of Goodwin's music. There are eight score tracks totalling approximately 34 minutes, plus a ninth track with presents three source cues, a beguine, polka and fox trot. The packaging is generic to Chapter III's 'Main Event' reissue programme, presenting some stills and artwork on the back cover, with further artwork on the front below a fake cinema marquee displaying the film's title. This sort of perfunctory packaging may have seemed acceptable a few years ago, but following exemplary releases from Film Score Monthly, and Varèse Sarabande's recent marvellously presented Cleopatra
(which of course was another 1960's blockbuster starring Richard Burton) and it looks as if Chapter III are not even attempting to keep up.
Conventional wisdom has it that Ron Goodwin is great at themes, and less impressive at underscore. But perhaps it is that his themes are so powerful they simply overshadow the remainder of his scores. And after all, shouldn't the theme standout, while the rest of the score be less noticeable? Maybe it is Goodwin that stands out because today so many film composers seem incapable of even writing a memorable tune? Whatever the case, Where Eagles Dare opens with one of the best, and I mean the very best, one of the greatest title themes in all film music. Set against film of a plane flying low over snow-capped mountains, Goodwin's fugal theme is driven by military snare but builds suspense by a stop-start motor rhythm which promises excitement, drama and self-sacrificing heroics. Rising brass chords develop into a simply unforgettable melody. So unforgettable that it appears to have formed the basis for Larry Groupé's score to The Contender (2000)
The theme appears in various guises, though rarely in full-flight, in the cues which follow. The film is dominated by two intricate set-pieces revolving around a cable-car to a castle on the top of the mountain, and these are represented by 'Ascent on the Cable Car' and 'Descent & Fight on the Cable Car' both of which run over seven minutes. This is fine action-suspense music, the latter particularly standing as a virtuoso example of sustained menace and sheer vertiginous terror. Likewise 'Pursued by the Enemy', offers excitement which develops into a biting, forebodingly heroic statement of the main theme. 'On Enemy Territory' and 'The Chase to the Airfield' deliver further tension and thrills, such that the source cues end the proceedings on an anti-climax.
The sound is excellent for the period, with no distortion and minimal hiss. The recording is full and detailed, though lacking the dynamic range of a more modern production. The album presents one of the greatest themes in film music history, plus a good amount of skilfully dramatic war adventure writing. Like Chapter III's reissue of Richard Rodney Bennett's Far From the Madding Crowd from the same period, and which I also review this month, this is a score which belongs in any self-respecting soundtrack collection. A film music classic, though additional tracks and better packaging would make this perfect.
Gary S. Dalkin