Vaughan Williams wrote 11 film scores, the first two of which, The 49th Parallel (1940 - 1941) and this one, Coastal Command, both dealt with the war. Clearly the composer was caught up in the patriotic spirit sweeping his homeland in its fight against Nazi aggression. He had volunteered for service in World War I, despite his 40-plus age, and felt compelled to do his share once more. But, of course, this film score was also -- and primarily -- an artistic effort.
The film used real people instead of actors and their performances were generally well-received. The story is a documentary-style account of the exploits of the British aircraft, Sunderland, called a flying-boat. It was involved in several notable encounters with the enemy, both on water and in the air. Vaughan Williams' score is colorful and atmospheric, and might be more popular if he had tailored it to a concert version, as Prokofiev had done with two of his film scores. Muir Mathieson did fashion a seven-movement suite from Coastal Command, but it has been largely ignored despite its overall high quality.
All the music composed by Vaughan Williams in this score is typical of the vigorous, post-Romantic style from his later years. The music associated with the Hebrides (islands off the western coast of Scotland) is atmospheric in its dark and subdued sonorities. Aren't there hints here of the Antarctic music associated with the score for Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and its offshoot the Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No. 7; 1949 - 1952)? The music accompanying the encounter with, and sinking of, the German U-boat is both exciting and colorful, not the glorious-sounding stuff of shallow expression so often heard in other war films.
Vaughan Williams composed some of his most vigorous and energetic music for the scene where bombers depart Iceland to drop their deadly cargo on the German ship Düsseldorf in the North Sea. For the scene where the Sunderland is en route to view the damaged Düsseldorf, he supplies music that is serene and proud, using a glorious theme that would not be out of place in a grandiose choral work. The music used for the battle of the Beauforts is exciting and rhythmic, and most of the rest of the score is also of high quality. While Coastal Command cannot be compared with the better efforts of Prokofiev (Lieutenant Kije, Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible), it is nevertheless an important score that ought to receive greater attention.