War Horse Soundtrack Review

Composer: John Williams

I remember reading War Horse when I was about eight and it had a huge impact on me at the time, and I think it’s probably responsible for my long-held interest in World War I. The film itself has been more than eagerly awaited by the press, film fans and especially me (even though I’ve not yet seen it!) so I jumped at the chance to get a sneak peak of what was in store by reviewing the soundtrack.

Well, before anything, with John Williams as its composer I already knew this would be a score of skill and gravitas with a memorable theme a la Schindler’s List (maybe Superman, you never know) and on listening to the first track, “Dartmoor, 1912”, I was not disappointed. One of my all time favourite composers is Ralph Vaughn Williams, whose opus “The Lark Ascending” never fails to stir images of Keatsian pastoral beauty, and “Dartmoor” could be its non-identical twin brother. The “Dartmoor” theme recurs throughout the score, harking back to happier times when things get rough in the trenches.

Pastoral idyll is the phrase of the moment until “Ruined Crop and Going to War”, which pretty much takes a turn for the doldrums and rests in the doom and gloom of the prospect of war, sinking further and further into mud, trench foot and death with every passing track. If Williams’ aim was to completely force the beauty and simplicity of Dartmoor from our minds, he more than achieves this with the middle section, with “The Charge and Capture” standing out for its regimented drumbeats and highly evocative, frantic second movement. The violins in particular create a heightened sense of drama and as they climb higher and higher towards the battle climax.

But the next few tracks seem to lose their focus a bit and drift onto the wrong side of melodrama. “No Man’s Land” attempts to capture the frantic confusion of going ‘over the top’ but the discord within the violin section comes across as more of a grating mess than anything else. Luckily before long we head back to Dartmoor, but second time round it seems a bit listless and anticlimactic. It’s still beautiful, and it certainly is a relief to come back after the dissonance of the battlefield but something with a bit more oomph might have been nice to tie off this exceptionally dramatic score.

Although the score does well to carry us through WWI and out the other side, War Horse is far from John Williams’ best score. It lacks the passion of some of his better works and though it attempts to make up for it with grandeur and violins playing every note at the same time, it can’t compete with the raw emotion which comes out of some of his earlier scores. But if the reviews are anything to go by, this score will be worth having simply because listening to it will bring back memories of watching Speilberg’s muddy, clip-cloping, Great War Extravaganza.

Dani Singer

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