Tag Archives: Elmer Bernstein

My Thoughts on: The Great Escape (1963)

I’ve been a fan of movies about World War II for a number of years, and The Great Escape has almost always been at the top of my list of favorites. When it was announced earlier this year that The Great Escape would be added to the Criterion Collection, picking up a copy seemed like a no-brainer. Today was the first day I sat down to watch this newly restored version of the film and I definitely have some thoughts about it.

First, some context. If you’re not familiar with this film, The Great Escape is based on the incredible true story of how Allied prisoners of war tunneled their way out of a German Luft Stalag in the latter part of World War II. The all-star cast includes Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, James Garner, and Charles Bronson, just to name a few. It’s an amazing story to sit through and watch, and it becomes even more incredible when you remember that all of this more or less happened.

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The Criterion edition of The Great Escape is certainly an improvement over the previous DVD copy that I owned (and subsequently gave away because of its issues). A glaring problem with THAT copy was that when the film was restored for widescreen, the process was botched, pulling the picture back so far that at times the edges of the sets were clearly visible and, most embarrassingly, in one seen you can clearly see crew members pushing extras along (during the July 4th sequence). I was very curious to see if Criterion had corrected these issues and I’m pleased to report they have. Everything has been restored to its proper aspect ratio, which is good because those errors in the old DVD version drove me crazy.

One thing I was slightly disappointed by was the quality of the picture itself. Considering I bought the blu-ray version of the film, part of me was expecting the image to be…crisper? This could be something to do with the quality of the master print itself (after all, a film can only be restored so far), but I am sad that the image quality wasn’t better than I remembered (I’m not too upset though, this may have been something out of Criterion’s control).

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As for the story itself, watching this film brought back all the memories of sitting down to watch this film while I was growing up. One of the things that makes The Great Escape so awesome is its perfect blend of tones. One minute you have a comedy when the three American POWs (McQueen, Garner, and Jud Taylor) “declare Independence” on the 4th of July, the very next it’s a tragedy when (on the same day), a fellow prisoner commits suicide by guard out of despair when one of the escape tunnels is discovered. It’s emotional whiplash for sure, but it’s done so effectively. Rest assured, you never forget that this is a story set in Nazi Germany, a place where terrible, TERRIBLE things happened.

I also must point out Elmer Bernstein’s fantastic score for The Great Escape. The score has actually become so iconic that many people recognize the music (or at least the film’s main theme) without actually having seen the film itself. Bernstein uses music effectively throughout the film. There’s an ominous strings motif for the prison camp itself (first heard when Ives walks up to the barbed wire barrier at the start of the film), that motif returns throughout the first part of the film, and most tellingly returns when the one escape tunnel is discovered. But I think the musical moment that sticks with me the most out of this entire film comes at the very end when the 50 prisoners are unwittingly being taken away to be shot. Bernstein accompanies the procession of trucks with a downright funereal theme that leaves no question as to what’s about to happen. It’s somewhat heavy-handed, but no doubt Bernstein wanted to avoid any false hope regarding the fates of Roger, Mac, and everyone else who was recaptured.

I highly recommend checking out The Great Escape for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, and you should definitely consider checking out the new Criterion edition.

Let me know what you think about The Great Escape in the comments below and have a great day!

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Remembering James Horner: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Unbelievably, tomorrow will mark four years since we lost composer James Horner in a plane crash. I established the Remembering James Horner Blogathon to celebrate his beautiful film scores and in my own small way keep his memory alive.

For this year’s blogathon, I decided to look at one of Horner’s final works, his score for the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. There’s actually a pretty sad story behind this score. You’ll note the film was released in 2016, after Horner had passed away. Well, he’d been attached to score the film, but at the time of his death, the impression was the score hadn’t been started. But then, when his things were being cataloged in his old studio, someone discovered the entire store written and saved on his computer. It turns out that Horner had secretly scored the entire film as a surprise for the director, but of course had never gotten the chance to tell him about it. Now technically this score isn’t 100% Horner’s work. Simon Franglen was brought in to adjust and tweak the score after it was discovered, but I believe the vast majority remains Horner’s original work, the last of his scores to ever be released.

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The soundtrack for The Magnificent Seven features Horner working at his peak, as always. Since this is a Western, there’s a noted “twang” in the strings, with I believe a mix of guitar thrown in to emphasize the Old West setting.

I was actually against this film at first (being a huge fan of the original), even after Horner’s passing, until I listened to the soundtrack in preparation for the blogathon and realized that Horner had taken the time to quote Elmer Bernstein’s original theme for The Magnificent Seven (1960). You can hear it particularly in “Volcano Springs” and in other places, but it isn’t quoted in full until the end credits. I love that Horner took the time to quote that iconic melody, since it really doesn’t feel like a “Magnificent Seven” film without it, not to me at any rate. This shows me that Horner, at some level, wanted to connect this film back to the iconic 1960 film, which is something he didn’t have to do, but I’m glad he did.

Horner definitely put his own stamp on this film score. I normally wouldn’t think of hearing drawn out vocals in a Western (“Street Slaughter”), but Horner makes it work as only he can (he was known for using drawn out vocals in his film scores, Troy is a good example).

It makes me sad, even now, that this was James Horner’s last film score, but I’m glad it was found in time to be used for the film. I honestly think this score is one of the best parts of the film, it sounds beautiful.

What do you think of the remake of The Magnificent Seven and its score? Does the fact that this is James Horner’s final film score change your impression of it in anyway? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day! Be sure to check out the official recap page of the blogathon to see the other entries as they’re posted.

See also:

Remembering James Horner: Troy (2004)

The magic of James Horner: Casper (1995)

Remembering James Horner: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The 4th Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon has Arrived!

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A Random Thought on The Ten Commandments (1956)

Yesterday I got the chance to do something I thought I would never get to do: I got to see the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments on the big screen at my local theater (it’s a program that Turner Classic Movies runs every year where each month select classic films are run in theaters for a very limited time). While this movie was made long before my time, I grew up watching classic cinema, and watching The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (1959) was an annual tradition at our house.

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How was it? In a word, INCREDIBLE! I’m not sure what excited me more: seeing the film in a theater or hearing Elmer Bernstein’s standout score in surround sound (probably both). This is the film that made Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard by the way) famous, as it was his first major film score.

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My favorite moment (and I knew it would be going in) was the incredible “parting of the Red Sea.” They could completely recreate this scene in CGI and the original would STILL look better, simply because it feels REAL, there’s a reality to the special effects in this film that CGI could never touch. When the moment began and the music swelled, I tell you, I was covered in goosebumps from head to toe.

Watching this classic film in the theater brought it home to me that Hollywood does NOT make movies like this anymore. Think about it, of all the movies coming out since the year 2000, how many can you honestly say you would watch 60 years from now?

This was an amazing experience, and I can’t wait for the chance to see another classic film in the theater!

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"Overture" from The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein

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Many consider this 1960 film to be the greatest Western ever made. Adapted from The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of 7 gunfighters who join forces to protect a poor Mexican village from a gang of bandits led by the murderous Calvera (Eli Wallach). Led by Chris (Yul Brynner), the other gunfighters consist of:

  • Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen)
  • Bernardo O’Reilley (Charles Bronson)
  • Lee (Robert Vaughn)
  • Harry Luck (Brad Dexter)
  • Britt (James Coburn)
  • Chico (Horst Buchholz

The task is one step above thankless, as the only pay is a $20 gold piece and whatever food they eat while they’re in the village. And while the group barely tolerates each other at first (as they’re all in it for various reasons, be it money, fame or simply an excuse to relieve boredom), they slowly come together to help the villagers learn to defend themselves from Calvera’s gang.

Elmer Bernstein’s overture to the film has been praised for defining not only this film, but the Western genre as a whole. I posted this theme in particular because a remake of this film is due out next year (with a posthumous score by the late James Horner) and it will be interesting to see how the music has changed from 1960 to 2016. Until the remake comes out, enjoy a classic piece of film music!

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From left to right: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Buchholz, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter and James Coburn.

As a quick update: while Horner’s score does include the classic overture at the very end, the film itself does not live up to the high standard set by this 1960 classic. If given the choice, always go with this one.

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