Top of the World: John Williams and ‘The Eiger Sanction’

Soundtrack Producer Mike Matessino presents Intrada Records’ new 2-disc expanded edition of John Williams’ score for Clint Eastwood’s alpine thriller, featuring the world premiere release of the original film recording and a remastered version of the 1975 soundtrack album

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The restoration of Maestro John Williams’ rich filmography adds another pivotal item to its ongoing process of “future proofing”. Intrada Records has just released a 2-disc expanded edition of one of the Maestro’s most interesting and diverse scores of his pre-Jaws era: The Eiger Sanction, written for the 1975 film directed by and also starring Clint Eastwood, in his one and only collaboration with the composer. The new release is produced and remastered by Mike Matessino, who continues to be the ultimate guardian of John Williams’ film score presentations through his universally admired painstaking methodology of soundtrack restoration, preserving the Maestro’s work for all future generations in the best and most accurate way.

Clint Eastwood starring as Jonathan Hemlock in The Eiger Sanction (Photo © 1975 Universal Pictures/Malpaso)

The Eiger Sanction is based on a novel by Trevanian (nom de plume for film writer and university professor Rod Whitaker) telling the story of Jonathan Hemlock, a retired hitman now working as art history professor who gets called back by his former boss for one last assassin job (the so-called “sanction”) to be executed during a dangerous climbing expedition on the Swiss Alps. Written in the style of the James Bond novels popular at the time, the book’s rights were acquired by producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown with the intention of doing a film starring Paul Newman. The producers later passed the project to Clint Eastwood, who decided not just to star in the main role, but also to direct the film through his company Malpaso, with the production overseen by expert Universal Pictures-based producer Jennings Lang. The Hollywood star was at the beginning of his career as a film director at that time, and The Eiger Sanction turned out to be his fourth feature film behind the camera and his first major large-scale production, involving extensive and elaborate high mountain location filming. While Eastwood kept the novel’s basic espionage plot outline, he ended up being much more interested in the challenges the story seemed to offer from a filmmaking standpoint—instead of recreating the mountain environment on a soundstage, all the climbing sequences were to be filmed on location at perilous altitudes. The choice certainly helped in getting what was the first truly realistic alpine climbing imagery put on the screen, but also posed enormous production issues and even serious safety concerns for the film crew.

American actor and director Clint Eastwood on the set of his movie The Eiger Sanction (Photo © 1975 Universal Pictures/Malpaso)

The film also stars George Kennedy, Jack Cassidy and Vonetta McGee in secondary roles, and while it can certainly be said that it’s not a movie for the ages (some of its aspects didn’t age well, especially the treatment of women characters and some rude unnecessary violence), it’s still an enjoyable watch especially for the impressive mountain sequences filmed by cinematographer Frank Stanley, and the overall directorial command from Eastwood, who would soon turn to projects that would become turning points of his directing career such as The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and The Gauntlet (1977).

Clint Eastwood during the filming of The Eiger Sanction on location in Switzerland (Photo © 1975 Universal Pictures/Malpaso)

One aspect of the most enduring and interesting elements of The Eiger Sanction is unquestionably the music score by John Williams. The composer won his first Academy Awared three years before for the adaptation score of Fiddler On The Roof, and was ranking high on the list of up-and-coming film composers thanks to the huge box office success of such movies as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. And one year before working on The Eiger Sanction, Williams scored the first movie of what would soon become the signature collaboration of his career: The Sugarland Express, directed by Steven Spielberg. It was probably all this background, coupled with the composer’s penchant for jazz music (one of Eastwood’s lifelong passions), that led the actor/director to call upon him to score his high mountain thriller. For his previous films as director, Eastwood collaborated with composers Dee Barton and Michel Legrand, but also had a relationship with Lalo Schifrin, who scored a handful of his most successful movies as principal actor until then, including Dirty Harry. The circumstances which led John Williams being offered The Eiger Sanction are unknown, but it’s possible that Eastwood wanted a composer who could be as effective in dramatic orchestral scoring as he would be in more jazz-infused writing, as Williams showed he was capable of on several occasions.

John Williams (ca. 1976)

Williams’ score for The Eiger Sanction is indeed imbued both with symphonic gestures (as heard in the film’s dramatic climbing sequences) and a jazz-inspired vernacular in vogue at that time he already explored successfully in scores like Cinderella Liberty and in the more pop-styled cues of Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. One of the score’s pecularities is Williams’ choice to pivot the whole film around a single thematic idea which is presented and varied all throughout in many different guises. It’s a beautiful minor-mode, longing theme that immediately sets the tone of the film and also depicting the various locales accordingly by changing arrangement and changing instrumental colours. The dialect might recall the style of some scores by Ennio Morricone and Michel Legrand, but the final result is unmistakeably Williams’ own voice—it’s certainly one of his loveliest melodic creations up until then, adding a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness to the overall atmosphere of the film. Williams treats his main theme with a great sense of flexibility, using it sometimes for its more overtly melancholic, classical-styled characteristics (especially when performed on solo piano or harpsichord) while instead presenting it in exquisite jazz arrangements for the love scenes, led by some wonderful playing by trumpeteer Jay Daversa, pianist Mike Lang and bassist Chuck Domanico.

Vonetta McGee and Clint Eastwood as Jemima Brown and Jonathan Hemlock in The Eiger Sanction (Photo © 1975 Universal Pictures/Malpaso)

Despite being centered around a strong main theme, the score offers more thematic material that Williams expertly crafts throughout the narrative—a questioning “mystery” motif often performed on electric harpsichord (fully explored in the cue “Fifty Miles of Desert”, albeit unused in the final film) and a jaunty neoclassical scherzando-like theme for acoustic guitar (by soloist Tommy Tedesco), harpsichord and strings accompanying Hemlock’s training in the desert Southwest with the athletic Indian-American girl George. The beauty and danger of nature are also addressed by the composer with grand orchestral cues, especially in the sequence of Eastwood climbing the Totem Pole in Utah and all the final act on the Eiger, where Williams uses symphonic gestures that would soon become some of his trademarks. As Mike Matessino notes during the conversation, this score could be seen as a sort of closing chapter given its place and time in Williams’ filmography—the next assignment for the composer would have been Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and from that moment onward his life (and the world of film music) would have changed forever.

Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy in The Eiger Sanction (Photo © 1975 Universal Pictures/Malpaso)

The original soundtrack album issued on MCA Records at the time of the film’s release was a re-recording where Williams selected cues from the score expanding and repurposing them for a more cohesive listening experience. This was a standard practice in that era and Williams himself did it several times for such scores as How to Steal a Million, Fitzwilly, Cinderella Liberty, Earthquake and also Jaws. It was indeed the buzz about the music of the Steven Spielberg’s soon-to-be hit wonder that Universal got from previews that induced MCA Records to ask Williams to produce and record a specific soundtrack album for The Eiger Sanction like he would also do for Jaws.

Clint Eastwood stars and directs in The Eiger Sanction (Photo © 1975 Universal Pictures/Malpaso)

The album program was licensed and re-released on CD in 1991 by Varèse Sarabande and it’s been out of print basically since then, with copies sold on the secondary market for high prices for almost three decades. This is finally rectified by the brand-new 2-CD release by Intrada Records, which presents both a remastered version of the 1975 MCA soundtrack album and the premiere release of the original film recording, featuring a great deal of unreleased music, including never-before-heard material that was written and recorded for a longer cut of the film. All the material has been painstakingly restored and remastered by Mike Matessino, sourced from Universal Pictures’ three-track “split mono” scoring masters for the film recording (re-mixed into stereo for this release) and the original 2-inch multi-track masters for the album recording sessions. The end product is a wonderful musical journey that puts a well-deserved spotlight on one of John Williams’ lesser-known yet most fascinating and diverse scores to be found in his long and rich filmography. Rounding out the presentation are Jon Burlingame‘s excellent, in-depth liner notes, accompanying the listener throughout the film’s production history and the creative merits of Williams’ fascinating score.

The roster of the Los Angeles’ musicians who performed on John Williams’ score for The Eiger Sanction, both for the film recording and the album sessions (courtesy of Intrada Records)

In this conversation, Mike Matessino returns to The Legacy of John Williams podcast to present this new 2-disc expanded edition of John Williams’ score for Clint Eastwood’s alpine thriller, spotlighting and documenting his own unique restoration work while offering thoughts and insights on the Maestro’s music for the film.


The Eiger Sanction – Expanded Original Motion Picture Soundtrack 2-disc edition, released on Intrada Records: http://store.intrada.com/s.nl/it.A/id.12305/.f

Special Thanks to Mike Matessino, Roger Feigelson and Douglass Fake