Be it coincidence or homage or the outright hope that they don’t get caught aping someone else’s movie, filmmakers have been replicating the work of those who have gone before them for some time now. Every now and then we like to stop and point out one of those instances.*
The 1942 melodrama King’s Row is perhaps best remembered by most film fans as the film in which future president Ronald Reagan delivered his undoubtedly best performance. But for film music fans, it stands out as the film that provided more than a little inspiration for John William’s iconic score for the 1977 classic Star Wars. In fact, even to the untrained ear, the main title themes from the two films sound remarkably similar.
Williams has never hid his admiration for Erich Korngold, the composer responsible for the King’s Row score, but for many, the similarities between the two composers’ themes was a little too close for comfort. Now, I’m not sure that I would exactly call it plagiarism, but it does come close. Youtube user hawkeyemediahouse has edited to the two works back-to-back so you can listen to the resemblance yourself. You’ll notice that there are a few passages that start off similar and then veer off in different directions at their mid-point. Take a listen.
Ironically, Korngold’s score was such a hit with the moviegoing public at the time that Warner Brothers had form letters prepared to send out to people who requested information on where to purchase recordings of it, as there were no such a thing as releasing soundtrack recordings at the time. Meanwhile, Williams’ score for Star Wars proved so popular that the soundtrack album made its way onto the Billboard album charts and the Main Title theme found its way onto the American Top 40 pop charts. Korngold’s soundtrack was eventually released in 1979.
This is not the only instance of Williams being accused of lifting material from other composers. Many of claim that other portions of Williams’ Star Wars work owes much to Stravinski’s The Rites of Spring and Holst’s The Planets, specifically “Mars, Bringer Of War,” an accusation also leveled at Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator work. Some film scores fans point to his equally iconic theme from Jaws as being awfully similar to portions of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 and the emotionally evocative music from the finale of Steven Speilberg’s E.T. sounding very much like Hansen’s Romantic Symphony. In fact, Williams was sued over the similar between another portion of his E.T. score and a track off of composer Les Baxter’s 1954 Passions 10-inch LP, “Joy,” though after several years and appeals, Williams managed to beat the suit.
Now I don’t want to seem as if I’m crapping all over Williams or his scores, especially since it was his Star Wars work that pretty much single-handedly revived the practice of using big orchestral soundtracks in film. And film scores aren’t the only music that reworks motifs and themes from other composers. (See specifically rockers Led Zepplin and a number of different old blues songs they have been clearly “inspired” by.) But much like Quentin Tarantino has done with earlier films that have influenced his own vision, Williams has taken his influences and filtered them through his own artistic lens to create his own unique art.
*And in the spirit of the swipe, we readily acknowledge that we were “inspired” by a similar feature over at Rich Johnson’s comic book news and gossip site, Bleeding Cool.