Episode I: The Greatest Sound in the Galaxy: Sound and Star Wars
Ever tried listening to a Star Wars movie without the sound? –IGN, 1999
Sound is 50 percent of the motion-picture experience. –George Lucas
In the radio dramatization of Return of the Jedi (1996), a hibernation sickness-blinded Han Solo can tell bounty hunter Boba Fett is in the same room with him just by smelling him. Later this month, Solo: A Star Wars Story (part of the Anthology films, and as you might expect from the title, a prequel to Han Solo’s first appearance in Star Wars: A New Hope) may be able to shed some light on how Han developed this particular skill.
Later in that dramatization, we have to presume Han is able to accurately shoot a blaster blind by hearing alone. Appropriately, then, sound is integral to Star Wars. For every iconic image in the franchise—from R2D2 to Chewbacca to Darth Vader to X-Wing and TIE-fighters to the Millennium Falcon and the light sabers—there is a correspondingly iconic sound. In musical terms, too, the franchise is exemplary. John Williams, Star Wars’ composer, won the most awards of his career for his Star Wars (1977) score, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and three Grammys. Not to mention Star Wars’ equally iconic diegetic music, such as the Mos Eisley Cantina band (officially known as Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes).
Without sound, there would be no Star Wars. How else could Charles Ross’ One Man Star Wars Trilogy function? In One Man Star Wars, Ross performs all the voices, music, and sound effects himself. He needs no quick costume changes; indeed, in his rapid-fire, verbatim treatment, it is sound (along with a few gestures) that he uses to distinguish between characters. His one-man show, in fact, echoes C-3PO’s performance of Star Wars to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, a story told in narration and sound effects far more than in any visuals. “Translate the words, tell the story,” says Luke in the radio dramatization of this scene. That is what sound does in Star Wars.
I believe that the general viewing public is aware on a subconscious level of Star Wars’ impressive sound achievements, even if this is not always articulated as such. As Rick Altman noted in 1992 in his four and a half film fallacies, the ontological fallacy of film—while not unchallenged—began life with André Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” (1960) which argues that film cannot exist without image. Challenging such an argument not only elevates silent film but also the discipline of film sound generally, so often regarded as an afterthought. “In virtually all film schools,” Randy Thom wrote in 1999, “sound is taught as if it were simply a tedious and mystifying series of technical operations, a necessary evil on the way to doing the fun stuff.”
Film critic Pauline Kael wrote about Star Wars on original release in what Gianlucca Sergi terms a “harmful generalization” that its defining characteristic was its “loudness.” Loud sound does not necessarily equal good sound in the movies, which audiences themselves can sometimes confuse. “High fidelity recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well fabricated alien creature vocalizations” do not equal good sound design alone, as Thom has argued. On the contrary, Star Wars’ achievements, Sergi posited, married technological invention with overall sound concept and refined if not defined the work of sound technicians and sound-conscious directors.
The reason why Star Wars is so successful aurally is because its creator, George Lucas, was invested in sound holistically and cohesively, a commitment that has carried through nearly every iteration of the franchise, and because his original sound designer, Ben Burtt, understood there was an art as well as a science to highly original, aurally “sticky” sounds. Ontologically, then, Star Wars is a sound-based story, as reflected in the existence of the radio dramatizations (more on them later). This article traces the historical development of sound in not only the Star Wars films (four decades of them!) but also in other associated media, such as television and video games as well as examining aspects of Star Wars’ holistic sound design in detail.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .
As Chris Taylor points out, George Lucas “loved cool sounds and sweeping music and the babble of dialogue more than he cared for dialogue itself.” In 1974, Lucas was working on The Radioland Murders, a screwball comedy thriller set in the fictional 1930s radio station WKGL. Radio, indeed, had already made a strong impression on Lucas, such that legendary “Border blaster” DJ Wolfman Jack played an integral part in Lucas’ film American Graffiti (1973). As Marcus Hearn picks up the story, Lucas soon realized that The Radioland Murders were going nowhere (the film would eventually be made in 1994). Lucas then turned his sound-conscious sensibilities in a different direction, in “The Star Wars” project upon which he had been ruminating since his film school days at the University of Southern California. Retaining creative control, and a holistic interest in a defined soundworld, were two aspects Lucas insisted upon during the development of the project that would become Star Wars. Lucas had worked with his contemporary at USC, sound designer and recordist Walter Murch, on THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, and Murch would go on to provide legendary sound work for The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). Murch was unavailable for the new project, so Lucas then asked producer Gary Kurtz to visit USC to evaluate emerging talent.
Pursuing a Masters degree in Film Production at USC was Ben Burtt, whose BA was in physics. In Burtt, Lucas found a truly innovative approach to film sound which was the genesis of Star Wars’ sonic invention, providing, in Sergi’s words, “audiences with a new array of aural pleasures.” Sound is embodied in the narrative of Star Wars. Not only was Burtt innovative in his meticulous attention to “found sounds” (whereas sound composition for science fiction films has previously relied on electronic sounds), he applied his meticulousness in character terms. Burtt said that Lucas and Kurtz, “just gave me a Nagra recorder and I worked out of my apartment near USC for a year, just going out and collecting sound that might be useful.”
Inherent in this was Burtt’s relationship with sound, in the way he was able to construct a sound of an imaginary object from a visual reference, such as the light saber, described in Lucas’ script and also in concept illustrations by Ralph McQuarrie. “I could kind of hear the sound in my head of the lightsabers even though it was just a painting of a lightsaber,” he said. “I could really just sort of hear the sound maybe somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before.” Burtt also shared with Lucas a sonic memory of sound from the Golden Age of Radio: “I said, `All my life I’ve wanted to see, let alone work on, a film like this.’ I loved Flash Gordon and other serials, and westerns. I immediately saw the potential of what they wanted to do.”
But sir, nobody worries about upsetting a droid
Burtt has described the story of A New Hope as being told from the point of view of the droids (the robots). While Lucas was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) to create the characters of droids R2-D2 (“Artoo”) and C-3PO (“Threepio”), the robots are patently non-human characters. Yet, it was essential to imbue them with personalities. There have been cinematic robots since Maria, but Burtt uniquely used sound to convey not only these two robots’ personalities, but many others as well. As Jeanne Cavelos argues, “Hearing plays a critical role in the functioning of both Threepio and Artoo. They must understand the orders of their human owners.” Previous robots had less personality in their voices; for example, Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, spoke each word crisply with pauses. Threepio is a communications expert, with a human-like voice, provided by British actor (and BBC Radio Drama Repertory Company graduate) Anthony Daniels. According to Hearn, Burtt felt Daniels should use his own voice, but Lucas was unsure, wanting an American used car salesman voice. Burtt prevailed, creating in Threepio, vocally, “a highly strung, rather neurotic character,” in Daniels’ words, “so I decided to speak in a higher register, at the top of the lungs.” (Indeed, in the Diné translation of Star Wars [see below], Threepio was voiced by a woman, Geri Hongeva-Camarillo, something that the audience seemed to find hilarious.)
Artoo was altogether a more challenging proposition. As Cavelos puts it, “Artoo, even without the ability to speak English, manages to convey a clear personality himself, and to express a range of emotions.” Artoo’s non-speech sounds still convey emotional content. We know when Artoo is frightened;
when he is curious and friendly;
and when he is being insulting.
(And although subtitled scenes of Artoo are amusing, they are not in the least necessary.) Artoo’s language was composed and performed by Burtt, derived from the communication of babies:
we started making little vocal sounds between each other to get a feeling for it. And it dawned on us that the sounds we were making were not actually so bad. Out of that discussion came the idea that the sounds a baby makes as it learns to walk would be a direction to go; a baby doesn’t form any words, but it can communicate with sounds.
The approach to Artoo’s aural communications became emblematic of all of the sounds made by machines in Star Wars, creating a non-verbal language, as Kris Jacobs calls it, the “exclusive province” of the Star Wars universe.
Powers of observation lie with the mind, Luke, not the eyes
According to Gianlucca Sergi, the film soundtrack is composed of sound effects, music, dialogue, and silence, all of which work together with great precision in Star Wars, to a highly memorable degree. Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), noted that when filming light saber battles with Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), he could not resist vocally making the sound effects associated with these weapons.
This a good illustration of how iconic the sound effects of Star Wars have become. As Burtt noted above, he was stimulated by visuals to create the sound effects of the light sabers, though he was also inspired by the motor on a projector in the Department of Cinema at USC. As Todd Longwell pointed out in Variety, the projector hum was combined with a microphone passed in front of an old TV to create the sound. (It’s worth noting that the sounds of weapons were some of the first sound effects created in aural media, as in the case with Wallenstein, the first drama on German radio, in 1924, which featured clanging swords.)
If Burtt gave personality to robots through their aural communications, he created an innovative sound palette for far more than the light sabers in Star Wars. In modifying and layering found sounds to create sounds corresponding to every aspect of the film world—from laser blasts (the sound of a hammer on an antenna tower guy wire) to the Imperial Walkers from Empire Strikes Back (modifying the sound of a machinist’s punch press combined with the sounds of bicycle chains being dropped on concrete)—he worked as meticulously as a (visual) designer to establish cohesion and impact.
Sergi argues that the sound effects in Star Wars can give subtle clues about the objects with which they are associated. The sound of Imperial TIE fighters, which “roar” as they hurtle through space, was made from elephant bellows, and the deep and rumbling sound made by the Death Star is achieved through active use of sub-frequencies. Meanwhile, “the rebel X-wing and Y-wing fighters attacking the Death Star, though small, emit a wider range of frequencies, ranging from the high to the low (piloted as they are by men of different ages and experience).” One could argue that even here, Burtt has matched personality to machine. The varied sounds of the Millennium Falcon (jumping into hyperspace, hyperdrive malfunction), created by Burtt by processing sounds made by existing airplanes (along with some groaning water pipes and a dentist’s drill), give it, in the words of Sergi, a much more “grown-up” sound than Luke’s X-Wing fighter or Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV. Given that, like its pilot Han Solo, the Falcon is weathered and experienced, and Luke and Leia are comparatively young and ingenuous, this sonic shorthand makes sense.
Millions of voices
Michel Chion argues that film has tended to be verbocentric, that is, that film soundtracks are produced around the assumption that dialogue, and indeed the sense of the dialogue rather than the sound, should be paramount and most easily heard by viewers. Star Wars contradicts this convention in many ways, beginning with the way it uses non-English communication forms, not only the droid languages discussed above but also its plethora of languages for various denizens of the galaxy. For example, Cavelos points out that Wookiees “have rather inexpressive faces yet reveal emotion through voice and body language.”
While the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special may have many sins laid at its door, among them must surely be that the only Wookiee who actually sounds like a Wookiee is Chewbacca. His putative family sound more like tauntauns. Such a small detail can be quite jarring in a universe as sonically invested as Star Wars.
While many of the lines in Star Wars are eminently quotable, the vocal performances have perhaps received less attention than they deserve. As Starr A. Marcello notes, vocal performance can be extremely powerful, capitalizing on the “unique timbre and materiality that belong to a particular voice.” For example, while Lucas originally wanted Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan, Alec Guinness’ patrician Standard English Neutral accent clearly became an important part of the character. For example, when (Scottish) actor Ewan McGregor was cast to play the younger version of Obi-Wan, he began voice lessons to reproduce Guinness’ voice. Ian McDiarmid (also Scottish), a primarily a Shakespearean stage actor, was cast as arch-enemy the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, presumably on the quality of his vocal performance, and as such has portrayed the character in everything from Revenge of the Sith to Angry Birds Star Wars II.
Sergi argues that Harrison Ford as Han Solo performs in a lower pitch but an unstable meter, a characterization explored in the radio dramatizations of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, when Perry King stands in for Ford. By contrast, Mark Hamill voices Luke in two of the radio dramatizations, refining and intensifying his film performances. Sergi argues that Hamill’s voice emphasizes youth: staccato, interrupting/interrupted, high pitch.
And affectionately parodied here:
I would add warmth of tone to this list, perhaps illustrated nowhere better than in Hamill’s performance in episode 1 – “A Wind to Shake the Stars” of the radio dramatization, which depicts much of Luke’s story that never made it onscreen, from Luke’s interaction with his friends in Beggar’s Canyon to a zany remark to a droid (“I know you don’t know, you maniac!”). It will come as no surprise to the listeners of the radio dramatization that Hamill would find acclaim in voice work (receiving multiple nominations and awards). In the cinematic version, Hamill’s performance is perhaps most gripping during the climactic scene in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tells him:
According to Hamill, “what he was hearing from Vader that day were the words, ‘You don’t know the truth: Obi-Wan killed your father.’ Vader’s real dialogue would be recorded in postproduction under conditions easier to control.” More on that (and Vader) shortly.
It has been noted that Carrie Fisher (who was only nineteen when A New Hope was filmed) uses an accent that wavers between Standard North American and Standard Neutral English. Fisher has explained this as her emulating experienced British star of stage and screen Peter Cushing (playing Grand Moff Tarkin).
However, the accents of Star Wars have remained a contentious if little commented upon topic, with most (if not all) Imperial staff from A New Hope onwards speaking Standard Neutral English (see the exception, stormtroopers, further on). In production terms, naturally, this has a simple explanation. In story terms, however, fans have advanced theories regarding the galactic center of the universe, with an allegorical impetus in the form of the American Revolution. George Lucas, after all, is an American, so the heroic Rebels here have echoes with American colonists throwing off British rule in the 18th century, inspired in part because of their geographical remove from centers of Imperial rule like London. Therefore, goes this argument, in Star Wars, worlds like Coruscant are peopled by those speaking Standard Neutral English, while those in the Outer Rim (the majority of our heroes) speak varieties of Standard North American. Star Wars thus both advances and reinforces the stereotype that the Brits are evil.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that James Earl Jones’ performance as Darth Vader has been noted for sounding more British than American, though Sergi emphasizes musicality rather than accent, the vocal quality over verbocentricity:
The end product is a fascinating mixture of two opposite aspects: an extremely captivating, operatic quality (especially the melodic meter with which he delivers the lines) and an evil and cold means of destruction (achieved mainly through echoing and distancing the voice).
It is worth noting that Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles, perhaps the most famous radio voice of all time, to portray Vader, yet feared that Welles would be too recognizable. That a different voice needed to emanate from behind Vader’s mask than the actor playing his body was evident from British bodybuilder David Prowse’s “thick West Country brogue.” The effect is parodied in the substitution of a Cockney accent from Snatch (2000) for Jones’ majestic tones:
A Newsweek review of Jones in the 1967 play A Great White Hope argued that Jones had honed his craft through “Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt.” Sergi has characterized Jones’ voice as the most famous in Hollywood, in part because in addition to his prolific theatre back catalogue, Jones took bit parts and voiced commercials—“commercials can be very exciting,” he noted. The two competing forces combined to create a memorable performance, though as others have noted, Jones is the African-American voice to the white actors who portrayed Anakin Skywalker (Clive Revill and Hayden Christensen), one British, one American.
Brock Peters, also African American and known for his deep voice, played Vader in the radio dramatizations. Jennifer Stoever notes that in America, the sonic color line “historically contoured, identified, and marked mismatches between ‘sounding white’ and ‘looking black’” (231) whereas the Vader performances “sound black” and “look white.” Andrew Howe in his chapter “Star Wars in Black and White” notes the “tension between black outer visage and white interior identity [ . . ] Blackness is thus constructed as a mask of evil that can be both acquired and discarded.”
Like many of the most important aspects of Star Wars, Vader’s sonic presence is multi-layered, consisting in part of Jones’ voices manipulated by Burtt, as well as the sonic indicator of his presence: his mechanized breathing”
The concept for the sound of Darth Vader came about from the first film, and the script described him as some kind of a strange dark being who is in some kind of life support system. That he was breathing strange, that maybe you heard the sounds of mechanics or motors, he might be part robot, he might be part human, we really didn’t know. [ . . .] He was almost like some robot in some sense and he made so much noise that we had to sort of cut back on that concept.
On radio, a character cannot be said to exist unless we hear from him or her; whether listening to the radio dramatizations or watching Star Wars with our eyes closed, we can always sense the presence of Vader by the sound of his breathing. As Kevin L. Ferguson points out, “Is it accidental, then, that cinematic villains, troubling in their behaviour, are also often troubled in their breathing?” As Kris Jacobs notes, “Darth Vader’s mechanized breathing can’t be written down”—it exists purely in a sonic state.
Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them
Music is the final element of Sergi’s list of what makes up the soundtrack, and John Williams’ enduring musical score is the most obvious of Star Wars’ sonic elements. Unlike “classical era” Hollywood film composers like Max Steiner or Erich Korngold who, according to Kathryn Kalinak, “entered the studio ranks with a fair amount of prestige and its attendant power, Williams entered as a contract musician working with ‘the then giants of the film industry,’” moving into a “late-romantic idiom” that has come to characterize his work. This coincided with what Lucas envisioned for Star Wars, influenced as it was by 1930s radio serial culture.
Williams’ emotionally-pitched music has many elements that Kalinak argues link him with the classical score model: unity, the use of music in the creation of mood and character; the privileging of music in moments of spectacle, the way music and dialogue are carefully mixed. This effect is exemplified in the opening of A New Hope, the “Main Title” or, as Dr Lehman has it (see below), “Main/Luke A.” As Sergi notes, “the musical score does not simply fade out to allow the effects in; it is, rather literally, blasted away by an explosion (the only sound clearly indicated in the screenplay).”
As Kalinak points out, it was common in the era of Steiner and Korngold to score music for roughly three-quarters of a film, whereas by the 1970s, it was more likely to be one-quarter. “Empire runs 127 minutes, and Williams initially marked 117 minutes of it for musical accompaniment”; while he used three themes from A New Hope, “the vast majority of music in The Empire Strikes Back was scored specifically for the film.”
Perhaps Williams’ most effective technique is the use of leitmotifs, derived from the work of Richard Wagner, and more complex than a simple repetition of themes. Within leitmotifs, we hear the blending of denotative and connotative associations, as Matthew Bribitzer-Stull notes, “not just a musical labelling of people and things” but also, as Thomas S. Grey puts it, “a matter of musical memory, of recalling things dimly remembered and seeing what sense we can make of them in a new context.” Bribitzer-Stull also notes the complexity of Williams’ leitmotif use, given that tonal music is given for both protagonists and antagonists, resisting the then-cliché of using atonal music for antagonists. In Williams’ score, atonal music is used for accompanying exotic landscapes and fight or action scenes. As Jonathan Broxton explains,
That’s how it works. It’s how the films maintain musical consistency, it’s how characters’ musical identities are established, and it offers the composer an opportunity to create interesting contrapuntal variations on existing ideas, when they are placed in new situations, or face off against new opponents.
Within the leitmotifs, Williams provides various variations and disruptions, such as the harmonic corruption when “the melody remains largely the same, but its harmonization becomes dissonant.” One of the most haunting ways in which Williams alters and reworks his leitmotifs is what Bribitzer-Stull calls “change of texture.”
Frank Lehman of Harvard has examined Williams’ leitmotifs in detail, cataloguing them based on a variety of meticulous criteria. He has noted, for example, that some leitmotifs are used often, like “Rebel Fanfare” which has been used in Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Rogue One. Lehman particularly admires Williams’ skill and restraint, though, in reserving particular leitmotifs for very special occasions. For example, “Luke & Leia,” first heard in Return of the Jedi (both film and radio dramatization) and not again until The Last Jedi:
While Williams’ use of leitmotifs is successful and evocative, not all of Star Wars’ music consists of leitmotifs, as Lehman points out; single, memorable pieces of music not heard elsewhere are still startlingly effective.
In the upcoming Solo, John Williams will contribute a new leitmotif for Han Solo, while all other material will be written and adapted by John Powell. Williams has said in interview that “I don’t make a particular distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into, and drink it, and be sustained by it.” The sounds of Star Wars have sustained it—and us—and perfectly illustrate George Lucas’ investment in the equal power of sound to vision in the cinematic experience. I, for one, am looking forward to what new sonic gems may be unleashed as the saga continues.
On the first week of June, Leslie McMurtry will return with Episode II, focusing on shifts in sound in the newer films and multi-media forms of Star Wars, including radio and cartoons–and, if we are lucky, her take on Solo!
Featured Image made here: Enjoy!
Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University. Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras. Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
The Magical Post-Horn: A Trip to the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale–Leslie McMurtry
Speaking American–Leslie McMurtry
Out of Sync: Gendered Location Sound Work in Bollywood–Priya Jaikumar
Devil’s Symphony: Orson Welles’s “Hell on Ice” as Eco-Sonic Critique
During our modest publicity blitz leading up to our #WOTW75 project last month, I argued once or twice that we shouldn’t obsess so much over the aftermath of the 1938 invasion radio play — how intense and widespread the panic truly was, how much Welles intended it this way, what it all says about “human nature” and “the power of the media,” etc. — and ought to spend more time unpacking the piece itself. In an incautious moment, I even proposed we ought to think about the play as one of the great works of the 20th century, on par with key films, novels and paintings that get at the structure of modern feeling through aesthetics.
The claim boxed me in. Why? Because, from an aesthetic point of view, “War of the Worlds” may not even belong in the top tier of Welles’s prodigious radio corpus. His role in Archibald MacLeish’s “Fall of the City” is probably more significant in the history of radio aesthetics, and his appearances on Suspense are likely his best work as an actor. Among his principle directed works, I’d argue that plays like “A Passenger to Bali,” “The Pickwick Papers” and “Dracula” are the most exciting. Even more compelling than any of those, meanwhile, is an unusual radio play based on a now-forgotten historical adventure novel about an ill-fated polar voyage — “Hell on Ice,” which radio enthusiasts routinely name as Welles’s best. If it’s true that the essence of Welles’s radio art was his capacity to first create scenes of striking awe and then modulate dramatic pacing, then HOI is surely a minor masterpiece.
Or did I just trap myself again? Judge for yourself, if you like:
Yes, I fear I’m stuck.
While I try to work my way out somehow, read on. In his first post for Sounding Out, and the tenth installment of our Mercury to Mars series (in conjunction with Antenna), Northwestern University Professor Jacob Smith makes the case that, today, HOI is becoming even more resonant, more relevant …
The Mercury Theater’s broadcast of “War of the Worlds” on Oct. 30, 1938 may forever be remembered as “the Panic Broadcast,” but listening to the Mercury’s first season seventy-five years later, it is another broadcast that seems most in tune with current anxieties about planetary crisis.
On October 9th, the Mercury Theater performed an adaptation of Edward Ellsberg’s Hell On Ice (1938), which depicted a failed attempt by an American expedition to reach the North Pole in 1879. “Hell on Ice” is notable among the Mercury’s radio broadcasts in a number of ways: it marks the debut of the writer Howard Koch, who became a regular on the series, scripting “War of the Worlds” to air three weeks later; and it is the only show to be based on a “stirring adventure of recent history” as opposed to classic literature and drama. “Hell on Ice” also stands out among the Mercury oeuvre as a proto-environmental critique. That is, like “War of the Worlds,” “Hell on Ice” contemplates the catastrophic collapse of human society, but where the October 30th invasion broadcast was a science fiction thriller that tapped into anxiety about the looming war in Europe, the October 9th show used historical fiction to dramatize the error of human attempts to master the globe. That makes it perhaps the best companion to “War of the Worlds,” a play in which the thwarted invader is no alien – it’s us. Listening to the play today, “Hell on Ice” is not only a masterpiece of audio theater (among fans, the most beloved of all Welles’s radio works) but a powerful “eco-sonic” critique as well.
In 1879, James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, sponsored an expedition to the North Pole by way of the Bering Strait. Bennett’s ship, christened the Jeannette, was to ride a warm, northerly ocean current to the shores of the mysterious Wrangel Island, which some believed to be the tip of a vast continent that stretched to Greenland. Captain George Washington DeLong and a crew of thirty-one men left San Francisco to great celebration on July 8, 1879, but the voyage did not go as planned: the Jeannette became trapped in the ice on September 6, 1879, and remained stuck there for two years before being crushed by ice floes in June, 1881.
The crew packed into three lifeboats and set a course for Siberia, but one boat was lost at sea with all its passengers and, of the other two, the party led by Captain DeLong froze to death in the Lena Delta.
The tragic story of the Jeannette was an inspired choice for the Mercury Theater. The 1930s were a time of intense interest in polar exploration, when Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s two Antarctic expeditions became multimedia events. Ellsberg’s Hell on Ice rode the crest of that wave and, moreover, was well suited to Welles’s “first person” approach to radio narrative, since it drew upon the journals of the Jeannette’s officers. Ellsberg’s book is also surprisingly radiogenic in it’s vivid descriptions of sound. We read that the “unearthly screeching and horrible groanings” of the ice pack are “like the shrieking of a thousand steamer whistles, the thunder of heavy artillery, the roaring of a hurricane, and the crash of collapsing houses all blended together,” and that the “deep bass” of the ice floes and the “high scream” of the grating icebergs are “a veritable devil’s symphony of hideous sounds” (Hell on Ice, 110, 161). The Mercury Theatre’s adaptation grants considerable airtime to recreating that “devil’s symphony,” with stunning sequences depicting the piercing arctic wind, ice floes that shriek and drum against the ship’s hull, and the ship’s engines straining against the ice:
The frozen world of “Hell on Ice” had many expressive possibilities for the Mercury’s sound effects crew, and was also a wonderful showcase for composer Bernard Herrmann. John Houseman claimed that Herrmann had a repertoire of music for the Mercury broadcasts, one of which was “frozen music,” to be used for “gruesome effects.” Herrmann’s frozen music is first heard when the ship becomes locked in the ice and signals a shift in the show’s narrative emphasis to themes of frozen time, stasis, immobility, and deadening routine. The slow, queasy, pendulum-like movements of Herrmann’s score make the perfect accompaniment to Captain DeLong’s June 21st journal entry describing the absolute monotony of “the same faces, the same dogs, the same ice,” read on the broadcast by the actor Ray Collins (The Voyage of the Jeanette, 382-3). Here and elsewhere in the broadcast, Herrmann’s frozen music is a sonic set design that portrays the bleak scene of the frozen north, and provides commentary on the emotional life of the crew, who struggle with the soul-crushing monotony of life on the ice pack.
We should appreciate “Hell on Ice” not just for its aesthetic achievement, however, but also for its social critique. As with other Welles projects, “Hell on Ice” questions America’s passage to an industrial and imperial society (consider for example, James Naremore’s argument that The Magnificent Ambersons charts a transition from “midland streets” to “grimy highways” [The Magic World of Orson Welles 89-91]). “Hell on Ice” brings out the ecological dimension of that critique, and in that regard, resembles another nineteenth century first-person tale in which little or nothing happens: Thoreau’s Walden (1854), which initially suggests a narrative of adventure (the individual in the wilderness), but then quickly abandons it for descriptions of everyday life on Walden Pond. Robert B. Ray claims that Thoreau had little gift for narrative, and that “going to Walden appealed to him because there nothing would happen” (Walden X 40, 11). As the narrative interest fades, it is replaced by Thoreau’s poetic descriptive passages and biting social commentary. In a similar re-routing of narrative expectations Captain DeLong wrote in his journals that, given the “popular idea” that “daily life in the Arctic regions should be vivid, exciting, and full of hair-breadth escapes,” the account of his voyage was sure to be found “dull and weary and unprofitable” (The Voyage of the Jeanette, 409-10). Immobility, routine, and unprofitability were a blessing to Thoreau, who even contrasted his “experiment” on Walden Pond to Arctic explorers like John Franklin and Martin Frobisher: where they had explored the Earth’s higher latitudes, Thoreau implored readers to “explore your own higher latitudes… Explore thyself” (Walden, 213).
Indeed, “Hell on Ice” and Walden share a certain narrative problem – or, more precisely, a “lack-of-narrative” problem. When Welles adapted DeLong’s journals (via Ellsberg), he responded to that problem in part by recourse to character study. On the Mercury broadcast, the Jeannette’s thwarted mission opens up the possibility for brilliant dramatic scenes: the interaction among engineer George Melville (Welles), DeLong (Collins), John Danenhower (Joseph Cotton), and reporter Jerome Collins (Howard Smith) during the crew’s first Christmas on the ice; Melville’s encounter with the seaman Erikson (Karl Swenson); the escalating tensions between DeLong and Collins; and Melville and DeLong’s final conversation about their chances on the ice.
It may seem pointless to speculate about what Thoreau might have written had he been keeping a journal on board the Jeannette, but by a remarkable coincidence, another icon of American environmentalism nearly did just that. Nature writer and Sierra Club founder John Muir was a passenger on board a government ship sent to look for the missing Jeannette in 1881. Radio fans will take pleasure in the fact that the name of the ship was the “Corwin.” Muir was eager for the chance to study how glaciers had shaped the landscape of the polar region during the last Ice Age. For Muir, the frozen North was vivid and exciting as a natural laboratory and a window into deep time, just as it is for ecological activists today.
If we listen closely, can we hear Muir’s sentiments in Welles’ “Hell on Ice”?
Listening to the show as an ecological critique prompts us to hear the sound effects not only as a showcase of modernist radio technique, but as a means to give voice to nonhuman nature and create dissonant harmonies with human endeavors. This is not to argue that the Mercury group foresaw current concerns, but to testify to the enduring suppleness of their work and inspire eco-sonic productions in the future. Notice how the Bennett expedition is made to seem insignificant by the thunderous sounds of the “endless miles of surging ice” that snap the Jeannette to splinters. Or consider how, during DeLong’s last divine service on the edge of the ice pack, the sound of the men singing a hymn is gradually drowned out by a crescendo of roaring arctic wind.
In these sequences, the broadcast uses sound to play with spatial scale, performing a kind of auditory zoom that forces us to hear the human in relation to a sense of planet. The conclusion of the show does something similar, but in a temporal register: Melville describes burying DeLong and his men at a desolate spot overlooking the Arctic Ocean, where the winds wail an “eternal dirge.”
There is a certain sad irony to this conclusion, which asserts that the wind and ice of the Arctic are timeless, for we have come to understand that the polar climate does indeed have a history, and that humans now shape it in profound ways. “Hell on Ice” thus takes on new meaning in our own era, as temperatures rise in the Arctic, and we are forced to contemplate another kind of polar “hell,” one represented not by an impenetrable wall of ice, but by the thinning and disappearance of the ice pack, with all its intimations of environmental catastrophe. Indeed, it is now Muir’s voice that we should hear, with its deep historical and planetary perspective, when Collins, as DeLong, speaks the line that the Jeannette’s Captain wrote on the first day that the ship became frozen in the ice: “This is a glorious country to learn patience in” (The Voyage of the Jeanette, 116).
Jacob Smith is Associate Professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at Northwestern University. He has written several books on sound (Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media , and Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures , both from the University of California Press), and published articles on media history, sound, and performance.
In order of their appearance, here are the other nine entries in our series From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles and Radio after 75 Years, which is a joint project with Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture.
- Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
- Here is Eleanor Patterson’s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
- Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
- Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
- Here is “‘Welles,’ Bells and Fred Allen’s Sonic Pranks,” Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles.
- Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
- Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
- Here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix
- Here is Josh Shepperd on WOTW and media studies.