- Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films by Stephen C. Meyer
Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015: 272pp.
In Epic Sound, Stephen C. Meyer provides detailed, historically grounded research into the music of post-Second World War biblical epics. Perhaps inspired by the grandeur of the films he analyses, Meyer covers films from a fifteen-year period (1950–65), while ambitiously tackling a wide range of cultural issues prevalent during post-war American society. In many ways, Meyer sees these films as a microcosm of the United States after the war, and he argues that the soundtracks of these films reflect an artistic and cultural tension in post-war society that grants us insight into the religion, politics, and film-making of that era. While Meyer touches on a number of issues throughout Epic Sound (gender, empire, Christianity, and technology, to name just a few), he keeps the book focused by grounding his work in each film’s music. The book moves in chronological order, each chapter covering a particular film, beginning with Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1950) and ending with The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965). Meyer’s choice to consider the films in chronological order is effective, especially as he examines how the cultural implications of these films change as American post-war society transforms over these fifteen years.
Early in the book’s first chapter on Samson and Delilah, Meyer identifies some of the key characteristics that contributed to the popularity and commercial success of the biblical epic in the early 1950s. The genre often focused on sexual desire and gender, eroticising well-known biblical stories, and placed issues of gender and sexuality within a ‘grand historical narrative’ that reflected back upon narratives told about the United States (p.20). Furthermore, these films tapped into the pervasive religious atmosphere of the 1950s, a period many historians refer to as the ‘fourth Great Awakening’, their epic nature presenting an excellent counterpart to the burgeoning Evangelical movement of the 1950s. Starting with Samson and Delilah’s opening credits, Meyer points out how Victor Young’s underscoring constructs Samson and Delilah’s identities before we even see them onscreen. Their musical themes are highly conventionalised: Samson’s ‘motive clearly evokes the horn call and fanfare, musical topoi traditionally associated with masculine vigor and energy’, while ‘Delilah’s music is characterized by scalar motion’ that points to her ‘ravishing [End Page 86] sexuality’ (pp.23–25). Another musical convention that will appear in later films appears during moments of ‘conversion’, where the score employs a ‘distinctive leitmotif’ of ‘shimmering strings playing high in their upper register’ which ‘evokes traditional musical markers for transcendence that stretch back into the nineteenth-century symphonic and operatic repertoire’ (p.39). By illustrating how one of the first biblical epics conventionalises its underscoring, Meyer sets the stage for examining how later films conform to or depart from these conventions.
Focusing on David and Bathsheba (Henry King, 1951) in chapter two, Meyer discusses how the film’s structure and music recall those of Samson and Delilah, but he also highlights several important ways in which David and Bathsheba complicates some of these conventions, thematically and musically. Through these complications, David and Bathsheba offers a more complex vision of gender and history than Samson and Delilah. Meyer skilfully analyses the sequence in which David first has dinner with Bathsheba, demonstrating how the music helps us understand their emotions. In contrast to the motives of the two protagonists, the ‘love theme’, which comes near the end of the sequence, and its ‘prominent two-voice contrapuntal texture’, may be understood ‘as a musical representation of two personalities twining around each other’ (p.56). Here, the music points out how Bathsheba ‘transforms’ and ‘domesticates’ David’s gaze and desire, but it also reinforces Meyer’s earlier claim that David and Bathsheba operates with a level of generic hybridity not seen in Samson and Delilah, as it draws on elements of the woman’s film, a type of melodrama specifically addressed to female audiences (p.56...