THE EIGER SANCTION (1975) – Complete Score Analysis

John Williams’s THE EIGER SANCTION (1975)

“The same guy did this score and it was probably better than Jaws.”

By ‘Omen II’ (original post)

Clint Eastwood, one of the most musically knowledgeable of Hollywood stars, has been fortunate enough to benefit from some truly memorable music in the films in which he has starred. The laconic Eastwood’s screen presence has inspired the likes of Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Fielding and others to some of their greatest film scores.

That Eastwood chose John Williams to score his fourth directorial feature The Eiger Sanction (1975), based on the 1973 best-selling novel by Trevanian, is not so surprising when one considers Eastwood’s love of jazz and Williams’ proven abilities to combine this idiom with the pop-oriented and symphonic styles required for the movie; it is thought that Jaws producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, Eastwood’s executive producers on The Eiger Sanction, were aware that Eastwood and Williams shared similar musical tastes and recommended the composer for the assignment. Eastwood himself was complimentary about Williams’ score for The Eiger Sanction, suggesting in an April 1976 interview with Patrick McGilligan that the music was superior to the same composer’s work for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, released in the same year. He felt that John Williams deserved at least an academy award nomination for his classy score.

As was the case with so many soundtrack albums released in the 1970’s, the original soundtrack album, reissued on CD by Varese Sarabande (VSD-5277), was a rerecording sequenced for optimum listening impact. Inevitably, the album omits some great music (notably several cues for the climbing scenes on the Eiger in the second half of the movie) but, all things considered, is a decent representation of the score as heard in the film. It also gives us the opportunity to hear the brilliant “Fifty Miles of Desert”, a cue that did not make it to the film proper but was used in the theatrical trailer.

I make no apologies for suggesting that The Eiger Sanction is one of John Williams’s finest scores. For this reason and for my own amusement, I have come up with this analysis of the complete score – all in all what Jonathan Hemlock might describe as “a very shabby piece of research, obscured by involuted style.” Numbers in square brackets refer to tracks on the Varese Sarabande soundtrack CD and are those that include music heard on the album in one form or another; all other cues are unrepresented on the album and their titles speculative. Any constructive feedback would be welcomed if I have got something wrong.

Main Title [1] (3:02)

After the Universal logo, the film begins with a panoramic shot of a rainy Zurich accompanied by John Williams’s eclectic main title music, one of the composer’s finest compositions. Beginning with a tolling bell above a harpsichord ostinato, the elegant Eiger Sanction theme is then introduced on piano; based around a very classical, almost baroque melody, the theme will appear throughout the movie in a number of guises but here places the action firmly in Switzerland as Wormwood (Frank Redmond), an agent for a mysterious government organisation known as C2, collects a microfilm from another agent on one of the bridges over the Limmat river. The film version of the main title music does not include the jazzy rendition of the theme heard on the album from about [1:38] onwards (music that does not feature in the film but is very similar in style to the end title music), instead undergoing further development in the same style that begins the cue. If only the film version of this superb music had been included on the album! The main title music segues into…

Nocturne for Pianoforte in E Flat Major, Opus 9 Number 2 [source music by Frédéric Chopin] (1:00)

As Wormwood climbs the stairs to his apartment, a solo piano playing one of Chopin’s nocturnes is heard in the background, ostensibly from another of the apartments. The carefree nature of the music belies the tragic fate that is about to befall the unfortunate Wormwood – perhaps a deliberate choice by Eastwood or Williams (both accomplished pianists, by the way) in order not to signpost what will happen as the scene develops. Williams fans will recall the judicious use of another Chopin piece, Mazurka in A Minor, Opus 17 Number 4, in his score for Empire of the Sun.

The Microfilm Killing [11] (1:21)

Williams provides chilling orchestration for the music accompanying the killing of Wormwood by an enemy agent, Kruger (Walter Kraus). The film version is shorter than the album version, the portion [0:00 – 0:49] of the album track not appearing in this scene, which was longer and gorier in an earlier cut of the movie. The instrumentation and orchestration are very similar to some of the shark attack music in Jaws. The cue ends with an uneasy minor chord as we cut to an American college campus, where Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood), a former assassin turned art professor (now there’s a career change for you) is teaching a class.

Dragon’s Lair (0:54)

Returning to his office, Hemlock gives short thrift to another C2 agent Pope (Gregory Walcott) who has come to inform him that C2’s head of search and sanctions, Mr. Dragon (Thayer David), wishes to see him. As Hemlock opens a letter from Dragon enticing him with the promise of $10,000 and a Pissarro painting, the composer provides a short but memorable bridging cue. A gentle piano solo is heard as Hemlock contemplates a small picture of the promised painting, before tense strings back the ring of the telephone as Dragon calls. A sinister harpsichord rendition of the Eiger Sanction theme comes to the fore as Hemlock travels to see Dragon (Thayer David), chromatic strings rising in step with Hemlock as he climbs the stairs to Dragon’s Lair.

Up The Drainpipe [12] (2:55)

Having accepted the sanction to avenge the death of Wormwood, Hemlock travels to Zurich to kill Kruger. As with the earlier Microfilm Killing, the film version of this inventive Williams action cue is shorter than the album version, dialling in about 13 seconds in and dialling out before the brief, melancholy electric guitar version of the Eiger Sanction theme that ends the album track. Fans of the “Pheasant Hunt” cue from Empire of the Sun will enjoy the similarities in the opening bars of this cue, the use of low register piano and a waterphone adding an unusual colour to the orchestration as Hemlock scales a drainpipe to reach the apartment of his intended target. Williams replaced the strident synthesiser note that depicts Kruger’s death plunge from the window with an equally strident two-note trumpet sting for the album version of the track (heard at [2:46] on the CD).

Theme from “The Eiger Sanction” [2] (1:08)

On his flight back from Zurich, Hemlock picks up raven-haired beauty Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee), an air stewardess…or is she? Taking her back to his place, Hemlock shows Jemima his private collection of paintings to the accompaniment of a laid-back, jazz trumpet rendition of the Eiger Sanction theme, backed by guitar. The second album track most closely matches this version of the theme, although the album version is orchestrated differently with electric bass, muted strings, brushed cymbals and drums adding to the cosy feel of the music. The trumpet solo with its jazzy rubato is a feature of both film and album versions.

The Fireplace (source music) (0:52)

Williams provides piano-based cocktail jazz source music, as Hemlock and Jemima get comfortable by the fireplace. Having supplied many similar pieces of source music for films such as EarthquakeThe Towering InfernoCinderella Liberty and The Paper Chase in previous years, Williams would probably have had enough material to release a very interesting album of his jazz and pop-oriented source music, had there been a market for it in the mid-70s.

Theme from “The Eiger Sanction” (Hemlock and Jemima) [9] (0:40)

After a chat-up line that only Clint could get away with, Hemlock and Jemima make love. The previous source music is superseded by a shorter version of the album track [9] featuring the Eiger Sanction theme in an intimate, dreamy arrangement for electric guitar, backed by pizzicato double bass and vibraphone. Despite the prevalence of this theme throughout the score, Williams presents it in so many different styles and tempi that it never outstays its welcome.

Empty Safe (0:30)

Hemlock awakes to discover that Jemima has left and that his $10,000 fee for the sanction has gone with her. Williams provides an uneasy chromatic introduction and low strings as Hemlock approaches his safe, his fears confirmed as he finds it empty. Over tremolo strings, an electric harpsichord plays an angry version of the score’s secondary motif that is generally used by Williams for moments of espionage and double cross; this minor key motif can be heard on the album in the first, unused part of “The Microfilm Killing” track and at the beginning of “Friends and Enemies”, for example.

An unscored scene sees Dragon inviting Hemlock to go after the second assassin involved in Wormwood’s death. The identity of the target is uncertain, but it is known that he is part of an international team of mountain climbers due to make an attempt on the north face of the Eiger. Hemlock accepts the sanction on hearing that the unfortunate Wormwood was in fact Henri Baq, an old friend of his who had once saved his life.

Friends and Enemies [5] (1:24 / 1:35)

Most John Williams fans will be aware that the composer has never been averse to the ‘cut and paste’ method when preparing tracks for his soundtrack albums. “Friends and Enemies” is a case in point, with Williams knitting together a number of small sections from two consecutive cues (as well as some unused music) to create a seamless album track. The two score cues, dialled quite low in the movie in order not to swamp the dialogue, underscore a conversation between Hemlock and Jemima as they discuss the rights and wrongs of their line of work. The first cue begins with the aforementioned ‘espionage’ motif, as Jemima presents Hemlock with his Pissarro painting, before we hear arguably one of the loveliest renditions of Williams’s Eiger Sanction theme in the whole movie, at first on electric harpsichord and flute before clarinet picks up the theme, backed by the composer’s trademark strings. Fortunately, this part of the cue can be heard on the album track [0:21 – 1:31].

The second cue begins with two statements of the espionage motif on electric harpsichord, a sombre hammond organ adding poignancy to the scene as Jemima notices photographs of Jonathan’s friend Ben Bowman and enemy Miles Mellough (friends and enemies…). This portion of the cue also begins the album track [0:00 – 0:21]. There follows some unreleased music before we cut to a light aircraft in the Utah desert and hear a groovy rock version of the Eiger Sanction theme, the hectoring interjections from muted horns heard more prominently in the film than they are on the album [1:31 – 2:02]. Unfortunately, the fine guitar solo that ends the album track does not appear in the film (one does not normally associate the composer of Star Wars and Schindler’s List with opportunities for some serious air guitar, but this is one such instance).

Poolside (source music) (2:05)

Ben Bowman (George Kennedy, cursing like a trooper) drives Hemlock to his holiday ranch where they relax by the poolside and discuss climbing the Eiger. The pop music that plays in the background is difficult to hear in the movie but it seems very likely that it was composed by Williams, the more audible sections being stylistically similar to some of the source music in Earthquake.

George Sets The Pace # 1 [10] (1:35)

Ben leaves Hemlock in the capable hands of fitness trainer George, played by Brenda Venus (“She’s a girl!” observes Hemlock). Williams has always excelled at writing scherzos and this is one of his very best, Eastwood giving the delightful music and the stunning Utah landscape pride of place in a scene that is free of dialogue. A harpsichord sets the tempo before the flighty theme for George is introduced on classical guitar as Hemlock’s new trainer sprints off and he struggles to keep up, the lulls in the scoring mirroring George’s pauses to allow Hemlock to catch up. This cue showcases the flawless playing of the legendary session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, a frequent collaborator with Williams, having contributed to several of his scores including The Long GoodbyeThe Sugarland Express and The River.

Lunch Is Served (source music) (1:20)

An exhausted Hemlock’s plans for a hearty lunch are scuppered by Ben Bowman, who has pre-ordered a more healthy alternative. The scene is accompanied by more radio source music, an easy-listening jazz number featuring guitar, piano and electric bass, much in the vein of “Kevin’s Tutor” from Williams’ score to The Paper Chase composed a couple of years previously.

George Sets The Pace # 2 [10] (0:44)

A reprise of music from the earlier cue as Hemlock continues his training with George. Williams amalgamated the two similar cues for the album track “George Sets The Pace”; the rerecorded version of this cue forms the latter half of that album track [approximately 1:43 – 2:39].

Training With George [8] (1:23)

Hemlock’s improving fitness elicits from the composer a more symphonic treatment of George’s theme, a longer version of which constitutes the album track. This time strings replace the guitar solo, a gentle flute against pizzicato strings accompanying the moment when George beckons a reluctant Hemlock to scramble up one last rock, revealing her breasts to provide sufficient enticement! The coy clarinet solo and rising strings cheekily accompany Hemlock’s renewed interest as he scales the rock, the music then mirroring his disappointment as he reaches the top to find George nowhere to be seen, a lone bass clarinet ending the cue.

Something for Miles and Faggot (source music) (0:44)
Something for Buns (source music) (2:18)
Something for Dewayne (source music) (2:52)

Back at the ranch, Hemlock runs into his old enemy, Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy), a man whom Ben aptly summarises with the line, “He looks like he could change a nine-dollar bill in threes!” With him are his dog, Faggot, and hired muscle Dewayne (Dan Howard). Rather than score the conversation, Williams provides several radio source cues to back the on-screen dialogue, although at times they are dialled so low in the movie that it is difficult to determine exactly when each begins and ends. First up is a guitar-led track with a slight country and western feel; next is a piece for flute and tenor saxophone as the buxom Miss Buns (Susan Morgan) agrees to take Faggot for a walk (“Be careful he doesn’t rape you!” warns Miles); and finally a heavier rock track, again featuring tenor sax, as Hemlock roughs up the gormless Dewayne.

The Top Of The World [6] (2:37 / 0:31)

One of the undoubted highlights of John Williams’s score is the music he wrote to accompany Jonathan and Ben’s efforts to scale the Totem Pole, a unique rock formation in Arizona’s Monument Valley. Once again Eastwood, who performed almost all of the climbing duties himself, showcases Williams’s music and the stunning Arizona landscape in a scene largely free of dialogue. The two cues are presented in reverse order for the album track, which closely matches the movie versions although it does omit a rather nice passage for solo horn, strings and harpsichord when Hemlock hammers a piton into the rock face and attaches a rope.

Night Visitor (1:02)

When George pays Hemlock a nighttime visit with apparently amorous intentions, Williams tips off the listener that all is not as it seems with a slightly uneasy motif for piano and strings. Strident brass erupts as George interrupts her massage to drug Hemlock with a syringe, manic harpsichord arpeggios accompanying his disorientation and the blurred sonorities of a vibraphone signalling his lapse into unconsciousness. Williams used a very similar harpsichord effect for the mayhem following the collapse of the Christmas tree in The Poseidon Adventure.

Theatrical Trailer: Fifty Miles of Desert [3] (2:40)

Unless John Williams was being deliberately misleading with his album track titles, it is likely that this music was intended originally to play during the scene where Hemlock drives Miles Mellough far into the desert, stopping only when the milometer reaches 50. Although the scene in the movie plays very effectively without music, a slightly shorter version of this track – one of the finest on the album – accompanied the spoiler-filled theatrical trailer shown at the time of the film’s release and now available as an extra on the DVD. The version recorded for the soundtrack album has a few slight differences in orchestration from the version heard in the trailer, replacing some of the electronics with standard acoustic instrumentation. The trailer music also cuts off rather messily, lacking the subdued coda of the album track, giving rise to the suspicion that the original film cue may have been longer.

In this brilliant, exciting action cue, Williams tips his hat to his friend and occasional mentor Bernard Herrmann, its closest relative in the John Williams canon being the music that accompanies the protagonists’ attempts to climb Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower while pursued by helicopters in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Beginning with a fiendish low register piano ostinato that is taken up by the harpsichord, Williams introduces the score’s secondary motif (as heard in the “Empty Safe” cue) on high woodwinds before interjections from Herrmannesque muted horns and trombones respond. Shrieking woodwinds climb ever upward as the orchestra runs riot, the syncopated rhythm kept in rigid step by the metallic strikes of an anvil and the skeletal punctuations of a xylophone.

The Eiger [13] (1:18)

The action switches continents from the US to Switzerland where we get our first glimpse of the Eiger in a stunning tracking shot, the music highlighting the majesty and danger of the mountain with a classic Williams fanfare for full orchestra. Indeed, Williams scores the remainder of the movie symphonically, leaving behind the jazz and pop stylings of some of the earlier cues. The film version of the cue is slightly shorter than the version on the soundtrack album, omitting the first thirty seconds or so of the album track and dialling in (rather abruptly, if truth be told) as Hemlock abandons Miles Mellough in the desert. A sedate but rather melancholy version of the Eiger Sanction theme completes the cue, Williams composing a lovely solo for French horn as the camera zooms in to reveal a windswept Jonathan Hemlock standing beside the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes in Switzerland.

The Climb Begins (1:39)

The next quarter of an hour of the movie is unscored, during which Hemlock meets his climbing companions – a German, Karl Freytag (Reiner Schoene), an Austrian, Anderl Meyer (Michael Grimm) and a Frenchman, Jean-Paul Montaigne (Jean-Pierre Bernard) whose foxy wife Anna (Heidi Bruhl) turns Hemlock’s head. The long absence of music serves to make its reappearance all the more effective, an optimistic motif for horns quickly replaced by uneasy scoring that recalls parts of Williams’s The Poseidon Adventure as the climb begins at first light. A relentless timpani ostinato heralds another brief appearance of the Eiger theme to mirror the determination of the climbers before the cue ends with an unresolved repeating phrase for pizzicato lower strings while the upper strings play a sustained high note sul ponticello. The cue eventually fades to silence. Not for the last time in the movie, John Williams takes centre stage with the cinematographer in a scene that plays without dialogue, all the tension provided by the music.

The Climb Continues / The Sunset [4] (1:24)

Following a well-earned rest for the climbers, the self-appointed leader Freytag encourages them to get moving again. As the climb continues, John Williams takes his inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach, fashioning a wonderfully baroque minor key variation of the Eiger sanction theme, primarily for strings and electric harpsichord, in a cue that can be heard more or less in full as the last minute and a half of the album track “The Icy Ascent”. The music crescendoes, timpani and brass joining the fray as the climbers reach their camp for the night, the four men silhouetted spectacularly against the setting sun in what is perhaps cinematographer Frank Stanley’s most visually beautiful shot in the movie. The cue ends quietly but optimistically on a major chord to signal the success of the first day’s climbing.

The Waterfall (0:30)

As the climbers continue their ascent the following morning and prepare to negotiate a hazardous waterfall, Williams presents the Eiger theme on flute against a descending motif for harp and clarinet before an all too brief duet for horns, a cue reminiscent of “The Passing of Wisdom” from the same composer’s score for The Paper Chase, written a couple of years previously.

Rocks! (3:06)

Long-time John Williams fans can cite numerous examples of superlative action cues inexplicably omitted from, or truncated on, his original soundtrack album presentations (“The Dark Side Beckons” from Return of the Jedi and “Helicopter Sequence” from Superman being two of the more glaring examples). To that list can be added this superb Williams action cue that is unquestionably some of the finest scoring in the movie. The music starts deceptively sedately, a breezy version of the Eiger Sanction theme on flute describing the climbers’ determination as the ascent continues; a modulating, minor key accompaniment, however, creates a feeling of increasing unease until a blast from horns and trombones signals that loose rocks have been disturbed by the lead climber. A descending, fortissimo three-note motif sings out repeatedly in horror as rocks rain down on Hemlock and Montaigne below, the latter unable to take evasive action in time and struck on the helmet by a large boulder. As Montaigne dangles helplessly from the mountainside, Williams ramps up the tension with complex, chromatically ascending writing for the whole orchestra as Hemlock struggles to save the Frenchman from falling to his death, the music crescendoing until the dependable Meyer grabs Hemlock in the nick of time. A brief return of the Eiger Sanction theme on flute, followed by strings, signals that catastrophe has been averted, but the queasy scoring that ends this impressive cue tells us that the bearded Montaigne has suffered serious concussion.

In a cruel coincidence, British stuntman David Knowles was killed by a falling boulder on only the second day of filming on the Eiger.

The Foehn (0:55)

Stravinskyesque, other-worldly scoring by John Williams recalls his music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind as Hemlock skips across a sheer cliff face, glassy violins in their upper registers aptly describing the alien landscape. A watching Ben Bowman explains to Anna Montaigne that a dangerous foehn (“Warm air, then rain, then a freeze, like all in a flash”) is on its way from the south.

The Icy Ascent [4] (3:53)

In another of the score’s highlights, Clint Eastwood again allows his composer and cinematographer to take centre stage, the sequence playing without dialogue until near the very end. Williams reprises his Bach-inspired string elegy from earlier in the movie as the climbers continue their perilous icy ascent, their progress hampered by more falling rocks and by Montaigne’s worsening condition. While approximately the first two and a half minutes of this cue can be heard in full as the first part of the album track “The Icy Ascent”, the longer film cue ends differently with music heard nowhere on the album as the struggling Montaigne eventually succumbs to his injuries during an overnight storm, a mournful horn solo respectfully greeting the rising sun. Hemlock and Meyer convince Freytag that the three remaining climbers must turn back to have any hope of survival.

The White Spider (1:27)

Williams provides an atmospheric cue that anticipates his scoring of the Tatooine desert scenes in Star Wars as the climbers attempt their treacherous descent via the Eiger’s notorious north face (known to the climbing fraternity as “The White Spider”) to an intended rendezvous with a rescue team led by Ben Bowman. Low horns intone pessimistically as the rescue team arrives at the railroad tunnel window below the stricken climbers.

Hemlock Rescues Meyer (2:17)

The Eiger Sanction theme plays eerily on electric harpsichord, tremolo strings and low brass giving way to another orchestral frenzy as Meyer slips. Edgy strings climb upwards in counterpoint to Hemlock’s descent of the icy slope to rescue the Austrian, Williams marking their tethered slide across the cliff face with another orchestral flourish.

Death Plunge (0:27)

A brief but memorable cue demonstrates the composer’s ability to enhance the peril on screen with a few simple musical devices. Firstly Williams catches the moment that a piton suddenly pings out from the cracking ice, precipitating the deaths of both Meyer and Freytag who plunge headlong into the abyss below. He then scores each man’s fatal fall with a chilling, cavernous cluster chord on grand piano in its lowest registers, backed by vibraphone glissandi and unsettling percussion effects.

Cutting the Rope (0:36)

Hemlock – now the only surviving climber – dangles precariously in front of the railroad tunnel entrance, his life in Ben Bowman’s hands. But can Bowman be trusted? Williams knows exactly when and where music is needed, beginning his cue the instant that Hemlock cuts the belaying rope above him, his fall and a brief orchestral flourish both arrested by a strident synthesiser note similar to that which accompanied Kruger’s death plunge earlier in the movie; this time, however, a consolatory rendition of the Eiger Sanction theme signals that Hemlock, at least, will live to see another day.

End Title: Theme from “The Eiger Sanction” [7] (2:00)

One could be forgiven for expecting that Williams would end the film with something symphonic, maybe minor key, all tortured strings and mournful trumpet solos. But no, in complete contrast to the opening title music the composer surprises us once again with an upbeat, bossa nova version of the Eiger Sanction theme that plays as the camera pans away and the end titles scroll.

Now that the soundtrack treasures in the Universal vaults are starting to see the light of day, it is to be hoped that, sooner rather than later, one of the enterprising soundtrack companies will dust off and release both the film and album versions of The Eiger Sanction, much as Varese Sarabande and La-La Land did respectively with their excellent 2-CD releases of John Williams’ The Fury and 1941. Meanwhile, if you have the Varese Sarabande CD and would like to listen to the music in film order, I recommend programming your CD or mp3 player as follows:

[1] – [11] – [12] – [2] – [9] – [5] – [10] – [8] – [6] – [3] – [13] – [4] – [7]