Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > CRIMSON TIDE – Hans Zimmer

CRIMSON TIDE – Hans Zimmer


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer happen to view a documentary film titled Submarines: Sharks of Steel, and became inspired to bring a submarine drama to the big screen. The initial screenplay told the story of a Trident submarine crew attempting to stop the ship’s computer from independently launching nuclear missiles and starting World War III. When they pitched their idea to the Department of the Navy they characterized the movie as “The Hunt for Red October meets 2001: A Space Odyssey.” They obtained permission from the U.S. Navy for the creative team to perform research by sailing aboard the Trident missile submarine USS Florida from Bangor, Washington. A few months later they submitted a revised script by Michael Schiffer in which an Executive Officer leads a mutiny against the Captain to prevent a nuclear missile launch. Well, the Navy balked against this assault on its traditions and refused to cooperate further. Undeterred, the production team secured assistance from the French navy to support the film. Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would produce the film, with Tony Scott tasked with directing. A fine cast was brought in, including Gene Hackman as the imperious Captain Frank Ramsey, Denzel Washington as Executive Officer (XO) Ron Hunter, George Dzundza as Chief of Boat (COB) Walters, Matt Craven as Communications Officer Roy Zimmer, Viggo Mortensen as Weapons Officer Peter Ince, and James Gandolfini as Supplies Officer.

The film is set in the early 1990s where a civil war has erupted with military units loyal to Russian nationalist Vladimir Radchenko seizing control of a nuclear missile installation. The USS Alabama has been assigned a first strike mission on Radchenko if satellite monitors indicate that he is fueling his missiles. Hunter is the new XO and tension develops between him and Captain Ramsey due to his cautious, analytical demeanor, as opposed to Ramsey’s more impulsive and intuitive nature. When the Alabama receives an Emergency Action Message (EAM), ordering the launch of ten of its missiles against the Russian nuclear installation, Ramsey orders pre-launch preparations. Soon a second EAM is received but truncated due to an attack by a Russian Akula-class submarine loyal to Radchenko. In the aftermath, damage to the communications system prevents decoding the second message, which leads to conflict when Hunter refuses to follow Ramsey’s order for missile launch. What unfolds is a mutiny aboard the Alabama as Ramsey and Hunter factions fight for control of the ship. Eventually Hunter is proved right when radio communications are restored, and they receive news that Radchenko is in custody. A Navy tribunal finds that both offers were right, but also wrong by not resolving their differences. Ramsey agrees to early retirement, and graciously recommends Hunter for a command of his own. Crimson Tide was a huge commercial success, earning $164 million at the box office. The film secured modest critical success from critics, and earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing.

Tony Scott had enjoyed his two previous collaborations with Hans Zimmer; Days of Thunder in 1990, and True Romance in 1993, and so he was given the assignment. Zimmer had introduced a new approach to scoring films with Rain Man in 1988, in which traditional acoustic instruments of the orchestra were replaced by his Fairlight CMI synthesizer, drum percussion, and choir. With Crimson Tide he found the perfect vehicle to launch his new methodology and fundamentally transform film score art in the process. His new modern sound, characterized by powerful, electronica bravado, bold percussion, forceful low register men’s chorus and kinetic, driving string ostinati would revolutionize the cinematic experience and become a dominating force for blockbuster films for almost two decades. Zimmer understood that the tale of Crimson Tide took place in the masculine domain of a submarine and involved a contest of wills between two men during a time of imminent war. He would have to speak to time, place, powerful contesting emotional drivers in the two men, the awesome power of a nuclear submarine, as well as the specter of war.

To realize his vision, Zimmer composed three primary themes, two motifs and interpolated a 19th century seafaring song to drive the narrative. The Alabama Theme serves as the identity of the submarine, and by extension, its imperious Captain Frank Ramsey. It has a classical ABA construct with the A Phrase serving as its proud anthem, and the more energetic B Phrase providing purpose and resolve. The theme is the score’s most powerful and perfectly captures the soul of Bruckheimer’s vision. Hunter’s Theme serves as his identity and speaks to his integrity, honor and noble nature. In intimate family settings it is carried softly by acoustic guitar. While in military settings a solo trumpet nobile leads the melody. The Mutiny Theme provides the score’s most aggressive and menacing identity, supporting both mutinies. Over time it evolves into a secondary identity for Captain Ramsey, supporting his efforts to retake command. Dire horns and aggressive synth writing give this theme some hard hitting power. The two motifs include the War Motif, which supports scenes of combat or the specter of war. Dire horns and menacing electronica impart both the danger and destructive power of combat. The Action Motif offers a string of energetic repeating two-note phrases empowered by electronica, which support scenes of crew activity in preparation to combat or during combat. Lastly, Zimmer interpolated “Eternal Father Strong To Save”, a traditional British seafaring song written by John Dykes and William Whiting. The song is solemn and unfolds with religioso power, which inspires, yet also offers deference to God’s might. I offer the opening stanza to provide a better understanding of Zimmer’s brilliance in interpolating this song:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!”

Unfortunately, the construct of this album is perhaps the worst I have ever encountered: five cues, some massive, completely out of film scene order and in some cues, comprised of multiple scenes of different film chronology! There was no way I could write a review linking album cues to scene context. As such, in order to review the film score in totality and in context I will reference film scenes to music.

Film Logos opens with ominous low register electronica, which supports the display of the Hollywood Pictures and Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer Films logos. The Main Titles unfold as elegiac horns herald the roll of the opening credits, cresting with a statement of the Alabama Theme as the film’s title displays. In the opening scene a news reporter narrates scenes of civil war erupting in Russia dire horns and ominous sythn textures join with the War Motif to portend danger. Hunter and Ince watch TV reports of Radchenko seizing a nuclear weapons base and threatening nuclear war. Zimmer continues to sow unease with interplay of the War Motif horns and dark phrases of the Alabama Theme, alluding to its coming mission as Ince’s pager alerts him to return to base. The War Motif carries their arrival at the naval base and closes the scene.

We shift to Ramsey’s base quarters where he interviews Hunter for the open XO position. Ramsey is raw, vulgar and singularly unimpressed with Hunter’s Harvard education and demeanor, yet he never the less declares him the best candidate and welcomes him to the Alabama. Zimmer supports the scene with a soft rendering of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Ramsey and the Admiral brief the crew on the imminent danger of nuclear war and defense status of Def Con 4. The mood is grim and supported by ominous strains of the War Motif, which is joined by the A Phrase of the Alabama Theme as the ship is ordered out to sea. As the crew heads to the ship, trumpets declare with purposeful strength the Alabama Anthem, which carries their progress. In these opening scenes Zimmer has masterfully set the dire tone of the film as the dark pall of nuclear war descends. A tender rendering of Hunter’s Theme on acoustic guitar supports his heartfelt goodbyes to his wife and son. Woven within its theme’s fabric are dark strains of the War Motif, reflecting their concern for his mission.

Prior to departure Ramsey giving a rousing speech where he exhorts his men to do him, the Alabama and America proud. Zimmer supports the patriotic fervor with a proud statement of the Alabama Anthem, now unleashed fully with unbridled masculine strength. The synergy of film narrative and music for this scene is superb, a testament to Zimmer’s mastery of his craft. The theme boldly carries the Alabama’s progress out to sea, but demurs as Ramsey and Hunter converse and share cigars on the bridge. Ramsey orders Hunter to take the ship down. Zimmer supports the sub’s submerging by interpolating the British seafaring hymn “Eternal Father Strong To Save”. The conception and execution of this hymn as the Alabama submerges is excellent. The next scene is a dinner for the senior officers and a discussion of the nature and purpose of war, which exposes how differently Ramsey and Hunter think and view the world. Zimmer provides a nuanced religioso War Motif, which is rendered softly under the conversations by men’s chorus . Suddenly a flash fire explodes and drives the cooks out of the galley before they could hit the fire suppression switch. Hunter rushes to the galley carried by an energetic rendering of the B Phrase of the Alabama Theme. He dons fire protective gear and puts himself at risk as he enters and hits the kill switch to save the day. Ramsey uses the event to initiate an EAM drill, forcing Hunter to leave the galley unsecured and return to the bridge. Hunter tries to caution Ramsey that the galley fire could flare up again, but is rebuffed curtly. We see a simmering tension in the men and Zimmer supports the scene by introducing a nascent rendering of the Mutiny Theme, which has not yet coalesced into a full statement. Ramsey suspends the drill when the Chief Petty Officer goes into a cardiac arrest, which results in his death. He takes Hunter to his cabin for some tough talk, about following orders and never challenging his authority in front of the crew. Zimmer supports the tense scene with juxtaposition by interpolating the Andante Con Motto of Franz Shubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat.

Later, Hunter is training vigorously to vent his frustrations with Ramsey. His theme, now declared by McNab’s trumpet and kinetic electronica empowers his aggressive workout. Afterwards Ince counsels him to not challenge Ramsey and just let him get to know you. The pop song “Sweet Home Alabama” sung by Lynyrd Skynyrd supports the exchange. The next scene reveals the Alabama receiving an official EAM from naval command. An ominous War Motif supports Ramsey and Hunter receiving the message and Hunter’s briefing of the senior officers. As Ramsey exhorts them to their stations for a possible preemptive nuclear strike against Radchenko a resolute Alabama Theme resounds and carries their progress. The next scene offers a very tense and riveting cue. Sonar detects an unknown sub and Ramsey is called to the bridge. The War Motif rises from the lower depths and ushers in the Action Motif, which carries Ramsey and Hunter to the con. Ramsey orders an intercept course and the loading of torpedo bays 1 and 4. We flow seamlessly into the Alabama receiving a new EAM, which the men authenticate as an order to launch nuclear missiles. Eerie synth voices and stacked synth phrases join with the Action Motif to sow tension as Ramsey orders a stand down of the torpedo launch to prepare the ship for missile launch.

The first Russian Sub Attack scene offers a riveting score highlight abounding with tension and action. The Alabama is preparing for missile launch but is forced to dive to remain undetected by a Russian Akula class attack sub, which is closing. Low register synth voices create unease as we see the Alabama going deep. When a second message fragment is received, Hunter recommends sending up the communication buoy to allow them to retrieve the transmission. Ramsey grudgingly agrees and orders the release the buoy. Zimmer supports the scene with random synth textures and voices, which sow tension. The buoy winch jams and sends out sounds, which the Russian sub detects. It turns and fires two torpedoes and Ramsey orders flank speed, evasive maneuvers, and the release of counter measures. Zimmer drives the action with the swelling menace of the War Motif, chanting male synth voices and the Action Motif. Both torpedoes miss, hitting the decoys. In the aftermath of the attack, there is discord between Ramsey and Hunter over the second EAM fragment, Ramsey insists on missile launch, Hunter does not concur, instead insisting on verifying the full EAM transmission, which may be an abort order. They verbally fight with Ramsey losing his temper and ordering Hunter imprisoned for mutiny. Chief of the Boat Walters sides with Hunter as Ramsey’s order to arrest Hunter for failing to consent to launch violates Navy regulations. Hunter then relieves Ramsey of command and orders him locked in his cabin. Zimmer supports the tense scene with elegiac horns, the Mutiny Theme and an ostinato by panpipes.

As the crew tries to repair the radio Hunter orders the Alabama to ascend to communications depth. The panpipes ostinato and synth textures carry the scene. Suddenly the Russian sub returns and again opens fire at close range. The War Motif on horns joins the panpipes and synths in a driving kinetic line as the countermeasures again work and the Alabama returns fire. As the torpedoes find the mark a celebratory Alabama Theme carries the crew’s elation, but the moment is lost when another torpedo is discovered. Dire horns of the War Motif and ferocious synth statements support the firing of countermeasures and an emergency dive. The torpedo hits the countermeasure but the proximity explosion cripples the ship causing the bilge bay to flood and the ship to lose propulsion. An ominous Action Motif joins upper register synth phrases juxtaposed to dire male synth voices, which descend in register as the Alabama sinks towards crush depth of 1,850 feet. Hunter is forced to order the bilge bay sealed or lose the ship. As they seal the hatch trapping several men the hymn “Eternal Father Strong To Save” emotes as an elegy. Turbine propulsion is restored at 1,825 feet and the Alabama ascends triumphantly atop its anthem to periscope depth.

However, Lieutenant Dougherty bullies his way into Ramsey quarters, and they conspire to retake the ship. Zimmer supports their dialogue with singing from ‘Ebben, Ne Andro Lontana’ from La Wally. As Dougherty convinces Ince and the other senior officers to arm themselves and initiate a counter mutiny, Zimmer supports the tense conversation with dire declarations of the Mutiny Theme. As we see Ramsey marching towards the Con atop an aggressive rendering of the Mutiny Theme, we see Hunter taking countermeasures to restore communications carried by his theme on solo trumpet nobile. The Mutiny Theme crests as Ramsey storms the Con and retakes command. Ethereal men’s voices usher in a plaintive rendering of the Alabama Theme as Hunter and Walters are removed and locked in the Officer’s Mess. The next scene reveals Ramsey preparing to proceed with nuclear missile launch. Zimmer supports with a plaintive rendering of the War Motif. Petty Officer Rivetti takes down the guard and frees Hunter and the other officers who resolve to once again retake command of the Alabama. An inspired rendering of his theme carries his progress juxtaposed by the Mutiny Theme. As Ramsey opens the missile hatches the War Motif resounds. Hunter calls Ince and convinces him to not fire the missiles and we build tension atop dire synth statements as Ramsey orders the launch and Ince refuses. As Ramsey heads to missile control to confront Ince, Hunter moves to retake the Con and disarm the system. The Mutiny Theme drives the two men with an aggressive rendering.

When Ince refuses to open the safe at gun point, Ramsey threatens to kill a crewman if he continues to refuse. A grotesque crescendo builds yet dissipates as Ince relents. Ramsey orders the launch but Hunter has retaken the bridge and removed the Captain’s key, disarming the system. An enraged Ramsey heads back to the Con carried by a resounding Mutiny Theme. Repeating dire synth phrases raise tension as periscope depth is reached and communications restored. Ramsey retakes the Con, demands the launch key, and punches Hunter in the face twice when he refuses. Hunter’s Theme carried by a solo trumpet supports his defiance and Ramsey demurs, allowing communications three minutes to produce the second EAM. As they wait, they argue about the origins of the famous Lipizzaner stallions. Ethereal male synth voices create an unsettling ambiance, which rises in register and intensity as the EAM finally arrives. The second EAM is authenticated and Hunter is proved right as missile launch was cancelled when loyalist Russian forces captured Radchenko. As Ramsey announces the news a celebratory rendering of the B Phrase of the Alabama Theme carries the men’s jubilation. Ramsey understands his circumstances, and gives Hunter control of the Con. As he departs to his quarters, a plaintive rendering of the A Phrase of the Alabama Theme with elegiac horns carries his progress.

The conclusive Court of Inquiry scene offers a very moving cue and score highlight. It reveals Rear Admiral Anderson declaring that both men were at the same time right in their actions, and wrong because they could not reconcile their difference. He accepts Ramsey’s request for early retirement and also his recommendation that Hunter be given his own command at the earliest opportunity. Zimmer supports the poignant moment with muted horns statements, which usher in a noble rendering of the Alabama Theme as Ramsey is granted retirement. Hunter’s Theme on a solo trumpet nobile supports the recommendation that he be given his own command. As the men part ways in friendship the Alabama Anthem now buttressed by male chorus, supports the moment, swelling to a proud declaration, which brings the film to a most satisfying conclusion. We segue into the “End Titles” atop the anthem, for a robust rendering that yields to elegiac male chorus, which bathes us in solemn religioso auras. We flow back into the Alabama Theme, which does not crest, instead yielding to the Mutiny Theme. We close with a final reprise of the hymn “Eternal Father Strong To Save”.

This score was the catalyst that unleashed the Zimmer revolution, which forever transformed film score art. I cannot overstate the importance or impact of Crimson Tide in catalyzing new sensibilities and methods for scoring a film. While Rain Man opened the door to Zimmer’s new methodology, Crimson Tide blew the door off its hinges, ushering in his new sound that would dominate Hollywood blockbuster films for decades. Indeed, as the Alfred Newman of our age, Zimmer mentored and fostered the development of a new generation of composers who utilized and adapted his techniques, which resonated with a new generation of movie goers who liked his bold modern approach. If Crimson Tide was the film score that unleashed the Zimmer revolution, the Alabama Anthem was what defined it. This proud, bold and powerful theme captured the film’s emotional core and fully realized Bruckheimer’s vision. In scene after scene Zimmer’s score was perfectly conceived, impactful and very successful in driving the film’s narrative. I will defer from making my usual recommendation to purchase the Hollywood Records CD, instead demanding that a bona fide complete score be issued. I consider this score to be transformative, of historic importance, a gem of the late Bronze Age and essential to the collection of film score lovers. Join me in demanding a reissue of a remastered score in complete form.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score I have embedded a YouTube link to a suite, which features Hunter’s Theme and the Alabama Anthem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0vi54-heX8

Buy the Crimson Tide soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mutiny (8:58)
  • Alabama (23:50)
  • Little Ducks (2:03)
  • 1SQ (18:04)
  • Roll Tide (7:34)

Running Time: 60 minutes 29 seconds

Hollywood Records 162-025-2 (1995)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Nick Glennie-Smith, Bruce Fowler, Ladd McIntosh and Suzette Moriarty. “Eternal Father Strong to Save” written by John Dykes and William Whiting. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Bob Badami. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin.

  1. April 16, 2019 at 11:19 am

    A nice surprise. I was not expecting this one to appear. Well done Craig for highlighting its importance.

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