Film Scores and Westerns: the Stealth Cavalry of Empire

Music is as crucial to the Hollywood Western as horses, Winchester rifles, whisky, and all-male campfires. These and other symbols unite a wide array of films, from The Searchers to Brokeback Mountain.

It’s the film score that does most of the work of giving the Western its mythic resonance. Music makes us believe that the story being told on screen is our story, that it is, as the cliché would have it, part of who we are and where we came from: music turns the passive construction How the West Was Won into the active How I Won the West, but it does so below the surface of rational thought. Music is the Western’s stealth cavalry.

It is also the score’s capacity to evoke distance and movement across vast spaces that makes it vital it to the Western. Hollywood filmmakers use music like they use the iconic Cutler Formation buttes and pinnacles of Arizona’s Monument Valley. In the Western, music is landscape, providing a sweeping backdrop against which the myths on the screen are played out.

Last year’s major contribution to the Western, James Mangold’s not-quite-nihilistic but nonetheless grim and glorious 3:10 to Yuma, forsakes the red icons of Monument Valley — the shale and the Indians — for the less costly, though no less iron-rich geology of New Mexico. Some clichés are simply too worn out to resuscitate: if one can afford to film in Monument Valley these days, suburban movie audiences weaned on car commercials would almost expect to see an SUV to pull up alongside the stagecoach. The musical backdrop, by contrast, is invisible, portable, and even more evocative than those venerable Arizona stones so frequently exploited by John Ford back in the Western’s heyday.

Because the Western is so reliant on its score, one immediately recognizes the unanchored brilliance of, say, the neo-Western Hud of 1963 with its sparse music provided by the great film composer Elmer Bernstein: in the opening and closing scenes, a guitar picks out mournful melody above a hypnotic accompanimental figure. Westerns are usually about a journey, and Bernstein’s music projects inexorable motion, like wheels going round. Because of that strange fact of nature called persistence of vision the wheels of the ubiquitous stagecoach or of Paul Newman’s Cadillac in Hud always spin backwards on screen. By now we practically need the wheels to turn in defiance of the laws of physics; this, too, has become a visual cliché of the Western. So, too, in Hud, Bernstein’s music implies both motion and stasis. The restive characters are paradoxically imprisoned by the expanse of West Texas and by the claustrophobia of the small town plunked down in that vast landscape.

Bernstein’s music has no recourse to the heroic potential of the orchestra; the guitar introduces the film, goes nowhere, and then disappears, returning only at the end. In both its framing plaint and its abiding absence, music captures something essential about Paul Newman’s hollow, destructive character. Through its silence the minimal soundtrack makes clear that there will be no cavalry, emotional or military, to save the day, to redeem the characters.

A version of Bernstein’s guitar music returns in minor-key, Tex-Mex garb as the theme of 3:10 to Yuma, where it is shadowed by a percussion pattern whose gathering force evokes the motion of the train of the title, one that, in the final scene of the movie, appears to take the anti-hero, Russell Crowe’s charismatic bandit, Ben Wade, to justice. Of course, the audience knows that this scene has been staged for its onlookers. So far on in years is the Western, that this kind self-referential enactment of myth for the Western folk watching the action from within the movie has shed all claims to originality. Such set-pieces are enjoyable nonetheless. Sergio Leone did it masterfully in My Name is Nobody (1973), where Henry Fonda is seen to be gunned down in a Main Street duel in a movie that would fittingly be his last Western. The score for that film was written by Ennio Morricone, who composed the music for My Name is Nobody as well as for that seminal quartet of Italian-produced Westerns: Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Morricone received a lifetime achievement award at last year’s Academy Awards.

Like a wagon train gathering in stragglers, the Western draws in new references, new markers of its identity, as it treks forward in time. Morricone’s additions to the symbolic musical language of the Western have since the 60s become the reference points for subsequent efforts. The eerie, whistled theme of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, performed by Morricone’s childhood friend Alessandro Alessandroni, is as iconic as John Wayne’s white hat in Stagecoach. And in Once Upon a Time in the West, the distant, hollow sound of Charles Bronson’s harmonica is both a signifier of his identity — his character is called Harmonica — and a witty acknowledgement that the Morricone of the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had himself become a Western hero, as essential and indestructible as Clint or Bronson or any of the toughest of the tough guys. It was as if we had caught the composer smiling to himself as he etched his own name into the musical scenery of the Western, like Ringo Kidd carving his initials with a buck knife into the base of one of those shale pillars in Monument Valley.

Given the status and influence of Morricone’s music, it is perhaps not surprising that as the credits rolled at the end of 3:10 to Yuma I sensed an uncanny feeling of retrospective recognition when “Music: Marco Beltrami” came up on the screen. The shape of an unambiguously Italian name on a Western, and especially on one with such an evocative soundtrack, is as immediately familiar, and, one might even venture, as indispensable as the sight of those Western geologic outcroppings.

So perfect is the name Marco Beltrami that one could almost suspect that the Hollywood publicity machine simply made it up. An Italian credit for the score can do great things for the brand power not just of a Western, but of many a major motion picture. Beltrami was nominated for a 2008 Academy Award for the score to 3:10 to Yuma, but the Oscar went to his Italian contemporary, Dario Marianelli
for Atonement.

Given the centrality of “Americans” in the Western, whose on-screen characters are normally devoid of European emigrants with funny names and odd accents, it is easy to forgot how important Italians have been to the Western’s music. Giaccomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West) was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910, two years before the Arizona of Yuma and Yuma became a state. The widely-spaced opening sonority of Puccini’s overture provided an essential trick for conjuring immense Western distance; it is a conceit employed in almost every Western film since.

Gerard Carbonara sounds even more like a fabrication. But Carbonara was born and trained in New York. By 1910 he was back in the land of his parents working at La Scala in Milan. Hollywood beckoned and in the 1930s he created and codified many of the requirements the Western’s music, producing film scores for Geronimo, Stagecoach, The Texans, and the The Kansan within a two-year period from 1939-40. The Stagecoach score still defines the sound of the genre with its optimistic traveling music heard when the stage is underway, its heart-warming pastoral gloss on the Monumental Valley vistas, and its triumphant cavalry charge at the close.

Like Carbonara, the Italian-born Beltrami grew up in America and returned to Italy in early adulthood. His musical training boasts an august pedigree. After graduating from Brown University he went to Venice to study with Luigi Nono, the avowedly communist composer, who construed his greatest work as a fundamental critique of fascism, war, and capitalism. Nono is about as far from Hollywood as one can get musically and ideologically, but that doesn’t mean his students couldn’t use the lessons learned from him and run with them to the waiting arms of Hollywood.

Returning from Italy, Beltrami studied composition at Yale with Jacob Druckman, one of the most important teachers of the later part of the 20th century. Trained in the high modernist, intellectual tradition, Beltrami’s aesthetic convictions are avowedly post-modern and relativist, and thus ideally suited for the marketplace imperatives of the movie industry. Beltrami’s website informs us that in his ideal musical world “the music of a Jamaican bandleader [would be] of equal importance with the work of a Germanic music scholar.” Think Theodor Adorno in a grass skirt banging at a steel drum.

Beltrami broke in to the top tier of Hollywood composers with Scream (1996) and other horror films, and his scores demonstrate a stylistic flexibility and consummate craftsmanship that promises a long, lucrative career on the California Coast. His work on Yuma subtly updates a wide rang of the Western musical tropes, but concentrates mainly on those inherited, not to say appropriated, from Morricone. The scrim of electronic sounds; the reverberations of the drums like shots fired into a canyon: the portentous gongs; Morricone’s grating dissonances layered more thickly on one another-all these and other elements represent artful expansions of the musical language of the Western. And while we may not recognize or remember each detail of melody, orchestration, and effect, the epic shape of Beltrami’s film score, again, like those Western rock formations so familiar from the screen, become so embedded in our memory that we think they’ve always been there.

As the Yuma-bound train pulls away in the last scene of Mangold’s film, Beltrami’s guitar melody gains momentum, and then is swept aloft by soaring orchestral strings and finally crowned, by the desert sun of a crying mariachi trumpet, before it fades with the receding locomotive against the wide-screen landscape.

This is classic Morricone, and the combination of sad guitar and wailing trumpet tell us that the story, like the Western as a form of fantasy, is not really over. The music becomes one with the landscape, timeless and permanent, and turns the West into a place of redemption. That is the main flaw of this gripping, perhaps even great, movie, just as it is the curse of the Western’s best music: it is stuck in a past that never was.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University, and is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint (Cambridge University Press). He’s also a long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at





DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at