The director of The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler, also produced wartime documentaries for the military, and he takes a similar approach here. The style is very realistic for the most part, using very long takes during each scene with brilliant visual compositions staged and photographed by the famous Gregg Toland (who was also the groundbreaking cinematographer for Citizen Kane). As the story unfolds, we see the difficulties faced by the returning veterans, including the need to cope with disabilities (both physical and mental), estrangement from families, alcoholism, unemployment, and marital strife. Ironically, we come to realize that many of their "best years" were spent during the war itself, and now the three heroes feel they are as obsolete as the hundreds of airplanes seen waiting for the scrap heap.
Friedhofer's wonderful score adds the necessary emotional dimension to this story, showing the depth behind the characters' stoic facades. We feel the tug-of-war between the veterans' desire to pick up their lives again and the realization that they are not the same men they were before the war. The composer draws heavily on the Americana approach to create a sense of patriotic optimism and hope for the future, but there is still an undercurrent of uncertainty as well.
Watch the following clip (as well as the main title we saw as part of the earlier discussion of Americana), and then review the Copland clip from The Red Pony. In a two-page paper:
Compare the music from the two different films, noting similarities and differences in:
- orchestration (featured instruments or sections of the ensemble)
- melodic material (themes, motifs, direction, and/or use of intervals)
- harmonic material (major/minor/modal, consonance vs. dissonance, use of polytonality)
- rhythmic material (ostinatos, tempo changes, syncopation) and counterpoint
- physical (visual sync) vs. psychological function of the music
Discuss the overall dramatic function of the two sequences. What emotions are expressed by the music in each clip? Contrast the range of feelings we sense from the Copland score with that of the Friedhofer.
As the horns swell with the title card of “The Red Pony”, until the cymbals crash, the idea evoked is akin to the elements of Americana that are infused with the singularly American notion of manifest destiny. But, the story the music tells is one of how this manifest destiny might be composed of other, simpler things: like hard work and dedication, tied together and driven by optimism and hopefulness, with a great deal of that positivity linked to the innocence...
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