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Patton: Command Performance

By Mark Grimsley
9/24/2015 • World War II Magazine

THE OSCAR-NOMINATED SOUNDTRACK to the Oscar-winning 1970 film Patton is almost as synonymous with that movie as George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning portrayal of General George S. Patton. It is one of the great scores in cinematic history. Anyone who has seen Patton instantly recognizes the main theme. But few know how deliberately composer Jerry Goldsmith (1929–2004) approached his composition’s iconic elements.

Long before Patton, Goldsmith had mastered his craft. Four of his scores had earned Academy Award nominations; ultimately he collected 18, winning in 1976 for The Omen. Unlike film composers whose work sounds much the same, Goldsmith tailored his scores to each project. One would never guess from Patton, for example, that he also wrote the smoky soundtrack for 1974 film noir Chinatown, ranked ninth on the American Film Institute list of the 25 greatest scores. On that roster, Goldsmith is one of only five composers cited more than once. His other AFI entry, at 18, is his score for 1968’s Planet of the Apes. To reflect the bizarre world of Apes, Goldsmith incorporated among the distinctive sounds a ram’s horn, a Brazilian drumhead device that closely imitated ape vocalizations, and even a steel kitchen mixing bowl. His score for Patton was just as carefully conceived and innovative.

The composer never viewed Patton as a war film, he told an interviewer in 2002. Instead, Goldsmith saw it as the biography of a “complex personality”—a man of war, a man of faith, and a man of intellect—and discovered a way to depict those aspects musically through theme, chorale, and fanfare. “Theme,” of course, refers to a musical composition’s principal melody; “chorale,” to a harmonized, hymn-like passage; and “fanfare” to a brief ceremonial flourish played on brass instruments. Goldsmith designed the Patton score “so that all three could be played simultaneously or individually or one or two at a time.”

The three appear in the title track, which plays after Scott’s tour de force rendition of a speech Patton made to his troops. The track begins with the fanfare, which Goldsmith meant to convey “the archaic part of [Patton], the historical, the intellectual part of him.” These repeating tripled trumpet notes—“dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah”—may be this distinctive score’s most distinctive part. The composer drew inspiration from Patton’s conviction that throughout human history he had fought in multiple lives as a warrior. In the film Scott’s character invokes this belief several times, particularly at an ancient Carthaginian battlefield where Patton declares, “I was here.” To create the effect, Goldsmith ran the trumpeters’ playing through an Echoplex, a device that caused the tripling to fade gradually into silence.

An organ, low and magisterial, joins the horns. This is the chorale, intended to represent Patton’s religious side. A single piccolo introduces the theme. The melody, jaunty but innocent, would have been at home in one of director John Ford’s affectionate Old West cavalry films, and suggests Patton’s beau ideal of soldiering. The full orchestra takes up the theme, which the musicians repeat twice. Now the track strides into march time, redolent of Patton’s love for battle, before beginning to wind down. The theme repeats twice again; the organ becomes dominant, augmented by the tripled brass notes, and finally nothing remains but the trumpets, which echo away.

Some scores attempt to tell a listener how to feel. Francis Lai’s Love Story score, which beat Goldsmith’s for the 1971 Academy Award, is of that sort. Not so the Patton soundtrack, which sometimes does function as commentary—as at Kasserine Pass, where the trumpets struggle against ugly dissonance, contrasting Patton’s idealized view of combat with the horrors of an actual battlefield’s charred vehicles and strewn corpses. But mainly Goldsmith’s compositions reflect Patton’s state of mind, with tripling most prominent in scenes that involve him.

The trumpets are notably absent from “No Assignment,” the track for a sequence in which Patton has lost his command for slapping a shell-shocked soldier during the 1943 Sicily campaign. “No Assignment” is slow and mournful, as if Patton’s self-image has collapsed.

Goldsmith mutes his motif in “The Hospital”; contemplative French horns, not strident trumpets, play the tripled notes. The composer meant this gentle track, filled with compassion for the wounded soldiers Patton visits at a field hospital, to create sympathy for Patton so that at mid-scene, when an uncharacteristically subdued Patton erupts at that shell-shocked soldier, strikes him, and rages, “You’re just a goddamned coward!” the violent about-face is all the more disturbing.

The track appears on the soundtrack album but not in the film; Goldsmith and producer Frank McCarthy agreed that the music didn’t work—or rather, that it worked too well. “It did create sympathy for Patton, so much sympathy that you thought he was justified in the act,” the composer said.

Given that we so closely identify this score with the film, it is almost astonishing to realize that in its entirety the music lasts only 39 minutes, a fraction of Patton’s 170-minute running time. But when the music is playing it recalls George C. Scott’s comment on the main requisite for great acting: “joy in performance.” Goldsmith’s score for Patton has joy in abundance.

Originally published in the November/December issue of World War II magazine. 

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