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Enemy at the Gates
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 77m

Set during the horrors of the battle of Stalingrad, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates focuses on a personal battle between two snipers – the Russian Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) and the German Erwin König (Ed Harris). It’s based on real people and events but highly-dramatised – it is generally at its best when focusing on the feud between the two men, with everything else (including a trite romantic subplot) seeming superfluous – everything that is except the extraordinarily powerful scene where Law and his comrades arrive at Stalingrad and many are shot by their own officers for turning back from the German onslaught.

Annaud had collaborated fifteen years earlier with James Horner on The Name of the Rose and it was not a happy experience for either, so it was a bit of a surprise when they came together again for this one – which turned out to be far more fruitful collaboration and led to more to follow (Annaud wouldn’t direct a film this high profile again – but Horner’s music was top-tier throughout their working relationship). Of course, James Horner was a composer who couldn’t resist quoting the Russian masters at the best of times – so for a film such as this, there was no holding him back in that regard – Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov all figure prominently (as does the rather less Russian Mahler). To be fair – Annaud himself was fairly obviously paying homage to Eisenstein as well.

James Horner

I often marvel at Horner’s ability to write functional film music which also has the most elaborate musical architecture and a prime example comes with this score’s opening cue, the fifteen-minute “The River Crossing to Stalingrad”. It opens with great introspection for a brief prelude which sees Law’s character as a young boy learning to use a rifle, in a battle of wits with a wolf – then the composer keeps going through that horrific river crossing scene, with great musical anguish – he unleashes a beautiful theme representing the humanity being sacrificed – we hear the score’s main theme (which at the time saw accusations of the composer copying John Williams – when Mahler was in fact the originator, which any James Horner fan would have known having previously heard the same thing in Balto and even, more subtly, Apollo 13). He gets through chaos, desperate action/suspense music, heroism – and then as the piece closes we hear the same music as we did when it opened, a quarter of an hour earlier – only now the innocence and tentativeness are replaced with resignation and fear.

The feeling of desperation grows through “The Hunter Becomes the Hunted”, with the infamous four-note motif playing its usual role in Horner scores as the harbinger of doom (and it is heard an awful lot in this score – its action music variant which would later figure so prominently in Troy having briefly appeared in the opening cue). In this second piece, its use is the more commonly-heard suspense variant; occasional interjections from the main theme offer a little respite from the tension. A subtler-than-usual quote from Horner’s favourite Khachaturian piece opens “Vassili’s Fame Spreads” but this is quickly taken over by an extended, triumphant fanfare that explodes into a choral anthem, a dynamic patriotic theme; then again the composer dials back, returning to the strained strings of the piece’s opening but this time overlaying the main theme.

The four-note motif is sprinkled liberally through “Koulikov” as the German sniper takes the upper hand for the first time – Horner builds things up and the opening cue’s sacrifice theme, taken up this time by the violins, has echoes of similar moments in Glory when it emerges from the rumbling dissonance. Following this, “The Dream” is an interesting cue that seems to offer a musical representation of a growing resolve – it moves from hints of terror to a firm resolution – and then “Bitter News” offers the score’s most lilting variant on its main theme, Horner applying a deftness of touch that he rarely got credited for as he tackles the conflicting emotions of the central characters.

That proves to be very much the calm before the storm, as “The Tractor Factory” is a masterpiece of tension – it underscores a lengthy scene in which the two snipers are unable to move without being shot and must figure out a solution – the piece explodes into action sporadically, in between Horner using snares, undulating strings and the four-note motif to highlight the intense psychological torment of the characters. Then “A Sniper’s War” opens with another of the composer’s favourite little motifs (which I always associate most with Commando but perhaps more pertinently in Horner’s mind this time was Gorky Park) – after the brief outburst at the beginning, the piece settles back into more tension, the strings swirling around kaleidoscopically, leading up to a very dramatic and intense conclusion.

“Sacha’s Risk” is full of tragedy (Sacha being a boy who develops relationships with both of the snipers – with less than desirable consequences) – the arrangement of the main theme is simple, childlike – and desperately sad. It leads into even more desperate territory, again a hint of Glory to the elegiac voices, Horner contrasting the gentleness and human sound with some abrasive textures (and another variant on the Khachaturian adagio). After this there’s a gentleness to the opening of “Betrayal” – across the lengthy piece (eleven minutes) Horner offers a series of variations on his main theme, some gently swirling, others imbibed with a grand sweep – but none so grand as the sweep that arrives in the final minutes when first the full orchestra and choir explode together before Horner concludes the piece with a stirringly dramatic new variant on the theme.

In “Danilov’s Confession” Horner skates a delicate path from more desperation and doom through, ultimately, a sense of finding peace at last after all the horrors that have happened before. Its second half, with the choir reprising the sacrifice theme, is delicate and moving, before there is final emotional resolution through a suddenly-optimistic take on the main theme. For the end titles, “Tania”, the composer opens with the main theme heard on mandolin and then the musical forces begin to build up (both orchestral and choral) as he presents a gorgeous take on the theme and then the sacrifice theme.

Enemy at the Gates is one of those Horner scores that is definitely not for anyone whose blood boils when he borrows music either from the classics or from his own prior works, because it is full of both of those things. Its reputation has no doubt suffered as a result, but for any devotee of the composer it’s an essential listen – the way he structures the score, avoids taking sides, subtly builds ideas and pays them off against each other – they’re all great – and as usual listening to the album takes you on a vividly-painted dramatic and emotional journey.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. Anthony Aguilar (Reply) on Saturday 29 May, 2021 at 17:59

    Agreed on all fronts! A fantastic score and one of my favorite late Horner scores. The first 15 minute cue is a monumental work of art in and of itself.

  2. Jim (Reply) on Saturday 29 May, 2021 at 18:45

    I really love this score even taking into the accounts the famiar beats within the cohesive whole really takes this album and music to a really high level. James Horner at his best

  3. Kevin (Reply) on Monday 31 May, 2021 at 00:02

    Great review for a great score. It’s one of my favorites. Horner’s homage to Shostakovich. “The River…” is excellent, as are “Koulikov,” “Sacha’s Risk,” “Danilov’s Confession,” and “Tania.”