Friday Film (14)

We’ll get to my pal Hugh’s message (previous posting here) in a few minutes; right now, I want to lead us back into the surprisingly dark and even shocking artefact that is The Sea Hawk (1940). And, as a first step in that direction, I want to share the bit in which Captain Thorpe discovers that there are contexts in which an oblique reference to historical and geopolitical truth makes for a lousy chat-up line… 

All right. Let’s move on — in the general direction of my central point — with three clips.

First, here’s a tiny fragment of Korngold’s score for The Sea Hawk

It’s a pretty memorable idea: lush, sweeping, romantic… You’ll have no difficulty spotting its appearance within the film’s opening music — most of which is a magnificent fanfare in the muscular, athletic style of which the (un-muscular, non-athletic) Korngold was such a master…

And now our third clip. This contains a large-scale fight between two ships’ crews: the pirates (good) versus the Spanish (bad). I actually feel that there are respects in which some of the violence depicted is obtrusively intense — certainly beyond anything we know from such relatively lighthearted and escapist fictions as Robin Hood; don’t allow the shock to distract you from the soundtrack — wherein a rationalised reprise of the film’s opening music begins during the fight.

The point of this clip is to show what happens in this reprise at the point where our surging, romantic theme can be said to be ‘expected’ — on the basis of what we originally heard happening after more or less that amount of the fanfare section. Clearly, a bit of obvious ‘love music’ would not be an appropriate accompaniment to all this killing. So what does Korngold do…? (Composers and would-be composers who are reading may wish to propose solutions of their own in private — or, indeed, in public! — before they go through the clip.)

And the answer — as I hope literally everyone heard! — is that Korngold subjected his lush tune to some very considerable alteration: what was a slow theme that took eight bars to get through its first part is here turned into a violent, ‘thumping’ idea that takes up only eight beats

Such thematic variation and metamorphosis is encountered in pretty well all the Korngold film scores I know (there are a few films I’ve never found; and there’s another one in which the issue isn’t really relevant). It’s something he does exceedingly well and effectively — and something which I keep being prevented from discussing here in adequate detail because the necessary clips simply aren’t available anywhere online. (I tried uploading some myself on to YouTube the other day — and the software that protects Warner Bros copyrights smacked them down again within 15 minutes. Yes, really.) So there we are.

We have, however, reached a point at which I can discuss Hugh’s remark about the Sea Hawk‘s final duel. If you remember, he said that he felt the Sea Hawk sword fight looked ‘on the face of it, like a re-run of Robin Hood‘.

And I do take his point (if you’ll pardon what looks like a sword fighting joke, and isn’t). But, at the same time, I am prepared to stand up and defend the direction and fight-arrangements of those two scenes. You see, something I can’t ignore is that within such a scene — whether it’s in a mediaeval setting, like Robin Hood, or an Elizabethan one, as in The Sea Hawk — the action has to proceed in terms of an exceedingly restricted selection of elements: not only are there limitations upon the kind of technology that can be used in the fight itself, but there is only a limited range of interior (and a still more limited range of exterior) features than can plausibly be present. And even where something like a bookcase might be a reasonable piece of set dressing, for a character to try and use it in the fight proper — by pushing it over, climbing up it, hiding behind it… — would probably look utterly ridiculous.

Thus, the development of the final ‘good-guy–bad guy’ confrontation in pre-gunslinger movie settings was inevitably going to settle upon a strictly circumscribed visual and aural ‘vocabulary’. And even so, they did terrifically well!

Let me show you the Robin Hood fight again, with my own personal descriptors added, as concisely as possible, below the video panel. See if you can follow them as the action proceeds…

[Mind the steps!] /[Good guy returns weapon!]/[Weapons lock!]/[Nose to nose!]/[Tall thing goes over!]/[Candle chop!] /[Chuck something!] /[Weapons lock!] /[Swisssh!!] /[Climb over!!] /[It’s The Shadows!] /[Swisssh!!]/[Weapons lock!] /[Tall thing goes over!]/[Weapons lock!]/[Swisssh!!]/[Candle chop!]/[Balsa table work!] /[Jump over!] /[Layer of sweat added!]/[Weapons lock!] /[Nose to nose!] /[Extra weapon!] /[Bad guy buys it!]

Now let’s parse the Sea Hawk fight in the same sort of way (new and added elements in bold type)…

[Swisssh!!]/[Candle chop!]/[Swisssh!!]/[Candle chop!]/[Swisssh!!]/[Candle chop!]/[Weapons lock!]/[Nose to nose!]/[Push over!]/[Weapons lock!]/[Balsa table work!]/[It’s The Shadows!]/[Swisssh!!]/[Furniture alert!]/[Swisssh!!]/[Weapons lock!]/[Nose to nose!]/[Through the glass, darkly!]/[Door!]/[Weapons lock!]/[Nose to nose!]/[Mind the steps!]/[Layer of sweat added!]/[Swisssh!!]/[Tall thing goes over!]/[It’s The Shadows!]/[Bad guy buys it!]

(– And if you want to have a go at another one yourself, there is always this one, from The Adventures of Don Juan [1948; score by Max Steiner], which we have seen before, and this one, from The Great Race [1965; score by Henry Mancini]. Do put your analysis — and the discovery of all new and added elements! — in the ‘Comments’ section!)

Now, this blog wouldn’t be this blog without penetrating discussion of the musical side of things — so let me make a few observations. First, I really suggest that anyone who’s interested in how film music works tries to match the music from one Korngold fight to the film of another (or perhaps to something from another movie entirely: here’s one to have a go with, if you feel like it).  Since I’ve never, ever found that such marriages ‘work’ for more than a few seconds at a time, I have to conclude that we should not under-estimate the extent to which Korngold’s music is responsive to the specific characteristics of the action.

Among these specific characteristics is, of course, ’emotional intensity’ (unquantifiable though it is): in spite of the many things that our two preceding scenes have in common, I think it’s pretty plain that the fight from The Sea Hawk begins at a considerably higher level of tension than the one from Robin Hood — and thus, for example, the elements of lightweight, ‘quasi-operatic’ accompaniment that punctuate the verbal sparring between Robin and Sir Guy would be quite inappropriate for the grimmer exchange between Thorpe and Wolfingham. In fact, Korngold’s splendid solution to the problem of how to introduce music in the latter case is to use a cymbal roll: an angry, sizzling, snake-like hiss builds under Wolfingham’s speech — creating a growing element of tension out of which the music can burst.

And, speaking of hissing, note the way Korngold cuts back the ‘top end’ of his orchestration for a few beats just in time for that second Robin Hood ‘Swisssh!’: rather than risk drowning the sound effect in high woodwind or string activity, he makes the dominant sound a simple descending line on the lower-pitched trumpet — and so leaves acoustic and gestural ‘space’ for the noise to get through unchallenged. And all this without breaking the motivic, textural or rhythmic continuity.

And, speaking of rhythm, note the way Korngold is somehow able to accompany his Sea Hawk duel using what are, for a lot of the time, regular rhythmic units. In other words, while the Robin Hood fight was responsive to the action in a way that saw it continually dropping and inserting beats (try and count your way through it sometime!), in The Sea Hawk a good deal of the action is taken care of without breaking step, as it were. In fact, even though there are places where Korngold smudges his rhythm in order to accommodate a particularly tricky timing or gesture, I do find it impossible to believe that he didn’t have at least a little input into the way these scenes were edited: I simply can’t conceive of how he would have made things come out so ‘right’ otherwise…

Here’s the clip again: count the beats from the start and see how much of the time you can manage in groups of four and eight. In fact, you’ll find the task so easy that you can look out for other things while you’re doing it. ‘Table goes over’? DOWNBEAT.  ‘Bad guy goes through window’? DOWNBEAT AFTER TENSE, EXTENDED UPBEAT. ‘Candle-holder hits floor?’ DOWNBEAT. Fight coming to an end? SUCCESSION OF BLADE-CLASHES COINCIDE WITH BEATS….

This, it seems to me, is complete mastery — and I don’t know of anyone other than Korngold who has ever handled this kind of thing either with such success or with such apparent effortlessness.

And if you want an example of what happens when none of the qualities described above are actually present, just look at the following. Is this even basic competence? Hell, whoever is responsible for the music has even pitched the most important parts of the texture right at the pitch level of the clanging blades: how un-clever is that?

Where creativity is concerned, I’m not a fan of ‘comparison’, as you know. But in the case of this feeble attempt, no comparison is really possible anyhow: how can one compare something with nothing…?


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3 thoughts on “Friday Film (14)

  1. I was enjoying your observations Mark but the discussion abruptly ended when you got to the “musical side of things”….what happened next? Incidentally, Korngold’s seemingly endless skill in thematic metamorphosis was always present in his music and is not specific to the film scores. EG Check out the Finale of his early Sinfonietta Opus 5. It opens with a fugue. That fugue then transforms itself into a brisk rondo (using the same thematic material) and this, in turn, becomes the lush 2nd subject which is a close relative to the love duet “Reine Liebe” in the opera Violanta and could easily have been teleported into one of the later film scores. And yes, it too uses the same melodic kernel of that opening fugue. What a clever 15 year old our Erich was!


    • What happened was simply that the videos I had originally written about turned out not to be allowable on YouTube — so I had to jettison most of my text, and am now contructing a new one in post-publication real-time…! Don’t worry: there’s a few good paragraphs gradually forming…!


  2. I’ve never been a great fan of the scores Patrick Doyle produced for Branagh (although Hamlet was nominated for an Oscar, so what do I know…). It’s interesting to hear how Doyle’s music is pushed into the background, especially when compared to the Korngolds (background music vs accompaniment, say). And Doyle seems to have written his score fresh from a recent screening of Psycho, without ever coming near Herrmann’s level of mastery…

    Loved your detailed analysis of the two Korngold scenes. So similar, yet so different, perhaps?


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