Six of the greatest Second World War movie soundtracks

15 September 2020, 10:15

Best World War II film scores
Best World War II film scores. Picture: The Mirisch Company / Universal Pictures / Studio Canal

By Rosie Pentreath

2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – we commemorate the occasion with a selection of the greatest music accompanying depictions of the Second World War on film ever written.

  1. Battle of Britain

    The heroic sacrifices of those made in the Battle of Britain were immortalised in the great and sobering words of Sir Winston Churchill when he said “never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

    Three decades later Guy Hamilton’s dramatic film version of events further cemented the RAF’s airborne efforts in memory, and Ron Goodwin’s score for the film remains some of the best loved film music ever written (voted No. 33 in The Classic FM Movie Music Hall of Fame in partnership with Radio Times this year).

    William Walton was originally commissioned to write the music, before producers decided to drop Walton’s score in favour of Ron Goodwin’s. Apparently lead actor Laurence Olivier stepped in and demanded his name be removed from the credits if Walton’s music was removed. Goodwin’s gripping score remained, but Walton’s cue for the battle sequence itself was re-instated.

    Battle of Britain(1969)-Battle of Britain Theme

  2. ‘The Dam Busters March’

    For some people, nothing is more synonymous with Second World War commemorations (and marking British military occasions more generally) than ‘The Dam Busters March’ by Eric Coates.

    The main theme from 1955 epic film The Dam Busters and now a mainstay of military concerts and commemorations all year round, the lively march evokes the heroism and spirit of the members of RAF’s 617 Squadron who contributed so significantly to the British war effort by destroying several dams essential to Germany’s war infrastructure.

    Central Band of the Royal Air Force - The Dam Busters March ( 1955 )

  3. Theme from The Great Escape

    Steve McQueen in 'The Great Escape' film 1963
    Steve McQueen in 'The Great Escape'. Picture: The Mirisch Company / The Great Escape

    Similarly, the plucky theme from The Great Escape (1963) encapsulates British resolve and spirit in the face of the adversity of World War Two.

    Soundtracking the Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough-led American war epic, it has the right amount of hopeful brass melody set against determined, chugging bass to suit the epic retelling of Australian Fighter Pilot Paul Brickhill’s first-hand account of British Commonwealth prisoners of war (POW) attempting to escape the Stalag Luft III German POW camp in 1944.

    The Great Escape Theme

  4. ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ from Saving Private Ryan

    John Williams’ poignant ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ from Saving Private Ryan (1998) had a big part to play in the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Portsmouth and is often used in such occasions.

    The beautiful string melody is sombre, but glittered with hope, making it a perfect piece for reflection.

    Cinema in Concert - 08 - John Williams - Hymn to the Fallen

  5. Theme from Schindler’s List

    There aren’t many violin solos more haunting than John Williams’ heartbreaking theme from Schindler’s List. Stephen Spielberg’s multi-award-winning, tear-jerking Second World War epic covering the holocaust could only be accompanied by the very best soundtrack – and John Williams’ score is just that: it scooped Academy Award and BAFTA wins, and has picked up a whole host of other awards and nominations.

    As well as the theme, ‘Jewish Town (Krakow Ghetto, Winter ’41)’ and ‘Remembrances’ are well worth the listen – all stunningly performed by violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Williams on the original soundtrack.

    Williams’ music for Schindler’s List was recently voted No. 1 in the Classic FM Movie Music Hall of Fame.

    Anne-Sophie Mutter - John Williams: Schindler's list

  6. ‘Elegy for Dunkirk’ from Atonement

    James McAvoy in 'Atonement' Dunkirk beach scene 2007
    James McAvoy in 'Atonement' Dunkirk beach scene. Picture: Studio Canal / Atonement

    One of the most famous scenes in Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement is the one-take depiction of the pain, chaos and destruction of the Dunkirk beaches.

    It is accompanied by Dario Marianelli’s sweeping soundtrack, reduced to cello and strings in a heart-wrenching melody that evokes the tragedy on screen. The music is all the more affecting when heard over the top of a group of soldiers singing ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ in the scene.

    Among other accolades, Marianelli won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for his Atonement score, while ‘Elegy for Dunkirk’ was named Film Music Composition of the Year in the 2007 International Film Critic Association Awards.

    Elegy for Dunkirk - Atonement - HD

John Suchet commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain tonight on The Classic FM Concert with music by Ron Goodwin, William Walton, Elgar and others. Listen from 8pm, or catch up on Global Player afterwards.