Music Album Review: ‘Saving Private Ryan: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

(C) 1998 Dreamworks Records/Universal Music Group

On July 21, 1998, Dreamworks Records – the now defunct label founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen in 1996 as a subsidiary to their film studio Dreamworks SKG – released Saving Private Ryan: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, a one-hour-long soundtrack album with music composed and conducted by John Williams. It was produced by Williams and recorded at Symphony Hall in Boston and features the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

The Saving Private Ryan: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack hit stores three days before the film opened in theaters, and its 10 tracks – which present 64 minutes and 13 seconds’ worth of the music Maestro Williams composed for Spielberg’s elegaic WWII drama about an eight-man squad of GIs led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) sent to the Cotentin Peninsula to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) of the 101st Airborne and retrieve him after the deaths of his three brothers, who were killed in action in Normandy and New Guinea – represent almost the entire score.

Track Listing

No.TitleLength
1.“Hymn to the Fallen”6:10
2.“Revisiting Normandy”4:06
3.“Omaha Beach”9:15
4.“Finding Private Ryan”4:37
5.“Approaching the Enemy”4:31
6.“Defense Preparations”5:54
7.“Wade’s Death”4:30
8.“High School Teacher”11:03
9.“The Last Battle”7:57
10.“Hymn to the Fallen (Reprise)”6:10
Total length:64:13
The track listing for the original 1998 album.
Tom Hanks as Capt. John Miller of the Fifth Ranger Battalion

Unusually for a Spielberg/Williams collaboration, Saving Private Ryan does not feature a musical score that permeates the film from beginning to end. In contrast to, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that punctuates every action scene with its Raiders March or themes in minor keys for its army of Nazi villains, Williams and the director chose a different approach.

Watch, for instance, the beginning of Saving Private Ryan and listen closely to the musical underscore. The movie opens in “Present Day” (1998) at the American Military Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer, just beyond Omaha Beach with Revisiting Normandy, which features a trumpet solo by the BSO’s Tim Morrison (who also is featured as a soloist in Williams’ haunting Theme from Born on the Fourth of July). This track, which runs throughout the scene where an old veteran (we find out later that he is the older version of Matt Damon’s character) runs for 6 minutes and 10 seconds and fades out just when the film becomes a flashback that starts at H-Hour on June 6, 1944 at Omaha Beach.

If you’re still listening closely to the movie’s sound palette during the stunning (and famously violent) recreation of the assault landing on Omaha Beach, you’ll notice that there’s no music. There are sound effects – the motors of Higgins boats running, German MG-42 machine guns and American M-1 Garand rifles being fired, flamethrowers whooshing, water lapping at the edge of the beach, soldiers cursing, shouting, and moaning in pain, and explosions everywhere – but no “Hollywood extravaganza” heroic underscore.   

Indeed, when we hear music in Saving Private Ryan, it’s always in the quiet after-battle scenes where the characters are not doing any combat-related action. For instance, the track Omaha Beach doesn’t underscore the scenes where Captain Miller and his company of Rangers is fighting for its life at the water’s edge or attacking a Nazi pillbox; it’s heard after, its slow, mournful tones evoking the grief at the loss of so many young men who sacrificed their lives to liberate Europe from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. It also highlights the grief felt by Mrs. Ryan when the Army notification team shows up at her Iowa farmhouse to tell her the news that she has lost three of her four sons in the same week.

As Steven Spielberg writes in the liner notes:

Restraint was John Williams’ primary objective. He did not want to sentimentalize or create emotion from what already existed in raw form. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is furious and relentless, as are all wars, but where there is music, it is exactly where John Williams intends for us the chance to breathe and remember.

Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) shares a moment of reflection with Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) in the battered (and fictional) Normandy town of Ramelle. (C) 1998 Dreamworks SKG/Paramount Pictures

Interestingly, Williams – wearing his album producer’s hat here – and Shawn Murphy – who recorded the performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus at Symphony Hall – chose to open the soundtrack with Hymn to the Fallen, a composition that never appears – in Spielberg’s words – “in the main text of the film, only at the end credit roll.” This beautiful piece for chorus and orchestra has since been performed live at many Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day observances, since, per Spielberg, it is a “memorial to all the soldiers who sacrificed themselves on the altar of freedom in the Normandy invasion of June 6,1944.”

The Omaha Beach theme – which is also melancholic and haunting; it is a lovely melody played by the low brass instruments and the strings section of the Boston Symphony – recurs in several scenes in the film and in cues featured in Saving Private Ryan: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. The album also features other leitmotifs, standalone cues, and minor themes that showcase duets – mostly between trumpets (played by Tim Morrison and Thomas Rolfs) or woodwinds.

Nowhere, not even in cues that bear warlike titles – say, such as Approaching the Enemy, Defense Preparations, or The Last Battle (a title Williams also used in the 1977 Star Wars soundtrack for a more swashbuckling, heroic compilation of action cues) – do we hear music that sounds like it belongs in a war film along the lines of The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far. There are no brass-and-percussion triumphal marches to be found in Saving Private Ryan: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – just a few occasional – and low-key – bass and snare drum riffs are present to remind us that Saving Private Ryan is about a small “band of brothers” on a mission to save one man in the midst of a major and bloody campaign.

Williams’ Grammy-winning score, in brief, is a beautiful if rather somber conglomeration of long, reflective cues that highlight the humanity of the film’s cast of characters, as well as the tragic toll that the war – like all wars before and since World War II – takes on those people who are caught in its violent maelstrom. As such, this is a showcase of Maestro Williams’ keen understanding of music, its emotional resonance, and the powerful effect it has on how the audience reacts to the moving image.  Saving Private Ryan: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is one of those Williams/Spielberg soundtracks that need to be heard with closed eyes and an open heart. It is lyrical and sorrowful, and it is a fitting musical memorial to those who gave their lives so that countless millions would live in freedom.

Hymn to the Fallen has become a popular concert hall/live performance piece for Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day observances in the U.S.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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