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Apocalypse Wagner

from Nautilus

How I Tried to Transplant the Musical Heart of Apocalypse Now

Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch describes the surprising idiosyncrasies of film scoring.


In 1979, sometime during the barely controlled chaos of the last months of finishing Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, someone in legal affairs had the presence of mind to ask if we had secured the rights to use the 1965 Georg Solti recording of the “Ride of the Valkyries,” the music which accompanied Colonel Kilgore’s attack on the Vietnamese village of Vin Drin Dop, otherwise known as Charlie’s Point.

The idea of blasting music from Wagner’s opera Die Walküre as a form of PsyWarOp (Psychological Warfare Operations) to terrify the Vietnamese had originated deep in the neuronal labyrinth of John Milius’s mind in 1969, when he was writing the original screenplay for Apocalypse Now.

“That Valkyrie scene came from a vision I had of the exhilaration of war—right alongside the terror and the horror and the fear of being snuffed out. The glory of it!” John told Lawrence Weschler in a 2005 Harper’s article. “Nowadays—unlike during the Victorian era when the glory was all that got discussed—nowadays it’s the horror that always gets talked about. And either one by itself, of course, is a ridiculous half-statement.”

The “Ride of the Valkyries” was so deeply associated with the attack on Charlie’s Point, and had been for so long—from birth, so to speak—that we who were working on the film, editing the picture and mixing the sound, could barely conceive of separating the two. How that particular Solti recording came to be chosen, I never found out—the decision predated my joining the film—but there is a general consensus in musical circles that Solti’s interpretation, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, has never been surpassed.

So it came as an existential shock when Decca, the record company in question, said firmly: No.

There was so little time left that we were constrained to move forward along three fronts, hoping that at least one would pay off: 1) to continue to petition Decca; 2) to make arrangements to record the “Valkyries” with the San Francisco Symphony, trying to duplicate Solti’s dynamics and meter; and 3) to comb through all the existing recordings with the hope of finding one that was close to Solti’s interpretation and available to use in the film.

The last of these approaches fell to me, since I was responsible for the sound design of the film as a whole, as well as being, at that time, the picture editor for this section of the film.

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Posted on November 15, 2015 by Editor

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