Spirituality became an increasingly important theme in British and American films, both during and immediately after the Second World War. In many instances (eg A matter of Life and Death and Portrait of Jennie) the focus was upon the afterlife and coming to terms with loss; natural enough interests given the bereavements wrought by the war. In other cases, however, such as The Bells of Saint Mary’s and the picture whose score is reviewed here, the aim was to celebrate the religious life.
As with Bells, the hero of The Keys of the Kingdom is a Catholic priest. Gregory Peck’s Father Chisholm is, however, also a missionary in the hostile and at times violent setting of China during the early part of the last century.
Given the film’s subject matter and that the fact that it was produced at Twentieth Century Fox, there could be no contest over who would score it. As music director of the studio, Alfred Newman was the choice of his chief, Darryl Zanuck, not only because this was to be one of Fox’s prestige pictures for 1944, but also because Newman had already shown his natural gifts for stories concerning the life of the spirit. Only months earlier, he had gained an Oscar for his transcendent work on The Song of Bernadette.
Comparisons with Bernadette are unavoidable. For anyone who knows and loves that score, Keys will not disappoint. Newman’s dense, agitated writing for strings – a feature of his 1940’s output – is again much in evidence. So too is ecstatic, brass dominated music, which in the earlier film depicts the heroine’s encounters with the Virgin Mary and which in the later one stands as a motif for the priest’s most significant achievements, such as his part in the destruction of an artillery piece that is bombarding his beloved mission and its parishioners (‘Destroying The Attack Gun’).
Having said this, the subject matter of Keys required Newman to range much wider than he was required to do in Bernadette. As will already be evident, the composer had to deal not just with the relationship between God and an individual but also with armed conflict and an exotic, foreign setting.
The foreign element was addressed by the studio’s borrowing a host of oriental percussion instruments that had been donated to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, including Javanese gongs and cymbals, Chinese cymbals, gongs and bells, a Japanese gamelan and Hindu drums. They can be heard in action in ‘Ta-Whang River’, ‘Pai-Tan’ and ‘The Mandarin’.
The war scenes that are central to the story drew from Newman what is for me, at least, the score’s highpoint. ‘Attack of the Imperial Army’ is an eight minute tone poem that showcases the immense skills of both Newman and his orchestrator, Edward Powell. The cue begins in a mysterious, amorphous manner, slightly reminiscent of the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony, with intermittent, stabbing chords giving warning of the violence that will soon erupt. A return to restrained string figures leads to the theme for Father Chisholm, purposeful but with an air of melancholy, before a torrent of brass and cymbals depict the apocalyptic scene of the dead bodies being cremated in the inferno caused by the burning of the village huts. The three cues that follow are in a similar vein; not least in ‘The Church Afire’, where chorale-like violins interweave the ‘Faith’ motif before leading to an impassioned string sequence that again recalls Bernadette.
There are various other echoes of earlier Newman scores that enhance the enjoyment of Keys. The sanctimonious Monsignor Angus (played by Vincent Price – who else?) departs from the mission to the accompaniment of a reedy, almost whining violin passage, such as we find almost too much of in Wuthering Heights. The romantic theme for ‘Sister Maria’, the nun whose initial dislike of Chisholm turns to profound respect and affection, brings to mind Newman’s treatment of unrequited love in The Prisoner of Zenda. Here is film scoring at its Wagnerian best, with the orchestra making explicit emotions of which the on screen characters are themselves not consciously aware.
There is also an interesting prefiguring of a landmark Newman score of the 1950’s. A seven note motif, harmonised in an ‘eastern’-sounding manner, will feature prominently in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.
Full marks to Screen Archives Entertainment for making this important ‘Golden Age’ score available to collectors. For anyone who may have the German ‘Tsunami’ release of a few years ago, and who is wondering whether to invest in this one, my advice is a resounding yes! Not only are the liner notes and archival photography infinitely superior, but the actual recorded sound is incomparably better, with no ‘scratches’, only minimum ‘hiss’ and amazingly good dynamics.