La-La Land’s 2-CD set becomes the definitive edition of Dimitri Tiomkin’s romantic / rambunctious score, more than doubling the prior soundtrack album’s running time with unedited and a few unused cues, plus several source cues (namely the marches, and the dance pieces from the grand ball sequence).
When Miklos Rozsa (El Cid) proved unavailable for Samuel Bronston’s latest epic extravaganza, Tiomkin, fresh from the success of The Guns of Navarone (1961), came on board and wrote a lavish, multi-thematic work anchored to a rousing action theme for the Boxer rebellion that besieged members of the Eight-Nation Alliance, trapped just outside the massive walls of the Imperial City in Peking in 1900; and a lush, multi-purpose tender theme that underscores the otherwise implausible romance between hero Captain Lewis (Charlton Heston) and ‘meh’ heroine the Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), and the doe-eyed Chinese /American orphaned daughter of Lewis’ colleague who longingly wants a Papa, and a trip to America.
Brought into production without a properly finished script and plagued with budget overruns, the ambitions of the filmmakers – producer Bronson, original director Nicholas Ray, and the two main screenwriters – are at least present in Tiomkin’s score, which is goosed with the composer’s unbridled energy. Essentially a western siege drama transposed to China, Tiomkin’s music hits all the right marks as characters become trapped in desperate circumstances, but it would’ve been interesting to hear how the score may have reflected political conflicts and darker undercurrents had the script been properly developed into a more mature work. It’s a moot issue today, but the added curiosity is whether Tiomkin would’ve dialed down his style, and opted for a ‘less is more’ approach.
Tiomkin’s gift for melody and harmony guarantee Peking evokes a glimpse into the Asian drama, albeit through the goggles of western musical conventions. Perhaps it’s smart that Tiomkin chose to avoid clichéd Chinoiseries and merely hints at the harmonics of Chinese music; the move does restrict the film’s perspective to the European / Japanese / American characters, but we’re spared ethnic music that sounds canned.
The flipside, of course, is a slightly exotic approach, which Tiomkin had already explored in his 1957 Cinerama score for Search for Paradise, and in a more bawdy style in his 1955 bombastic masterpiece Land of the Pharaohs.
Chinese military musicians flare and flatulate their brass fanfares in Tiomkinisian style, and orchestral exotica dominates “Religious Ceremony,” which sounds neither liturgical nor authentic Chinese; the wordless chorals convey the mood of a travelogue, or an unintentional mondo movie moment. (In the final film mix, The audience is drenched with layers of low male vocals, but due to damaged source materials, the CD lacks the heavy choral overlay. However, a taste of Tiomkin’s intended approach is evident in the intact cue “A New Kind of Weapon,” which underscores the arresting sequence in which the worrisome Alliance watches a mass of Boxers drag forward an armed Medieval tower from the pitch black night.
La-La Land’s 2-CD set may not convinced anti-Tiomkinites of the composer’s brilliance with orchestral colours, but fans will relish the fine details the composer invested into each cue. Theme variations are quite diverse, the use of brief solo gestures are nicely integrated to temper the score’s innate bigness, and there’s the broad orchestral colours which are frequently astounding. Much of Tiomkin’s style involved constant movement, as though the composer just didn’t like the idea of an orchestra largely sitting still or playing quiet when there was so much sonic power to exploit. Call it romantic, overblown, or a pioneering style of modern bombast, but there is something innately fascinating and amusing in Tiomkin’s compositions for epic action dramas.
In person (either in interviews, or his amusing appearance on TV, like the Jack Benny Show or The Tonight Show), Tiomkin was urbane, funny, and always uplifting – qualities that permeate his action scores. Peking does rank as one of his best, although the Exit Music – a vocal version of his love theme – smacks of modern commercialism.
It’s not a leap to accuse Tiomkin of wanting a hit single and using the Exit Music to prime audiences for a hunger to buy the single. Performed by Andy Williams, the lyrics allude to dwindling time for the film’s lovers, but like other parts of the score, it captures a relationship that never gelled in the finished film due to script issues, and specifically in the case of Heston and Gardner, two actors who shared little onscreen chemistry.
Tiomkin wasn’t the first composer to slap an anachronistic pop song after a period drama, but the contemporary nature of “So Little Time” is pretty jarring, if not audacious. There’s also a clever appearance of electric guitar in “British Soldier Wounded,” which, in 1963, daringly poked the barrier against the use of contemporary pop instruments in a period film. Within Peking, Tiomkin sneaks in little sounds that link cues, even the pop single: the deep male chorals from “Religious Ceremony” briefly show up in the single’s film mix to maintain thematic, if not slight instrumental continuity.
The CD set’s bonus material is comprised of mono versions of the film’s single theme in various idiomatic guises (all quite amusing), but they’re no more jarring than the poppish Exit Music song, or the instrumental Intermission theme (also in mono) with its big band mood and tick-tock percussion motif.
With few exceptions, La-La Land’s CD features the cues in stereo and most have survived in good shape. A few have hiss and some coarseness around the edges (such as “Here They Come,” and “Lewis Saves the Boy”), but while other original epic score recordings – notably It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [M] – haven’t even survived in complete form and in stereo, we’re lucky enough materials exist to bring Peking to its full musical glory. (Pity the same can’t be said of the film, which is in dire need of a major restoration.)
Tiomkin would score Bronston’s final two epics – The Fall of the Roman Empire [M] and Circus World (both 1964) and the clever WWII thriller 36 Hours (1965) before scaling back on his scoring projects. After The War Wagon (1967) and the teleplay Great Catherine (1968), he produced the bloated western Mackenna’s Gold (1969) with Quincy Jones handling the scoring duties, and executive produced his dream project: a bio-drama of Tchaikovsky (1970) for Russia’s Mosfilm.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan