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Islands in the Stream
  • Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
  • Original tracks: FSM Vol. 12 No. 20 / 2010 / 53:17
  • Re-recording: Intrada MAF7095 / 2005 / 51:19

Islands in the Stream, based on the posthumously-published novel by Ernest Hemingway, is about a man (played brilliantly by George C. Scott, in a rôle just as worthy of an Oscar as his earlier portrayal of General Patton) cut off from his family, living in the Bahamas; but when his three sons visit him, he realises the importance of developing bonds with them.  Hemingway’s novel was semi-autobiographical; he apparently said that he thought it would make a good film – if he ever finished writing it!  And it did make a good film, though one which doesn’t seem to have much of a profile today; Franklin J. Schaffner directed it with his typical lack of fuss and I find it to be captivating.

Several of Jerry Goldsmith’s very best scores were written for Schaffner’s films: Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon would make many people’s top ten lists of his work (including mine) and The Boys from Brazil and Lionheart wouldn’t be a long way behind.   Islands in the Stream can sit happily alongside these scores as, at the very least, their equal.   In fact – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the subject-matter – Islands in the Stream could well be Goldsmith’s most personal score (and he would frequently name it as his own favourite of his scores when asked that most banal question in interviews).   Jerry Goldsmith’s own personality shines through much of his music in the way that all the great film composers’ do, but rarely was it heard with such undiluted passion as here.   Most impressively, for all that this is clearly a work full of the emotions and thoughts of its composer, it is also one which makes for one of the most outstanding marriages of music and film I’ve seen.  Listen to the score on one of the albums, sure – it’s hard not to fall in love.  Watch the film and it’s hard not to be simply awestruck.

Jerry Goldsmith in salmon

The dominant theme is Hudson’s Theme, for Scott’s character – heard most prominently in a forceful horn solo but performed in various guises through the score.  At first glance, the opening cue has a slightly bracing hint about it: the very attractive melodies are placed in abrasive orchestrational settings.   But think about this: they are attached to images of a man who has not seen his children for years and has no desire (on the surface, at least) to see them – but deep down, he still harbours feelings towards them.   Throughout the first half of the score, Hudson’s Theme becomes warmer and warmer, as he builds deeper and deeper relationships with his boys.

Highlights include “Is Ten Too Old?”, which underscores a scene in which Hudson’s eldest son is in danger because a hammerhead shark has broken into the bay in which he is swimming; the lilting theme that opens the cue, while all appears well, is gradually overtaken by a frantic violin ostinato, eventually overlaid by powerful brass.   The twelve-minute cue “Marlin” is balletic, and one of Goldsmith’s very best pieces of dramatic music.   It accompanies a sequence where Hudson’s middle son, who hates him, battles to catch an enormous marlin in the ocean, determined to do so with minimal help from his father.   The music represents two struggles, as of course do film and novel: the surface-level struggle between the boy and the fish, and the mental anguish being suffered by both father and son.   While eventually the fish escapes, the music finishes in perfect harmony as the relationship between the two men hits a positive note for probably the first time in the boy’s life.

Following the boys’ departure from the island, Hudson is eventually visited by his former wife (played by Claire Bloom), who brings him the news of his eldest son’s death.   After she leaves, he decides it is time to return to America; on the dangerous crossing, Hudson and his two companions spot a burning boat full of refugees trying to reach Cuba – it has been shot by Nazis.   He takes the refugees on board and agrees to try to get them to Havana, despite the enormous risks involved.   They are literally within sight of the Cuban coast when they are finally discovered, and in the mêlée that follows, Hudson’s closest friend is shot dead.   The cue “Eddy’s Death”, that underscores this sequence, is tense, exciting and beautiful, all at the same time.   Eventually Hudson too is shot by the Nazis, but not before he has safely delivered the refugees onto Cuban soil; “It Is All True”, which accompanies his final moments and his death, is one of the most introspective and beautiful pieces of music of Goldsmith’s career.   Hudson’s Theme is dismantled to its basest form, and performed by solo piano – rarely has a film score so powerfully and affectingly represented one man’s anguish.

Intrada album cover

Islands in the Stream is Goldsmith’s ultimate character score; he would never write another so deeply personal and affecting.  Two recordings are available on CD, and frankly I’d be happy to have half a dozen more.   In 1986, Intrada released a performance made during the Lionheart sessions in Bucharest (and subsequently reissued it as part of their Excalibur Collection); while the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra may not be one of the world’s greatest, Goldsmith enticed them into a good performance here (notably better than their one on the Lionheart score, ironically).   Now, in 2010, Film Score Monthly has made the original tracks available for the first time (including a couple of minutes which didn’t make the Intrada CD because the composer wasn’t happy with the performance).  While there are imperfections in the sound, there is also some instrumental detail which is a little clearer.   It’s lovely to have the two recordings to enjoy and compare.   This isn’t a score with countless thrilling action passages, the themes may be beautiful but they’re not going to be ones many people will go away humming like a lot of Goldsmith’s others; but in this writer’s opinion, out of all the magnificent music written during his most glorious career, Islands in the Stream is up there with the cream of the crop, one of Jerry Goldsmith’s very finest works and worthy of any serious film music fan’s attention.  *****

Buy FSM’s Islands in the Stream from and help support by following this link. Alternatively, buy Intrada’s version by following this link.

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  1. purple rain (Reply) on Thursday 22 September, 2016 at 15:03

    Dear James,

    I live in Hungary, my english is not the best, but in this review it seems to me, you handle Bucharest as capital of Hungary. If so, I have to tell you it is Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania 🙂 If I misunderstood you writing, forgive me!

  2. purple rain (Reply) on Friday 23 September, 2016 at 08:14

    🙂 🙂 🙂 Don’t worry I Don’t care frankly 🙂 But if you can edit your review, please delete my comment, do not let any clue for this 🙂 🙂