It’s been a few months since the release of Sam Mendes’ critically acclaimed epic war film 1917. Starring a host of British talent (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott), the film is based in part on an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather Alfred Mendes. Two young soldiers, Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman), are ordered to deliver a message calling off a scheduled attack following a German withdrawal to the new Hindenburg Line.
Mendes worked with his long-time collaborator and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins on the film, notably using long takes and choreographed camera movements to give the effect of two continuous takes throughout the entire film. 1917 earned ten Oscar nominations, winning for Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography.
As expected, the film immediately drew comparisons to another acclaimed war film: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), a film also praised for its screenplay, direction, score, and cinematography. Dunkirk depicts the famed Dunkirk evacuation of World War II from three perspectives: land, sea, and air.
The movies could not be more different in their approach to filmmaking and storytelling; 1917 documents every hard-fought step of Blake and Schofield’s perilous journey across deserted German front lines, while Dunkirk cleverly juxtaposes actions and situations from each perspective throughout the entire film to create a cohesive narrative. As many reviewers have pointed out, even though the two depict vastly different world wars, both 1917 and Dunkirk are largely about preventing further bloodshed than causing it. Even more intriguingly, both Mendes and Nolan choose often overlooked and unlikely protagonists to carry the film, highlighting the subtle heroism that can make a huge difference even in world wars.
Having thoroughly enjoyed both films, I wanted to look at another aspect of the two films that I have not seen compared as often – the musical scores. Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, Finding Nemo, Skyfall), has collaborated with Sam Mendes to write the music for all but one of his films. Similarly, Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Knight, Inception) has worked extensively with Christopher Nolan on his films, starting with Batman Begins in 2005. Below, I want to explore three cues from each film that represent the tension, release, and constant pulse of war.
- “The Mole”
I would argue that music has never played a more important role in Christopher Nolan’s films than in Dunkirk. We’ve seen both composer and director challenge the other’s creativity in previous films like Batman Begins, Inception, and Interstellar. However, in a war film with little to no dialogue, the tension and emotion can only come from Nolan’s use of visuals and Zimmer’s compositions. As Zimmer previously stated in an interview, “The fundamental mystery was, how do you make something consistently give you the sense of tension rising?” In “The Mole”, Zimmer brilliantly uses an illusory technique called “the Shepard Tone”, in which the listener feels a “continuing rise in pitch” even though the music doesn’t actually escalate that high. You can learn more about how it works here. The effect is anxiety-inducing and adds to the increasing tension throughout the film. Also notice the use of synthesized ticking from a pocket watch in the cue, which emphasizes the constant pressure of time that the Allies are under.
“Gehenna” plays a similar role to “The Mole” in 1917. The cue plays as the camera pans over no-man’s land – an empty battlefield littered with dead men and horse carcasses. The unforgiving scene of war is surveyed by the audience and the protagonists as a slow piano tune starts to creep into view around the one-minute mark. Newman plays the same tune repeatedly; in a way, it’s almost suffocating. There is a more melodic quality to all of the tracks in 1917’s score compared to Dunkirk, but that doesn’t take away its ability to build tension. The pulsating melody is a wave of tension that builds in intensity as the cue continues, eventually adding in more instrumentation and sound effects. “Gehenna” is Newman’s answer to Zimmer’s mastery in musical buildup, and the score only evolves from here. According to Newman, the rise and fall in each cue is necessary due to the lack of transitions in the film: “So the big issue was: When would music go away? Why would it go away? And when would it come back? If the camera continued to just kind of rove around, why were things changing [musically], and when were they changing?” (source)
Both “Home” and the next cue on the list “Sixteen Hundred Men” play during their respective film’s climax. While we’ve seen Zimmer use the same techniques of the Shepard tone and synthesized ticking in the rest of the score, it’s the most prominent and affective in this cue. “Home” is immediately immersive, aggressive, and frantic. It strips away any shred of melody or emotion and focuses singularly on the experience of the moment (for climactic cues that are more melodic, see “Dream Within a Dream” from Inception, “Detach” from Interstellar, and “Like a Dog Chasing Cars” from The Dark Knight). There are so many contrasting components, and the music blends so well with the sound effects of the movie that you can almost hear the creaking and grinding of the warship as the cue plays. According to Nolan in the interview, “I asked Hans not to write any emotional music. What I said to him was I wanted objectivity … [the cues] were very much about pacing”; “[the] entire film was really very much about rhythm.” The tension finally breaks at the end after an exhausting four minutes in a satisfying change in tempo and melody. Zimmer somehow captures the light at the end of a tunnel, which I find absolutely incredible.
- “Sixteen Hundred Men”
In contrast to “Home”, Newman’s “Sixteen Hundred Men” – aptly named for the number of lives at stake in this moment – opts for the melodic route. Newman previously scored the James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre (both directed by Mendes), allowing him to gain the necessary experience in scoring an action film. The balance between a score’s expressiveness and its “job” to service the movie is most apparent in action scenes such as this one. As the cue begins, we hear a familiar ticking sound that builds the suspense of the moment. Time continues to run out for the protagonists and the ticking becomes more and more apparent. The six-minute cue (it was recorded in one take!) matches perfectly with the scene and musically drives the film to a very emotionally satisfying peak. It almost feels like the big, climactic rush was meant to happen; we’ve earned it. Newman states: “There were just a couple of moments in the movie where music gets ahead of drama, and that’s certainly one of them.”
- “Variation 15”
“Variation 15” is a particularly interesting cue – it’s actually an adaptation of “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and the track is lovingly named as the fifteenth variation (Elgar composed fourteen variations of the original theme). There’s a sense of nobility to it, and Zimmer describes it as “quite the opposite to the national anthem — it’s more the emotional anthem to a nation.” For a film with the tagline “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them”, “Variation 15” is especially poignant in representing the bravery of ordinary British citizens in what was known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”. And notably different from the original, the “Variation 15” is slowed to six beats per minute. The notes are drawn out and give the listeners time to breathe, which is something that feels earned after almost two hours of unending tension. As Nolan also points out, there is a natural point in Elgar’s original where the music returns to ticking, and then it just stops. Pure poetry.
- “Come Back to Us”
As we have seen above, Newman’s score stretched to the extremes of ambience and operatic orchestra (also check out “The Night Window”, one of my favorites). Amid the tension-inducing silences and dramatic cues, there are moments of reflective beauty. “Come Back to Us” feels like classic Newman – gentle, serene, with a bit of melancholy. The cue reprises the main emotional theme of the movie with an orchestra that sways in and out in the background. And like the protagonists, we can finally rest. Even though the movie’s title reminds us that there is still another year of fighting until the war finally ends, Newman’s score exemplifies the small, individual moments of hope and heroism that should never be forgotten.
Listen to the full soundtracks on Spotify and YouTube!