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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Five Movies Featuring the Ride of the Valkyries

The helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now. © 1979 American Zoetrope Studio/Lions Gate Pictures
In the 20th century, the surging strings and triumphant horn calls that open Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries have transcended the operatic stage and the Germanic gods of the Ring Cycle to become standard Hollywood accompaniment to movie scenes featuring Wagnerian amounts of butt-kicking. Let's take a look at movies that use the curtain-raiser as a different kind of dramatic device.

There's those helicopters again.
Image © 1998 Universal Classics/Deutsche Grammophon
The history of "Ride of the Valkyries" in movies goes all the way back to 1915, when D.W. Griffith incorporated the music to represent the Ku Klux Klan at the climax of his racist epic, Birth of a Nation. In the 1940s, Walt Disney planned to use Wagner's music in an update sequence for Fantasia. The sequence was never fully animated, and was mentioned (but not included) in the (eventual) update, Fantasia 2000.

Anyway, here's five:
Apocalypse Now (American Zoetrope, 1979)
Everyone knows this scene--even if they've never seen the movie or heard of a Wagner opera. The Ride forced its way into American pop culture when opera-loving director Francis Ford Coppola used the Ride as the soundtrack for Colonel Kilgore's flight of napalm-dropping helicopters in his Vietnam epic. The fiery images have become so associated with Wagner's music that Deutsche Grammophon featured Huey choppers on the cover of a 1998 Wagner compilation. Ooh. Classy.

Apocalypse restored Wagner's music to acceptability for the silver screen, and inspired a few other films, some of them pretty unexpected.

Super Troopers (Fox Searchlight, 2001)
This gross-out frat-boy comedy from the Broken Lizard troupe features a group of disorderly Vermont state police officers who spend their days playing pranks on motorists and generally getting into shenanigans.

There's not much of a plot in this funny, episodic film, but at the climax, our boys wind up in an all-out battle royale with the local cops. The Ride features a police cruiser adorned with an inflatable sex doll, and is quickly replaced on the soundtrack by the country-punk track "Big Bear" by the Brooklyn-based group  Steak. (No, I've never heard of them either.)

Watchmen (DC Comics/Legendary Pictures 2002)
This is pretty much a direct Vietnam/Apocalypse Now reference. Zack Snyder's adaptation of the award-winning Alan Moore graphic novel is set in 1985, in an America where superheroes have been outlawed, Nixon is still President, and the world stands on the brink of nuclear Armageddon.

Watchmen uses the Ride briefly, as the accompaniment to the American victory in Viet Nam, courtesy of the nuclear-powered time-travelling "superhero" Doctor Manhattan. Along with his comrade The Comedian (a Captain America type armed with a flame-thrower), the Doctor terrifies the Viet Cong by rising to twenty feet tall and turning the enemy to subatomic glop with his mind. So much for napalm.

Jackass 3D (MTV Films, 2010)
Really nothing to say about this. You're just going to see it.
You know you want it. Footage © 2010 MTV Films

Rango (Nickelodeon Movies/Blind Wink Pictures, 2011)
The newest movie on the list is a surreal CGI animated work by Gore Verbinski that came out a couple of weeks ago. Starring Johnny Depp, Rango draws equal inspiration from Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, the desert mysticism of Carlos Castenada, and Hunter S. Thompson's acid-drenched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Depp plays a chameleon who leaves his sheltered life in a fish-tank and winds up as Sheriff of a tiny desert town ("Dirt") populated by anthropomorphic animals. And it's a Western. The Ride appears in a spectacular sequence where the animal posse is attacked by an army of desert critters, all armed to the teeth and riding bats into aerial combat. It's good stuff.

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