Musings About Music In Film

Sequencing: The Iron Giant

Sequencing is a feature that looks at a key scene from a film and examines the use of score within. By Charlie Brigden


The Film: The Iron Giant (1999)

The Composer: Michael Kamen

The Scene: The Giant's Sacrifice

Fifteen years ago, Brad Bird's loose adaptation of poet Ted Hughes' novel The Iron Man was unleashed upon the moviegoing public to an immmediate box office death. Despite universal acclaim from critics - with the likes of Roger Ebert giving it a near-perfect score - the film was essentially dumped by producer Warners, with a total lack of marketing and promotion that gave way to huge criticism. Fifteen years on, the film is recognised as a classic of animation, and for my money was the best genre film of 1999.

Originally developed as a rock opera for stage and screen by Pete Townshend (of The Who fame) who had done the same previously for Tommy, the film eventually settled without the songs at Warners, where the project was picked up by Brad Bird. Bird chose the late Michael Kamen as the composer for the film, who produced a memorably stirring and emotional score for the relationship between the Giant and young boy Hogarth Hughes. Upon forming a bond, Hogarth and the Giant are hunted and accosted by the military led by a paranoid government agent who believes the Giant is a communist weapon (the film is set at the time of Sputnik's launch and the "red menace"). By the time the final act begins, a nuclear warhead has been mistakenly launched at the Giant, who stands in a small town centre surrounded by the population, the only thing between them and total annihilation.

The scene plays to reinforce the positioning of the Giant as the hero of the piece, and also the theme of being able to choose who you are - not just a robot, the Giant turns into a walking gun when threatened - something which horrifies him. It also addresses the relationship between Hogarth and the Giant, which is the heart of the film. After a brief volley of furious brass, the music gives way to the unmistakeable sound of an air raid siren, illustrating the sheer desperation of the situation. As the missile approaches, Bird frames the action with the camera looking up at the characters, creating a real sense of fear, and as Hogarth explains to a confused Giant that 'when it comes down, everyone will die.', the music begins.


The cue - called 'No Following' - opens with a twinkly harp as the gravity of the situation gets through to the Giant. Lyrical but downbeat violins create a sense of inevitability as the townspeople prepare to meet their destiny, while solemn woodwinds come in for the Giant as he realises what he has to do. As Hogarth hears the Giant utter "Fix." and realises what he's about to do, a beautiful violin solo plays to underline the finality of the forthcoming act - and the end of their relationship. "You stay. I go." says the Giant. "No Following." Here Kamen's score and the film continue their homage to Steven Spielberg and John Williams' E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, as the strings begin to build and the scene starts its emotional climb, with a wonderful brass swell as Hogarth stares up at the sky and says 'I love you.', framed in a way that could be right out of the Spielberg film's finale.

An explosion of brass fills the air as the Giant lifts off, with strings and brass steadily rising to a heroic crescendo, as the Giant's moment finally comes. At this moment, the Giant thinks back to Hogarth's words - 'You are who you choose to be.' - and grips his own fate in his hands, with a final word: 'Superman!' The parallels to Krypton's finest are there for all to see, an alien who comes to Earth only to be feared because he is different, but it's here where Bird actually creates the greatest Superman moment on film, where - with a clear homage to the final moments of Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie - the Giant makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of humanity. The moment the missile makes contact is a display of the height of Kamen's compositional talent; with a massive heroic fanfare as an explosion fills the sky (an explosion which looks very much like the exploding Krypton in the style of the Fleischer animated shorts).


We return to the town with bittersweet strings and woodwinds as everyone leaves the scene. Hogarth casts a solitary figure, staring at the explosion as a funereal woodwind motif plays as the scene fades. What we are left with is not only the aftermath of the event itself, but the loss of a friend, both Hogarth's and surrogately the audience's. Whilst the Giant is eventually revealed in the final moments to have survived the collision, the emotional impact is no less, working on a huge front but in the end played in emotional terms by Kamen. We have the big brass that tells us he is a hero, but the emphasis is on the beautiful woodwinds that score the connection between Hogarth and the Giant.

It's a rarity for a mainstream animated film to have a scene like this, and even more rare is to have it scored in this way. But Brad Bird has shown himself to be savvy when it comes to the music, with films of his such as Ratatouille not only well-composed (by Michael Giacchino) but with an emotional musical throughline underpinning the film and score. Kamen was often known for bold and intense scores for movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, but his aptitude in creating film music that had real heart was a facet of his genius that still today goes unnoticed. Thankfully, the ever-increasing following that The Iron Giant has may yet see this change.

You can watch the scene in full below.