March 2003 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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EDITOR’s CHOICE March 2003


Ice Station Zebra  
Music composed by Michel Legrand
  FSMCD Vol. 6, No. 2  
Running time: 79.20
Available from Film Score Monthly, 8503 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA90232; Tel: 1-888-345-6335; overseas: 310-253-9595; fax: 310-253-9588;

ice station zebra

Ice Station Zebra was a large-scale 1968 Cold War thriller, located symbolically enough, in the arctic; an old-school submarine adventure bolstered by all the spectacular Cinerama production values MGM could lavish such a potential blockbuster. The film was based on a novel by Alistair MacLean, at the time the world's best selling novelist, his work already having provided the template for The Guns of Naverone (1961), while Where Eagles Dare would reach the screen in the same year as Ice Station Zebra. Naverone had a traditional war movie score by Dimitri Tiomkin, Eagles would follow suit with a score by Ron Goodwin, noted for comparable work on 633 Squadron. The director of Zebra was John Sturges, who had benefited greatly from the rousing traditional scores Elmer Bernstein penned for his The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.

It thus seems particularly odd that Michel Legrand would be selected as composer for Ice Station Zebra. The French composer had already been writing music for films and television since 1957, but virtually his entire output had been for French, Italian or the occasional low-profile British production, and he was by far best known for his wonderfully melodic musical, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). Indeed, Legrand, who to date has written over 170 scores, the vast majority for films from his native France, remains best known for his ability to craft an unforgettable romantic melody. He is famous as a master of the jazz based score, likewise bringing a rare sophistication to such pop based soundtracks as The Thomas Crown Affair, again a 1968 production. His melancholy songs and themes, such as "The Summer Knows" (from The Summer of '42 (1971)), "Watch What Happens", "Brian's Song", "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?" and of course "The Windmills of your Mind" (from The Thomas Crown Affair) have made him a household name, and in some circles a figure derided as an MOR icon.

Yet, as his popular score for The Three Musketeers (1973) shows, he can deliver a rousing, witty and inventive large scale orchestral score with the best of them. Which brings us to Ice Station Zebra and the thought that, while it may be odd that he was chosen to score the film, we can only rejoice that someone was perceptive enough to see that he was indeed the man for the job. In short, Michael Legrand's score is superb; it is to be regretted that he has not worked more in this vein. Especially as in the excellent booklet notes which accompany this greatly expanded release he says "I love that kind of work." He goes on to say how the score took "me months and weeks of nights orchestrating… It was the first time for me doing something of that scope." And clearly his enthusiasm and determination to do an outstanding job shine through.

The booklet suggests part of the appeal of the score is that it works as a "Cold War ballet", and certainly the music is rich, complex and fluid, offering an expansive impressionistic landscape dominated every so often by the two main grand themes and craggy outbreaks of muscular action writing, like mountains arising through the bleak icy wastes of the Arctic. That many of the tracks are very long - there are only 15 tracks on a 79 minute album - helps the dreamlike, mesmerising ambience of the score. For those who have previous releases of the score, well, there is well over twice as much music here - the complete score including some sequences not used in the finished film just fits onto a single packed CD - perhaps too much to comfortably enjoy in a single sitting. But then that is not a point for complaint; it is very easy to pick and chose with a CD player. The sound too is massively improved over previous issues; indeed, the 1968 stereo sound is revelatory, proving just how good sound recording was back then when the money was spent on a state-of-the-art super-production.

And what of the music? Well typically of Legrand he delivers an unforgettable main theme, but rather than the jazz or tender melodies we are used to, he gives us a bold, intensely masculine and heroic theme, one which is as much description of the vast landscape as of the film's protagonists. While the melody itself is entirely different, the feeling aroused has much in common with both Jerry Goldsmith's The Edge and Lee Holdridge's Into Thin Air: Death on Everest, both of which of course also deal with macho adventure in icy locations. The later score appears to have been crafted from a similar sensibility in its anthems to man's indomitable spirit, comparing Holdridge's iron cast writing with Legrand's powerful accompaniment to the central section of track 8: "Crewman Falls onto Crevasse". Elsewhere light and fluttery atmospheric textures seem to anticipate Leonard Rosenman's superb Dragonslayer, and all-the-while Legrand maintains interest through his remarkably detailed orchestrations and innate sense of musical drama.

It goes without saying that the packaging is first class, with the colour stills being of a particularly high quality. Film Score Monthly releases are always produced to the highest possible standards, though sometimes I have felt that the scores chosen are less than worthy of the attention devoted to them. Not so this time. Ice Station Zebra is one of the finest scores of its kind and Film Score Monthly's reissue is one of the company's finest achievements to date. A simply fantastic release which I recommend unhesitatingly.

Gary Dalkin

***** 5

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