The 3rd Annual James Horner Blogathon: “The Mask of Zorro” (1998)

Well here we are again at the annual blogathon that celebrates the musical maestro James Horner, hosted by Becky over at Film Music Central.

For the past two years, I’ve chosen to talk about two Don Bluth animations (An American Tail and The Land Before Time), because the music in those two films is something special, but last year I promised that I would choose a live-action film for my next contribution and, while I had one other possibility in mind (one that I’ll probably choose next year), this time I’ve chosen a great film from the late nineties that features a James Horner score that has stuck with me for a good long while: The Mask of Zorro.

Back in the early-ish days of DVDs (which makes a change from the VHS era films of my previous blogathon entries!), this was a film that I watched regularly on disc – a well-worn copy, you’d say – and as I watched it over and over again, I came to memorize a lot of the dialogue and, more relevantly, got the James Horner score imbedded in my brain. In a nutshell, The Mask of Zorro was something of a favourite of mine growing up because it’s a fun, entertaining and brilliantly choreographed swashbuckling film with an excellent cast and, of course, a memorable score.

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The Story

In 1821, California nobleman Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) fights for the people of the land, opposing the occupying Spaniards as the masked vigilante Zorro but when his enemy Don Raphael Montero (Stuart Wilson) discovers his true identity, he is captured, imprisoned and his infant daughter Elena is taken by Montero to be raised as his own. Twenty years later, Diego escapes confinement and begins training a protege, the outlaw Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), and the two of them work towards their own goals of retribution: Diego against Montero and Alejandro against Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), Montero’s right hand who was responsible for the death of Alejandro’s brother.

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The Music

The main components of Horner’s score can be found in the film’s opening piece: “The Plaza of Execution“, where Zorro makes his grand entrance as he saves three innocent civilians from being executed. Straight off the bat, it all opens with a three note flamenco strum of a guitar which instantly gives the film a “Spanish flavour” and then adds to this effect by bringing in pipes and clapping that increases in tempo as the film begins. From then on, we have the slow drum beat as the execution is due to begin, a quickly paced section of the main theme when Don Raphael is first seen, a few strings when Zorro is briefly glimpsed and then when he makes his big entrance, we get straight into the main section of the piece and the accompanying score is rousing and adventurous and successfully instills a sense of bravado and derring-do that goes well alongside all the swordfighting, all culminating in a wonderful flourish when Zorro rides off into the sunset having saved the day.

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The main theme of the film is heard later during a montage in which we see Diego’s training of Alejandro. Reflecting the small steps that Alejandro takes to properly learn swordfighting, the theme starts off slowly with a low-pitched twang of a (bass?) guitar and then introduces some clapping as the piece increases in tempo and as it moves into the main section, the main theme is played with trumpets, strings and guitar. On the soundtrack, it’s listed as “The Fencing Lesson” and it’s an intriguingly entertaining section of the score that goes well with the fun scene in the film. This main theme is heard at various points throughout the film in differing variations and it also plays on the main menu of the DVD – I distinctly remember just letting the theme play on a loop, hearing it play over footage from the film over and over again! Anyway, this theme is certainly memorable (I’ve clearly never forgotten it!) and it successfully gives the film a feeling of fun and adventure.

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In other areas of the film, the different sections of the score succeed in creating numerous moods and feelings; as with “The Plaza of Execution”, there’s more than enough catchy, rolicking music to accompany the kinetic action sequences and swordfighting as there’s a rousing tune that accompanies a chase scene set on horseback, the finale music is tense, frantic and full of danger, and there’s even a very brief John Ford-esque Western tune when the trio of bandits seem to be riding off into the sunset (only to be apprehended a few seconds later). What’s great about it all is that, while it’s a great accompaniment to all the swashbuckling, it’s never overbearing and the main focus is always on the well-choreographed action.

And in addition to all of that, the film finds time to show plenty of slower, softer pieces for the more “romantic side” of the film, initially made apparent in an early scene where Diego’s wife Esperanza looks out longingly over the sunset-laden bay and in many other scenes involving Alejandro and Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). These graceful and tender pieces provide a good counterpoint to the faster parts of the score and ensure that The Mask of Zorro is both a passionate romantic tale as well as a solid swashbuckler.

Of course, it’s not all dreamy romance with Alejandro and Elena and, because there’s an undeniable fire in their relationship, the soundtrack includes “more robust” sections of music when the two of them passionately dance a Paso Doble and later on when they engage in a swordfight – the latter is a patient piece that gradually builds and allows the sexual tension between the characters to build.

And closing the film is the song “I Want To Spend My Lifetime Loving You“, written by Horner, with lyrics by frequent collaborator Will Jennings, and sung by Marc Anthony and Tina Arena. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the lyrics (the title is a bit too corny, not to mention a real mouthful to say out loud) but the hauntingly beautiful tune really makes it work and it’s a sound that really struck a chord with me back when I watched it as a pre-teen. Personally, I think the tune is reminiscent of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” by The Four Tops, which is probably why I like the piece so much – because that Four Tops song is one of my all time favourites. It’s also sung with worthy passion and zeal by Marc Anthony and Tina Arena, though they perhaps show off a little too much by trying to hit a bazillion different notes, and their rendering of the song is capable of sticking with you for a good long while. A superb song indeed.

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So that about does it. Thank you Becky for hosting this here blogathon and thank you Mr. Horner for giving us this memorable film score!

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James Roy Horner
August 14, 1953 – June 22, 2015

 

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