Top 10 Favourite Scores for War Films


I put together this list last year for one of my classes in which students created their own Word Press blog and wrote about two of their passions. The idea being to encourage students to write by asking them to write about the things that interest them the most. I wrote this as a guide to give students an idea of what I expected from one task, which was to create one top 10 list related to one of their passions or two top 5 lists related to both passions. While thinking about new content to add here, I remembered I have quite a few posts on that class blog that I could happily place here with a few changes, tweaks, and updates. For this post, I made a few edits, I added a lot of addition links (I like links), I included a reference to a Hitler-praising cult leader, and I fine-tuned how the videos appear  as I prefer smaller sized videos that take up less real estate. I also corrected one typo which thankfully none of my students noticed. There are probably more, but that’s life.

Love, betrayal, revenge, elation, regret, shame, and anger are amongst the emotions composers may be called upon to describe musically when composing for a film set amidst a war. The whole gauntlet of human emotions and experiences are heightened by conflicts both large and small that result from wars: the deepest despair stemming from the loss of friends, family, loved ones, towns, and entire cities to acts of courage on and off the battlefield. That’s not to say other films do not – all stories involve some kind of conflict – but the stakes and consequences during war can loom much larger. And I had to narrow my list somehow. The following pieces of music are inspired by those diverse emotions and high stakes. In no particular order, here is a collection of my favourite pieces inspired by cinematic depictions of wars starting with music by John Williams.

Born in 1932, famed composer John Williams has memories of watching film reels announcing the latest developments in World War 2. He later served a stint in the Air Force which was where he first became known as a musician of note with a future. It’s fitting then that Williams would on numerous occasions be called upon to write music for films set during World War 2. His World War 2 films include None But The Brave (1965), Midway (1976), 1941 (1979), Monsignor (1982) Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998),  and most recently The Book Thief (2013). Other films scored by Williams set against the backdrop of wars (both real and imagined) include War Horse (2011), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), The Patriot (2000), Lincoln (2013), War of the Worlds (2005), and of course all seven Star Wars movies made to date.

Number 1: 1941 March (1979) by John Williams: Steven Spielberg loved this deliberate over-the-top march so much, he dusted off his clarinet and joined in the recording session. Perhaps I’m taking a liberty by including a comedy set in the US in World War 2, but the march itself wouldn’t be too out of place in a more serious war film.

Number 2: Schindler’s List (1993) by John Williams: From the comedic to the serious as 17 years later the same duo made another film set against World War 2 which could not be more different. Likewise, the themes from both film are worlds apart musically. The “Theme from Schindler’s List”, composed for solo violin and orchestra, was performed by renowned violist Isaac Perlman for the soundtrack and in the concert below. I listened to Schindler’s List during the last part of my visit to Dachau concentration camp. I didn’t fully appreciate the power of the music until that unforgettable moment. I’m still depressed.

 In a similar vein from the same score is “Remembrances”. Also originally written for solo violin and orchestra, this arrangement is performed by violinist Gil Shaham accompanied by his sister, Ori, on piano. John Williams wrote “Treesong”, his second violin concerto, for Gil Shaham. who recorded it under the composer’s baton along with a three-piece suite of music from Schindler’s List. 

Number 3: Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan by John Williams (1998): Five years later, Steven Spielberg returned to World War 2 to explore brotherhood and loss experienced in the aftermath of the largest invasion ever undertaken. For the end credits of Saving Private Ryan, Williams departed from his usual practise of writing music based on the film’s score and instead wrote a new independent piece entitled “Hymn to the Fallen”:

Number 4: Born on the Fourth of July (1989) by John Williams:  Born on the Fourth of July explored the true story of Ron Kovic from his childhood to his return home from the Vietnam War as he struggled to come to terms with his wartime experiences, his paralysing injury, and his growing disillusionment with the war he once eagerly joined. The film and Tom Cruise’s performance inspired Williams to write one his most powerful and emotional themes:

Number 5: The Patriot (2000) by John Williams. Back in time now to the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) as depicted in The Patriot which starred Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. Williams responded with an appropriate patriotic score that builds from the simple rustic beginnings of a solo fiddle over a guitar. The violinist, Mark O’Connor, is also noteworthy as a fellow cult buster due to his work exposing the lies and shenanigan’s behind the Suzuki Method of violin instruction.

Number 6: Medal of Honor (1999-2007) by Michael Giacchino. Before composer Michael Giacchino scored the TV series Lost and the two latest Star Trek movies, he made a name for himself writing music for the Medal of Honor series of games. He also wrote a stirring main theme for Secret Weapons Over Normandy, demonstrating again that music for computer games can be as cinematic as the most cinematic of film scores:


Number 7: The Great Escape March (1963) by Elmer Bernstein. Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Great Escape contains one of the most well-known pieces of music written for a war film. You might, however, associate it with soccer as the theme has gained a second life as a chant sung at English soccer matches. That speaks to the craftsmanship behind the composition and the durability of the piece. Here is Elmer having a wonderful time conducting the great “Great Escape March”:

Number 8: The Patton March (1970) by Jerry Goldsmith. Jerry Goldsmith (1932-2004) was one of the most prolific film composers of the 20th century. While growing up, it seemed Jerry’s name appeared on the credits of about every second movie I saw on TV or at the cinema. I not only noticed the recurring appearance of his name, but I also paid extra attention to the music he had written. When I started collecting soundtracks in 1990 with the purchase of several John Williams scores, it didn’t take me long to start exploring the scores of Jerry Goldsmith. In 1970, Goldsmith wrote this classic march to musically describe General Patton:

Number 9: Band of Brothers (2001) by Michael Kamen. Michael Kamen’s uncle fought and died in World War 2, so he felt a particular personal connection to Band of Brothers. Michael dedicated his score to the uncle he never met:

Number 10: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) by James Horner. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas tells the story of the holocaust as seen through the eyes of a child. To the son of the concentration camp commander, the Jewish boy in a prison uniform that looks like pyjamas to him is just another friend to talk and play with. James Horner’s music depicts the innocence of childhood and the gruesome end of that innocence.

Number 11: One Day in Auschwitz (2014) by James Horner. I was going to stop at ten, but the last piece of music reminded me of James Horner’s score for the excellent documentary One Day in Auschwitz, one of his last projects. While the music is sparse and low-key, it is also haunting and entirely appropriate. Never mind the music, which is quite sparse, this is a documentary that everyone should watch for its content.

Sadly, that was one of the last films that James Horner scored as he died in a plane crash in June of this year. I’ll never forget the moment I heard the news as it really hit me like the death of a family member. For my entire adult life, James’ music has been a constant source of joy and inspiration.