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  • Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam by Todd Decker
  • Wesley O'Brien
Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam. By Todd Decker. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-520-28233-9. Paper. Pp. 274. $34.95.

Todd Decker's monograph Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam offers a smart, accessible, and in some ways unique understanding of the post-Vietnam combat film soundtrack. The work is comprehensive in that there are few, if any, aural components that he does not address and unique in its various arguments that differentiate post-Vietnam sound practice from that which precedes it.

Decker's strength is his ability to identify overall aural patterns or structures, classify these based upon their salient characteristics, and exemplify their narrative and representational function within three film cycles: films about World War II, the Vietnam War, and the global war on terror (GWOT). He limits the study to the subgenre prestige combat films (PCFs) released after the Vietnam War and begins part 1 by explaining the PCF subgenre itself—the generic attributes that qualify it as worthy of focus and its cultural, historical, and memorial components, many of which are newly informed by American sensitivities following the country's first military defeat. Decker confines his discussion to this discrete category, a subgenre of a subgenre, to delimit the scope of his work, a particularly important task here given that "war has been treated in a conglomeration of genres covering any historical period of any civilization."1 Because the war genre covers a vast canvas and can include narratives as diverse as romantic melodrama set against the backdrop of war, spy movies, Cold War cinema, action adventure films, and prisoner of war films (to name just a few), Decker's focus allows him to differentiate those films that offer meaningful perspectives on wars and the men and women who fight them and to exclude, for example, chest-thumping action adventure movies that romanticize war and rewrite history.

In chapter 2, Decker provides a structural overview of various narrative shapes that PCFs assume and the aural characteristics these shapes inform. In so doing, he argues not only that their soundtracks are different in kind from those that precede them but also that they shoulder a far more essential role in creating meaning. This discussion of narrative shapes and patterns provides a clear foundation for more detailed analyses in subsequent chapters.

In part 2 (chapters 3–5), Decker considers vocal components of the soundtrack. At first glance, some of the topics covered seem self-evident, and at times Decker does indeed tend to codify the obvious. For example, do we need to be told that soldiers' letters read aloud can provide a narrative and subjective mechanism with regard to both the sender and the receiver? On the other hand, he also provides particularly cogent observations with regard to gender and technology. He identifies recurring verbal patterns that work to reveal sensitive or conflicted masculinities as opposed to "harder" masculinities common to "traditional" war films. He acknowledges the recent influence of technology such as satellite radio and telephony for its capacity to collapse space, to conflate home and battlefield without the need for crosscutting, thus facilitating verisimilitude. He also discusses the narrative function of songs soldiers sing and talk about, [End Page 264] pointing to music's capacity to provide succor and a comforting ritual in difficult situations.

Part 3 (chapters 6 and 7) illuminates new narrative possibilities for sound effects and the increasingly blurred line between such effects and the musical score. While diegetic sound has long been credited with augmenting the image track's attempt to render a two-dimensional image three-dimensional—generally through variations in volume as audiences or actors change proximity to its source (approaching it, retreating from it, or, say, opening or closing a door on it)—Decker's identification of the dimensionality indicated by weapon sounds is unique in its ability to acknowledge narrative function beyond just the articulation of space. In Decker's analysis, the enemy position within the mise-en-scène is not always...


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pp. 264-266
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