5 great film composers who served in the military

Joel Searls
Updated onJan 10, 2023 10:54 AM PST
3 minute read


Military service members have and will continue to contribute to society upon the conclusion of their active duty obligation. Some…

Military service members have and will continue to contribute to society upon the conclusion of their active duty obligation. Some will enter the workforce, start their own company or even pursue a career in the arts. These musically inclined veterans followed their passions to become film composers and have given back to society through their wonderful gifts.

Here are 5 great film composers who served in the military

1. Composer and Air Force veteran, John Williams

Composer John Williams during his time in the USAF.

John Williams is known to fans of cinema and music alike for his breathtaking and inspirational works. He was a composer of the greatest film scores of all time which include Jurassic Park, the Star Wars saga, Schindler's List, the Indiana Jones series, E.T., Superman and The Cowboys. Williams's work fills concert halls across the globe with people who want to hear his work live. You might be interested to know that he served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s as a conductor and arranger of music for the Air Force Band. He was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base and attended the prestigious Juilliard School upon completing his service. His career continued upward post his schooling with working for film studios alongside great composers to score movies. Williams has been nominated 52 times for an Academy Award and has won five times.

2. Military veteran composer, Elmer Bernstein

Guest artist Elmer Bernstein conducts the U.S. Air Force Band in the last of a series of spring concerts at Constitution Hall.

Elmer Bernstein is most associated with his film scores such as The Magnificient Seven, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, True Grit, The Ten Commandments, Ghostbusters and Cape Fear. His compositions have a distinct style and sound which elegantly fit each genre he was writing for. Bernstein started his career as a child prodigy at Julliard and played the piano. His works are greatly influenced by a fellow American composer, Aaron Copland, and some of Copland's inspiration in Bernstein's works is evident in his scores. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and was a composer of music for the Armed Forces Radio network. He won many awards throughout his career and was awarded an Oscar for his work on Thoroughly Modern Millie, although he received 14 Academy Award nominations during his lifetime.

3. US Army Air Corps veteran, Henry Mancini

Composer Henry Mancini with the Pink Panther.

Henry Mancini has a breadth of work over his long and award-winning career. Most notably his repertoire includes The Pink Panther theme, which has been used in all of the films and cartoons, and the theme for the famous TV show Peter Gunn. He won four Academy Awards during his career and was a composer of scores for famous directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Norman Jewison and Paul Newman (known more for his acting and fellow veteran). Mancini served in the US Army Air Corps initially with the 128th Air Force Band and was recruited by fellow veteran and great musician Glenn Miller. He was later transferred to the 1306th Engineer Brigade and took part in the liberation of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp.

4. British Army veteran, composer John Barry

Composer John Barry doing his life's work.

John Barry's most impressive and long-lasting work is the James Bond theme. His theme has been used in almost every Bond film (Never Say Never Again is a lone exception) and he scored nearly every Bond film with Connery and Moore in the starring role. His final score for a Bond film was for The Living Daylights, which was a first for new Bond star Timothy Dalton. Barry completed his national service in the British Army as a trumpeter. He was a composer of the scores for Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa, which earned both an Oscar and Grammy.

5. World War II veteran, composer Alex North

Composer Alex North received his Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1986.

Alex North was a composer of scores for some of the golden eras of Hollywood's best films which include Spartacus, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cleopatra, The Misfits, Death of a Salesman and even 2001: A Space Odyssey, which went unused by Stanley Kubrick. North earned an Academy Award for his life's work as a composer on so many important films and his contribution to cinema. During World War II, North served as a captain, first being in charge of "self-entertainment" groups in mental hospitals and then composing scores for 26 War Department documentaries.

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