10 Underappreciated John Williams Film Scores

As both a lover of film and music, I consider myself generally knowledgeable when it comes to film scores.  Of course, one can hardly have a discussion about film scores without bringing up one of the most famous film composers in modern history:  John Williams.  Everyone knows his most famous works, like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park, but the sheer number of projects Williams has done over the course of his career is astounding, and some of them often get the short end of the stick.  Here, I hope to shed light on some of these scores, which I feel deserve more credit than they often receive.

The Cowboys (1972)

Movie poster advertisement for The Cowboys © 1972 Warner Bros.  Digital Image.  Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cowboys_1972.jpg

This 1972 John Wayne film has all the makings of a true Western, and John Williams’s score is certainly no exception.  The film was admittedly met with mixed reviews.  It won the Best Theatrical Motion Picture “Bronze Wrangler” from the Western Heritage Awards, but received varied reviews from critics, some of whom questioned the way the film portrayed boys becoming men.1  Despite the criticism, however, one thing that the film was consistently praised for was its score.  The sweeping strings and triumphant brass lend to a distinctly Copland-esque sound, perfect for any American Western.2

Superman (1978)

Official film poster © Warner Bros.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman_(1978_film)

In 1978, Richard Donner directed one of the first films in a genre that has now taken the world by storm:  superhero movies.  His version of Superman, starring Christopher Reeve in the title role, was praised both critically and commercially.  The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Original Score, and won the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.3  While the “Main Title March” certainly gets its fair share of performances at John Williams concerts, the rest of the score does not get the attention it deserves.  From the delicate strings and twinkling celesta in “The Fortress of Solitude,” to the quirky and off-kilter tuba solo in “The March of the Villains,” and the beautiful soaring melodies in “The Flying Sequence,” some of the lesser-known themes definitely deserve more credit than they often receive.

Photo credits L to R: Official film poster © Warner Bros. and Amblin Entertainment.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_the_Sun_(film); Official film poster © Paramount Pictures.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabrina_(1995_film); Promotional poster by Drew Struzan.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook_(film)

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Released in 1987, Empire of the Sun tells the story of Jamie (Christian Bale), a young boy who faces incredible struggles during the Second World War.  As a whole, the movie is considered one of Spielberg’s more underappreciated films, and John Williams’s score is no different.  It was nominated for many awards, including several Oscars, but only won three (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Design, and Best Musical Score) at the 42nd British Academy Film Awards. Having only just recently discovered this score myself, I can’t understand how I’ve never come across it before.

Williams’s quintessential soaring string melodies are certainly present, but it is the angelic sound of the children’s choir (a sound not usually found in other Williams scores) that sets it apart for me.  This is a score that I will most definitely be adding to my regular listening.

Hook (1991)

Hook is a film that is close to my heart.  This sequel to the classic Peter Pan story tells of an adult Peter (played by the late great Robin Williams) who has forgotten who he is.  Captain Hook, looking to draw his old nemesis out of hiding, kidnaps Peter’s children Jack and Maggie.  Peter then embarks on a journey of rediscovery as he returns to Neverland in order to rescue them.  The film experienced box office success but mostly negative reviews from critics, and Spielberg himself has admitted it’s certainly not one of his best.5  But despite some of its criticism, the score is one of the film’s highlights.  The main theme has all the whimsy and fanfare needed for any fantasy adventure, and some of the softer themes in tracks like “Remembering Childhood,” and “You Are the Pan,” have enough soulful melodies to melt any heart.  Hook is, by far, one of my favorite John Williams scores, and definitely worth a listen for any fans of his music.

Sabrina (1995)

This 1995 film, starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, and Greg Kinnear, is a remake of a film by the same name released in 1954.  The film did not fare well at the box office, and received mixed reviews from critics, many of whom compared it unfavorably to its predecessor.6  Despite the film’s failings, John Williams’s score does not disappoint.  The heavy use of piano and hint of 1950’s cool jazz creates a feeling of intimacy appropriate to the film.  Even still, Williams can’t resist the swelling string melodies that make his music soar.  Regardless of whether or not you like the film, the score definitely deserves more recognition.

Amistad (1997)

Amistad is another of many John Williams and Stephen Spielberg collaborations and tells the story of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, which was captured by the cargo of African slaves it was transporting off the coast of Cuba.  While criticized by some for its historical inaccuracies, the film was considered a general success for telling such a difficult story with sensitivity.7  The score sounds quite different from the music Williams usually writes, but is gorgeous nonetheless.  The sound is more wide-ranging in nature, utilizing many different sorts of percussion instruments and flutes, and the use of vocals is chillingly effective.  I highly recommend giving this one a listen. Photo credit: Official film poster © DreamWorks Pictures.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amistad_(film)

The Patriot (2000)

While this film is set in the backdrop of the American Revolutionary War, the story it tells of American colonist Benjamin Martin being reluctantly dragged into the war is (mostly) fictional.  The Patriot received average success at the box office and similar reviews from critics, but was mired in controversy regarding some of the historical aspects of its story.8  Nevertheless, its score is most certainly spot on.  Fiddle-like solo violin, militaristic snare drum, and flurries of fife melodies accompany Williams’s quintessential sweeping strings and fanfaric brass, adding a distinctly colonial sound to his music. Photo credit: Official film poster © Columbia Pictures.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Patriot_(2000_film)

The Terminal (2004)

This 2004 film tells the story of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), who becomes trapped inside John F. Kennedy International Airport after being refused entry to the country, and his home country Krakozhia is taken over in a military coup.  The film was generally well-received by critics and the public as a fun, feel-good movie, and Williams’s score is similarly light and cheerful.9  The clarinet solos littered throughout add an air of mystery and playfulness.  The clarinet features so prominently in this score that Williams later released a solo clarinet piece “Viktor’s Tale,” featuring music taken from the film, and Spielberg insisted that clarinetist Emily Bernstein, who recorded all the solos, be listed in the film’s end credits.10  If you’re looking for a mysteriously playful score to listen to, make sure to add this one to your list.

Photo credits L to R: Theatrical poster © Columbia Pictures.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoirs_of_a_Geisha_(film); Official film poster © DreamWorks. 
Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Terminal; Theatrical poster © Touchstone Pictures.  Digital Image.  Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Horse_(film)

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Based off of Arthur Golden’s book by the same name, this film tells the story of Japanese Geisha pre-World War II.  The film received mixed reviews, partially influenced by controversy regarding the casting of three Chinese actresses in the leading roles.  It was also criticized for Westernizing and misrepresenting Japanese culture.11  Regardless, the score is a true masterpiece, with solos by famous violinist Itzhak Perlman and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma only adding to Williams’s epic musical storytelling.  No matter how you feel about the film, if you consider yourself a true John Williams fan, this score is a must-listen.

War Horse (2011)

Yet another Spielberg/Williams collaboration, War Horse was adapted from a 1982 novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo.  The story tells of a young British boy and his horse, who is later bought by the British Army for the ensuing conflicts of World War I.  It was generally well received by the public and critics alike, and has been characterized as a cross between Saving Private Ryan and E.T.12  Williams’s accompanying score is both playful and heartfelt, soaring in some places and heartbreaking in others.  Speaking personally, I have only seen the movie once, but I have listened to the score countless times and will surely listen to it again countless more.  I strongly encourage you: don’t miss out on this hidden gem. KE

Honorable Mentions:

Home Alone (1990)

Schindler’s List (1993)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Kathryn Edom is a composer and aspiring music librarian in her first semester of IU’s MLS (Library Sciences) program.  She previously attended Sacramento State University and University of Oregon where she received her BM and MM (respectively) in music composition.  On top of her courses, she currently juggles three different library jobs, and in her limited spare time, enjoys reading, writing music, playing Animal Crossing, and watching Oregon football.

Sources:

1”The Cowboys.”  Wikipedia.  25 September, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cowboys

2”About John Williams’ The Cowboys Film Score.”  Parker Symphony Orchestra.  20 April, 2016.  https://parkersymphony.org/john-williams-the-cowboys

3”Superman (1978 film).”  Wikipedia.  30 September, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman_(1978_film)

4”Empire of the Sun (film).”  Wikipedia.  18 September, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_the_Sun_(film)

5”Hook (film).”  Wikipedia.  2 October, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook_(film)

6”Sabrina (1995 film).”  Wikipedia.  23 September, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabrina_(1995_film)

7”Amistad (film).” Wikipedia. 2 October, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amistad_(film)

8”The Patriot (2000 film).”  Wikipedia.  23 September, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Patriot_(2000_film)

9,10 “The Terminal.”  Wikipedia.  18 September, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Terminal

11”Memoirs of a Geisha (film).”  Wikipedia.  1 October, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoirs_of_a_Geisha_(film) 12”War Horse (film).”  Wikipedia.  30 September, 2021.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Horse_(film)

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