September 2001Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings /Sept01/

Paul SAWTELL and Bert SHEFTER Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea OST FILM SCORE MONTHLY Vol. 4 No. 10 [55:53]
[Available through the magazine, Film Score Monthly, or its website( for $19:95 plus shipping: Film Score Monthly, 8503 Washington Boulevard, Culver City CA 90232, ph: 310-253-9595 or toll-free 1-888-345-6335 fax:310-253-9588;]



20th Century Fox have always been at the forefront of big budget science fiction, and Irwin Allen's 1961 production could be said to be ahead of the pack in elevating the cinematic version of the genre from the clutches of 1950's B movies. It paved the way for Fox's Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Planet of the Apes (1968), and led the way in big budget Hollywood SF valuing special effects over sense. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is one of the most idiotic A pictures films ever made - the Van Allen belt has "caught fire" and the way to put it out is with nuclear explosions! - yet was successful enough to spin-off a four season TV series which established the format for Star Trek's interplanetary adventures.

Of the two composers responsible for the score, Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter, Sawtell also wrote the theme and scored the first five episodes of the TV incarnation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. This album however is entirely devoted to the cinema film. All the cues were jointly attributed to the two composers, so it is a matter of speculation who wrote what. Sawtell worked on over 360 films in total, mostly B movies, including vast numbers of westerns. Shefter's career was similar, but no where near as prolific, and his scores were almost always written in collaboration with Sawtell. Working on vast numbers of pictures and TV shows, they are among the many uncelebrated but highly skilled musical craftsmen of Hollywood.

The album opens with the main title song, a typical MOR pop ballad of the era sung with some charm by pop pip-up Frankie Avalon. The cue fades into "The Super Sub", a typical piece of nautical bombast incorporating various patriotic themes. "Dive" briefly links the melody of the title theme to descriptive underwater music in a tradition harking back to Bernard Herrmann's groundbreaking Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) (another Fox score recently released by Film Score Monthly

The drama really starts with track 4, the six minutes of "Ice Block Collision/The Red Sea/Survivor". Tense, muscular chromatic writing, unresolved strings and surging harps delivers a whirlwind of action and suspense. The stereo sound is exceptionally good for the time and fans of Herrmann's Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventure scores will feel right at home. Indeed, the brief might well have been to deliver cut-price imitation Herrmann. It is a sensibility maintained throughout, with several extended sections providing considerable dramatic intensity. See for example the eight minutes of "Brave Volunteers/Cable Search/Dangerous Grounds/The Squid Attacks", the following seven minute "Alvarez's Resignation/Minefield Explosions/All Back - Dead Slow" or the climactic "Fatal Dose/Alvarez Acts/Successful Mission".

Packed with incident, filled with the urgency and tightly written action, this is both typical of screen SF of the 50's into the early 60's and whether deliberately or not, a homage to the underwater/fantasy scoring of Bernard Herrmann. Besides Beneath the 12-Mile Reef there are echoes of Herrmann's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (a Fox feature from 1959), Mysterious Island (1961) and On Dangerous Ground (1951). Whether or not this counts for being a classic in its own right is debatable, the score being one of many following in a well established tradition; the difference between the great film composers who define their own sound and the craftsmen who follow and make it generic.

It is doubtful whether this score would have been released had it not come from a particularly successful film, particularly one in a genre, science fiction, especially popular with soundtrack collectors. Well crafted as it is, the score remains a solid piece of genre craftsmanship. It is perfectly fine for what it is, but to apply the term "classic" is to devalue the word.

As ever with Film Score Monthly releases, the album is exceptionally well presented. After the score proper there are three bonus cues: a temporary and a demo main title, and one short damaged cue, "Nervous Hysteria". The booklet is first-rate, beautifully printed with colour stills, essays on both the film and the score, and a cue by cue annotation of the soundtrack. This is an excellent presentation of a good, characterful score. It's just a shame the character belongs to another, much more distinguished composer.

Gary S. Dalkin

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