Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > OBJECTIVE BURMA – Franz Waxman



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Warner Brothers Studios producer Jerry Wald wanted to make a WWII film, but one which was set in another theater of the war far remote from the Pacific where most of the battles were being waged. With that in mind, he came up with a story set in Burma near the Chinese border. He pitched his idea to studio executives and was given the green light to proceed with production empowered with a $1.592 million budget. Ranald MacDougall and Lester Cole were hired to write an original screenplay, and Raoul Walsh was tasked with directing. Wald had always envisioned the film as a vehicle for MGM’s star Errol Flynn, who after some coaxing signed on to play Captain Nelson. Joining him would be James Brown as Sergeant Treacy, Henry Hull as Mark Williams, William Hudson as Hollis, Anthony Caruso as Miggleori, and William Prince as Lieutenant Sid Jacobs.

The film is set during WWII in 1944 and offers a bold Allied mission to insert a special commando team into Burma. The objective is to locate and destroy a Japanese radar installation, which is interfering with the lifeline of war supplies being flown over the Himalayan mountains to support Chinese Nationalist forces. Captain Nelson leads the mission with an elite 36-man team buttressed with Gurkha guides and a Chinese captain. They succeed in destroying the Japanese radar installation, but find that their airfield extraction site has been seized by a Japanese regimen. Nelson calls off the extraction planes, decides to hike out to the India border, and splits the men into two groups. Unfortunately, when he reaches their rendezvous point, he finds team 2 has be wiped out. His team is soon attacked and they are forced to retreat through dense jungle and swamps with the Japanese in hot pursuit. Eventually relief troops join and they are able to at last escape. The film was a huge commercial success, earning a profit of $2.3 million. Critics praised the film as perhaps the best WWII film that has been made to date and it earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Writing, Best Film Editing, Best Film Score.

Producer Jerry Wald had collaborated with Franz Waxman on three prior films during their Warner Brothers years, and “Objective Burma!” would be their fourth together. Upon viewing the film Waxman saw that there were not only extensive battles, which would need to be supported, but also tension brought by the relentless pursuit of Japanese troops. Waxman related:

“In a film like “Objective Burma!” you can tell immediately that the music will have to be military and epic, and that some Orientalism will be required for the Burmese locale”.

In creating his soundscape, Waxman composed five primary themes and a number of reoccurring motifs, including; the long-lined Main Theme, which is borne by surging strings and woodwinds dramatico, which buttresses the allied “Red Robin” military mission to eliminate the Japanese radar station. The Burma Theme offers a simple, repeating three-note phrasing by woodwinds orientale, which embodies the “Orientalism” Waxman sought to support the Burmese setting. The Shock Theme sows tension and supports the film’s battle violence, empowered by dire chords dramatico and relentless snare drums bellicoso. The Parachutist’s March supports the commando parachutists with a bravado marcia militare, which offers the score’s most notable and powerful theme. It offers an ABA construct with an irrepressible and confident A Phrase, while the B Phrase provides an embellishment while sustaining the march’s rhythm. Notable is how Waxman renders the march in a multiplicity of forms to express the psychological mind state of the men. Lastly, we have the Military Theme and offers resounding trumpets militare declarations, which empower the film’s military action, emoting from the perspective of the allied commandos. Cues coded (*) contain music not presented on the album.

“Main Title” offers a powerful score highlight where Waxman introduces his primary themes and perfectly establishes the tone of the film. We open dramatically with gong strikes, which usher in two statements of the Burma Theme as the Warner Brothers studio logo displays. Trumpets militare resound as the roll of the opening credits unfold against a panorama of the vast Burmese jungle, crowned with sun rays of hope piercing a cloud swept sky. At 0:14 Waxman sows tension atop dire chords and snare drums bellicoso, which launch the restless Shock Theme. Entwined within this martial passage are two statements of the Main Theme, which creates a tense and powerful synergy. At 0:41 the epic Parachutist’s March is launched for a grand statement. At 1:00 snare drums and dire horns supports script narration penned by American general Joseph W. Stilwell who declares his intention to return to Burma. At 1:24 we flow into “Opening Scene” atop woodwinds orientale emoting the Burma Theme as voice narration, buttressed by the trumpets militare of the Military Theme support training preparations by British, American and Chinese troops. They have been ordered to reopen the Burma Road by neutralizing a Japanese radar installation. The musical narrative is grim as the planned mission is daunting and full of risk. At 2:27 tremolo strings of flight and horns militare support the flight of an American Liberator reconnaissance plane scanning for Japanese troop movement below. At 2:56 a string descent motif supports the plane descending over a map of northern Burma, eventually landing in British controlled India. A tense musical narrative unfolds as the plane’s camera is removed and transported by road to American headquarters for analysis. At 3:55 grim low register woodwinds support the processing of the film. General Stilwell examines the photos and orders Operation Red Robin to proceed. At 4:49 we segue into “Briefing In An Hour” atop trumpets militare as Mission Commander Captain Nelson orders his commandos to assemble for a briefing. A montage of scenes follows empowered by the Main and Military Themes with comedic interludes as one by one the team is notified of the briefing.

In “Take Off/In The Plane” Waxman drives the film’s narrative with masterful writing. The scene reveals the men arriving at the air field to board the two planes. Waxman sows tension atop the Main Theme joined by muted timpani, grim low register clarinets and muted trumpets militare. At 0:59 an animated Parachutist’s March enters for an extended ABA rendering to support the men being assigned jump positions before boarding the plane. At 3:22 tremolo strings of tension usher in the dire trumpets of the Military Theme as the men board and take their seats. At 3:48 proud, confident fanfare resounds as Captain Nelson and Lieutenant Jacobs, the last to board their respective planes, lock eyes and smile. Tension slowly builds as the planes throttle up and roar down the runway, propelled at 4:25 by the Parachutists March as the planes soar aloft to their destiny. A return to the plane’s interior reveals an eerie other-worldly undercurrent of tension as we see concern in the eyes of some of the men. At 5:37 the Parachutists March returns as the pilots happily acknowledge the arrival of the bomber escort. The other-worldly tension motif returns as Miggleori expresses his anxiety, which is allayed by Nelson who comforts the man. We close with trumpets militare as ten minutes to jump is announced and the men stand up and ready themselves.

“Jumping” offers one of the most brilliant compositions in Waxman’s canon, a masterpiece cue, which earns him, immortality. The plane has reached the drop zone and Waxman slowly ramps up tension as the men sound off their jump number position. At 0:25 harsh sawing strings buttressed by tension horns join the Main Theme to support Nelson moving to the open door where he awaits the “Jump” light. At 0:56 Waxman unleashed a kinetic, swirling whirlwind of strings, a dynamic cascading descent enforced by chords dramatico as one by one the men jump out to the jungle canopy below. At 1:36 a martial Parachutist’s Theme joins as one by one the men land in the open field. A diminuendo of uncertainty follows as the men nervously shed, fold and then bury their parachutes. Frenetic, scurrying strings support the men running for the safety of the jungle. As they enter and Nelson reviews the map, a bass clarinet and anxious strings sow a tense and foreboding musical narrative.

In “Killing The Sentry” a foreboding duet of piccolo and bassoon support the men burying their parachutes. A film-album variance begins here. Much of the music for the Jungle Trek to the radar installation is textural with a wandering steady undercurrent of ambient tension. The album omits this music. From the film; In (*) “Trek Through The Jungle” pulsing horns support a confident Nelson leading the way as sounds of the jungle engulf the men. The film offers an extended musical narrative of tension and uncertainty, a plodding and burdened march carries the unit’s trek through the jungle and swamp. Waxman uses textural woodwind writing to sow an ambiance of tense danger as the men take cover to avoid detection by an approaching Japanese patrol. The enemy patrol passes and the men resume their trek, once again supported by a plodding and toiling march. A tension surge supports the discovery of a telephone cable, which will lead them to the Japanese base. A slow, textural, sustained tension carries the men to the base perimeter, where they encounter sentries. Film-album synchrony resumes at 0:22 with a tension strike as a sentry is ambushed and killed quietly, the tension strike reprising at 0:38 with the killing of the second sentry. At 0:41 we segue into “Getting Ready” atop forlorn woodwinds, shattered by a stinger at 1:00 with the stabbing of a third sentry. Tremolo strings with metallic accents of tension carry the men as the camp and radar tower are seen. At 2:00 a stealth-like Parachutist’s Theme buttressed by muted timpani, pulsing woodwinds and horns supports Nelson moving his men into attack positions. An ominous bass portends the attack, which erupts to end the cue, with the battle unscored.

“Stop Firing” reveals Nelson’s strategic placement of his men with ground machine guns empowers a surprise attack, which massacres the Japanese unit. Waxman evokes an eerie feeling of death and desolation for the aftermath. At 0:22 a dirge-like Parachutist’s Theme with steady, upper register percussion supports as Nelson cautiously moves his team into the camp. At 1:32 a steady pulsing cadence of tension with dire bass accents supports Nelson’s order to plant TNT charges to destroy the base radar and infrastructure. At 2:06 muted fanfare imperiale supports Nelson removing an imperial Japanese flag from the tunic of a dead officer. A grim low register tension supports Nelson ordering his men to clear the camp until 2:31 when a crescendo of violence surges to support the TNT explosions. Silence carries their flight to safety through the jungle, as well as the mobilization of a Japanese hunt and kill unit, which marches out. (*) “Escape Through The Jungle” reprises the earlier textural tension music from “Trek Through The Jungle” cue to support the men’s trek to the extraction airfield. At 2:53 we segue into the riveting “No Landing” atop trumpets resounding with alarm as the Japanese unit of 100 men arrives at the airfield, forcing Nelson to call off the extraction. At 3:33 the highly martial, snare drum empowered rendering of the Shock and Main themes with frenetic strings of flight propels Nelson and his men fleeing to extraction point B. At 4:23 strained Parachutist’s Theme joins as the men struggle to flee through high grass. We close with a string borne descent motif as we see the extraction planes landing at the air base. At headquarters Colonel Carter relates to the extraction pilot Barker that Nelson’s only chance lies with a daunting 150-mile trek by foot through Japanese controlled territory.

“Andante” opens atop eerie Burma Theme as we see an aerial panorama of the vast Burmese jungle Nelson must traverse. An aggrieved Parachutist’s Theme carries Nelson and his men’s progress through the jungle. At 0:38 Nelson splits his unit in two with Lieutenant Jacob commanding the second unit. Each heads out to the secondary extraction point by different routes supported by a plodding, but confident Parachutist’s Theme. At 1:21 dire horns resound as we see American airplanes being loaded with supplies. A soaring ascent motif supports their take-off. We close atop forlorn clarinets, which sow uncertainty.

“Two Came Back” opens with tense textural writing as the team arrives at the rendezvous point, yielding to a pulsing tension motif as a radio call to Jacobs is made. A forlorn clarinet ushers in a grim narrative, which portends tragedy as Jacob does not respond. An unscored interlude reveals a plane dropping supplies as Nelson provides them with the next rendezvous coordinates in four days. At 1:25 a crescendo of alarm resounds as Nelson is alerted of someone approaching. An agitato carries the men into hiding, and as they watch for who is coming, the pulsing tension motif reprises. At 1:42 we segue into “Hollis Is OK” as he and Sweeney emerge. Hollis is exhausted and elegiac strings emote the Main Theme to support his tale of an ambush, which took out the rest of their unit. At 2:37 an extended aggrieved rendering of the Main Theme supports as Nelson and the unit struggle through the oppressive jungle and swamps while carrying Hollis on a liter. At 3:55 fluttering woodwinds and a stinger support the Japanese picking up the trail of the Americans and again actively hunting them down. At 4:11 beleaguered low register strings support the Americans trek through the jungle. We close with a narrative of hope atop strings and woodwinds with the discovery of a Burmese village nearby.

“Burmese Village” reveals Nelson informed by men of the village that two Japanese sentries guard an American in the village. Nelson orders a stealth approach to take them out. A sharp stinger supports the sentry’s death and an eerie Burma Theme joins as Nelson and the unit enter the village. The Tension Motif joins as the explore the village. At 1:40 a surge of pain as Nelson is informed that the men have been mutilated by knives. An aching elegiac rendering of the Parachutist’s Theme enters at 1:48 as Nelson and his men view the horrific carnage. At 2:44 we segue into “Jacobs’ Death” atop strings affanato, which offer a grievous musical narrative as Nelson discovers Jacob. He is horribly mutilated and begs Nelson to shoot him. Before he can respond, Jacobs succumbs to death, which is emoted grimly at 3:40 by elegiac horns as a grieving Nelson removes his dog tags. At 4:12 we segue into “Burial” atop a statement of “Taps” as the men bury their comrades.

At 4:28 we segue into Retreat”, a score action highlight, when a Japanese patrol triggers a grenade booby trap. As the battle unfolds Waxman weaves tension and action together to unleash a ferocious orchestral torrent creating a riveting cinematic synergy. The Main, Parachutist’s, Shock and Military Themes all contest as the battle unfolds and Nelson organizes a retreat given, they are outnumbered two to one. At 7:49 frantic strings of desperation, horns and snare drums carry them into the swamp where the large caliber machine gun is setup on the opposing bank to cover their crossing. A crescendo dramatico builds at 8:47, cresting powerfully as the men all safely reach the opposing shore except Soapy who is mortally wounded, succumbing at 9:31 to elegiac horns. A diminuendo of sadness concludes the cue as his comrades take his dog tags and depart. “Resting” reveals the exhausted men resting after the arduous battle and retreat with Waxman offering an undercurrent of unease and trepidation. At 0:33 the music darkens as Pilot Barker arrives, issues new orders to proceed north to a new rendezvous point, and drops more supplies. They are ambushed while retrieving the supplies, taking many casualties, including the radio, which is hit by a stray bullet at 0:53. We flow with desperation into “Radio Gone” atop the Parachutist’s Theme as Nelson leads his men, fleeing back into the jungle depths.

“Missing The Plane” offers a grim musical narrative with an undercurrent of futility and death ever present as we see Nelson and his men struggling through the oppressive heat and jungle without supplies. At 0:40 Williams collapses, his fall supported by a portentous subtle rendering of “Taps”. Ethereal strings tenero join as a comforting Nelson orders his men to carry him and they proceed. At 1:31 French horns di speranza propel a crescendo of increasing desperation as an American plane borne by strings of flight is spotted and the men rush head long to a clearing to attract their attention. Yet it is for naught as the plane flies off carried by dissonant wailing horns of abandonment. At 2:45 we segue into “Waiting” and we see that the men are despondent. A musical narrative of bitterness and despair underpinned by a beleaguered Main Theme joined by a weary Parachutist’s Theme supports the aftermath as they rest and Nelson coaches them to press on.

At 5:37 we segue into “Up The Hill” atop muted trumpets as Nelson leads the unit to a hill to reach the ordered coordinates, and better visualize where they are. A beleaguered Main Theme carries a weary Williams’ walk away from the team into the jungle until Nelson gently coaxes him back within the ranks. As they struggle towards the hill, so too does the Parachutist’s and Main Themes, their vitality bleeding out under the searing tropical sun. At 6:59 they reach the foot of the hill and begin a torturous ascent to its crest. Slowly, an inexorable tortured ascent crescendo empowered by beleaguered strings and horns carries the men ever upwards, culminating with an orchestral chop as they realize, there is nothing here, just a vast jungle that stretches to the horizon. Nelson orders the men to deploy and fortify the crest, yet meets stares of men who have given up. He exhorts them and begins digging himself, which shames them into joining. A musical narrative of futility and despair by the Main Theme supports their toiling. At 9:14 we segue into “Williams’ Death” atop woodwinds of alarm as Hollis discovers Williams has gone missing. The search is supported by a bleak descent motif and forlorn woodwinds until 10:04 when grieving strings inform us of his death as his body is found. The men are sad and Nelson orders a grave be dug supported by a musical narrative of sadness, and regret. Barker’s plane spots the men and drops desperately needed supplies and weapons. For the men, this is manna from heaven, yet dire horns sound at 11:20 as we see a Japanese officer viewing the drop and men through binoculars. An interlude of relief and relaxation follows as the men savor their rations, their spirits lifted, and their strength, restored. We close with a reprise of the textural tension motif as the men plant booby traps and complete securing their hilltop fortifications.

“At Night” opens with a menacing textural narrative by staccato horns and woodwinds as the Japanese begin a stealth ascent up the hill. Eerie violins play countered by bass as anxiety mounts. At 1:34 dire growling trombones, bassoons, and snare drums sow tension as the Americans detect their approach. A booby trap explodes and an attack is imminent. At 2:31 shimmering tremolo strings with harp adornment join as the Japanese close and prepare to attack. We close with a dire bass descent as the unscored battle is joined. Nelson sends up a flare, which illuminates the hillside exposing the Japanese, who are mercilessly mowed down by machines guns, forcing their retreat.

“Invasion” offers an inspired score highlight. It is morning and it appears the Japanese have withdrawn, supported by a string and woodwind Main Theme narrative of relief, which descends into sadness at 0:35 when Hollis is found dead. At 0:47 grim horns full of foreboding resound as airplanes are heard and the men duck for cover until they realize that an American squadron of hundreds of planes have arrive to commence the invasion of Burma. Waxman empowers the planes and paratrooper filled sky with a bravado reprise of his Main, Paratrooper, and Shock themes along with the exciting music from the “Jumping” cue. At 2:45 a descent motif of frenetic strings joined by a proud Paratrooper’s Theme carries us into “Landing” where we see paratroopers and gliders landing. At 3:56 snare drums militare of the Shock Theme usher in an aggressive horn empowered musical narrative, which supports units assembling as vital equipment, jeeps and Howitzers are being off-loaded from the gliders. We conclude with a thankful rendering of the Paratrooper Theme as Nelson leads his elated men down to join their comrades.

“The Camp” with elegiac horns of the Paratrooper Theme as we see Colonel Carter reviewing a map. At 0:22 a surge of alarm sounds as Carter is informed of Nelson’s arrival and he departs to personally greet them. A weary musical narrative by the Paratrooper’s and Military Themes carries Nelson and his remaining eleven men into camp, where they collapse exhausted on the ground. At 0:57 Colonel Carter greets and congratulates Nelson for destroying the radar installation supported by a solemn Paratrooper Theme. Nelson is thankful, but sadly offers him the heavy price that was paid – a handful of dog tags, supported by a reprise of “Taps”. Carter orders them to a glider, which will ferry them back to the base in India. An in memoriam of the Paratroopers Theme carries their jeep ride, crowned by elegiac tolling bells as Nelson pauses to reflect on the men he lost before boarding the plane. At 1:59 we build energetically with anticipatory excitement as the C-47 descends, secures the tow cable and the glider lifts off to a stirring aerial ascent carried by a flight motif, which concludes with a sparkling flourish. At 2:34 we segue into “Finale” atop a proud Paratroopers Theme as script declares America’s determination to defeat the evil forces of Japan, as well as a congratulation to the heroic dedication of the Allied forces in liberating Burma.

I would like to commend Betta International for rerecording Franz Waxman’s Oscar nominated score to Objective Burma The score reconstruction by William Stromberg, as well as his masterful conducting of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra has once again provided lovers of the art form with another Holy Grail. The audio quality is excellent and provides a wonderful listening experience. Waxman understood well that this was a war film, but more importantly, it was a compelling human drama, a story of men enduring extreme physical hardship while struggling to survive against the odds. To that end he created three military themes to support the war and battles, with his Paratrooper’s March one of the finest ever composed for the genre. He masterfully offered this theme in a multiplicity of forms, which served to inform us of the men’s psychology and morale. His non-thematic textural writing for the jungle treks masterfully sowed tension, anxiety, as well as the arduous struggle against an implacable jungle and searing tropical sun. Close examination of the score reveals just how synergistic it is with the film’s narrative, and how expertly it propels its forward momentum, as well as expressing the full spectrum of human emotions. Folks, I believe this to be a gem in Waxman’s canon, one of the finest in the WWII genre, and highly recommend the purchase of this quality album.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful ten-minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbFjSdV41yQ

Buy the Objective Burma soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Opening Scene/Briefing In An Hour (6:39)
  • Take Off/In The Plane (7:54)
  • Jumping (3:12)
  • Killing The Sentry/Getting Ready (3:37)
  • Stop Firing/No Landing (5:06)
  • Andante (2:37)
  • Two Came Back/Hollis Is OK (5:08)
  • Burmese Village/Jacobs’ Death/Burial/Retreat (10:10)
  • Resting/Radio Gone (1:43)
  • Missing The Plane/Waiting/Up The Hill/Williams’ Death (13:33)
  • At Night (3:28)
  • Invasion/Landing (5:19)
  • The Camp/Finale (3:09)

Running Time: 71 minutes 35 seconds

Marco Polo 8.225148 (1945/2000)

Music composed by Franz Waxman. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Leonid Raab. Recorded and mixed by Vitaly Ivanov and Edvard Shakhnazarian. Score produced by Franx Waxman and Leo F. Forbstein. Album produced by Betta International.

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