Hollywood has never been enamored with the Revolutionary War. For such an important American historical story, only a handful of titles surrounding the conflict have been filmed, and all of them lost money. Audiences just don’t seem to give a damn. Throw a bunch of men in some powdered wigs and buckled shoes onto the battlefield and moviegoers stay away in droves.
As we Americans celebrate the birth of our nation by stuffing ourselves full of hot dogs, hamburgers, and not nearly enough humble pie, let’s take a look at four scores for films centering around the War for Independence.
JOHN ADAMS (2008)
Based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, HBO’s mammoth 8-1/2 hour miniseries detailing the life of our country’s second President cleaned up at the 2008 Emmys, winning a record thirteen. Though Rob Lane’s score was nominated (for some reason co-composer Joseph Vitarelli was not), he lost to Jeff Beal for TNT’s THE COMPANY.
The dramatic score didn’t make much of an impression on me as I watched the miniseries. But the music, at least presented on disc, has its moments, even if it doesn’t particularly gel into a memorable whole. Still, after seven nights, viewers certainly recognized that main title theme.
JOHN PAUL JONES (1959)
Producer Samuel Bronston brought Max Steiner along for the voyage when he finally made his biopic about legendary Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones (Robert Stack). Through rough international waters, Steiner and Bronston fought their own legal battles, with the composer picketed by no less than the American Federation of Musicians union because the film was recorded in London and performed by British musicians instead of Americans.
The score is anchored by the “John Paul Jones March,” the latest in a fleet of memorable marches Steiner wrote for recent films, including THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) and BATTLE CRY (1955). Bronston’s widow later claimed she “couldn’t stand” Steiner’s music, but after a voyage of nearly fifty years, the score has weathered remarkably well.
THE PATRIOT (2000)
When you direct a film, ironically named INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), that earns over $300 million at the box office, you can tackle any project you want. When your next film, the big-budget GODZILLA (1998), earns only $136, studio execs start to sweat. Even so, Roland Emmerich’s three-hour film about the Revolutionary War starred Mel Gibson, and that had to count for something, right?
A great theatrical trailer prepared audiences for a film of epic proportions. Gibson still had box office clout, enough that the studio scheduled the film to open in the week leading up to July 4th, typically one of the strongest money-making weekends of the year. But it wasn’t enough.
Critics weren’t kind to the film and it was roundly trounced at the box office by THE PERFECT STORM and its star George Clooney. When all was said and done, the film only took in $113 million. With a budget of $110 million, so much for a profit.
I personally liked the film quite a bit, even with Mel in the lead role, and I think it suffered a bad rap. Once seen as a major Oscar contender prior to its opening, the film only racked up three nominations, including Caleb Deschanel’s beautiful cinematography, sound, and a richly-deserved nomination for John Williams’ score.
The score is marked by a memorable solo violin theme (played by Mark O’Connor), a suitably stirring main theme, and the requisite fife and drums. If you’re looking for something patriotic and you just can’t stomach another Sousa march, you can’t go wrong with THE PATRIOT.
REVOLUTION certainly had pedigree. Producer Irwin Winkler won an Oscar for ROCKY (1976) and Hugh Hudson directed 1981 Best Picture Oscar winner CHARIOTS OF FIRE. What it did not have was a compelling story. Al Pacino’s Bronx accent and the casting of Nastassia Kinski as his love interest were further detriments to the project.
The film opened on Christmas Day in the hopes of Oscar consideration, but it lasted barely a month in theaters and earned a paltry $358,274. When the battle smoke cleared, the only saving grace in the film was John Corigliano’s outstanding score.
Working with much of the same “cluster-like” vocabulary that characterized his Oscar-nominated ALTERED STATES (1980), Corigliano mostly bypasses the fife and drums and creates a unique, at times atonal, soundscape that is unlike any music that you associate with the period.
My favorite cue is the memorable finale (and not just because it meant the film was almost over). Ever-accelerating brass clusters grow more insistent as Tom (Pacino) follows Daisy’s (Kinski) maid through the bustling Philadelphia streets. Constant movement, sound effects, street musicians and people shouting necessitated sonoric intervals borrowed from the love theme that build and build, until the theme is played in all its beauty as Daisy rushes into Tom’s embrace. Corigliano wrote the finale version of the theme first and worked backward, scoring it more tenderly earlier.
The film was recently released on DVD in a new director’s cut that is apparently closer to what Hugh and Pacino had in mind when they were making the film. Apparently, one of the sequences that has been changed is the final ten minutes of the film, butchering Corigliano’s carefully thought out finale.