Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE SEA WOLF – Erich Wolfgang Korngold

THE SEA WOLF – Erich Wolfgang Korngold

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1940 Warner Brothers Studios decided to bring Jack London’s 1904 adventure drama novel The Sea Wolf to the big screen, only to realize that rival David O. Selznick owned the film rights. They were not deterred, negotiated purchase, and eventually paid Selznick $15,000 to obtain them. Hal B. Wallis was assigned production, provided a $1 million budget, and Robert Rossen was hired to adapt the novel and write the screenplay. Michael Curtiz was tasked with directing and a fine cast was assembled, including Edward G. Robinson as Wolf Larsen, Ida Lupino as Ruth Webster, John Garfield as George Leach, and Alexander Knox as Humphrey Van Weyden.

The dialogue-rich and intense film offers a riveting exploration of Nietzschean precepts for human behavior. The story reveals writer Humphrey Van Weyden and escaped convict Ruth Webster passengers on a ferry, which sinks following a collision with another vessel. They are rescued by Wolf Larsen, captain of the seal hunting ship Ghost. Larsen, although self-taught and remarkably educated, is a brutal, imperious, and cruel man. He believes that man is by nature nothing more than an amoral animal, governed only by his own passions and personal needs, with morality being no more than an artificial construct, a construct which he rejects personally, and which has no place on his ship. The inevitable moral conflict erupts, which eventually leads to mutiny by Van Weyden and three crew members. Larsen is eventually undone and brought to ruin, with the aid of his brother, a captain of another schooner, who turns against him by sinking his ship. Larsen. However. has the last word when he takes Van Weyden down with him to a watery grave as the price for freeing lovers Ruth and George. The film was a commercial success, earning a profit of $860,000. Critics praised the film for offering a thoughtful, finely acted, and well told morality play. It earned one Academy Award nomination for Special Effects.

Director Michael Curtiz had successfully collaborated with Erich Wolfgang Korngold on four previous films, in which he composed some of Hollywood’s greatest scores, including Captain Blood in 1935, The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939, and The Sea Hawk in 1940. There was never any doubt in his mind as to whether he would again turn to Korngold. For Korngold, the film offered a riveting morality play and a more intimate narrative than his usual period piece and swashbuckling films of the past. He reveled in the challenges presented by a film such as this, which allowed him to speak musically to a truly dark narrative.

His soundscape is a departure in that it is less thematically driven than his customary practice. For The Sea Wolf he uses dark horn chords, swirling string figures to support the film’s fog shrouded dark imagery filled with undercurrents of evil and seething emotions of anger and violence. For his themes and motifs, we have Larsen’s Theme, which serves as a leitmotif for the amoral, imperious and implacable Captain Wolf Larsen, and by extension, his ship, the Ghost. This Main Theme offers an aggressive six-note stepped decent empowered by horns brutale. The music’s descending contour speaks of Larsen’s reign of terror, oppression, inhumanity and malevolence. For me, this is the finest villain theme in Korngold’s canon. The Love Theme for George and Ruth is initially tentative and introduced by a harmonica triste. Later as they bond and romance blossoms, so too does the theme blossom as a beautiful romance for strings, with its grandest statement ending the film with a flourish. Ruth’s Theme offers the scores solitary feminine construct, and emotes as a tender romance for strings. The theme exudes gentility and grace, yet we discern sadness in the notes, which reflect her unhappiness and refugee from the law status. Two motifs were provided; the Fog Motif offers a richly orchestrated misterioso led by pizzicato strings, wavelike string washes, joined by vibraphone and Novachord effects. There is an ever shifting, illusive intangibleness to the motif, which unsettles as it like a fog shroud envelops you. The Headache Motif supports the brain tumor growing in his brain, which is causing pain and a gradual loss of vision. Korngold creates an otherworldly sinusoidal effect using the Novachord with harp textures. To establish the saloon’s ambiance, two source songs were used; “Hello” Ma Baby” by Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson, and “Ma Blushin’ Rose” by John Stromberg and Edgar Smith. Lastly, cues coded (*) contain music not found on the album.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight where Korngold masterfully establishes the film’s dark narrative tone. It opens powerfully with fanfare by horns dramatico supporting the MGM studio logo, from which is launched Larsen’s Theme by ominous horns brutale. We flow seamlessly into the roll of the opening credits, which display as white script against a ship sailing through intermittent cloud banks. The music’s descending contour buttressed by strings agitato speaks of Larsen’s oppression, inhumanity and malevolence. This composition offers a glimpse of Korngold’s dark side, and I just love it! At 1:20 we flow into the film proper as scripts displays “San Francisco 1900”. The night time streets are fog shrouded and Korngold introduces his Fog Motif, providing a richly orchestrated agitato led by pizzicato strings, surging strings, and xylophone joined by unsettling Novachord effects. The album cue after 1:35 is not found in the film, which suggest an edit.

“Night Club” (*) reveals George George entering a nightclub and Korngold establishes a typical saloon ambiance with two source songs sung by Jeane Cowan with piano; “Hello! Ma Baby” and “Ma Blushin’ Rose”. George is desperate and running from the law and so agrees to sign-up as crewman on the seal hunting ship “Ghost” under the command of Captain Wolf Larsen. “The Fog” offers a masterful composition, which offers an extended exposition of the Fog Motif. It reveals George on the shrouded dock, where he is hailed to board the boat below, which will take him to the Ghost. Korngold unsettles us as he envelops us with his Fog Motif as the crew rows to the ship. At 1:20 tension builds with a repeating ascending string figure with xylophone adornment as we see one recruit has passed out drunk from a Mickey, while another crewman warns George of the approaching Hell on earth of serving under Wolf Larsen’s command. The confluence of the fog, conversation narrative and Korngold’s is simply brilliant.

“The Ghost – Collision” reveals writer Humphrey Van Weyden and escaped convict Ruth Webster as passengers traveling through the fog on a ferry. She is anxious as police are searching for her on board. Her attempt to solicit his assistance fails and she is arrested. Music enters as desperate flight music as she breaks free and a pursuit ensues. At the same time a large freighter approaches the ferry on a collision course, which triggers the bridge to order an evasive hard to port order. Korngold sow a swelling tension with churning musical narrative with a growing alarm as the sluggish ferry is unable to clear the path of the freighter. An orchestral crash at 0:46 supports the collision, with the smaller ferry mortally crushed. Korngold whips his orchestra into frenzy as the ferry begins sinking and people panic. At 1:09 a bleak diminuendo reveals Humphrey alone in the water. He sees a hand clutching a wooden stair case and a desperate musical narrative carries his swim, and discovery of Ruth. At 2:02 ominous strings full of foreboding herald the appearance of the Ghost, which approaches them. Humphrey’s yell “Ahoy!” for help is answered at 2:36 by trumpet calls and a menacing Larsen’s Theme as a life preserver is flung to them. Larsen’s Theme emotes with sinister purpose on board as we see a tense crew along with a stalking Larsen. The music after 3:05 was dialed out of the film, evidently to not intrude into Humphrey’s and George’s introduction to the imperious Larsen. Humphrey replaces George as a cabin boy to earn his keep until they return to port, and George is promoted to boat puller. On the unused album music Korngold sow a subtle and pervasive unease and tension, which alludes to Larsen’s amorality as he rebukes his first mate for dying after ingesting too much rum, and then reassigns George and Humphrey. I played this passage as I watched the film and believe Korngold’s music definitely would have enhanced the scene if used.

“You Still Feel Like Refusing?” reveals George being insubordinate and refusing his new assignment. A fierce Larsen Theme erupts to supports him brutally pummeling George into submission. At 0:19 a desperate string accelerando crowned with futile trumpet declarations carries Humphrey’s run to the bow where he yells in vain for a passing ship to rescue him. Humphrey sees that he is trapped and the malevolence of Larsen’s Theme descends upon him like a dark, inescapable pall. At 1:28 we segue into “Larsen’s Headache” where we see him eating dinner with his chief mates when he suddenly begins to grimace in pain. Korngold introduces his Headache Motif, which offers an eerie sinusoidal effect, adorned by harp. I believe this was well-conceived and executed.

“Larsen’s Room” offers a well-conceived and executed score highlight. George has entered to clean and tidy up. He is surprised when he finds an impressive library, which contains masterworks of literature, science and philosophy. Korngold weaves a misterioso with subtle ethereal quotes of Larsen’s Theme woven into its fabric. The theme gains prominence darkly at 1:05 when he picks up John Milton’s Paradise Lost and we see underlined the iconic quote; “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”. At 1:37 Larsen enters his cabin and begins an extended conversation with Humphrey on ethics, and his manuscript regarding the Ghost and him. Korngold’s mastery is on display as his music shifts with Larsen’s mercurialness, warming when he drops his guard to reveal his struggles and accomplishments, becoming sinister and full of rage when challenged. At 2:19 we segue atop woodwinds gentile into “The Patient” where we see Ruth’s condition worsening and the doctor too drunk to attend to her. Larsen is angry and has the doctor beaten to rouse him. Ruth is delirious and reveals she is a fugitive from the law. We have an intersection of many emotions in this scene and Korngold weaves a diverse tapestry using Larsen’s angry theme, comedy as the men revel that she is a convict, no better than them, and Ruth’s Theme, a romance for strings as she speaks lovingly to Humphrey. A surge at 2:57 reveals George dousing Louie with water and rousing him to consciousness. The music again softens at 3:27 as Humphrey convinces Louie to proceed with the blood transfusion to save Ruth’s Life. Larsen, supported by his theme orders George to volunteer and Cookie mocks him by saying his blood will match – criminal to criminal. At 6:46 orchestral violence erupts as George begins a fist fight with Cookie to avenge the dispersion of his character. George’s arm suffers a knife wound and a diminuendo at 7:19 supports Louie preparing him for the blood transfusion. The musical narrative does not reflect confidence, but unease as Louie is still under the influence and his hands are shaking. At 7:49 a foreboding dark orchestral chord support and exterior visual of the Ghost sailing on the open sea. At 8:07 Ruth’s Theme, graces her ascent top deck joined with an almost idyllic passage for woodwinds where she thanks the Captain and George for saving her life.

“Put Some Bars On Her Window” reveals Larsen exposing Ruth’s fugitive status by ordering bars be place over her window to make her feel more at home. The crew laughs and a cacophony of orchestral rage erupts as she runs to Humphrey, accuses him of exposing her, and at 0:17 slaps his face in anger. The storm subsides as Humphrey calmly asserts that it was, she who revealed this during her delirium. Larsen refuses her plead to transfer to another boat going to China and orders her taken below. George is angry at her treatment and throws a metal stake, which narrowly misses Larsen. Larsen orders the crew to take him below and he is pummeled into submission. The cue after 0:21 was dialed out of the film, which is sad as it actually features one of the score’s most beautiful passages with a return of the Idyllic Woodwind Motif, now enhanced by pleading strings romantico. Below deck Humphrey relates to Larsen how he will be portrayed in his book, and it is quite damning, detailing his egotism, sadism, brutality and inhumanity. In “Louie’s Death” Louie enters and requests that Larsen and the crew treat him with respect, which he feels is due and to address him as doctor, not Louie. Larsen says to come with him and that he will talk to the men. On deck Larsen calls for the men to respect him, and then kicks him down the stairs. Music enters as the men mock him, tear off his jacket, and humiliate him propelled by Larsen’s malevolent theme. Desperate ascending and aggrieved strings support Louie as he climbs the mast netting with Larsen’s Theme countering as the men claw at him below. A diminuendo at 0:39 supports him reaching the mast. At 0:49 Korngold sow a tempest as Louie reveals to the crew that they are not hunting, but fleeing Larsen’s brother who pursues them with a canon, intent on sinking the Ghost and killing all aboard. We crest at 1:21 with Louie declaring he will come done in his own way and leaps to his death, carried by a descent motif. Larsen asserts to Humphrey that Louie slipped, and we end darkly with a lament as the Ghost is seen sailing at nightfall.

“Love Scene” offers a beautiful Korngoldian romantic score highlight. It reveals Ruth below deck carried by the tender, harmonica emoted Love Theme. She comes to thank George with the theme joined by strings full of yearning. He is brusque and pushes her away, and yet she persists and breaks through his defenses. The Love Theme is tentative, yet persistent as she is, and at 1:30 it blossoms and we are graced by an aching romance for strings as the two bond and he assuages her despair, promising to take her with him when the time for escape presents its self. At 5:01 we segue harshly into “Mutiny” as we see the men laying an ambush for Larsen as he comes topside. Korngold sow unease with a lurking tension borne by tremolo strings and a foreboding drum cadence, with Larsen’s Theme in counterpoint. At 5:56 the eerie strings and Novachord of the Headache Motif surge as Larsen greets Spencer grimacing in pain. At 6:28 orchestral violence erupts as Larsen and Spencer are ambushed, overcome, and tossed overboard supported by descent motifs. Yet unknown to the mutineers, Larsen has latched on to a rope and survives, supported by a menacing statement of his theme. At 7:04 George comes to Ruth’s door carried by strings romantico. The music blossoms into a sumptuous romance for strings buttressed by warm French horns of hope and harp glissandi adornment as he informs her that it is done, and that he will soon take her to freedom with him.

The transfer of the Love Theme to solo violin d’Amore at 7:48 is exquisite as he departs telling, no more tears. At 8:03 an angry guttural Larsen’s Theme growls with anger as he is seen climbing onto the deck. His theme propels a menacing musical narrative as he orders Humphrey to join him, and asks Johnson, who is at the helm, to become his new first mate, an offer he declines. Larsen and Humphrey descend into the crew’s quarters where they are ambushed by the mutineers at 8:58 supported by an eruption of orchestral violence driven by churning strings and horns irato. Larsen holds his own and manages to escape and then secure at 9:53 with musical finality, the hold’s entry. At 9:55 loyalists summon Humphrey out of the hold and tell him to report to Larsen in his cabin, and he is carried by a musical narrative full of foreboding. An ethereal Larsen’s Theme greets him in the cabin. At 10:28 we segue into “Headache/Blindness” atop the Headache Motif as Larsen grimaces with pain and realizes he has gone blind. We discern a lurking menace in the notes of the motif as he asks Humphrey for pity, and he helps Larsen to his chair. At 11:14 anger surges as he forcibly grabs both of Humphrey’s arms and leverages him to the ground, saying pity that he has indeed not changed, and that he would have to stay with him until his eyesight returns.

“Man Overboard” reveals Larsen winning back the support of the crew by forgiving the mutiny, adding a promise of a great seal hunt haul, and then by opening the liquor stores. He then exposes Cookie as the person who squealed and revealed the names of the mutineers. Music enters on a surging strings irato ostinato and a tempest of rage as the crew chase a frantic Cookie around the ship. He is caught, tossed overboard and trumpets of doom resound as he drifts away. At 1:07 abyssal bass and horns evoke terror as a shark is spotted swimming towards Cookie. The crew frantically pull on the rope he is tethered supported by screeching violins of terror, which join with the shark motif. The musical drama ascends and swells with ever greater menace until 1:31 when the shark bites his leg that is marked by an orchestral strike. A diminuendo of pain follows as Larsen orders what is left of Cookie’s leg bound. At 2:09 as the Ghost sails at nightfall, Korngold sow a tension misterioso as Humphrey is confronted by George and Johnson who intend to continue with their plan to escape. They hear Larsen approach and Humphrey hides the men in the closet, and then convinces the paranoic Larsen that he is alone and does not hear the siren of an approaching boat.

In “Escape” Humphrey informs George and Johnson that Larsen is blind and that they can successfully escape if they leave now. On deck Ruth believes she’ll jinks them and refuses to go. Music enters darkly, joined by a dire Larsen’s Theme as George punches her out and then lifts her into the boat, while Larsen stands oblivious at the helm. At 0:49 a diminuendo supports the lowering of the boat and the four’s stealth escape. At 1:20 strings shriek and usher in an aggrieved musical narrative as George discovers a note from Larsen “Have a Good Voyage”, and that the water kegs have been filled with vinegar, leaving two gallons of water for four people and the 1,500-mile journey. At 1:33 we segue into “The “Ghost” In Trouble” atop a dire Larsen’s Theme as we see him alone on deck looking out into the fog. At 2:04 a cannon shot nearly hits the ship and Larsen orders the helm starboard hoping to evade his brother in the fog bank. Tension slowly builds as a cannon ball rips through the hull. Cookie suspects that Larsen is blind and at 3:44 puts a pole across his path to trip him. Larsen falls down as Cookie shouts out, he is blind as a crescendo of horror swells and crests at 4:08 as Larsen’s face reveals fear. At 4:34 we return to the life boat with tension, which dissipates, flowing into warm strings tenero as we see George lying next to Ruth. Yet the respite is fleeting with ominous suspense returning as they see a boat and row towards it. They discover it’s the Ghost, which is listing and apparently abandoned as all the boats are gone. The decide to board and get provisions carried by a foreboding musical narrative.

“Return To The “Ghost” reveals the Ghost with heavy bombardment damage and slowly sinking. We open with a surge of orchestral violence as Larsen surprises George and locks him in a storage closet. Humphrey and Ruth find George and at 0:15 we segue with strings of despair into “Trapped” as the trapped George awaits drowning as the water slowly rises. Humphrey has left to retrieve the key from Larsen. A sad and wistful musical narrative unfolds as Ruth declares they will either live together or die together as George recalls his life. At 1:35 we conclude ominously with “Larsen and Van Weyden” as Humphrey approaches Larsen’s cabin.

“Gunshot” reveals Humphrey confronting Larsen at gun point in his cabin, pleading for the key to release George. Larsen refuses and Humphrey unleashes a very personal and wounding diatribe that reveals the pettiness and ugliness of Larsen’s unredeemable soul. His is enraged, and music erupts angrily as he shoots Humphrey, but then we see Larsen anguished by what he has done and his theme joins reflecting that anguish. At 0:20 the Headache Motif surges as we see Larsen’s blurred vision fade to black. At 0:53 we segue into “Final Blindness”, which offers a plaintive musical narrative as Humphrey tricks Larsen into believing that his shot missed, and that he will stay and die with him if he gives the key to Ruth, which he does. He then discovers that Humphrey lied to him, and that he was indeed mortally wounded, which means his sacrifice was meaningless as he was dying anyway. “The Ship Goes Down/End Titles reveals George and Ruth on deck with the ship now sinking rapidly. Ruth wants to save Humphrey, but George says it is too late and they make a desperate dash to the life boat. Korngold supports with dramatic orchestral death throes entwined with final gasps of Larsen’s Theme as we see waters rushing into his cabin and the Ghost swallowed by the sea. At 0:33 the Love Theme enters as we see George and Ruth safe in the life boat. They embrace as we see an island in the distance and slowly their theme blossoms for a sumptuous exposition, which ends in a classic Korngold grand flourish. At 1:15 we flow into “Cast List”, which concludes with a grand molto dramatico rendering of the Love Theme that ends in a flourish. The bonus cue “Trailer For The Sea Wolf” offers an wonderful concert piece composition where Korngold sow drama, suspense, adventure and romance, providing a parade of his themes and motifs.

I would like to thank Ralph Couzens, and Chandos Records for the long-sought re-recording of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s masterpiece The Sea Wolf. The audio quality is excellent and the performance of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Rumon Gamba’s baton, exemplary. Most fans who have fallen in love with Korngold did so because of his swashbuckler and period piece scores, however truth be told also composed exceptional scores in other genres. For the The Sea Wolf we see Korngold composing for a much darker and more intimate character driven narrative. His musical capture of Larsen’s amoral, sadistic and brutal persona created a powerful cinematic synergy, which elevated Edward G. Robinson’s outstanding performance. Juxtaposed was the classic Korngoldian romanticism for Ruth’s Theme, George and Ruth’s Love Theme, and the Idyllic Motif, which served to make Larsen’s musical identity appear even more monstrous and menacing. The motif for the fog, which was in reality one of the actors, was ingeniously conceived and executed, perfectly capturing musically its intangible and shrouded nature. The Headache Motif was also brilliantly conceived using the synergy of harp and Novachord to emote both the pain, and the vulnerability Larsen felt during the episodes. Folks, I believe Korngold’s score elevated this film’s narrative in every way possible, achieving in scene after scene a masterful cinematic synergy. I believe this score to be one of the finest in the Film Noir genre of the Golden Age, and I highly recommend you purchase this excellent album to experience a whole other side of Korngold.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a thirteen-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLYSRuwIyg

Buy the Sea Wolf soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:33)
  • The Fog (2:57)
  • The Ghost – Collision (6:29)
  • You Still Feel Like Refusing? – Larsen’s Headache (2:13)
  • Larsen’s Room – The Patient (9:56)
  • Put Some Bars On Her Window (1:57)
  • Louie’s Death (1:48)
  • Love Scene – Mutiny – Headache/Blindness (11:39)
  • Man Overboard (3:41)
  • Escape – The Ghost In Trouble (6:31)
  • Return To The Ghost – Trapped – Larsen and Van Weyden (1:42)
  • Gunshot – Final Blindness (1:44)
  • The Ship Goes Down – End Titles/Cast List (1:53)
  • Trailer for The Sea Wolf (4:40)

Running Time: 55 minutes 04 seconds

Chandos CHAN-10336 (1941/2005)

Music composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Conducted by Rumon Gamba. Performed by The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Hugo Friedhofer, Ray Heindorf and Milan Roder. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Rinker. Score produced by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Album produced by Ralph Cozens.

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