Cinematic Swipe: Williams’ STAR WARS And Korngold’s KING’S ROW Scores


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.

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About Rich Drees 7219 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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October 28, 2013 1:50 pm

Hans Zimmer did Gladiator, not John Williams…

James Blackwood
James Blackwood
October 28, 2013 2:19 pm

Interesting – although John Williams had nothing to do with Gladiator’s score. That was Hans Zimmer.

October 28, 2013 2:52 pm

It’s actually quite common for musicians to borrow musical ideas from other musicians and turn those ideas into something completely new and different. Sure, the first few seconds of those two compositions sound similar, but the feeling that each musical piece gives the listener is drastically different. There are only so many ways you can arrange the keys of E, G, B, D, F, A, & C so musicians are bound to write material that might sound like something else. It’s pretty much inevitable. BOTH are great compositions.

Brendan Carrollb
Brendan Carrollb
November 20, 2013 3:17 pm

Apparently, George Lucas encouraged Mr Williams to produce something as “swashbuckling as Korngold” when he commissioned the score for Star Wars so one cannot blame him too much. I actually think there’s a much more shocking piece of musical borrowing in Williams’ score for the first Superman film. The big love theme is lifted almost in its entirety (bar one note) from the tone poem ‘Death and Transfiguration’ by Richard Strauss. As for ET, its main theme occurs almost exactly in a chamber work by Korngold from 1930. Check out the 2nd subject of the last movement of his Suite… Read more »

JPF Vokoun
JPF Vokoun
October 24, 2014 11:00 am

Also, if you compare King’s Row (at the 27 second mark of the youtube clip) to the Main theme from Superman, you’ll notice a rather unusual chord being used there. Namey, a 15th chord. THis is a VERY unusual chord to ever put into a song, much less repeat. Korngold does… and Lo! So does Williams in his Superman score at the 50 second mark at this link: Coincidence? No. Especially in the repeat of the chord. However, Williams resolves it differently. Both scores were successes for Williams, but not because he stole from Korngold. He was just offering… Read more »

Josh Williams
Josh Williams
December 26, 2015 6:12 pm

I refer to your Neil Brand’s rather brilliant documentary that tackled this very question…