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BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY – John Williams

December 26, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the late 1970s and 1980s a number of prominent American filmmakers took it upon themselves to take a long, hard look at the political and social ramifications of the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. American involvement in the conflict began in the early 1960s, and lasted until the fall of Saigon in 1975, resulting in the deaths of more than 50,000 American military personnel, and hundreds of thousands more wounded. Chief among those filmmakers was Oliver Stone, who was himself a Vietnam vet. His 1986 film Platoon took a harrowing look at the war from the point of view of the men serving on the front lines, and he won Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for his trouble. Born on the Fourth of July, which was released in December 1989, took an equally harrowing look at what happened to those men when they finally came home.

The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Ron Kovic. It follows Kovic’s life: he grows up as a typical all-American kid in upstate New York in the 1950s, and enlists in the army when he comes of age, seeing it as his patriotic duty to serve the country he loves. However, Kovic’s experiences in Vietnam are utterly horrific, and he returns to civilian life a haunted shell of a man: paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair, and tormented by bitter nightmares of the conflict. Eventually he becomes a pariah; ostracized by his family and shunned by the country he served, he turns to alcohol and drugs, before eventually turning his life around and becoming a prominent and successful anti-war campaigner and author. The film stars Tom Cruise in one of his career best roles as Kovic, and features Willem Dafoe, Kyra Sedgwick, and Raymond J. Barry in supporting roles.

The score for Born on the Fourth of July was by John Williams, and was the first of three films he and Stone did together, the others being JFK in 1991 and Nixon in 1995. Williams agreed to work on the film after viewing a rough cut version, and immediately knew that he wanted to have a score which used a beautiful string orchestra to juxtapose the horror and carnage of the war, and which featured a solo trumpet to illustrate the happy, innocent, idyllic youth that Kovic lost in the jungles so far from home. The ironic use of intentionally beautiful music to make the devastation of war seem more emotionally powerful is not a new idea (Georges Delerue did it in Stone’s previous film, Platoon, by mimicking Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings), but Williams’s class and taste and unmatched talent makes the score for this film feel especially poignant.

There is only 25 minutes of score on the soundtrack album, but Williams makes every one of them count. The opening cue, “Prologue,” features a master-class trumpet performance by Tim Morrison of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a haunting elegy performed with clarity and depth over nothing more than a synth drone and a long, sustained string note. It’s a stark opening to the score, but one which makes it clear to the listener that this is Williams at his most serious and profound, a world away from the crowd-pleasing marches of his most popular works. “The Early Days, Massapequa, 1957” is an evocation of Kovic’s idyllic youth, but even here the music is underpinned with a sense of darkness and looming tragedy hidden beneath the beauty of the thematic writing. The main theme for Kovic emerges from the piece just before the 1:00 mark, a wash of searing strings layered on top of each other for maximum emotional wallop. Tender oboes introduce the Idyllic Theme at 1:35, a perfect representation of 1950s white-picket-fenced suburban bliss, the American dream in musical form, before eventually giving way to strings that simply soar with delight. Warm, wholesome trumpet variations on the theme continue the trend as the cue develops, but darkness is never far away: the piece is occasionally interrupted by a more uncertain, minor-key theme that speaks to the ever-present specter of war, and uses more darkly-hued piano chords and string passages to convey this. The performance of the motif at 3:49 is one of the score’s most striking.

“The Shooting of Wilson” is the first of the cues that accompany scenes set in Vietnam during Kovic’s tour of duty, and is among the most shockingly dissonant and harshly disturbing things Williams has ever written. The cue underscores the film’s most notorious scene, where Kovic’s company accidentally massacres a house full of innocent Vietnamese farmers, including a young mother and a newborn baby. Elongated sequences of wild orchestral dissonance, vicious shifting string chords, piano crashes, and mournful howls from the brass section make up a great deal of the cue, which is designed expressly to disorientate, confuse, and really hammer home the tragedy and horrific reality of war. There is also quite a bit of electronic sound design down in the mix of the cue, adding to the other-worldly alienation of the piece. Even amongst all this chaos, though, this music still sounds like John Williams, in the way he phrases and combines the instruments, and in the chord progressions. There are echoes of things in earlier scores like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Fury, even as far back as Images, as well as foreshadowings of the more horrific music he would later write for scores like Jurassic Park, among others. It’s a real testament to Williams that, even amongst all this carnage, his personal voice still shines through.

The subsequent “Cua Viet River, Vietnam, 1967” begins with statements of both the War Theme and Kovic’s Theme that are hued with a mournful tragedy, lamenting for the deaths of his platoon-mates and the innocents who were so needlessly slaughtered. After around 90 seconds the music drops away; at this moment Kovic gets shot on-screen, and his life is altered forever. Williams uses brutal piano crashes, screeching strings, and even more layers of orchestral dissonance to capture the utter devastation of the event; snippets of the themes come and go with disorienting rapidity, and electronic tones float in like ghostly voices. The synthetic water drops and disturbing whispers that come in during the cue’s conclusion give the whole thing a sense of hopelessness that is tremendously effective.

The penultimate cue, “Homecoming,” is a musical representation of Kovic’s life once he returns back to the United States, and cleverly mirrors his frequent shifts in mood. When he rehabilitates at a clinic in Mexico the statements of his theme are briefly hopeful, and when Williams underpins Morrison’s trumpet with a lively electronic percussion beat, you genuinely feel that all could be well. But this is clearly not the case when he encounters setbacks, and during those moments when the memories of war come flooding back via the War Theme, the trumpet lines are hollow and bitter once more. The conclusive “Born on the Fourth of July” is the end credits suite, and is quite superb. Yet again, the whole thing acts as a showcase for Morrison’s magnificent trumpet performances, as Williams circles through all the main themes over a 6-minute period, highlighting each one with an enormous wave of sweeping, emotional strings. In addition to Williams’s score, the album also features eight period-specific songs that appear in the film, including classics such as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” John Fogerty’s “Born on the Bayou,” “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “American Pie” by Don McLean, and “My Girl” by The Temptations.

I have long felt that Born on the Fourth of July was one of John Williams’s most underrated 1980s scores. It lives in the shadows of all the great things he wrote in the decade – two Star Wars scores, three Raiders scores, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Witches of Eastwick, and so on – and it has nowhere near the instant recognition or popular appeal of those works, but there is still a tremendous amount of outstanding music within. The main themes are strong and unashamedly emotional, offering a lament for the darkness of war while allowing enough light to peek through for it to remain hopeful. The main trumpet performances are stellar, and the dissonance contained in the Vietnam sequences remain some of the most challenging and abstract thing Williams has ever written. He absolutely deserved the Academy Award nomination he received (although he lost to Alan Menken and the all-conquering Little Mermaid), and I for one would love to see an expanded score from one of the specialty labels at some point in the future, as there are surely more highlights to be heard.

Buy the Born on the Fourth of July soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall (written by Bob Dylan, performed by Edie Brickell & New Bohemians) (4:58)
  • Born on the Bayou (written by John Fogerty, performed by The Broken Homes) (4:54)
  • Brown Eyed Girl (written and performed by Van Morrison) (3:07)
  • American Pie (written and performed by Don McLean) (8:32)
  • My Girl (written by William Robinson and Ronald White, performed by The Temptations) (2:43)
  • Soldier Boy (written by Luther Dixon and Florence Greenberg, performed by The Shirelles) (2:39)
  • Venus (written by Ed Marshall, performed by Frankie Avalon) (2:21)
  • Moon River (written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer) (2:41)
  • Prologue (1:22)
  • The Early Days, Massapequa, 1957 (4:57)
  • The Shooting of Wilson (5:07)
  • Cua Viet River, Vietnam, 1967 (5:02)
  • Homecoming (2:38)
  • Born on the Fourth of July (5:44)

Running Time: 56 minutes 46 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-6340 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by John Williams and John Neufeld. Featured musical soloist Tim Morrison. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Album produced by John Williams.

  1. Ismail
    December 31, 2019 at 6:55 am

    Great review! I wanted to ask you, what you think about Mandalorian by Ludwig Göransson?

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