Friday Film (72)

Never let it be said that I am deaf to persuasion.

Having complained, in last week’s film music posting, that ‘Duel of the Anthems’ isn’t really a satisfactory way of referring to that conflict between two group-defining songs which Casablanca presents so memorably, I was challenged by a pal to see if I could come up with a different term that conveyed so much information so concisely and with so little (in his view) inaccuracy.

And the truth is that I can’t. I’ve just spent an entire cup of coffee thinking about other ways of characterising that kind of musically embodied conflict in five syllables or fewer, and none of them were really as good…

So: ‘Duel of the Anthems’ it is. This is what we will adopt as the name of our Technique of the Day — and, having done so, we will move on to the second of the two applications known to me, just as I promised last week.

Or, at any rate, we will in fifteen minutes or so.

You see, the film in which this second example occurs — Zulu (1964) — played a rather important role in my musical self-education, back when I was a kid; and I know for a fact that there are readers out there who find my occasional reminiscences about my musical development to be of some interest. (No, I don’t know why.) let me point out that, when I had been grabbed by this powerful, well-made and relatively thoughtful film — which I saw (on TV) in the early seventies — and found myself haunted by its music for weeks afterwards, I started to try and learn musical notation in order to write it down. In fact, I can still remember holding a coloured felt-tip in my hand and trying to work out in my head and on the page what was that big interval — that huge upward leap — that came after what I’d reckoned was a jump of three semitones up and down. And it was something that I had to get right first time — as does anyone who’s writing in felt-tip on a stave they’ve just drawn with a ruler to fit inside a pair of ‘ruled feint’ lines in an old exercise-book…

From which experience, of course, I derived a principle or two that went on to shape my approach to teaching in later years. First, if you can find something that really sets a kid alight, not only will you see them teach themselves, but they’ll batter their way through any obstacle to master what it is they’ve told themselves they need to master. For me, as that kid, there was no “Oh, sir! Not interval dictation again! We did that on Monday!“: back then, I worked for hours and hours on recognising and writing down intervals because I needed.

Secondly, I can still remember my urgent feeling that something that had possessed me as musical sound now had to be possessed by me in some more ‘solid’ form. I never see this issue discussed anywhere; but it does seem to me that part of what leads a musical person to go and buy printed scores of their favourite pieces — and even to set about describing their shape or analysing their construction! — is a drive to try and hold on as firmly as possible to something that, in a straightforwardly physical sense, is ungraspable. I’ve always been struck by what, to me, is the unexpectedly deep moment in the film Young Frankenstein (1974) when the Creature, hearing violin music for the first time, snatches at the air around him in an attempt to catch hold of the enchanting phenomenon that he suddenly senses…

If I’d succeeded — all those years ago! — in catching hold, I mean writing down everything I wanted to as accurately as I wanted to (I couldn’t, of course…), I daresay the result would have contained all the thematic material heard in the following, which appears to be the ‘original soundtrack album’. It’s not of central relevance to this posting; but you might like to hear it. It’s only a few minutes, after all. Plus, I’m not going to make you write it down…

And, having heard all that, you may even be interested in this little documentary item about the music and its use in the film…

All right: Zulu‘s ‘Duel of the Anthems’ is almost upon us — and as it approaches, I want to prepare the way for it by creating a bit of context in the way I didn’t need to in the case of our Casablanca clip. Specifically, I want to present part of someone’s (roughly edited) compilation of all the sequences in which the Zulu warriors surrounding the outpost at Rorke’s Drift play, sing and chant what are presumably the musical-psychological components of their arsenal — designed to unify and encourage their own side while terrifying their enemy … and all the while admitting of an element of ‘command and control’…

The reason I wanted to show that compilation I will explain once everyone has seen my remaining clips — including the one that contains this film’s ‘Duel of the Anthems’. (It comes from the final reel, not many minutes before the film ends…)

So, why did I include that compilation of ‘Zulu music’ clips? The answer, very simply, is that I am keen to demonstrate that the film itself makes no attempt to express the Zulu experience by means of imposed or overlaid European music: it is (apparently) ‘their own music’ that speaks for and through them — which seems to me to be the right way to do it. If you want to know what would be the wrongest possible way to do it, just think of something like the music Max Steiner produced three decades earlier for the (fictional, imaginary) ‘natives’ in King Kong (1933): what that soundtrack vomits up over the human inhabitants of ‘Skull Island’ is a pretty representative selection of the musical junk that a European composer like Steiner considers ‘frighteningly primitive’ within himself…

In Zulu, then, we may be watching a story about the British attempt to control the whole of South Africa; but at least we don’t hear a British composer laying claim to all of the soundtrack. Or, to put it another way, these historic victims of British imperial aggression aren’t exactly offered an apology, but they are at least allowed anthropology: from the very start of the film proper (where we witness an extended recreation of a tribal wedding), they are to some extent seen and heard as a human society, rather than as merely some antagonistic horde.

In this sense, of course, this drama’s treatment of the Zulus is considerably more respectful than Casablanca‘s treatment of the Nazis — none of whose rich, complex, deranged and genocidal society the film bothers to depict; and can you blame it? But while Zulu does reveal something of the extent to which the West spent the 1960s being made aware of its own horrifying racism — indeed, the film’s release (in January 1964) came between Dr King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (August 1963) and his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize (October 1964) — the fact remains that one shouldn’t ‘go overboard’ as far as praise is concerned: in spite of all the film’s obvious efforts, it isn’t as ‘woke’ as all that. For all that the defeated Zulus are afforded the dramaturgical compliment of being ‘good losers’ (that last ‘saluting fellow braves’ bit did not actually occur), it is unhappily the case that not one of the warriors we see fighting and dying is ever allowed any kind of humanising verbal or other individual expression.

Once the action starts, in other words, they’re still just a horde: it is the Zulus whose capacity for murderous violence is presented as frightening, as opposed to ‘exciting’, and it is their aims and intentions — undiscussed though these are, the murderous violence aside — that our central characters must circumvent and oppose. It is the Zulus’ defeat that marks the end of the drama’s narrative arc (whereas a British defeat provides its beginning); and it is the Zulus whose subsequent fate is left whitewashingly undiscussed — while camera and voice-over dwell lovingly on the British survivors and ‘Victoria Cross’ recipients throughout the film’s final minutes…

(Before I go any further I really ought to make it clear that, since I’m not a Zulu and don’t self-identify as a person of African heritage [except in the sense that we all are…], I’m not actually in a position to speak for anyone except guilty white Europeans like myself. And since I’ve now said something that will undoubtedly function as a red rag to belated imperialist simpletons all over the internet — who will soon be showing up in my email, shrieking about how ‘the Zulus were a brutal conquering empire too, you know! — I will point out that the Zulus hadn’t travelled literally 6,000 miles from home to find the next lot of people they could rob and kill. And since that is bound to provoke even more enraged spluttering about how I’m ‘denying our noble nation’s civilising mission!‘, let me reply pre-emptively — and in the simplest possible terms — that you, sir or madam, weren’t born in ‘a noble nation that had a civilising mission’: you were born in a getaway car that was full of amnesiacs. And one more little point that matters to me, even if it matters to no-one else: it so happens that, to the members of a Zulu impi, a firearm — such as the Martini-Henry rifle that could throw a bullet 1,900 yards — was the weapon of a coward.)

In short, as far as I can see, this is still a tale told pretty exclusively from the standpoint of the imperial invader — as indeed our ‘Duel of the Anthems’ would have signalled to us,  even if we’d never seen the rest of the film. For — as in the case of last week’s Casablanca ‘duel’! — it has to be, must always be the antagonist, the ‘Other’, who starts it off. Just imagine that things had happened the other way around — that it was the ‘good guys’, ‘our’ side, the side with all the actual characters on it, that was the first to sing and chant at their enemy: the effect would be, in dramatic terms, deeply unsettling. (“What? These brave fellows are taking time off from their life-or-death struggle to goad the other side? That’s just not on!“). Whereas for the side that doesn’t really matter to flaunt, taunt and intimidate — not only provoking the ‘good guys’ to a rousing response, but ultimately inspiring them to brave and decisive action — is obviously hunky-dory.

[[Insert: If you can deconstruct the propaganda that you are fed by our state-corporate news sources — and, as a member of a highly indoctrinated society subject to the most sophisticated methods of thought-control, you would be well advised to learn how! — you’ll note that there are real insights to be gleaned from a study of drama. This shouldn’t surprise you, of course: after all, what is propaganda if not the transposition of compelling dramatic meaning into a setting and situation in which it actually has no place? With regard to the technique adumbrated above, it is a basic fact of what passes for life in the neoimperial West that the bad actions of your side and its proxies will be magically transformed into good actions by being painted as mere reactions. Thus, if you should ever find yourself in charge of, say, a violent, expansionist, superpower-supported settler-colonial ethno-state whose list of crimes against humanity grows longer by the hour, be sure to tell your lackeys in the compliant media that the fraction of your unceasing violence they are actually reporting is merely your ‘response’ to something that was done to you: “Everything was fine; then they did that. Now we’re simply responding. I mean, you have to, don’t you…?”]]

Turning to questions of musical contrast and integration, it is probably worth mentioning that, here too, one has to proceed very cautiously indeed. I myself have literally no knowledge at all of Zulu music and its construction, and am not in a position to assert anything about what may or may not be happening in the performances we see and hear in this film. Thus, while it could hardly be plainer that Men of Harlech is being sung in F sharp major (and with lyrics that were specially produced for the film), I have no idea what might be the best — or even the ‘official’ — terms in which to discuss the Zulus’ music. Inevitably, of course, my ear does what it can with what it has — the latter being decades of experience of Western music and its theoretical apparatus — and so hears things here and there that sound reassuringly like a bit of 4/4 time, or like a modal chant with a C sharp ‘final’ and what is sometimes a strikingly sharp quasi-Phrygian lowered second degree; but for all I know, none of these impressions might be the point, or even anywhere near it. As opposed to our Casablanca ‘duel’, then — where both contending musical items were in the same key, and sometimes even agreed harmonically as they progressed at the same tempo and in effectively the same metre — what we hear in Zulu is literally a clash between different musical cultures.

All the same, they are not entirely incommeasurable — as any boy who has spent days trying to write out John Barry’s tunes will be happy to tell you. Take that ascending interval — we’d think of it as A – C — in the Zulus’ ‘departing’ chant: does that not correspond closely to the minor third (initially C – E flat) that is heard so often in the orchestral score, from its first melodic thought onwards?

Naturally, I have no knowledge of how a 1963 performance of ‘Zulu war music’ might have differed from an ‘authentic’ 1879 performance: it’s not at all impossible that, with the passage of so much time and life, some elements had been lost, and other elements — perhaps even Western-influenced elements — had been added…

But then again, since this ‘Duel of the Anthems’ is something else that did not actually occur, the question is somewhat moot.

Makes for a terrific scene, though!

— Now: that’s our second ‘Duel of the Anthems’. Are there any more…?


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One thought on “Friday Film (72)

  1. I can’t totally verify what follows – it’s sparked by me memory of having attended a screening of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” 2-3 years ago. As is the norm these days, it screened with the Carl Davis score.

    In the last climactic battle scene, I’m pretty sure Davis has the Marseillaise playing against the Chant du Depart (the national anthem of the First Republic). From what I can tell, it seems that Davis took the idea – or possibly the whole cue – direct from Honegger’s original score (most of which is lost – but the material for this cue survives and it’s been recorded a number of times). However, it’s almost certain Honegger’s involvement with this cue comprised, at most, telling someone else what to do and letting them get on with it (for some reason, Hans Zimmer comes to mind at this point…). So Davis recycled not Honegger, but someone else working on the music for the production.


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