Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO – Bernard Herrmann



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1948 20th Century Studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck made the business decision to adapt another of Ernest Hemingway’s novels for the big screen, The Snows of Kilimanjaro from 1936. He purchased the film rights for a hefty $125,000 and personally took charge of production, allocating a budget of $3.0 million. Casey Robinson was hired to write the screenplay and veteran Henry King was tasked with directing. Zanuck had already decided that Gregory Peck would star as Harry Street, with Ava Gardner playing Cynthia Green. Joining them would be Susan Hayward as Helen, and Hildegard Knef as Countess Elizabeth.

The film explores the final days of writer Harry Street who is on safari in Africa. He is disillusioned with his life and has suffered a mortal wound, a thorn gouge that has become severely infected. As he lies helpless awaiting a slow, painful and inevitable death, he reflects upon his life, of the women he has loved and lost; his first wife Cynthia who descends into depression and alcoholism, and then leaves him for a flamenco dancer after she suffers a miscarriage. On the eve of his second marriage to Countess Elizabeth, she discovers a love letter he sent to Cynthia, tears it up in anger and calls off the wedding. Harry joins the republicans to fight in the Spanish Civil War and finds Cynthia but they both suffers wounds and she eventually dies. Years later in Paris Harry meets Helen, who reminds him of Cynthia. They fall in love and she joins him on safari to Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro hoping to solve the riddle of the leopard, which dies at elevations well beyond their hunting range. In a desperate act of love, Helen cuts open the festering wound, drains it, dresses it and saves Harry’s life, as a medical team arrives the next day. The film was a massive commercial success, earning a profit of $9.5 million. Critics praised the film for its storytelling, ensemble cast, and cinematic beauty. It earned two Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction.

Director of Music Alfred Newman normally assigned himself to Zanuck passion projects, but in this case asked Bernard Herrmann to take on the assignment. Herrmann readily accepted the offer as it offered opportunities to speak to the powerful emotions welling up from the crucible of pain within Harry’s psyche. Here was a man on his death bed, full of regret – left with nothing but memories of a failed, and unfulfilled life. Harbingers of death in the forms of a hyena and vultures lurk, awaiting his inevitable demise. The flashbacks to the three women in Harry’s life would provide discreet yet interconnected narrative vignettes, each requiring a different musical approach. Herrmann related:

“The sensitive direction of Henry King gave me many opportunities to create music of a highly nostalgic nature, inasmuch as the film deals with the tale of a man who is dying on the African veldt and during the fever of his illness relives much of his emotional past”.

For his soundscape Herrmann composed three primary themes; the Regret Theme speaks for Harry, who despairs as he waits at death’s doorstep. He believes his life is a failure filled with mistakes, missed opportunities, and regret. Herrmann speaks to this pathos with repeating six-note phrases, which emote with monotony in a very narrow range, alternating between oboe and piccolo, or flute and piccolo and later, alto flute. The theme throughout the film, is pervasive, and it never resolves, never varies, nor culminates. The Death Theme is kindred in that it interplays and entwines with the Regret Theme, which offer a musical narrative of despair. The Death Theme also permeates the film, and speaks to the pall of death slowly descending upon Harry. Herrmann offers an eerie, misterioso of dread borne by high register strings religioso buttressed by grim descending chord progressions. The Love Theme offers one of Herrmann’s finest, emoted by a solo oboe d’Amore joined by yearning violins romantico. Like Harry, it lacks passion, ardor and fervor, never abandoning its tenderness for passion. Lastly, Herrmann incorporated source music of the times and augmented his orchestra with an accordion, saxophone and guitar to infuse the various French and Spanish flashback scenes with the requisite local colors.

Cues coded (*) offer music not found on the album. “Overture” opens grandly with Alfred Newman’s iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare. We flow into the roll of the opening credits, which display against a jungle green background with pictures of animals Harry has hunted, as well as various jungle village and city life scenes. Herrmann supports with a tempest of swirling strings furioso and trumpets angosciate. The music is unsettled, agitated, and portentous, ending with a fortissimo climax as we flow into the film proper and behold the magnificence of the snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro. “The Buzzards” reveals Harry laying outside his tent fanned by Helen as buzzards circle overhead, eventually taking up vigil in a large tree overlooking the camp. She feels helpless as they wait for air rescue transport, while we see in his eyes the recognition of coming death, which cannot be forestalled. Herrmann supports the circling buzzards aloft with eerie, menacing, cyclic aerial strings, ever repeating, for the buzzard is a patient bird. At 0:21 he introduces his Death Theme, which offers a solemn funereal religiosity borne by high register strings buttressed by a grim, descending chord progression. At 2:00 woodwinds tristi support a flashback to the day of the injury when he was photographing impala. As he steps, through the jungle foliage he gashes his leg against a thorn bush and cries out in pain, scattering the impala. We return to the present borne by the dark descending pall of the Death Theme.

In “The Lake” Helen asserts that his injury resulted not because of the thorn gash, but instead after he jumped into the muddy waters. In a flashback, we see their two boats paddling by a massive herd of hippopotamuses, which Harry photographs. He moves too close, they become agitated, and ram the boat knocking the native helmsman into the water where he is attacked. Harry jumps in the water and saves the man, whom they bring ashore and rush back to camp. Music enters with a return to the present to a wistful Harry, which Herrmann supports with a repeating forlorn six-note string figure. “The Jungle” reveals Harry demanding a whisky soda over Helen’s objections. He is weary of life and longs to revisit a soon to be lost pleasure. Yet he acquiesces to her demands with a visible resignation. Herrmann supports the scene with the Regret Theme, a repeating six-note figure offered by flute, and later piccolo, with triangle adornment. Strings divisi wander in and out from this subtle, yet forlorn musical narrative. Helen chastises him for giving up, and he retorts that he is not afraid of dying, but of dying a failure. He begins to reminisce and asks if he ever old her about his first love. She answers no and we flow into a flashback.

“Connie” (*) reveals the flashback where we see Harry, angering his girl who professes her love for him, departing in a rage for his insensitivity and inability to commit to love. Herrmann interpolates “Ain’t We Got Fun” by Richard Whiting as source background music. The juxtaposition is fascinating as the song is infectiously happy and upbeat, while the scene offers a tense break-up argument. “The Tent” offers once more the repeating six-note Regret Theme, full of sadness by flute and then piccolo, joined by kindred clarinets and bass clarinets. The scene reveals that Harry’s pity party continues as he thanks his rich and beautiful wife, and then asks rhetorically; “Before you, how many others?” Helen has had it with his moping and decides to go out with Molo to hunt game. He senses her disappointment and at 0:39 divisi celli and violas tenero give voice as he tells her not to pay attention to him. He opens up and says that he loves her, and has never loved anyone the way he loves her. At 1:06 a new four-note woodwind motif enters as he calls her back for a kiss. But it is a ruse as he uses it as a pretext to grab the glass of whiskey soda she was carrying, which infuriates her. She reproaches his saying “How can I help you if you won’t help yourself?” The plaintive woodwind motif resumes as he pauses, and then empties his glass on the ground. In the film, an accordion is heard in the music (not on the album), which moves to the forefront as the scene shifts to a nightclub Emile in Paris.

“Emile” (*) reveals a flashback with an accordion duet playing French source music as Harry enters the night club. He sees his friend Compton dancing and tries to cut in as he is attracted to his beautiful date, but Compton rebuffs him and he departs, informing the owner Emile that it is best he leaves lest Compton and he fight. In the club next door Harry sits with a drink as “Blue Mountain” by Alfred Newman is offered by alto saxophone, piano and drums. As he lights a cigarette Cynthia, the woman who was dancing with Compton joins him, much to his surprise and satisfaction. Flirting banter ensues and he asks her to leave, to which she agrees. As they stroll along the river Seine, we flow into “Nocturne”, a romantic score highlight. We open with a nocturne borne by French Horns tranquille, from which is borne the Love Theme at 0:23 by solo oboe d’Amore. She confesses that she came to Paris to take her father’s remains back home, but fell in love with Paris and decided to stay. At 1:13 violins romantico join as he offers her an opportunity to ‘rest’, which she declines, asking for a cigarette instead. At 1:59 the theme blossoms as he lights both their cigarettes and asks if she would be his lady, to which she asks; “Will you be kind to me?” His answer is to take her into a kissing embrace.

“The Memory Waltz” offers a wonderful score highlight. Harry returns to the present, begin reminiscing about Paris, and we flashback again as he describes the sights of Paris, which unfold as a montage; the flower market, the wine merchant, and the apartment where he would write. He relates Cynthia took up housekeeping and we see them living an idyllic and loving life together. He relates that he finished his first book and the joy he felt when Cynthia runs into his arm one day saying that they have agreed to publish it. Herrmann graces us with a beautiful wistful valzer tenero, one of the finest in his canon. A wonderful confluence of cinematography, storytelling and music is achieved. “Sunrise” reveals a flashback to Harry’s first trip to Africa. It is sunrise and we see him and Cynthia traveling with a hunting party. English horn, French horn and a steady rhythm by nativist drum carries their progress. There is a subtle suspense in the notes as we see the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. At 0:19 clarinets and bass clarinet join as we flow slowly into a diminuendo as they spot a trio of rhinos. They take position, and Harry gives Cynthia the kill, but she is slow, and his impatient coaxing causes her to miss. Later he faces the charging male and kills it at the last possible moment.

“Celebration of the Kill” (*) reveals the camp at night where their porters dance carrying the rhino head supported by nativist chanting and drums, which celebrate Harry’s rhino kill. By the campfire Harry relates to Johnson and Cynthia the exhilaration he felt with the kill. Harry then leaves to fetch his trophy, the massive rhino horn. In “Adagietto” we have a score highlight of sublime beauty, with one of the most evocative compositions in Herrmann’s canon. Cynthia relates her angst regarding the hunting and killing, yet she endures it for Harry’s sake. Music enters as she relates a new fear – that she is pregnant. She asks him how she should tell him. Herrmann offers violins carrying the melodic line supported by soft kindred strings with harp adornment. The lyrical yet aching melody is sad as she fears that she may be losing Harry’s love, offering a wistful story of their life in Paris. At 0:37 the melody blossoms as a solo violin triste so full of yearning takes up the melody against contrapuntal violins as we flow into a passage of exquisite beauty. We conclude with a sense of sad resignation as Johnson, when pressed counsels it is not best to run away from things in life.

“The Silence” reveals Harry holding Cynthia and marveling at the beauty of night in Africa. She tries twice to tell him the news, but each time he stops her, asking for her to savor the beauty of the moment. Herrmann supports with a nocturne of serenity, borne by piccolo, oboe, clarinets and violas with harp adornment. In an unscored scene Cynthia leaves a doctor’s office. He prescribes bed rest for her pregnancy, and rejects his offer to speak to Harry. In their hotel room he speaks of a new adventuring tour of Spain, but she instead asks if they can return to Paris. He resists saying as a writer he needs to travel to experience life, which generate ideas for his writing. When she relates her desire for children, he agrees, but informs her not now, and that they need to wait. He then suggests she return to Paris without him, and we see her succumb to sadness and surrender hope. In “The Fall” he says that if going back to Paris is a matter of life and death, then he will return with her. Violins affanato play over kindred strings to voice her despair. As he departs to change their tickets, a crescendo of desperation commences, surging powerfully at 0:36 as she runs after him, pauses at the head of the stairs, and then apparently (not shown) throws herself down the stairs to cause a miscarriage. We see an emergency ambulance arrive that takes her to hospital. There Harry is stunned when Dr. Simmons informs him that she had lost their child.

“Sorrow” reveals Harry walking into Cynthia’s room and she turning her head away in guilt, which he senses. He accuses her of doing it deliberately, and she counters that she stumbled and that it was an accident. He declares that it was his child too, and that she had no right, but then he realizes her pain, hugs and kisses her, as she says, now we can go to Spain. Herrmann offers a grieving Pathetique for strings for one of the score’s saddest moments. (*) “Spain” reveals Harry and Cynthia watching a bull fight, and then later dining as a man dances a classic Andalusian flamenco supported by guitar. They argue at dinner with she admitting that although they are in love, they cannot make it work. Suggesting that they might be better if they part ways as she believes the flamenco dancer likes her. Harry leaves and writes a letter at the hotel desk saying he is refusing the assignment in Damascus. He returns and is stunned when the waiter informs him that Cynthia has left with the dancer. Adding that she said that she is not coming back, and to not search for her. We end atop the guitar as we return to the present with Harry sleeping near his tent.

“The Awakening” reveals him waking terrified, supported by a harsh aching crescendo of regret. The Death Theme returns joined by the alternating oboe and piccolo carried Regret Theme. The music evokes the sadness and loss of Cynthia as Helen returns with an impala she has killed. We close with Harry again falling asleep supported by the grim Death Theme. In “Siesta” Harry calls Molo over to shave him. He is only going through the motions of life and Herrmann supports with the despair of the ever-repeating Regret Theme. “First Barcarolle” supports a flashback to Cote d’Azure where he speaks of another woman in his life, and another book – “The Thin Red Hat”. Herrmann supports with an idyllic Barcarolle, which fully captures the sunlit beauty of the French Riviera as we see the new woman of his life the countess Elizabeth swim to his boat. In “Second Barcarolle” Harry is very amorous, yet she resists in a playful manner. As she swims away carried by a reprise of the idyllic Barcarolle, he relates that she was something to hunt down and capture – the elusive, frigid Liz.

“Interlude #1” sees Harry return to the present supported by the pathos of the Regret Theme. At 0:14 the music brightens atop strings felice and sunny woodwinds full of life as we see Beatrice posing for a sculpture by Elizabeth as her fiancé’s uncle, Mr. Swift watches. “Interlude #2” reprises the prior cue’s sunny narrative as we see Harry living in comfort at Elizabeth’s seaside estate. He narrates as he writes Cynthia a letter. At 0:16 the Love Theme on oboe d’amore returns as his thoughts again turn to Cynthia as he expresses his love for her. Later outside the Ritz at 0:51 a romantic crescendo appassionato surges as he states that he ran after a woman he believed to be you. The crescendo dissipates when he discovers it was not Cynthia. “The Letter” reveals a letter addressed to Cynthia Green at the Hotel Florinda in Madrid Spain. Later he finds Elizabeth holding a letter as they greet their dinner guests. Herrmann supports with a sad musical narrative with strings full of regret. Elizabeth discloses to all that the letter is from Cynthia Green, asking Harry if she is a fan. She asks if it was important to him, and he answers, no. She tears up the letter declaring that it will not be any trouble for you then. “Departure” reveals Harry smashing his champagne glass on the floor and storming out supported by a grave, and resolute string borne iteration of the Love Theme. IN his room she confronts him as he packs his suitcases. She professes her love for him, and her inadequacies, but it is clear that the affair is over as they depart with bitter words.

“Madrid” reveals the Spanish Civil war, which Herrmann supports with martial drums and dire woodwinds, which slowly fade on a dissipating pulse of death. Afterwards we see Harry fighting with the Republicans as he searches for Cynthia. As the battle rages Harry and his brigade retreat and take cover behind an overturned ambulance where he finds its injured driver, Cynthia. He rushes to her, and takes her into a kissing embrace in “The Farewell”, a supremely moving romantic highlight. Cynthia is thankful to be found by Harry, the love of her life. She apologizes, grieves for her mistake with their child, and confesses her undying love. They are reunited in love, but when she is evacuated by liter, Harry’s commander orders him to return to the fight. When he refuses and runs after Cynthia, the captain shoots him in the leg, he falls lame, and helplessly watches her disappear, never to be seen again. Herrmann supports the scene with a molto romantico passage, an aching pathos of love borne with both sadness, and regret by an exquisite, extended rendering of their yearning Love Theme.

In the present we see Harry asleep and agitated and we flashback to Paris, as we see him coming to visit Uncle Bill who has taken ill. (*) “Les Rats” reveals a drunken Harry leaving the club with two women, one on each arm. He takes them to Emile. An upbeat source jazz piece supports with an interlude of a romantic Parisian accordion when he sees in his mind’s eye, Cynthia dancing the night he met her. He snaps out of it and tells the tale of a leopard that lies frozen near Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit, which defies explanation as to why a leopard would climb to such an altitude where there is no prey. “The River” reveals Harry looking down into the waters of the Seine River, his reflection seen on the surface. Herrmann is just peerless in writing for harps, and this passage offers two harps playing arpeggiated chords that create a sparkling, ethereal misterioso with woodwinds triste. At 0:56 allusions to the Love Theme join as he again mistakes Helen, the woman he thought was Cynthia outside the Ritz, as she joins him for a cigarette, just as Cynthia did that fateful first night. He is drunk, full of longing for Cynthia, and slumps onto her shoulder.

In an unscored scene we return to the present where Helen sits next to him by the fire and offers to have drinks with him. As Molo fetches the drinks, she asks him if he was thinking of Cynthia, or Liz? He says she is wrong, and that he was thinking of her on that night they met on a bridge in Paris. She cuts deep when she says that he could never forgive her for not being Cynthia. She then asks why did they come here? He answers, that he did not want to die as the leopard did at the summit, for following the wrong scent. H says that, unlike the leopard, he wanted to return to the jungle from where I started so I might regain what I have lost. “The Hyena” opens with the laughing howl of a hyena, a harbinger of death, who lurks outside the tent circling the camp. The Regret Theme joins in a portentous communion with a lurking Death Theme, which transforms into a more overt and tangible rendering borne by an ostinato of low register horns and woodwinds, as Harry begins sweating profusely as his sepsis worsens.

“Helen” offers achingly beautiful romantic score highlight. It reveals a catharsis as Helen reveals her love for him, of how she facilitated this trip for his sake, knowing that it would allow him to revisit the happy times he had with Cynthia. She dearly loves him and asks him not to have her lose all her pride. He finally recognizes her love, but says he regrets that he finally realizes his feelings, with the end so near. She exhorts him to live and not give up. The music emotes from Helen’s perspective with a narrative of love, initially woodwind borne by flutes, bass clarinets and bassoons, then shifting at 0:48 to violas followed by violins. The romanticism Herrmann offers is tinged with sadness and longing from a woman who very much loves Harry, and desperately desires that he return her love. The moment ends with the arrival of the local witch doctor. Harry, against Helen’s protests, invites him to join them. When he throws the bones of prophecy, they portend death. Helen orders Harry moved into the tent and we see nativist drums and chanting around the campfire. Helen decides to take matters into her own hands in “Witch Doctor”. She forces him to leave, heat sterilizes a knife, and then cuts open the festering boil on his leg to drain out the pus. Tremolo strings heighten suspense, and as she slices at 0:06 a horrific shock chord resounds followed by writhing violins and dire horns, which dissipate in a grim diminuendo. Harry passes out and a dark pizzicato bass cadence with grim bassoons empowers a foreboding musical narrative as she bandages the wound and the witch doctor departs. We close musically with a religioso kernel of hope as Helen holds vigil bedside.

“The Death Watch” reveals Helen continuing her bedside vigil, which Herrmann supports with a repeating Regret Theme borne by alto flutes. A shimmering violin tremolo joins with muted low register woodwinds and horns. At 1:28 a foreboding Death Theme enters and entwines with the Regret Theme for a very grim musical narrative as we see a hyena, a harbinger of death, stealthily approaching the tent. As the hyena enters the tent, Helen sees it and screams. In “Panic”. Herrmann unleashes a horrific maelstrom atop shrieking strings furioso, and a trilling piccolo as the hyena flees, and the camp wakes with alarm. She dismisses the men and rejoins Harry in the tent supported by a grim diminuendo from which rises the Death Theme. “Finale” The next day Helen awakes to the sound of airplane engines. She is ecstatic and wakes Harry up to see Johnson running to them. She then point to the great tree, which no longer houses buzzards. Music enters as they embrace in love supported by a paean of joyous strings felice and harps, which usher in horns brillante and drums that culminate in a flourish to end the film.

I would like to commend Bruce Kimmel, Nick Redman and Kritzerland for the reissue of Bernard Herrmann’s masterwork, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The editing and mastering by Dan Hersch produced a quality album with excellent sound, which provides a wonderful listening experience. Herrmann understood the psychology of the, which film offered a story of a broken man, full of despair, plagued by regret for a failed, and squandered life. Harry is confined to his death bed and experiences flashbacks where he recalls better times, as well as the three women of his life. Herrmann supported this sad narrative with a trio of themes, with the pervasive Regret Theme, and the lurking Death Theme pervasive. I believe it was Herrmann’s music, which brought forth the pathos of Harry’s life and elevated the film’s storytelling. The Love Theme was beautifully written and truly brought forth the ultimately tragic romance between Harry and Cynthia. Set pieces such as the “Memory Waltz”, “Adagietto”, the two “Barcarolle” cues, and the two “Interlude” cues offer some of the most beautiful music in Herrmann’s canon. In scene after scene, I believe Herrmann’s insightful, and evocative music elevated the film’s narrative. I believe this to be a superb Golden Age score, a gem from Herrmann’s canon, and highly recommend this quality album for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to ten-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-yb4IsrgcI

Buy the Snows of Kilimanjaro from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (1:25)
  • The Buzzards (3:19)
  • The Lake (0:29)
  • The Jungle (4:07)
  • The Tent (2:09)
  • Nocturne (2:34)
  • The Memory Waltz (3:03)
  • Sunrise (0:32)
  • Adagietto (2:34)
  • The Silence (0:48)
  • The Fall (0:59)
  • Sorrow (1:03)
  • The Awakening (2:11)
  • Siesta (1:11)
  • First Barcarolle (0:51)
  • Second Barcarolle (0:27)
  • Interlude #1 (0:48)
  • Interlude #2 (1:13)
  • The Letter (0:49)
  • Departure (0:39)
  • Madrid (0:20)
  • The Farewell (2:45)
  • The River (2:27)
  • The Hyena (1:24)
  • Helen (3:22)
  • Witch Doctor (2:07)
  • The Death Watch (2:43)
  • Panic (1:19)
  • Finale (0:39)
  • The Memory Waltz (Alternate) (3:18) BONUS

Running Time: 75 minutes 42 seconds

Kritzerland KR20030-4 (1952/2016)

Music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Bruce Kimmel and Nick Redman.

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