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The Desert of the Tartars
  • Composed by Ennio Morricone
  • GDM / 59m

Based on Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel The Tartar Steppe, the 1976 film The Desert of the Tartars stars Jacques Perrin as a soldier who spends his life guarding an old fort, waiting for an attack. He questions the purpose of a life spent doing this – and then, when after decades the attack finally comes, he falls ill, is dismissed from the army and dies alone while journeying back home. Everybody loves a feel-good movie like that.

The film was met with much acclaim on its release though has long since fallen into relative obscurity. As usual, Ennio Morricone’s score is enjoyed by legions of people who have never (and in all likelihood will never) see the movie, such as myself. The composer was evidently very fond of the score (it was a staple of his concert programme for many years) and it’s a very strong one.

Ennio Morricone

The opening theme (“Il deserto come estasi”) is as effective a musical portrait of loneliness as you will hear: a haunting deep wind solo carries the slow-moving melody, percussion rumbles underneath, the orchestration remains sparse. It’s a very grown-up theme – I remember as a young Morricone fan not really understanding what the fuss was – now I’m older, I can see.

A much warmer theme is then introduced in “Proposta”, which is a terrific piece identifiably of the same period as things like Il Prato. Then in “Minaccia continua”, militaristic trumpet blasts accompany the same kind of staccato percussion as was heard in the opening; this continues into “Il deserto come minaccia” but this time the main theme is added to the mix as well – the militaristic feel drifts in and out, dreamlike – it’s so effective.

There’s a sensational arrangement of the secondary theme for solo piano in “La casa e la giovinezza” – shot through with so much melancholy, it’s very moving. After this, things really turn bleak for a while – more echoing dreams of conflict in “Una fortezza su una frontiera morta”, then great tension from pizzicato strings accompanied by jabbed dissonance from the piano in “Stillicidio”. There is a release of the tension to some extent in a brief action cue, “Caccia al cinghiale”, before another truly sorrowful performance of the secondary theme in “Le stagioni, gli anni” (this time the theme passing around between various soloists) – it’s not hard to understand the composer’s purpose of the cue based on its titles and he achieves it masterfully.

There’s a slightly fuller take on the main theme in “Il deserto come poesia della fine”, the orchestration bulked out very slightly compared with its previous arrangements, but it remains captivatingly stark. “Il cavallo bianco dei Tartari” is an eerie piece, shimmering at times like a mirage but with a consistently unsettling feel; then in total contrast comes “La cena degli ufficiali”, a very gentle piece of light jazz blessed with a gorgeous melody. It’s a trick, though – immediately we go to darkness and despair in “Marcia nella tormenta”, which is the musical depiction of someone losing his mind. We close with a lengthy final piece, “La vestizione e l’addio”, with that stunning secondary theme shining once more, alternating on this occasion with the main theme, given an ironic warmth for its swansong.

The widely-available version of this score now runs for just short of an hour, ten minutes longer than the version I have (which was released in the 1990s by ScreenTrax). Given I haven’t heard the GDM release I don’t know whether it was able to clean up the frankly diabolical sound quality of the initial CD release, which is the only demerit against a wonderful, emotionally-complex dramatic creation. The way the composer builds such a colourful psychological portrait of such a monochrome setting is so impressive – it steers well clear of any showiness, being instead one of those scores that wraps itself around you and invokes a really rich response.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Jon Malone (Reply) on Friday 21 August, 2020 at 07:22

    Great review. Like you, I have the original Screentrax release and you’ve inspired me to get hold of the expanded (by 10 mins) GDM release, especially if the sound quality is superior. Thank you.