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1917 – Thomas Newman

January 11, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

1917 is an astonishing, emotionally overwhelming, technical masterpiece of a film set in northern France during World War I. Directed by Sam Mendes and based in part on the experiences of his own grandfather during the war, the film stars George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman as Schofield and Blake, two young English soldiers serving in the trenches on the front lines. When some vitally important military intelligence is conveyed to their commanding officer, Schofield and Blake are tasked with delivering a message to another unit half a dozen miles away, with orders that would stop a platoon of 1,600 soldiers – including Blake’s brother – from falling into a German trap and being massacred. In order to deliver the message the pair must journey on foot deep into enemy territory, overcoming obstacles and enduring incredible physical and mental hardships, in a manner which illustrates how devastating war is for everyone involved.

For me, the film succeeds on multiple levels. Firstly, it’s a technical filmmaking achievement of the highest order, especially on the part of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who captures the action in a series of impeccably-choreographed long takes which make the film appear to unfold in real-time as one continuous shot. The amount of planning and precision this required is staggering – one could write a book on this aspect of the film alone – but I won’t get into that here, suffice to say that I haven’t been as impressed with the actual technical composition of a movie in quite some time. Secondly, it’s an emotional powerhouse which somehow manages to boil the entire concept of war down into a perfect microcosm by focusing on the experiences of these two young men. They show an enormous amount of bravery, tenacity, ingenuity, and honor in the face of the most horrific circumstances imaginable, but are confronted with the political side of the conflict too. The extended cameos by the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden represent the various sides of the human wartime experience: steadfast adherence to duty, weary resignation and near-indifference, support and friendship, and finally a sense of pragmatic realism which lends a touch of appropriate bleakness to the film’s bittersweet ending. This is the film that Dunkirk could have been, but wasn’t, and it is testament to the skill of Mendes, Deakins, and the cast, that they are able to draw audiences into this world, get them to empathize with the characters, and subject them to the thrills and horrors of the experience, while still conveying a powerful anti-war message.

The score for 1917 is by Thomas Newman, and marks the seventh collaboration between himself and director Mendes after American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall, and Spectre. To boil it down to its most basic elements, the score is a combination of some of the things I dislike the most about Thomas Newman’s music and many of the things I love the most about Thomas Newman’s music, wrapped around several somewhat obvious pieces of Hans Zimmer temp-tracking that work in context, but can come across as a little distracting when heard individually. Conceptually, Newman and Mendes decided to root the score in immediacy, reacting to the on-screen events in real-time in an attempt to make the film seem more raw and visceral. As such, the score has very little in terms of thematic content or recurring melodic ideas; instead, it relies on various different sound palettes that convey emotional content in a more abstract way.

The score is strongly orchestral – there are times when the sound is quite massive – but it is also strongly electronic. Many of the cues are digitally manipulated with synths and samples to give it an anguished, disorienting feeling; at times some of the sound design elements feel more like Hans Zimmer than Thomas Newman, and again have tonal similarities to scores like Dunkirk. Nevertheless, some of the little instrumental touches and combinations are peak Newman, especially when he makes prominent usage of tom-toms or marimbas, or pulls some kind of exotic string instrument from out of George Doering’s bag of tricks. The score begins somewhat misleadingly with “1917,” a poignant cue for soft strings, piano, and a beautiful solo cello, but things change almost immediately in “Up the Down Trench” which is where Newman first brings out his sound design elements – synth pulses, rumbling percussive beats, and a dissonant semi-industrial grind. The whole thing is anticipatory, nervous, and filled with a sense of dread mixed with excitement and determination, as it follows Schofield and Blake as they make their way through their labyrinthine trenches on the way to start their mission.

For much of the score Newman concentrates on this sort of light sound design, with numerous cues of understated tremolo string passages, quietly droning synths, piano chords, and guitars. Many of these cues tend to deal with the relationship that develops between Schofield and Blake, and underscores their conversations and existential reflections about life in between encounters with the enemy. Pieces like “A Scrap of Ribbon” and “A Bit of Tin” adopt this style, while the subsequent “Blake and Schofield” has a wistful, faraway sound that also includes dreamy, airy woodwinds. Later, “Les Arbres” has a more noticeable choral sound and a more prominent dulcimer, while “Croisilles Wood” is a little ethereal, with tinkling pianos underneath the ever-present synths.

This is contrasted with the much heavier sound of the cues that underscore the darker, more brutal sequences of wartime devastation and horror. “Gehenna,” for example, is a musical depiction of a near-literal hell, as it accompanies the sequence where Schofield and Blake cross a stretch of No Man’s Land, picking a way through a route strewn with the most unimaginable human carnage. Newman’s music here is all about tone and texture, and of conveying a sense of overwhelming dread. He uses heartbeat pulses and a sample that appears to mimic the sound of blood rushing in your ears, and combines them with metallic percussion, synth drones, little piano figures, and more intense strings and brass that rise to a crescendo in the track’s second half. Later cues like the massively dissonant and disorienting “Tripwire,” “The Boche,” “Écoust-Saint-Mein,” and “The Rapids” take a similar approach, with the latter being a near-perfect musical depiction of drowning as the instruments fade in and out of focus, distant, distorted, and underpinned by a palpable sense of panic.

There are two action sequences of note. The first, “Lockhouse,” underscores the intense bridge crossing/sniper sequence, and sees Newman gradually adding layers of what sound like manipulated voices to his synth design, and then increasing the intensity with more powerful percussion, electronic bubbling and metallic tinkling, and throbbing brass pulses atop a bed of surging strings. The second, “Engländer,” underscores the chase sequence through the ruins of a French village, and is one of the few moments where Newman uses more kinetic percussive rhythms to drive the action forward. The whole thing becomes quite intense in the finale as Schofield sprints through the rubble trying to evade German soldiers, and the explosion of an electrifying brass motif at 3:50, as he throws himself into the river as a last resort, is quite superb.

However, for me, and for the majority of people reading this, the highlight of the score will be “The Night Window”. This is the cue where Newman abandons all efforts at subtlety and instead bombards the listener with massive, awe-inspiring emotion. It underscores the scene where Schofield – having been knocked unconscious during his encounter with the sniper – finally awakens, and then staggers through the bombed-out shell of a French village, which is lit with flares to create a sense of shadowy, disorienting otherworldliness. The music in this context represents a combination of Schofield’s relief and euphoria at simply being alive, and what Mendes describes as the ‘dystopically beautiful’ imagery of the scene. The cue begins quietly, with soft chimes, but Newman slowly piles on the emotional content with layer upon layer of string magnificence, deep and sonorous brass accents, and imposing drum rolls. The whole thing is based around chords and scales rather than anything identifiably thematic, but it’s utterly spectacular in context. Listeners may be reminded of the finale of The Shawshank Redemption, specifically the scene where Tim Robbins emerges from the sewage pipe into the river, and raises his hands to heaven, thanking God for deliverance. It has the same emotional drive.

The finale of the score begins with “Sixteen Hundred Men,” and the most obvious piece of Hans Zimmer temp-track love. Thomas Newman has always been such a unique-sounding composer, with such a strong personal style, so it’s quite jarring to hear him so clearly mimicking the stylistics of “Journey to the Line” from The Thin Red Line, but that’s essentially what’s happening here: the electronic ticking, the heavy brass chords, and the overall rhythmic quality are obviously inspired by Zimmer’s well-loved 1998 work. The cue accompanies the final scene where Schofield is desperately running across his own front lines, trying to find a commanding officer to give the orders to stop the attack, as men go ‘over the top’ around him, and the world explodes into a chaos of explosions and death. The finale of the cue roars with string-led emotion and intensity, and is again tremendously effective in context. Then, in the conclusive “Come Back to Us,” Newman returns to the poignant cello writing heard in the opening cue, allowing the viewer a moment of catharsis in an otherwise heartbreaking, but pitch perfect finale.

1917 is one of those challenging scores which will affect you differently depending on how you first experience it. As a standalone listen, a great deal of it is a slog; that middle section from “The Boche” through to the end of “Les Arbres” is an extended exercise in heavy, abstract sound design that can easily tax the patience of even the most forgiving listener, and the gaps between highlights like “The Night Window,” “Engländer,” and “Sixteen Hundred Men” can feel so long that it’s almost not worth the wait putting up with everything that comes between them. However, if you experience it in film context first, then 1917 opens up into something different entirely. The grating sound design suddenly becomes a desperate depiction of hell on Earth, perfectly judged in that it creates a horrific atmosphere unimaginable to those of us living now, 100 years removed from the war. The lighter moments of atmospheric electronica feel like peace, a calm before the storm, where a conversation about cherry blossoms suddenly allows you to connect with these young men in such a terrible place on a more human level. The action music, when it erupts, is breathless and exciting, and puts you on the edge of your seat. And then, in moments of outrageous beauty and emotional exhalation like “The Night Window,” or “Come Back to Us,” the contrast with the rest of the score is enough to make you weep.

It is more than likely that Thomas Newman will receive his 15th Academy Award nomination for 1917, and it’s also more than likely that he will lose for the 15th time, probably to Hildur Gudnadottir and the all-conquering Joker. Whether Newman actually deserves the Award for 1917 is another matter entirely, but whatever your opinion on that is, the score is nevertheless one well worth exploring. The highlights, like “The Night Window,” are among the best thing Newman has written this decade, the Hans Zimmer temp-track homages are still worthwhile if you can ignore how they came into being, and as for the rest of the score… well, it needs context for it to be appreciated fully, but the film is so good that appreciating it in context will likely be one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences of the year.

Buy the 1917 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 1917 (1:17)
  • Up the Down Trench (6:19)
  • Gehenna (3:34)
  • A Scrap of Ribbon (6:29)
  • The Night Window (3:41)
  • The Boche (3:21)
  • Tripwire (1:40)
  • A Bit of Tin (2:02)
  • Lockhouse (4:04)
  • Blake and Schofield (4:20)
  • Milk (10:10)
  • Écoust-Saint-Mein (2:36)
  • Les Arbres (3:36)
  • Engländer (4:29)
  • The Rapids (1:29)
  • Croisilles Wood (2:06)
  • Sixteen Hundred Men (6:32)
  • Mentions in Dispatches (3:44)
  • Come Back to Us (5:39)

Running Time: 77 minutes 17 seconds

Sony Classical (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford. Recorded and mixed by Shinnosuke Miyazawa and Peter Cobbin. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

  1. January 14, 2020 at 3:43 am

    This is an difficult score to listen to in total, but Night Window and 1600 men are certainly the stand out tracks and it will certainly be interesting to see if this score wins that Oscar this year. Thank you for a superb review.

  2. K.K.A.
    January 15, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    Hmmm I thought the score was excellent top to bottom. I’ve always admired his electronic music, so the many cues of that here were very interesting, especially “Milk,” which plays during a particularly tragic part of the movie, which was also excellent.

    But yes, the orchestral work is some of the best he’s ever written, including “The Night Window,” “Sixteen Hundred Men,” and especially “Come Back To Us,” which is my favorite cue (I love solo cello).

    I certainly hope this wins Newman his first Oscar but if it doesn’t, that says more about the Academy than about this score or Newman.

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