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
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.