When it comes to writing marches, you’d think every composer would throw up their hands in defeat following in the footsteps of John Philip Sousa. Yet film has provided the opportunity for many a composer to lockstep in musical harmony. As usual with these lists, I needed to set some ground rules for myself. Once again I’m forced to keep it to one march per composer or the entire list would have been made up Elmer Bernstein and John Williams (not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld). Even with those restrictions, this is a mighty hummable group of film music marches that is sure to make you twirl your baton. (Interpret that as you will.)
9. VICTORY AT SEA (1952)
It’s not film music, but television, and not a film composer, but a Broadway legend. One of Richard Rodgers‘s rare forays into purely instrumental music was a big hit when this documentary series of naval warfare during World War II aired on NBC. Rodgers contributed short piano compositions of 1-2 minutes in length and Robert Russell Bennett, who orchestrated most of Rodgers’s stage shows, transformed these themes into a proper score, though he only received credit for arranging and conducting. The “Guadalcanal March” is pure Rodgers in its catchy, memorable simplicity, yet its orchestral flair is all Bennett.
8. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
It’s hard for me to take Elmer Bernstein‘s classic march seriously after seeing the classic Simpsons “Streetcar Named Marge” episode from 1992 in which Maggie tries to rescue her pacifier at the Ayn Rand School for Tots (brilliant name, by the way). Still, Bernstein’s music, whether taken straight or as parody, still works brilliantly—in context of the film and on its own.
7. SILENT MOVIE (1976)
This march simply makes me happy, which is more than I can say for the movie. Mel Brooks’s attempt to make a silent comedy has its occasional funny bits, but the greatest joy comes from John Morris’s music. Few scores put a smile on my face like this one and that sudden modulation at the final statement of the melody (at 2:19) never fails to lift my spirits.
6. EL CID (1961)
This film is one of those lumbering Samuel Bronston epics, with Charlton Heston as the Christian Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar—”El Cid”—who fought the North African Almoravides in the 11th century and contributed to the unification of Spain. Beautiful to look at but interminably slow, the film is best experienced in terms of Miklós Rózsa‘s colorful music, one of his many masterpieces.
5. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)
This Cecil B. DeMille piece of cinematic hokum (and inexplicable Best Picture winner) is still a lot of fun, thanks to Gloria Grahame and a host of campy performances. But it is Victor Young‘s march that bookends the film (in a Betty Hutton vocal version during the finale) and gives the film its rousing oom-pah-pah heart and a sense of childlike innocence.
4. CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE (1947)
Tyrone Power is a young Castillian aristocrat who runs afoul of the Inquisition and joins Cortez’s (Cesar Romero) adventures in the New World discovering Aztec treasures.Alfred Newman‘s colorful score combines the robust energy of its Spanish and Mexican locales. Newman gave his justifiably famous “Conquest” march for the Conquistadors to the USC Trojan Band in 1950, where it has since become their battle cry during football games as well as a staple in pops concerts over the years.
3. THE CAINE MUTINY (1954)
This adaptation of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel stars Humphrey Bogart at his battiest best as the mentally unhinged Captain Queeg. Giving the film the proper military musical milieu is Max Steiner‘s rousing march, which anchors this Oscar-nominated score in a dramatic tale of intrigue and court-martial.
2. PATTON (1970)
Has any march in the history of film music been so essential to the psychological probing of a character as Jerry Goldsmith’s PATTON? I’d argue that not even John Williams’s “The Imperial March” gets to the soul Darth Vader (or what’s left of it). Those echoing trumpets, memorable piccolo melody, and ponderous lower brass by turns give George C. Scott’s controversial General bravery, humanity and gravitas. Forty-two years later, the theme is timeless.
1. 1941 (1979)
Oh, the many John Williams marches I could have chosen—”The Imperial March,” “The Raiders March,” and on and on… No one will ever be able to convince me that 1941 is anything more than a colossal waste of celluloid. Even worse, it’s one of the unfunniest movies ever made. But Williams, as usual, rises far above the material. Here, he has created one of the most infectious, joyous pieces of music in his career. Those other Williams marches may be far more dramatic. But for sheer musical oomph, nothing beats this crisp martial display. We played this incessantly my final year in high school (and rather badly, I might add). And those descending sixteenth notes at 2:21 (a clever answer to the ascending low strings sixteenths a few seconds earlier) are the one and only time in my life I’ve ever wanted to play trombone.