The time has come yet again to celebrate the musical maestro that is James Horner with the fifth annual blogathon that is being hosted, as always, by Dr. Becky at Film Music Central. It’s always a pleasure to celebrate this particularly talented composer so let’s go and take a look at another of his great works, shall we?
In the past, I’ve chosen to wax lyrical about Horner’s majestic scores for the animated films An American Tail and The Land Before Time as well as moving into live action by talking about the scores that he provided for The Mask of Zorro and Commando but just which film score would I choose to examine this year? Well, seeing as how I’ve already talked about my absolute favourite James Horner scores, this year I decided that I would try something a bit different and examine a film that I’d never seen before and since I’d heard some good things about Horner’s music in the 1989 film Glory, I quickly decided on that one.
Directed by Edward Zwick and starring Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Denzel Washington (who won an Academy Award for his supporting performance as Pvt. Trip), the Civil War-set Glory is about the 54th division of the Union army, the first all-black volunteer company, and straight off the bat, as the informative text appears on screen, we begin to hear a soft fanfare and then drums that immediately let us know what kind of a film this is going to be, namely a Civil War film that will celebrate the fallen heroes. The music heard during the opening, the track in question being “A Call to Arms“, is something of a “dawn chorus” as it is played over footage of soldiers waking up and gradually heading off to fight, accompanied by Matthew Broderick’s voiceover narration, and the brass, drums, and choral vocals (brilliantly provided by The Boys Choir of Harlem) immediately give the film a real feeling of beauty, majesty and melancholy and as the battle begins, the music effectively becomes bolder but also particularly haunting as we begin to see injury and death. This particular track also introduces a certain theme, the “main theme” I guess you’d call it, that is heard again in several other tracks throughout the feature.
All of this works very well but what is also noticable is that it’s never too overwhelming or intrusive and in several of the battle sequences, music isn’t heard at all and this is a wise move because it would be all too easy to constantly play music and to explicitly tell us what emotions we should be feeling but as the score is relatively restrained for most of the runtime, we can realise that Horner’s score is only heard when necessary and it was a smart move to let the fight scenes and the emotional nature of the story speak for themselves.
As for the rest of the film, in tracks like “Forming the Regiment“, we see various “swellings” occur when the recruits march off and the “adventure” begins, the music here appearing more triumphant and with a certain amount of pomp and circumstance and in keeping with the Civil War setting, the primary instruments would appear to be flutes and/or recorders (I think that I say this most years: I’m no musician, so I’m probably a million miles away), as well as drums, and brass instruments and in these moments, the music is appropriately stirring and manages to convey a feeling of patriotism and heroism – very important when played over the actions of these real life figures.
In addition, the music is often tense and it builds up quite subtly in such scenes as “The Whipping“, admirably managing to evoke a sense of sadness and unease, and the music is particularly emotional during a sequence in which the regiment is forced to set fire to a small town; in Horner’s track “Burning the Town of Darien” there’s definitely a swelling of sadness, the soft vocals and emotional nature of the music being quite reminiscent of An American Tail and The Land Before Time, in my opinion, and this particular sombre track is just so beautifully sad and is one of those examples of just how masterful the composer could be.
But the pièce de résistance would surely have to be heard in the grand finale of the piece because it is here that the score no longer holds back and as the regiment undertakes a suicide mission to capture a fort, the music that we hear is particularly powerful and really quite accomplished. When the sequence begins, Horner gives us “Preparations for Battle“, in which there are several dips and rises in the music, heard when the division is cheered on as they march into battle, and the music here really instills a feeling of pride, admiration and beauty and Horner makes use of those strings, horns, quickening drums, and the reintroduction of the choir to make sure that we know that this is indeed a very big and important moment. We even hear trimphant bells!
But afterwards, those bells turn into a death knell as things go badly and the central characters start to fall; in the track “Charging Fort Wagner“, cymbals clash, the vocals become noticeably more piercing, and we even hear a sort of rhythmic chanting as all of this definitely suggests danger and the “death bells” become difficult to ignore. However, things soon change again as the men charge forward and, for a time at least, things appear more hopeful and optimistic; the music becomes quicker and it all reaches a bold crescendo, after which the charging soldiers are faced with, and freeze when they see, a great host of enemy soldiers and a primed cannon aimed directly at them, at which point the music abruptly ceases and the screen cuts to white and we’re left wondering what became of our brave heroes, only to discover that many of them died and here, as we move into “An Epitaph to War“, where the recognisable theme is brought in once again, the mournful singing of the choir resumes and with this sorrowful music, we are subtly asked to “remember the fallen” and to feel something for those who lost their lives.
So all in all, Glory gives us yet another mighty fine, emotional, and emotionally affecting score from the talented maestro as, just like his other works, the compositions really are beautiful and they successfully create an atmosphere of bravery, heroism and patriotism, managing to tell us that these men were heroes just from the music alone. Horner also finds time for some more tense and/or saddening pieces and what’s more, the score is never overpowering and it’s also wisely absent during a few of the early battle sequences.
Thank you to Becky at Film Music Central for hosting this blogathon yet again (I have no idea which film I could pick next time though!) and thank you to the maestro James Horner for the memorable music.