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Beyond Borders
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Varèse Sarabande / 2003 / 55m

Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen star as aid workers in Martin Campbell’s 2003 Beyond Borders, traveling to war-ravaged regions and falling for each other in the process.  I thought it was a bit crass, setting the romance over the backdrop of such extreme suffering, but not bad; critical consensus was far less forgiving, with the film receiving a real savaging and it turned out to be a box office disaster.

This was the second of James Horner’s three collaborations with director Campbell and couldn’t have been more different from the other two (the Zorro films).  His unusual, original score is one of the most distinctive he wrote during the period, though it garnered barely any attention at the time and seems all-but-forgotten now (it probably didn’t help that no fewer than three other Horner-scored movies came out within a couple of weeks either side of this one, and while Radio didn’t get much notice either, House of Sand and Fog and The Missing did).

James Horner

James Horner

The album is divided into three distinct sections representing the three main locations of the film, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya, each subdivided into four nameless tracks.  The Ethiopian section begins with the score’s gorgeous main theme, African (and other ethnic) percussion and winds accompanying a women and children’s choir, a bit like the kind of world music the composer would later put into Avatar.  The second cue of features a striking vocal performance (not written by Horner) with dark, dark synthetic sounds and, later, rumbling (not quite the trademark crashing) piano leading into dark, unsettling, and heavily electronic atmospherics.  In stark contrast, the third part is absolutely beautiful, Horner evoking memories of what I believe he said was his favourite film score (Ennio Morricone’s The Mission) with the gorgeous winds then a welcome reprise of the choral theme, more solemn this time.  The score’s second principal theme is introduced in the fourth part, a plaintive and relaxing melody, a little whimsical, heard first for solo piano then oboe, the accompaniment so subtle (keyboards and a little from the orchestra) that when there’s a brief passage of the keyboards rising up into a new age frenzy, it’s really quite arresting.

There’s an immediate change as the “Cambodia” section begins with much more hardcore synths contrasted with a flute solo of the romantic theme, which is then allowed to breathe alone before the melody is taken up by the piano again.  (It’s very effective at conveying a sense of being lost in an unfamiliar, almost alien environment).  Then the synths get even dirtier in the ten-minute second part, which has a chaotic, frantic feel (and pan pipes which again recall The Mission, being used here in a similarly unsettling way).  It’s genuinely such different music from Horner, even while retaining some of his quirks (especially with the piano, which is indeed now crashing, and one of the subtlest-ever appearances of the danger motif).  In the third part, Horner presents his main theme for strings for the first time, in a beautiful arrangement tinged with sadness and late in the cue, for the first time, comes some of the composer’s trademark sentimentality in a spinetingling little passage.  The section concludes with one of the score’s subtlest pieces, a lonesome flute the only punctuation to a wash of synths before another piano rendition of the secondary theme, much more tentative this time, as the synths gradually turn darker and darker before the piece’s final minute introduces a very familiar melody from elsewhere in the composer’s career (I’ll leave you to discover where).

“Chechnya” opens with the secondary theme but there is a slight Slavic feel to the accompaniment (as well as pan pipes, which admittedly aren’t particularly common in Slavic regions) and then the chaos comes back, at first seemingly fleetingly before a pause mid-cue and then a further trip into uncharted synthetic territory (for this composer, anyway) with sirens and klaxons and (literally) bells and whistles.  The second part is easily the most “conventional” cue on the album, a piece of typical Horner orchestral action music which is somewhat at odds with what’s around it but still hugely satisfying.  Next up is Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei” from “Kinderszenen”, a beautiful piece for piano (and, perhaps a bit surprisingly, actually credited on the album cover).  The score ends with a truly lovely arrangement of the secondary theme for various ethnic winds with an almost funereal percussive undercurrent (which is a lot better than I made it sound) and then one final surprise with a new melody, bright and uplifting, before a brief reprise of the choral theme.

While the melodies may be cut from the usual Horner cloth, the way they’re presented and the material surrounding them (particularly the extensive electronics) are genuinely different from any other score in this composer’s oeuvre.  Given that, I was surprised at the time that – even allowing for the lack of success found by the film – Beyond Borders didn’t garner more attention and still think now that a lot of people would be really rather surprised by this creative, unusual, intelligent and very satisfying work blessed with two outstanding main themes and so much imaginative colour and texture.  It does have some more challenging moments but they are part of a very satisfying whole.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Nic (Reply) on Friday 15 April, 2016 at 18:07

    I actually consider this one of Horner’s most underrated post-2000 scores. I actually watched the (rubbish) film just to hear Horner’s score in context and the choral work is just so lovely and I actually rather like Horner’s “dirty” electronics.

  2. Adam Cousins (Reply) on Saturday 16 April, 2016 at 04:00

    I discovered this score last year and I like it a lot.
    Distinctly Horneresque in places but not typical Horner by any means. There’s also a bit of Goldenthal in there too.

  3. Regis (Reply) on Saturday 16 April, 2016 at 14:32

    Might i recommend a great score for Krampus by Douglas Pipes for a review? 🙂

  4. Kevin (Reply) on Thursday 31 May, 2018 at 03:30

    I agree, this is very underrated but next to House of Sand and Fog (Oscar nominee) and The Missing (one of Horner’s best scores post-Titanic), it was easy to get overshadowed.

    It’s definitely one of his most interesting scores. The electronics are really funky indeed, especially the Cambodia section, but melodically, it’s very much in Horner’s wheelhouse. The two main themes are nice but there’s a third theme that really flourishes in the Chechnya section, mainly that thrilling orchestral second part about a minute 45 seconds in, that I really like a lot.

    But yeah, this score deserves more attention. I think unfortunately it doesn’t help that the movie got such bad reviews (even though I thought it was ok).

    And just a guess, that “very familiar” melody is from Swing Kids, right?