1957. Anthony Mann makes a Korean War movie called Men In War. Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray star, Elmer Bernstein scores. Lean, mean, takes no prisoners. Remainder of a platoon navigates bullets, sniper fire, artillery shells and land mines as they attempt to reach higher ground for cover. One by one they get picked off. That's pretty much it. Interestingly, Mann treats it as a triangle. Not a romantic triangle, obviously, but a suspense triangle. Will they make it? That's one part. Along the way, the platoon, led by their Lieutenant (Ryan) happen upon a shell-shocked Colonel and his loyal Sergeant (Ray.) Soon it's Robert Ryan vs. Aldo Ray. They argue. They threaten. Will one kill the other? That's the other part of the triangle. Both elements of suspense remain in place for the duration.
Fast forward to 2014. It's an obscure movie these days but I finally caught up with it. The obscurity is undeserved. It's a good movie. A lot of suspense. Two parallel stories of suspense, in fact. Fans mostly know of it because of Bernstein's music. He himself oft wrote about his approach to scoring it being unorthodox. Supporting not what we can see but what we can not see. Great case in point: a soldier stops to pick flowers, places them in the webbing of his helmet. We know what's gonna happen to him. So does Bernstein, of course. But he avoids pending death and instead just writes to the flowers with one of the most subtle, transparent cues you will ever hear, certainly in a war movie. It's a quiet cue. Just four players, one each on flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. The mine field scene is another example. Bernstein offers subtle woodwind trills, string tremolos, other little figures suggesting the birds and whatever once inhabiting this battlefield. Stuff we can't see.
Bernstein has an orchestra here but his score is packed with solo colors, entire phrases played by just one or two instruments. A cello here, a xylophone there, a subtle tympani roll here, a clarinet solo there, so forth. It's a textbook example of his theory that sometimes one instrument can convey as much emotion as an entire orchestra. Even the score's architecture is sparse. Everything's anchored by a tiny three-note motif, literally a germ of an idea. And even this germ's limited to the interval of a minor third. Scores rarely get more basic than than. Okay, except for <i>Jaws</i>. But Bernstein really kept his score subtle. That doesn't mean you don't notice it, of course. But he was judicious about it. He didn't score any of the action scenes nor was there music under much dialog. The music was only used in scenes where it was out in the wide open. Exposed. Easy to spot. Just like the soldiers.
Thinking about how this movie was scored adds considerable weight to the viewing experience... and the listening experience as well.