With 60 Academy Award nominations, 8 Oscar wins and a combined gross of billions of dollars between them, the directing/composing team of Steven Spielberg and John Williams is by far the most successful film and music collaboration to have ever served the industry. Now, united again on War Horse, their 25th feature together, Spielberg and Williams deliver yet another magical big screen experience. To celebrate this seemingly unstoppable partnership, we’ve taken a look at the illustrious pairing of these two masters, and at some of the themes that it has generated that we cannot help but recognise.
John Williams’ (15 years Spielberg’s senior) scores for television, such as Gilligan’s Island, and a number of B movies garnered attention before he claimed his place as a major Hollywood composer with a handful of disaster movie scores in the early ‘70s. It was Williams’ scores for The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, contrasted against more gentle melodic scores for The Reivers and The Cowboys, that gave the young Steven Spielberg all the evidence he needed to approach the already six-time Oscar nominated (one win: The Fiddler On The Roof) composer to score his debut feature, The Sugarland Express. The humble harmonica that opens the distinctive Sugarland Express Theme, followed by the addition of strings that build to a powerful motif, echoes the beginnings and continued rise of the collaboration. Williams has scored all but one of Spielberg’s feature films (The Color Purple, as you’re asking, and it was because producer Quincy Jones understandably wanted to take charge of the music), and as we’ll see there is no reason why he shouldn’t have.
The duo’s second and third collaborations resulted in the two most ominous notes in cinema history, followed by five of the most recognisable intended to communicate our very humanity. Jaws was released in 1975, and launched upon the world a terrifying motif that has been adopted in popular culture to symbolise sharks and/or impending disaster. So successful was Jaws’ main theme in capturing the fear and suspense of Spielberg’s vision that it landed Williams his second Academy Award and no doubt helped the film secure a best director BAFTA nomination for Spielberg. From terrifying encounters in the ocean to extraterrestrial encounters, the pair worked for two years to develop Close Encounters of The Third Kind, giving Williams an unprecedented role in the development of the film from day one. So integral were the five famous notes to the story that Williams and his music helped to sculpt it. You only need to listen to Williams’ Close Encounters Suite to get a sense of the initial unease, wonder, and eventual enlightenment that Close Encounters viewers were treated to in 1977. It is no surprise that the score earned Williams a twelfth Oscar nomination.
1979 gave us 1941, a Spielberg comedy richly accompanied by Williams’ bombastic upbeat military marches before the arrival of the 1980s and the sweeping adventure films and scores that would become synonymous with the Spielberg/Williams efforts of the decades to come. After very successfully reinventing the Struass-esque symphonic scores of cinema’s golden age for George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and winning an Oscar for his troubles, Williams’ talents were to be employed on three films that would herald the return of an old fashioned kind of hero: the Indiana Jones trilogy; spanning the decade from Raiders of The Lost Ark in 1981 through 1984’s The Temple of Doom to 1989’s The Last Crusade. With The Raider’s March Williams had created a piece of music that is as iconic to fantastic archaeologist Jones as his trademark fedora and whip. If the sixteen brass notes defined a decade of action and adventure, The Parade of The Slave Children from The Temple of Doom, helped convey an exotic fear from the speakers as unforgettable as the equally striking removal of a still beating heart on screen. The motorcycle chase set-piece in The Last Crusade allowed the composer to fully utilize the brass section in Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra, a movement filled with suspense and thrills that heighten the action on screen. All three of Indiana’s outings translated to Oscar nominations for Williams.
Other notable collaborations in the ‘80s are undoubtedly E.T. and Empire Of The Sun. The former is a film about the innocence and humanity of a child who befriends an extraterrestrial. The score proved so effective at conveying the emotional message of the film that ending was edited around the music rather than the other way around as is the norm. The latter, starring a young Christian Bale, is the first of Spielberg’s epic war films, and Williams provided a suitably epic soundtrack to fully communicate the scale of the Second World War in occupied China and the immensity of the young protagonist’s struggle and perpetual hope.
The dawn of the 1990s brought the fantastical Hook with an equally fantastical score, but real proof of the versatility and diversity of Spielberg and Williams’ working relationship became truly apparent with the 1993’s double whammy of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. The two films could not be more apart in genre and tone, and yet both display mastery, to our eyes and ears, that other filmmakers would struggle to achieve in either. Jurassic Park a cautionary tale of dino-disaster set to a score at that both extols the ethereal notion, the childlike dream that dinosaurs could exist again, and instils in the listener a sense of the majesty of the power of science and nature. An even greater triumph for the duo, Schindler’s List gained Williams his fifth Oscar win, and Spielberg his first and second competitive Academy Awards. Based on the heroism and selflessness of real-life Austrian factory owner Oskar Schindler, the 195 minute black and white masterpiece tells the tragic story of the Jews forced into the Krakow Ghetto and transferred to the harrowing concentration camps, and the gradual change in Schindler from war-profiteer to the man who saved 1,200 fellow humans from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Williams’ emotional score uses cultural cues to give the victims an identity, masterfully employs violinist Itzhak Perlman to convey sorrow and hopelessness, before reprising the key theme with a single piano to echo Schindler’s humanity. The score treats the subject with dignity where many might have become overly melodramatic.
Spielberg and Williams rounded off the ‘90s with another epic war film, Saving Private Ryan. A film remembered for its terrifyingly realistic portrayal of the horrors of front line combat, and a score remembered for the Hymn to The Fallen, a movement that brings the film to a close while ever so gently pushing the listener to recognise sacrifices made and pride worn. The new millennium brought with it a plethora of new and different Spielberg films for Williams to deftly turn his baton to. Memorable scores to A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Catch Me If You Can are the decade’s highlights. The first taking on a film conceptualised by directing legend Stanley Kubrick and producing a score worthy of the beautiful aesthetic and touching story – The second framing the story of serial con-man Frank Abagnale Jr successfully as a 1960s crime caper, encapsulating the effortless style and glamour of both the period and perceived of Frank.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn is this decade’s first Spielberg/Williams offering, and has proven to feature a score as adventurous and fun as the 3D motion-capture movie that it accompanies. However, it is the forthcoming return to Spielberg doing what we feel he does best – directing a sweeping wartime epic – that has us most excited for the future of the collaboration. The trailer alone for War Horse fuses enough of Steven’s cinematic magic with the building symphony of John’s orchestration to tell us that we’ve got a visual and aural treat in the best tradition of the pair. Both War Horse and Tintin have seen Williams nominated for Best Original Score at this year’s Academy Awards, with Spielberg winning a nomination for Best Picture for War Horse. And with Williams already signed up to score Spielberg’s Lincoln and Robopocalypse, our cinema is in safe hands going forward.
War Horse is in cinemas now.