Again this is in honor of the GSPO Elmer Bernstein concert on Feb. 15th.
For those who were around when widescreen films got started you will remember they also brought the beginnings of the best sound around. And of all those widescreen processes the one that had the very best sound was Cinerama. Even if you saw just the latter ones like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY you knew that you were hearing something akin to a mixing stage sound. So in 1965 after the enormously successful Cinerama western HOW THE WEST WAS WON and the almost equally successful Cinerama comedy IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD came out someone got the idea to combine the two genres for Cinerama, which wasn’t such a good idea. Actually I consider this a companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 1941, neither was very funny but I could have sat there all day listening to those absolutely astounding scores. And like 1941 someone thought that a talented director (John Sturges/Steven Spielberg) who had just come off a couple epic hits (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN&THE GREAT ESCAPE/ JAWS,&CLOSE ENCOUNTERS), both of which had a lot of humor in them, would be perfect for an epic comedy. Unfortunately they both thought that to do a full-length “comedy” you had to play it all “funny”. If they had only looked at what was funny in their own films they would have seen that comedy comes out of “character”. To be fair there are fans of both of these films but for most of us the laughs in 1941 and THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL are few and far between. But who cares when they inspired their composers to go beyond inspiration into nirvana! Listening to the overture before THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL on those Cinerama speakers was bliss. And only in those Cecil B. DeMille films (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE BUCCANEER) did Bernstein right so many leitmotifs for one film. The overture alone had 5: “The Denver Free Militia” for the Colorado miners waiting for their 40 wagons of booze; A jaunty theme used for the cavalry similar to the title tune; a lush wide open theme that I’ll simply label “The Plains”; a theme I identify for the character “Oracle Jones” (Donald Pleasance steals this film, like he did THE GREAT ESCAPE as the blind forger, playing this grizzled desert oracle who sees visions when he is given a drink) and finally “Stand Up We’ll March To Denver” for the Temperance ladies. The tragedy is this is one of those lost scores. The original tapes were found almost totally disintegrated. Only two cuts were salvaged for the Varese release, the rest are the album tracks recorded with a smaller orchestra.
This overture is at 10:30 on the youtube clip below.
There were other themes for the Irish teamsters, a secondary song for the Temperance ladies “We will Save!”, a theme for Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) and a politically incorrect accompaniment for the boozy Indians. The whole movie is politically incorrect as everybody at some point gets to go on a bender. (Probably alcohol was more tolerable in the old west where you were less likely to run over women and children). Anyway the masterly part of this score is how Elmer lets all these leitmotifs play against each other, sometimes subtly sometimes overtly. And somebody has got to say amen to the choral main title. All that study of folk music paid off in this handclapping spectacular tour de force with lyrics by Ernie Sheldon.
This was a wonderful history lesson, Morricone. I can't say that I really like the movie, but I absolutely LOVE this score. It contains all of those wonderful themes you mentioned. My favorites are the main theme sung sometimes by the choir or played by the orchestra and the open land theme that you call The Plains. I hope that all of us someday get to hear it all in a concert. It is sad to hear that most of the original tapes disintegrated. I've always thought that this magnificent score should have more recognition.