In early 1943, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich is at the height of its power. The dark spill of Nazi domination is spreading to the farthest reaches of Europe, although in the east, it meets with fierce resistance from the Russian Red Army on the banks of the Volga. The battle of Stalingrad ends up being a turning point in the Second World War: Hitler’s inability to take hold of the city marks the end of his military expansion and the start of his downfall. Against this backdrop, screenwriters Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud weave the threads of a love triangle between Vassili, a young shepherd from the Ural mountains, Tania, a woman whose parents have been savagely butchered by the Nazis, and Danilov, an intellectual who finds himself in charge of the local Russian agitation propaganda machine.
Enemy at the Gates (2001) also centers on the face-off between two real-life superlative snipers: Vassili Zaytsev had learnt the art of sharp shooting during hunting parties in the Urals with his grandfather; Major König is the German sniper dispatched from Berlin to eliminate the talented brat that keeps sinking the Nazi soldiers’ morale.
As a three-act screenplay, Enemy at the Gates is fairly competent: the love triangle never descends into schmaltz and the characters are meaningful vehicles for the themes of warfare and humanity explored in often surprisingly visual ways throughout the movie. Moreover, the sniper face-off is an elegant way of putting faces on the anonymous immensity of the Stalingrad episode. The re-imagining of a wide-canvas battle as a breathtaking duel between two highly-trained individuals is a clever way of increasing audience involvement, just as James Cameron used a simple love story to put faces on the hundreds of victims of the Titanic. Moreover, director Jean-Jacques Annaud stages the many stand-offs between Vassili and König with razor-sharp cutting and admirable efficiency, turning them into the cinematic highlights of this better-than-average war flick.
The only thing missing, though, is a strong main character. We know what motivates Tania: she wants to avenge her parents’ brutal slaughter. We know what drives Danilov, a hopelessly patriotic intellectual and an unwavering advocate of the Russian cause. Even the movie’s baddie, Major König, only wants to kill Russians because his own son was killed during the early stages of the attack on Stalingrad. But the screenplay fails to supply Vassili with a clear motivation of his own: we know that he was trained by his grandfather to shoot wildlife and by the time the movie gets going, he is a Red Army soldier. But why has he enlisted? What meaty back-story trauma has urged him to join the fray? Sure, he gets all peppy when Danilov and the propaganda machine turn him into a hero and he ends up wanting to get rid of the hero reputation later on, but that’s pretty piecemeal compared to the incredible psychological complexity of, say, Oskar Schindler.
The exposition part of the movie’s first act takes the form of a tremendously exciting river crossing, which James Horner expands into a behemoth fifteen-minute cue. In doing so, he not only hits all the right buttons but, not surprisingly, takes the scene to a much higher level.
Unless mentioned otherwise, the timings mentioned below refer to the placement of the cue in the movie, which starts after 52 seconds of unscored logos and credits. Moreover, the film version of the cue differs from the album presentation in subtle ways (shortened but not truncated), which leads one to believe that they are two different takes.
1 Architecture, pacing and musical building stones
James Horner not only mirrors the architecture of the sequence, he adds plenty of his own. He subdivides the fifteen-minute sequence into a prologue (0:52 – 2:47) and an epilogue (14:14 – 14:35) bookending the body of the cue, which itself contains four parts: the train journey to Stalingrad (2:47 – 6:51, ending with impressive vista shots of the burning city seen from across the Volga), the river crossing (6:51 – 11:19) that lends the cue its title, the battle in the already ruined inner city (11:19 – 13:19) and the aftermath (13:19 – 14:14).
Horner juggles a fairly large number of musical ideas. First, there’s an eerie string motif for the prologue and epilogue, in the style of the adagio from Khatchaturian’s Gayaneh ballet. The second idea is the four-note motif of evil and death. By 2001, Horner was savagely attacked by some for over-using this idea, but Jean-Jacques Annaud has stated that he himself greenlit the use of this most ubiquitous of Horner motifs. The third building stone is a theme that Horner first ties to Vassili and Tania but in reality serves any setting in which a sense of humanity seeps through the imagery of war (or is destroyed by it). It therefore makes sense to call this idea the Humanity theme. It is a melody Horner premiered in the impressive Heritage of the Wolf cue from Balto (1995) and which resembles one of John Williams’s themes from Schindler's List, again exposing Horner to controversy (Read our article: Between Intelligence And Sensitivity: Two Dissected Untruths). No such thing befell the Russian theme, which is the primary identity of the lengthy River Crossing To Stalingrad, and the score’s unofficial main theme, given Horner’s affinity with the Russian masters and the complex and intellectually rewarding ways in which he uses it. Most often performed by choir, the melody is very much in the style of the Russian idiom, but was never denounced by any reviewer as outright plagiarism. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that two of Horner’s greatest influences, Irish folk music and the Russian classical repertoire, share a common emotional base, which is the elusive marriage of beauty and sadness. Even such action scores as The Perfect Storm (2000) are steeped in this most magical combination of conflicting tones. In my book, nothing defines Horner’s oeuvre better than this beautiful tristesse rendered time and again with infinite refinement.
James Horner paces and builds with remarkable precision: the movement is like a wave that builds and subsides, over and over again. Fortunately, the sequence has enough built-in pacing for the composer to latch onto, but the music is key here. Consider for a moment the three appearances of the four-note motif turned into the head of an action riff: it’s fairly tentative during the first series of vista shots (6:26 – 6:51), it soars to greater heights during the river attack (7:09 – 8:23) and it goes all-out during the final charge in the city (11:19 – 12:07).
There’s a rule in film music that says a composer should not paint white on white: if a scene is clear enough from an emotional point of view, it is counterproductive to duplicate this emotion in the music. Rather, intelligent scoring is about providing emotions that the visuals themselves do not contain. A film music intellectual like James Horner takes this one step further and uses notes to realize the greatest potential of film music as a dramatic tool: to create new meanings. I will try to demonstrate that in The River Crossing To Stalingrad, James Horner rises to the highest standards.
2 The cue in context
2.1 Prologue (0:52 – 2:47)
Set in the snow-covered Urals, the prologue sets up the sniper element and judiciously alternates shots of utter stillness and rapid movement. The stillness is for the close-ups of a wolf and the child Vassili, who whispers: “I am a stone. I do not move. I put ice in my mouth so that he does not see my breath.” The wolf, though, has spotted the hunter and bides his time. Horner scores the face-off with eerie strings and, quite uniquely, musically motivated pauses. The first one is quite early on, when a deliberate camera pan leaves the wolf in the left-hand side of the frame and after a cut, reveals Vassili’s gun in the right-hand side. Quite elegantly, the string motif thins out as the camera moves away from the wolf, and repeats as the gun is revealed. The technique is subtle, but the resulting tension is nothing short of remarkable. The other pauses may be less spectacular, playing as they do under whispered dialogue which itself creates considerable tension, but I honestly can’t remember any other score using musically motivated pauses to build tension. I’m not referring to music petering out before a scare effect takes up the action, like in Futile Escape from Aliens, The Zeppelin from The Rocketeer or Saving New York from The Amazing Spider-Man. I’m talking about an actual musical pause, one that would be rendered meaningless should the notes that come before or after be dropped. Even within Horner’s vast and distinguished oeuvre, this is something of a rarity.
The hushed tension of the prologue is shattered when after a short crescendo, the gun fires. The blast of the discharge coincides with the first note of the four-note motif, which cleverly sets up the many gruesome portrayals of death which lie ahead. The movie’s title card is treated to a second statement of the four-note motif.
2.2 The train journey to Stalingrad (2:47 – 6:51)
The bells toll throughout the next few minutes, marking cuts in the editing as well as musical phrases in the music. This in itself bears testament to film music as a pacing device and its ability to turn synchronization points into moments of pure musicality. On a metaphorical level, the tolling bells are a subtle reference to death and funerals.
We meet the adult Vassili Zaytsev staring out a train window. There’s a gentle rhythm and there are strings playing over it, but interestingly, Horner does not give Vassili a theme when he has plenty of time to do so. That choice is perhaps inspired by the protagonist’s lack of a well-rounded inner journey. Indeed, Vassili Zaytsev does not offer the composer a chance to take a theme and develop it in a way that comments on a genuine transformation arc. Instead, James Horner decides to focus on concepts rather than characters: humanity, the Russian cause, the ravage of war and so on. At the same time, the Humanity theme comfortably addresses the love triangle later on.
Seated in the same wagon and reading a novel is Tania Chernova, a girl whose beauty does not go unnoticed. The Humanity theme is introduced at 3:21, the exact split-second Tania’s eyes meet Vassili’s – if only for the briefest of moments, because Vassili looks away in shame. James Horner has found a trace of humanity in this train full of strangers while at the same time setting up the passion that will shape the two characters’ destinies later on.
The train stops, all civilians are ordered out and soldiers waiting by the tracks get up – from here on in, the train is a military convoy headed for Stalingrad. Horner scores the soldiers with the very first statement of the Russian theme, the start of one of the most incredibly intricate and meaningful musical narratives I have ever heard within the fabric of a single score cue. In fact, Horner returns to the Russian theme a great many times during The River Crossing To Stalingrad. Its deconstruction, disintegration, fragmentation and counterpoint combination with other building stones allow Horner to tell in purely musical (and therefore abstract) fashion how the Russian cause, intact at first, ends up being badly tainted, utterly perverted and totally negated even before the story proper kicks in. By the end of this text, you will realize that this is Horner’s anti-war pamphlet, and while neatly dovetailing with the visuals, its perfectly self-contained musical and intellectual narrative runs comfortably parallel to them. At this stage, the soldiers have not yet seen the horrors of war, and their beliefs about Mother Russia are unchallenged. Quite logically, Horner scores this state of mind with a harmonious statement of the Russian theme, the choir supported by noble and warm horns. This is the only harmonious statement of the melody within the context of the film – it will enjoy only one more harmonious setting, during its fully orchestral presentation halfway through the end title cue.
The River Crossing To Stalingrad – Enemy at the Gates– Original Soundtrack by James Horner
At 4:13, the locomotive is uncoupled and replaced. The score acknowledges the uncoupling and hits another synchronization point: the wagons are fitted with locks and latches are closed. For all intents and purposes, the soldiers are now prisoners. Horner introduces a second rhythmic motif, a little faster this time, and with considerable more urgency. Tania is helped off the train and Vassili watches her from the inside as the train gets going. Horner uses this moment as a chance to offer an original take on the classic Hollywood train goodbye. At 4:40, the rising and falling notes of the Humanity theme are deconstructed into a purely rhythmic device. And yet, the composer still assigns the idea to the strings, the instruments most conventionally suited for romance. In doing so, Horner plays both the separation of the future lovers and the action that starts building.
It leads to explosive atonality at 5:04, when the movie shifts to a map of Europe over which an off-screen voice details the advance of the German army. The four-note motif is never far away, of course. At 5:28, this short piece of exposition turns out to be the transition to the train’s arrival on the banks of the Volga, where the soldiers will be transferred to boats for the river crossing. Annaud’s staging is wonderful here: the soldiers are shown the burning city ahead before we are. Remember how Steven Spielberg used reaction shots of Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s utterly bewildered faces before showing us the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993)? This is the exact same technique, and while John Williams capitalized on the moment with an anticipatory growl, Horner uses his 26 seconds (between 6:00 and 6:26) to comment on the incredulous gazes with anguished strings. It’s one of the many moments that identify the scoring approach of Enemy at the Gates as old-school: Horner is not interested in restraint here, overlaying the already busy soundscape with equally busy and complex music. Inevitably, this results in some of the score getting lost in the sound mix (this is especially an issue in the inner-city charge later on), but it shows a composer who is not afraid to shout and be heard when the scene needs it. Present-day audiences might find this approach overbearing and directors have largely abandoned it, but what is now called over-scoring used to be the norm in most of the twentieth century and it has yielded brilliant results.
The anguished strings build to the first series of vista shots, as the camera gets behind the soldiers and reveals the city on the other side of the river. Annaud takes another page from Steven Spielberg’s book, ensuring that the audience is always clear on who is where. This attempt at geographic (or film space) clarity was one of the many brilliant characteristics of the Normandy beach landing in Saving Private Ryan (1998). At the same time, vista shots offer the composer a tremendous opportunity to present unrestrained statements of theme. Howard Shore seemingly did it every twenty minutes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and James Horner makes the most of it here: he unleashes the Russian theme in all its glory, while also pointing to the early stages of its disintegration. In fact, the nobility of the theme, while all shiny and glowing the first time around, is now diminished towards the end of the performance by the intrusion of the four-note motif with the action extension. As the soldiers are appalled by the aspect of war, the theme takes a turn for the worse.
2.3 Crossing The Volga (6:51 – 11:19)
The music subsides as we move to a shot of a ferry, Vassili looking out and seeing the remains of killed soldiers floating on the river. A nice instance of parallel montage suggests that these soldiers are the sons in the letters written by proud Russian mothers. These letters are read out to the new recruits – actually, they are force-fed on them by Russian officers who try to keep their spirits up even as German planes descend on the Volga and start bombing the ferries. Horner responds with the first up-front statement of the four-note action riff, even though he holds back just a little, saving the most explosive statement of the idea for the charge later on. Anvil punctuations go a long way here, either nicely timed to coincide with shots of exploding boats, or occurring between cuts, where their placement is of an almost aleatoric nature – everything is falling apart.
The first soldiers are killed even before they reach the city, and when some of them are desperate enough to dive into the water, they are shot by their own officers. Horner ingeniously comments on the dehumanization of the moment with a statement of the Humanity theme performed by the brass, whose sonorities are associated with the military. As Vassili realizes that at least some of the bodies in the water are the result of Russian shootings, Horner returns to the Russian theme but now in plaintive strings accompanying a close-up of a hand sinking in the water. The brilliance is in the orchestration here: we would expect strings for the Humanity theme and brass for the Russian theme, and yet Horner turns these expectations on their heads. On the CD, the manipulation of the theme is even more spectacular: the album version actually presents two string statements of the melody, interrupted twice by the Humanity theme, first in the clarinet, then in the trumpet, playing on a bed of low strings that deliberately play out of tune. The result is both meditative and deeply unsettling.
The River Crossing To Stalingrad – Enemy at the Gates– Original Soundtrack by James Horner
The plaintive statement of the Russian theme becomes the bridge to the second series of vista shots (8:48 – 9:40), as we see the soldiers landing on the docks. They are in the thick of it now and are forced out of the boats. The Russian theme again carries the moment, but Horner uses the four-note motif of death to tear it apart. The second meaningful perversion of Russian pride is that the Russian theme plays over images of the wounded and killed, the water of the river tainted red. Horner does not overemphasize this moment but rather keeps the tone of the music pensive, a poignant tribute to the fallen.
There are not enough rifles, so the soldiers are ordered to pair up. The first soldier gets a rifle, and when he is killed, the second one must pick it up and push forward. Horner plays through this bit of exposition with half a minute of filler music. When Vassili only manages to grab a round of ammunition, Horner returns to the Humanity theme in a setting that closely resembles Khatchaturian’s Gayaneh adagio. The phrase ends and fragments of the Russian theme build, finally hitting the cut to a wide shot of ruined buildings, at which point the music comes to a complete standstill. A single string sustain is joined by muffled brass as the German and Russian soldiers lie down and take their positions. The Russian charge is only seconds away…
2.4 The charge (film 11:19 – 13:20, CD 11:09 – 13:30)
Even though most of it is buried under sound effects in the film, the charge is probably the single most interesting part of the sequence. In the earliest stages of the charge, Horner offers the third and most exhilarating presentation of the action riff spearheaded by the four-note motif and then, for the briefest of moments, moves to what sounds like a Russian dance gone mad: the music accompanying a series of explosions that Vassili only nearly avoids, is almost of a balletic nature, the cymbal crashes and syncopated rhythms vaguely resembling a dance. It’s barely audible in the film, but look for it on the CD, track 1, 11:44 – 11:52.
Just two minutes in length, the charge allows Horner to present a spectacularly condensed version of the entire 15-minute narrative, using the Russian theme to tell a story within the story. At 12:07, a Russian soldier picks up the gun of a fallen comrade and Horner responds with a heroic version of the melody. This is bewildering at first: hadn’t the composer announced the music as an anti-war pamphlet? The heroic statement is followed almost immediately by a second one. Now, however, the notes appear slightly out of order, the theme moves to hesitant strings and the orchestration unravels. At 13:10, a Russian soldier shouts that the charge is unsuccessful and sounds the retreat. By now, little remains of the Russian theme but feeble fragments cut down by the four-note motif. Of course, the retreating soldiers are caught between a rock and a hard place, because back at the Russian line, they are greeted with bullets and killed as deserters. Unraveled, fragmented and deconstructed, the Russian theme disappears altogether; the cause is lost. What remains is the four-note motif of death, which carries the remainder of the charge. It’s a powerful narrative, and Horner pulls it off in under two minutes. (Again, for a better appreciation of it, please turn to the CD, track 1, 11:09 – 13:30.)
The River Crossing To Stalingrad – Enemy at the Gates– Original Soundtrack by James Horner
James Horner was always more interested in the aftermath than in the battle itself, not only because it freed him from competing with sound effects, but also because the aftermath is an opportunity to interject a meaningful musical commentary. Since The River Crossing To Stalingrad is essentially about the perversion of the Russian cause, Horner returns to its theme when the sound effects die down and the director cuts to slow-motion shots of soldiers being gunned down. Horner scores the moment with respectfully subdued a cappella choir, the voices singing a eulogy for the fallen. The phrases of the theme are appropriately interrupted by the Humanity theme, itself again on a bed of out-of-tune low strings. These three elements allow Horner to play both the sadness and the horror of the moment. Coming right after repeated statements of the four-note motif, the aftermath also plays as a nice summation of the cue’s building stones.
But James Horner has one more surprise in store…
3 Epilogue (14:14 – 14:35)
The last note of the a cappella choir phrase coincided with a cut to the wide-angle shot of the ruined buildings introduced at 10:40, right before the charge. At this point, Horner could have ended the cue, but instead he re-introduces the string motif of the prologue. In doing so, he brings the lengthy movement full circle but more importantly, he ties the bodies of the Russian soldiers in Stalingrad to the wolf killed in the Ural mountains. The hunter has become the hunted, the man has become the wolf, and this new meaning is conveyed exclusively by the music. It’s a wonderful example of cinematic language, which allows filmmakers to tell with images or in this case sounds what authors and writers tell with words.
Indeed, the most talented filmmakers manage to strip thoughts and psychology of words and repackage them as non-verbal statements. Since music and editing are by their very nature non-verbal, they are the two areas in filmmaking which lend themselves best to the production of purely cinematic language. The careful juxtaposition of music and images can lead to new meanings, as it does here. This is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learnt here, and the only valid way to approach film music. Sure, the film composer uses musical idioms and should be well versed in their conventions and traditions. The most talented composers will even manage to use the juxtaposition of music and visuals to establish intertextual links with our vast cultural legacy, as Horner did time and again. But first and foremost, the film composer is a movie dramatist who uses musical notes with an altogether different goal in mind. That is why it is fundamentally unfair to criticize Enemy at the Gates for re-using building blocks from other scores or borrowing material from classical masters. Does this recycling of previous ideas keep film music from rivaling with “pure” music in the concert hall? Probably so, but this is quite simply not the point. As this article has tried to demonstrate, the art of film music is not the invention of new idioms, but its magical communication with visuals, which is the doorway to the unexpected emotional manipulation of a scene, the deepening of a character’s transformation arc or the creation of new meanings. Only from this perspective can one expect to assess and appreciate the full intellectual, emotional and dramatic potential of this often misunderstood art form.
3 The broader narrative arc
Although Horner created one hell of a narrative arc in just the first cue, he never stops developing the architecture of the score as a whole. About halfway through the movie, Jean-Jacques Annaud returns to the prologue set in the Ural mountains and reveals that the child Vassili, in fact, never actually shot the wolf. Instead, the beast attacked and killed the horse that was put in the clearing as bait. It was Vassili’s grandfather who finished the job. The episode clearly left the child feeling inadequate, and even though he has become an accomplished sniper, this lingering trauma continues to unsettle the adult Vassili, especially as he sees himself outclassed by the lethal precision and the ingenious traps of the superior Major König. This feeling of inadequacy is resolved at the end of the movie, when Vassili traps König and finally manages to kill him. The young Russian sniper faces his deepest fears and redeems himself. All of this fairly complex psychology is conveyed by just the music, and in seemingly the simplest of ways. In fact, all Horner has to do is return to the strings of the prologue, which by this point have become a fully-developed building stone that helps tell the story. Only at the end of the movie does one realize that in some way, the string motif has effectively become Vassili’s theme. He may not have a conventional transformation arc, but there is redemption nonetheless, conveyed in purely cinematic, non-verbal fashion.
If this series of articles has taught me one thing, it’s that film music is music and much more. I am forever touched and moved by the unique tone of James Horner’s music, a magical mélange of beauty and sadness, yet with every new set piece analysis, I am flabbergasted by the finely tuned art of a superlative dramatist.