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THE FIELD – Elmer Bernstein


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Field is a quietly devastating drama written and directed by Jim Sheridan, adapted from the 1965 play of the same name by John Keane. Set in Ireland in the 1930s, the film stars Richard Harris as Bull McCabe, an impoverished farmer who rents a dilapidated field on the cliffs by the sea. When the wealthy widow who owns the field decides to sell it, McCabe assumes that he will be given the first chance to buy it, but unknown to McCabe the widow has been holding on to a grudge for decades, and in a public display of spiteful pettiness directed at McCabe, holds an open auction instead. A rich American named Peter (Tom Berenger), who wants to build a factory on the site, outbids him, and so begins a bitter war which leads to betrayal, death, and madness, with the field itself acting as a symbolic representation of the desperately difficult lives the characters lead. The film has a terrific supporting cast including John Hurt, Sean Bean, Brenda Fricker, and a very young Brendan Gleeson, and was a critical success when it was first released.

The score for The Field was by the great Elmer Bernstein, who scored director Sheridan’s cinematic debut My Left Foot the previous year. As the 1980s turned into the 1990s Bernstein began making a conscious effort to change the trajectory of his career; from the 1950s all the way through to the mid 1970s Bernstein was one of Hollywood’s most treasured and well respected composers, a master of westerns like The Magnificent Seven, epic biblical spectacles like The Ten Commandments, jazzy depictions of the seedy underbelly of American life like The Man With the Golden Arm, sincere dramas like To Kill a Mockingbird, and everything in between. However, the late 1970s saw Bernstein become somewhat trapped in a cycle of scoring nothing but comedies: most were very financially successful – Animal House, Airplane, The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Spies Like Us – but they lacked the gravitas and respectability that his earlier work contained. Unexpectedly, he turned to the cinema of Ireland for inspiration and used three near-consecutive scores for Irish films – Da, My Left Foot, and this one – as a means to put himself back in the frame for projects with class and scope for real musical depth.

In describing the score for The Field, Bernstein said he tried to avoid most of the clichéd Irish elements one might usually find in a score like this, and instead concentrated on the drama of the story and the farmer’s struggle to exist in such a bleak landscape – themes which are universal. He created a ‘brooding and unusual atmosphere’ in the score by combining the sound of the Irish Film Orchestra with subtle electronic effects, as well as with the sound of the ondes martenot, an eerie theremin-like instrument with which Bernstein had a multi-decade obsession, and which was performed by Cynthia Millar. Finally, to capture a little bit of the Irish character of the project (which couldn’t be avoided entirely) Bernstein used traditional uilleann pipes, performed by soloist Liam O’Flynn, and intentionally wrote thematic material that was built on intervals used in Irish folk music. The end result is a lovely, if a little subdued, score which will likely appeal mostly to anyone who appreciates low-key drama writing with an Irish flavor.

The opening cue, “The Land,” begins with a prime example of the ‘brooding and unusual atmosphere’ Bernstein talked about, in that the orchestral passages tend to be somewhat introverted, while the pipes and electronic ideas have a distant, faraway sound, like something from an ancient echo. Some of the orchestral textures and phrasings Bernstein uses here actually remind me of the kind of music Howard Shore would write in much of the 1990s, combined with some of James Horner’s more subdued writing from things like Braveheart. The actual main theme, once it finally emerges around after the 2:40 mark, is really sensationally beautiful, and may remind some astute listeners of some sort of combination between Ennio Morricone’s The Mission and Thomas Newman’s Meet Joe Black. From then on the theme appears quite frequently, offering moments of pastoral lyricism that are truly outstanding.

There are several lovely statements of this theme scattered throughout the rest of the score, but this is by no means a one-theme work. In fact, for quite a lot of the running time, Bernstein’s music is more concerned with casting broad-brush dramatic spells over the film, combining instruments in different and sometimes quite unusual ways. The ensemble is fairly consistent throughout – strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, pipes, ondes martenot, electronics – but Bernstein’s emotional dexterity is such that the score remains interesting. It shifts from light, almost comedic tones to darkness and tragedy with incredible speed, and does it so often it seems like, reading this, one could easily assume that it is unfocused, but that’s not the case at all. Instead, it’s a perfect depiction of McCabe’s mind, as he is slowly driven insane by his obsession with the field, and the tragic lengths he goes to, as he tries to maintain a hold on what he considers his birthright.

Some moments worth noting include the opening passages of “The Bird,” which are full of movement, lively woodwind writing, and a whirling, jig-like brass undercurrent. “To the Field” is mostly funereal and understated, a dirge-like piece for brass augmented with electronic atmospherics, meandering string figures, and eerie ondes tones surrounding half-hidden statements of the main theme. “Stranger” is the music for Tom Berenger’s American interloper, who wants to take McCabe’s livelihood out from under him, and his presence is scored with martial brass ideas accompanied by snare drums, as well as some magical writing for ondes martenot and strings that have some superficial similarities to the love theme from Ghostbusters.

“Auction” is based around some unexpectedly spiky rhythmic ideas for brass and percussion, interspersed with moody ondes chords, more traditional orchestral passages, and bursts of the main theme on pipes. “Revelation” features an almost comedic jig-like theme, juxtaposed against bulbous writing for brass. “Killing,” which underscores the devastating turning point in the film’s dramatic arc, is filled with enormous brass chords and shrill, anguished strings that illustrate the desperation of the situation. “Questions” is a dark, bitter statement of the main theme for brass, while later “The Church” becomes quite severe, with notably dominant brass writing and powerful blasts from a church organ that sound like cries from an angry god.

The film’s heartbreaking conclusion is underscored by “The Cliffs and the Sea,” and sees Bernstein engaging in a great deal of musical intensity. The conclusion of the film – for people who don’t know the story – sees McCabe finally suffering a complete mental breakdown, as his obsession with the field ultimately destroys him and everything he has worked for. His son is killed in the cattle stampede that ensues when the now-insane McCabe drives his entire herd off a cliff and into the ocean; eventually McCabe stands on a beach, bellowing in mad anguish at the ocean before him, as his estranged wife and several fellow villagers look on, weeping. Bernstein scores the mental destruction of this poor man with huge brass chords, relentlessly pounding percussion, haunting uilleann pipes, and sour statements of the main theme, leaving the listener with no confusion about how they should feel about such things. The final cue, “Credits,” treads a similar path to the opening cue “The Land,” and contains a lovely final statement of the main theme.

With all the classic scores that Elmer Bernstein wrote in his career – all those legendary main themes, all those memorable moments – it’s easy to forget just what a truly outstanding dramatic composer he was. He was able to convey complex, sometimes deeply conflicting, emotional states with his music, and The Field is an excellent example of him doing just that. The main theme is a delight, the Irish lilt is appealing, and the instrumental combinations and colors are superb, but it’s the way Bernstein is able to burrow deeply into the obsessive mind of a troubled man that makes this score a worthwhile exploration.

Buy the Field soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Land (5:43)
  • The Bird (2:18)
  • To the Field (4:57)
  • Stranger (3:45)
  • Auction (2:11)
  • Revelation (5:07)
  • Killing (2:59)
  • The Widow and the Dance (1:50)
  • Questions (2:33)
  • Caravan (1:30)
  • The Church (1:54)
  • Discovery (2:59)
  • The Cliffs and the Sea (3:16)
  • Credits (3:32)

Running Time: 44 minutes 34 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5292 (1990)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Performed by The Irish Film Orchestra. Featured musical soloists Cynthia Millar and Liam O’Flynn. Recorded and mixed by Brian Masterson. Edited by Kathy Durning. Album produced by Elmer Bernstein and Cynthia Millar.

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