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Tobruk - Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 10, 2010

  • Movies review

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    Tobruk - Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

    “Taking orders from a ruddy kraut! What's this bleedin' war coming to?”

    Although there is some confusion over the spelling of his name, Polish-born composer Bronislaw Kaper is more widely known to fans and music-buffs alike as Bronislau Kaper, the spelling that adorns the gorgeous artwork for this fantastic limited release from Intrada. In fact, just cast your eyes over to the image of the disc packaging and savour that wonderful old school style of rip-roaring poster art. With so many utterly bland and generic “facial” assemblies promoting movies these days, it is a real pleasure to gaze upon the larger-than-life colour-chaos of such fabulous “whole-movie-in-a-glance” depictions as this.

    Directed by Arthur Hiller, Tobruk is something of a late entry in the classic war-film mould, coming as it did in 1967. The sixties vogue for darker characterisation and a more serious narrative tone collides head-on with the macho derring-do and dyed-in-the-wool heroism that supported many a Jerry-bashing combat flick from the previous two decades. The story revolves loosely around the true-life Allied mission to knock out Rommel’s fuel supply at the coastal port of Tobruk, and thereby leave his otherwise indomitable Afrika Korps powerless to take control of the vital Suez Canal, or to resist the British forces as they sweep across the desert and attack from the sea. The small unit of English troops and German Jew commandos must also destroy the ferocious gun batteries that guard the port. As usual, the tide of the entire war seems to rest upon the success of these rugged heroes. Hiller directs with a visceral flair that loves the setting and handles the broad expanse with some style. The screenplay from Leo V. Gordon (who also appears in the film as the leathery-faced Jewish commando Sgt. Krug) enjoys playing with the genre stereotypes, but also takes time to compliment the more intimate portrayal of bigotry and anti-Semitism. The action, when it comes, is fast and deadly and benefits from great physical performances from both Rock Hudson and George Peppard. You've got to love those silent sentry-kills! Although the film is rarely seen today – indeed, the only DVD available of it is a German release, ironically enough – much of the battle footage was nicked and reinstated into the much more inferior movie, Raid On Rommel.

    Arthur Hiller turned to a composer with a very distinctive voice to provide the musical force with which he would go to war.

    Having written very successfully in a variety of genres, from romance to Westerns, and from noir to comedy, Kaper's most renowned works are certainly his epic labour of love for the 1962 version of Mutiny On The Bounty, starring Brando and Trevor Howerd (a genuine masterpiece) and That Forsyte Woman and The Naked Spur. Personally speaking, my favourite of his scores is the spine-tingling music that he composed for the classic SF-chiller Them! (1954), possibly representing the best of the era's creature-features alongside The Thing From Another World (which was scored by Dmitri Tiomkin). And the most miraculous thing is that his predilection for the inner motivations and the more intimate characterisations of the films he is working on leads Tobruk to having a similar sort of eerie quality to it, in certain respects, that relies far more on thematic colour and fluid musical narration than a lot of the big war movies that had come before.

    Although the film, itself, is over 100 minutes long, and the style was normally to have wall-to-wall music, Kaper's score is surprisingly brief, running to only 35.31 minutes, a little reminiscent of Goldsmith's classic, yet sparse music for Patton. Yet, you have only watch Hiller's arid actioner to realise that his score is subject to myriad repetition, re-editing and re-spotting to pad out and accentuate the film's duration. Some of this doesn't actually work too well, resulting in occasionally jarring shifts in musical tone. This is down the filmmakers, of course, and not Kaper. The film isn’t damaged by such musical manipulation, but the cohesion of the score, when heard divorced from the visuals, is much more gripping. Intrada's release boasts the complete score, as composed by Kaper, and conducted by Joseph Gershenson, with every cue presented in the sequence that was originally intended. Many such films rely upon the strength of their main themes – The Great Escape, The Guns Of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare etc – and Tobruk is no exception. Kaper knows that a solid, hummable background is essential for viewer moral amidst such a ferocious milieu … and for Hiller’s film he comes up with a classic of its kind.

    Terrific cymbal clashes and swirling woodwinds and harp herald the commencement of Kaper's main theme, the singularly strident, almost ancient-sounding passage for shrill brass in eight massive angular notes that drive forcibly at us and, like remorseless tanks, over us. This theme is huge statement that will roll across the score, and the entire film, with unceasing vigour. Here, with its debut attack, it is allied with snares and comes on with undeniable military might, signifying the determination of our commandos and the imposing challenge that lies ahead of them. There is a Roman saga style to this theme – epic, grand and regal. Little placements of military drum-beats march through, but there is a wild sense of “Peplum” pomp and ceremony to Kaper's immensely strong, exuberant and noble 8-note motif that embellishes the highly stylised imagery of Rommel's imposing Afrika Korps during the film's opening titles – a visual style that is actually reminiscent of Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy. He will ease this crushing statement into various other guises as the score moves along, its punishing and unforgiving emphasis very cannily altered into more adventurous or suspenseful structures as the occasions rise. In Track 2, Frognapping, Kaper scores the intriguing sequence when Rock Hudson's Canadian Major Craig is rescued from a prison ship by Peppard's athletic, scuba-suited commando and his crack team, and then inveigled into the mission, somewhat against his will. Here, after a wonderfully eerie introduction for trembling woodwinds, shivering strings and harp – a passage that reminds me of Kaper's spine-tingling work on Them! - the main theme replays but it is almost unrecognisable in its subterfuge, orchestrated down into a covert variation that plays intermittently with quiet stretches, and stealth, until flaring-up with agitated brassy and piano stabbings as Craig actually fights with his saviour as they attempt to swim towards a rescue speedboat, totally misunderstanding who his rescuers are.

    Once identities have been cleared-up and Peppard's German Jew, Captain Bergman, comes clean as to why Craig is required for duty, Kaper's short track, Rendezvous, plays the main theme in a slow-moving and monolithic variant, ponderous and grave with importance as we arrive at the British desert encampment from where the mission will be mounted. A host of stalwart familiar genre faces (and impressive handlebar moustaches!) greet us, including the awesome Nigel Green as Colonel Harker, Jack Watson as Sgt. Maj. Tyne, and the ever-chatty duo of Percy Herbert and Norman Rossington as Dolan and Alfie, and then perhaps the film's real claim to fame, the platoon of Bergman's comrades, suited and booted and talking like genuine Afrika Korps. Mutual distrust between the Brits and the dubiously allied Germans provides Kaper with a darker edge to hone – all ingredients that make Tobruk stand out a little from the usual Tally-ho! brigade.

    More exquisite glimmering from the harp and some apprehensive strings and woodwinds begin Track 4, that spectral and unearthly quality from Them! returning as we hear the first cue, Desert Convoy, Kaper depicting the endless rolling sand dunes of the Libyan wasteland. As the trucks bounce up and down (“Just like a bleedin' rollercoaster!”), the main theme kicks in to provide some weighty impetus, but the track then shifts up a gear or two into a faster and more aggressive form as an enemy convoy is spotted just over a rise, and Harker's unit Prepare For Attack. Brass gallops in brisk flurries as the men line-up under cover of the ridge-line, and then the music slides down to hunker in suspenseful low tones for tuba and trombone, before tense strings, ominous deep notes from the piano and a delicate woodwind murmuring of the main theme see out the track as the good guys opt to remain hidden from the Germans until well into the night. This last section of the track does not appear in the film, or is, at least, dialled-down much too low to register. Here, on disc, it supplies a wary reflection of the dangerous Saharan stalemate.

    Trumpets, strings and snares begin Track 5, Harker's Humour, as Craig and the Colonel bicker about diversionary tactics to avoid any pursuing Germans after they have scampered away under cover of a separate fire-fight that they have orchestrated. A nice fanfare of the main theme arrives in the cue, just before Kaper then allows the music to sink back into a melancholic and dangerous refrain as Craig's plan is revealed as taking the convoy through a minefield. This precarious situation is then taken up in the next track, appropriately called Mine Field. With the stubborn but courageous Craig clearing a path through the dead zone using a half-track with the ubiquitous Bergman at the wheel, Kaper embarks on a thrillingly tense set-piece for vibes and chimes which, as Julie Kirgo points out in her accompanying liner notes is a neat musical pun from the composer as even the slightest vibration could trigger off a mine. The music comes in when Craig climbs off the half-track and begins a solo exploration of the minefield, prodding the sand with his bayonet. The dissonant, glassy/metallic wobbles come in effective three-note clusters that shimmer with enough trepidation to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Interestingly, in this sequence, Peppard's German accent malfunctions and comes out in pure Oirish limerick-style!

    There is a spell of anguish that comes in Track 7, Sitting Duck, which seems to be for the aftermath of a sequence when the convoy comes under attack from a British fighter-plane that assumes them to be Germans – well, they are dressed in Nazi uniforms and driving Nazi vehicles. In the film, however, the scene is unscored, yet this track – agonised and abrupt with shock – appears to fit the moment when Craig confronts Bergman over his attitude to their fallen comrades and the tragic fact that they have been forced to kill an English pilot just to stay alive. Strings and brass enjoy the activity before those familiar 8 notes hammer home the conviction to get on with the mission.

    Sudden fury is the name of the game in the first of two cues comprising Track 8, as a Tuareg horseman takes pot-shots at the convoy during a rest-stop. Squalling strings and percussion climb in anxiety until reaching a plateau that then settles as Craig, who can conveniently speak Arabic, approaches the sniper and arranges a deal with the man, who is most certainly not alone. A gentle ethereal Middle Eastern phrase appears, woodwinds exotically fluttering for an interval that, once again, is not heard in the film, as Craig and the Tuareg leader negotiate. Suddenly finding themselves short of a few weapons and also saddled with two civilians – an “apparently” British father and daughter – in tow, the Caravan Continues to a rousing, yet more windswept and squirrelly rendition of the main theme.

    Night Camp, Track 9, has harp and woodwinds gently tick-tocking away until a subdued martial beat strikes up in progression towards the brief cue's close. A clarinet makes a foreboding start to Track 10's Traitor In The Tunnel, as the convoy's unwanted “guests” are revealed to be something other than what they claim to be and attempt to get word to the German garrison at Tobruk via a secret field telephone buried in the desert. Once more, there is a dark, sinuous energy to the cue that puts me in mind of the grim atrocities committed by the giant ants in Them! that are discovered in the New Mexico desert. It must be something to do with all that sand that swung Kaper back around to this shivery sort of sound. This tense and tremulous mood is continued throughout Track 11's Exit Portman, which sees the two spies cut down in the act of betrayal by a passing Italian patrol. Kaper maintains the furtive, shadow-cloaked attitude with low tones, soft but reverberating piano and the odd, sudden flurry of brass that acts like a “stinger” to catch us unawares. It is a great piece of slow-burn, on-edge suspense.

    More treachery is soon afoot, and spies-in-the-camp seem to be getting away with murder. Trust is a hard-won commodity, but the convoy moves on regardless, accompanied by another variation of the main theme, though this time it is met with a metallic beat that then becomes a sort of heartbeat for strings and woodwinds as our heroes, now traversing a metalled road, find themselves neck and neck with a platoon of German motorcycle Headhunters. The tokking of a woodblock, along with lurching interjections of brass, adds further to the nerves as yet more Germans, coming from the other direction, force the Headhunters to interweave with the commando convoy, causing much twitching and uneasy shuffling about from the Brits, posing as POWs in their trucks. The track then moves into a different phase as the motorcyclists then take off and the allied unit finds itself approaching the outskirts of the massive German garrison at Tobruk. High strings sizzle with apprehension and brass shudders with heart-stopping anxiety as the convoy makes it through the checkpoint barrier, sailing past the guards. The main theme returns in clipped short order from the trumpets, the sense of having passed from one world to another prevalent in Kaper's writing. We are in the huge enemy base.

    Crushing strings and brass herald the sight of the masses of German hardware, paralysing chords settling like great stone blocks upon us. A lone trumpet peals out in renegade defiance of such colossal might. Craig and the unit now realise the desperate kamikaze ethos of their mission and how important it is to the Allied push that they succeed at any cost. This grave musical spectacle of dark majesty is carried over into The Guns Of Mersa, but Kaper then twists the piece into a precipitous and burgeoning pall of skittish tension as ominous metallic brass resounds and a spiralling piccolo strikes up, the film supplying us with an impressive pan up the rusted hulk of one of the big guns. He even brings in a guitar to provide some odd, throbbing notes that are plucked with menace.

    The action hots up as an Allied bombing raid provides cover, the unit splitting up with different objectives. Disaster strikes certain members of the squad, and then the naval bombardment begins. Kaper, so far, has been sitting out the devastation. Even as Craig and Bergman rappel down the side of the gun emplacement and lay siege to it with flame-thrower and explosives, the film remains unscored. Then, pinned-down on the rocky beach beneath cliffs that are stuffed-to-the-gills with enemy tanks and machine-guns, Kaper takes up the clarion-call as Bergman realises that his destiny awaits. Jagged, angular brass scythes across the score, a furious martial drum-beat spikes the proceedings and then percussion and French Horn sound as Craig and the Jewish commando say their final farewells and wish one another luck. Kaper pays respect to this heroic sacrifice in Track 16, Shalom, with a bombastic unfurling of the main theme at the close of the track as the two men part. Bergman leads a small band of his most trusted men up onto the cliffs and, with guns, bombs and some terrific flame-throwing action, wreaks diversionary havoc amongst the Germans. And then, in Bergman's Death, as a bullet ignites the fuel-tank on his back, an injured Bergman sinks to the ground, still firing into the advancing Germans, and is engulfed in flames. Kaper's alarming music captures this valiant moment of ultimate glory with sudden anguished brass, wooden percussion, shrieking strings and a jarring sense of violence. But the track then smooths and retaliates with the main theme, as Craig hatches a last ditch plan to fulfil Bergman's wish to destroy the fuel depot. With guile and a bit of luck, he commandeers an enemy tank and together with Sgt. Krug (aye, that's the film's screenwriter in full-on Jerry-slaying mode) blasts shell after shell into the fuel bunker, blowing the place to smithereens in a five-minute fusillade and ending the film with a truly fiery crescendo. Once more, Kaper allows the sound effects and the pyrotechnics to supply the music of destruction, his actual film-scoring has ended with the action set-piece of Bergman's Death.

    But you can't keep a good main theme down, can you?

    Track 18 contains three cues. The first, End Title, is a short and sweet salute to the victory of the mission. It is a blissful rendition of the main theme, glittering with almost transcendent peace and pride as Craig and a couple of fellow survivors make it to the beach to greet the British assault force as, behind them, Col. Harker and the rest of the men are surrounded and captured, a final betrayal poetically accounted for with hot lead. Cymbals clash and those 8 notes slow down but gain impressive weight as the harp flutters and gleams to a vibrant crescendo. The next cue, End Cast, plays the main theme again, but it sounds more buoyant and playful with a lighter percussive touch and a more jovial attitude. Once again, victorious. It is marvellous how Kaper has only slightly altered the orchestration, but the reflection that we feel from a piece that has been so often dark and threatening is now one of breathless glory. The last cue in the track, Emblem, is a final triumphant settling of accounts. Naturally, it is the main 8-note theme once more, but here it is built out of major chords, shimmering for strings and for chimes and for harp, bringing Kaper’s score to a bright and shining conclusion. Awesome. If you aren’t humming this theme by now … then, my friend, you are stone-deaf.

    A brief, but a classic score then, from a composer who was, at this stage, almost at the end of his prodigious career. Intrada's magnificent limited edition presentation (only 2000 copies worldwide) is culled from excellent ½” 15 i.p.s. three-track stereo session masters that had been vaulted in magnificent condition at Universal. The resulting disc offers a tremendously dynamic stereo image of power, sweeping adventure and dark sacrificial heroism. An 8-page booklet with notes from Julie Kirgo and Intrada's own Douglass Fake round out this incredible package. At times conventionally rousing, at others dark and suspenseful, Tobruk offers some marvellous music that effortlessly transports to the spearhead of a perilous mission behind enemy lines.

    Full Track Listing -

    1. Main Title/Prologue 2.46

    2. Frognapped 2.32

    3. Rendezvous 0.43

    4. Desert Convoy/Prepare For Attack 3.42

    4. Harker's Humour 1.22

    6. Mine Field 1.33

    7. Sitting Duck 1.01

    8. Tuareg Trade/Caravan Continues 2.02

    9. Night Camp 0.54

    10. Traitor Of The Tunnel 1.40

    11. Exit Portman 3.19

    12. Head Hunters 3.34

    14. The Big Dump 1.38

    15. The Guns Of Mersa 0.55

    16. Shalom 1.47

    17. Bergman's Death 2.40

    18. End Title/End Cast/ Emblem 2.00


    Verdict

    Even though his work on Tobruk came at the end of his composing career, this fantastic score represents the elements that made Bronislau Kaper so distinctive and influential. As a war film, Arthur Hiller's epic is not a classic on a par with say, A Bridge Too Far, The Great Escape or The Longest Day, but it is compellingly told and highlighted by a surprising emphasis on characters, although the action, when it comes, is exciting and well-choreographed, literally sizzling during the fiery final act. Kaper's contribution to the film is powerful, strident and actually quite dark and eerie in a way that most war film scores are not. His main theme is memorable not only in its direct and heroic mode, but in its multitude of variations, Kaper allowing it to mesmerise the listener and to colour the score in a rich tapestry of orchestral conflagration.

    Intrada's terrific release sounds amazing with a brisk stereo image and that unique, original and unmolested sound that their engineers specialise in reproducing – no noise reduction programs have been brought in to sharpen-up or purge the newly created two-track mixes, meaning the glorious ambience of Kaper's recording shines through.

    Tobruk is limited to only 2000 copies worldwide, but this is an important score from a sorely neglected, though highly influential composer. It is, therefore, hugely recommended.


    The Rundown

    Movie

    8

    Overall

    8

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