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10 films that utilize Wagner's music

From 'Birth of a Nation' to 'Apocalypse Now,' filmmakers have repurposed Wagner's scores.

June 17, 2010

Wagner's own music has made a powerful statement within a film. Some notable examples:

1. "The Great Dictator" (1940). The prelude to Act 1 of "Lohengrin" serves as ironic underscore for a classic scene in Charles Chaplin's political satire in which despotic Adenoid Hynkel bounces a balloon globe around his office.

2. "Humoresque" (1946). Film composer Franz Waxman's fantasy on "Tristan and Isolde," written for violinist Isaac Stern to play off-screen (for John Garfield, as an ambitious violinist who romances a wealthy socialite played by Joan Crawford), underscores the tragic conclusion. Waxman was Oscar-nominated for the score.

3. "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948). Preston Sturges' comedy starring Rex Harrison as a famous symphony conductor features several classical pieces. Wagner's "Tannhauser" plays behind the second of Harrison's three fantasies about how to deal with his wife's alleged infidelity.

4. "Magic Fire" (1955). This little-seen biography of Wagner starring Alan Badel and Yvonne DeCarlo featured a host of Wagner works adapted by then-retired film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who appears in a cameo conducting the "Ring" cycle, condensed down to a few minutes of screen time).

5. "What's Opera, Doc?" (1957). Among Warner Bros.' most famous musical cartoons, this Chuck Jones-directed masterpiece parodies "The Ring" with Elmer Fudd as Siegfried and Bugs Bunny in drag and blond wig as Brunnhilde. (Their famous "Return My Love" duet, however, is actually based on "The Pilgrims' Chorus" from "Tannhauser.")

6. "Apocalypse Now" (1979). Perhaps the most famous modern-day use of "Ride of the Valkyries," which opens Act 3 of "Die Walkure," is during the helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village in Francis Ford Coppola's film. (Another, more disturbing use, is in 1915's "The Birth of a Nation," painting the Ku Klux Klan in heroic terms as they ride against liberated slaves.)

7. "Excalibur" (1981). Siegfried's funeral music from "Gotterdammerung" is a key musical theme in director John Boorman's retelling of the legend of King Arthur, particularly apt in applying the "Twilight of the Gods" concept from Wagner's opera to Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. Also heard: preludes from "Tristan and Isolde" and "Parsifal."

8. "Father of the Bride" (1991). Dozens of movies through the years — from "Beetlejuice" to "Runaway Bride" — have utilized the Bridal Chorus from "Lohengrin." This Steve Martin remake of the old Spencer Tracy- Elizabeth Taylor classic is just one example.

9. "Birth" (2004). Director Jonathan Glazer's controversial film features an extraordinary scene in which Nicole Kidman's character, at the opera, listens to "Erster Aufzug" from "Die Walkure" while contemplating the possibility that a little boy she's just met is the reincarnation of her beloved late husband.

10. "The New World" (2005). As British ships land in 1607 Virginia and Native Americans scramble in the nearby woods, director Terence Malick uses the prelude from "Das Rheingold" to strike an appropriately anticipatory tone.

—Jon Burlingame

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