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The Four Feathers
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony / 79m

Director Shekhar Kapur’s follow-up to the very successful Elizabeth was an adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers (whose previous big-screen adaptation came courtesy of Alexander Korda in 1939). Set during an uprising in Sudan in the 1880s, the film focuses on a British soldier accused of cowardice who seeks redemption when his friend is attacked. It’s a gorgeous-looking film with impeccable production values, but sadly isn’t very good.

James Horner loved films like this – broad in scope, an opportunity to incorporate ethnic elements, a director willing to just let him do his thing – and he nearly always delivered on these “epic” projects. This score’s most distinctive element is the extraordinary collision of British and Qawwali music – whether the latter is quite appropriate I’m too ignorant to know (it’s of Islamic origin from the Indian subcontinent – so, not Sudan – but it’s very effective all the same). This features prominent vocals by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

James Horner

The opening cue presents this collision well – the vocals coming together with a martial theme representing the British army, one of three excellent themes the score has to offer. The other two are introduced in the following cue, the brief but truly exquisite “The Dance” – the simple love theme is amongst the most powerful in Horner’s whole canon (and he would reuse it verbatim, far more extensively, a few years later in For Greater Glory); there’s also a theme representing Harry’s heroism which is also warm and powerful.

The lengthy “Harry’s Resignation” offers some darker versions of that latter theme (as well as brief glimpses of the love theme) before the score’s extraordinary action music is introduced in “Sniper!” – here the vocals play against intense orchestral outbursts. It’s violent music, truly distinctive and unique (for all the very understandable commentary of the composer’s tendency to borrow from here, there and everywhere, he did also have these bursts of amazing creativity at times to come up with something truly original).

“To Abu Clea” starts with more calming vocals before it too has an element of chaos brought in, based around fragments of the martial theme (here it gets a little close to the style of the most intense parts of Glory) but then we do go quite meditative in “The Martyrs” as the vocals are accompanied by powerful percussion. There is more action in the exceptional “The Mahdi”, eleven minutes of intense battle between the musical styles. Again there is a touch of Glory in the early stages as Horner ratchets up the tension and then it is suddenly broken with an explosion of vocals; the impact is visceral. The heroic theme is slightly more tentative when it comes in, but following another onslaught from the Sudanese side there is nothing tentative about the stirring strings and horns that follow.

After the intensity, the contrast achieved with the serenity of the following “The Letters” is quite powerful. Slow, calm phrases from first the strings and then a solo piano introduce the piece before Horner brings in a standalone melody which is so touching to lead into the most gentle arrangement of the heroic theme for solo flute and then a variant on the love theme (those two themes play off each other almost every time they appear). It gets a bit bigger in the middle before the composer reduces things down again; the whole piece just shimmers with beauty.

Things go dark again for most of “Poison from a Friend”, here Horner allowing the vocals a certain purity by arranging them a capella for a while before a mournful brass chorale takes over – and suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, at the end the composer allows the heroic theme to rise up near the cue’s end, presented without restraint for the first time in the score.

Following this is more action – “Escape” opens with another variant on the famous “Master Alarm” style from Apollo 13 (and many others) before going off in its own direction, again doing the east/west clash. While far from easy listening and I can certainly understand why some wouldn’t like it, it’s so intense and thrilling I think it’s fantastic – when the orchestra just explodes just before the cue’s midway point, it’s a vintage moment of James Horner epic music (complete with the score’s one and only danger motif appearance) and the powerful horn solo near the end is incredible.

“Ethne’s Feather” finally gives the love theme some breathing room and a chance to shine – it’s quite tender here, played by gentle winds – and offers a simple piano solo arrangement of the heroic theme. “Ghost of Serenity” is also a gentle piece, this one bringing a bit of closure to the score’s Qawwali side with a contemplative feel to the vocals this time.

We’re still 14 minutes from being done even though there’s only one track remaining – as ever, Horner pulling things together in a grand suite to close the score, this one even grander than usual. The highlight is the treatment of the remarkable love theme – heard only fleetingly through the score and usually presented with great restraint, but all the shackles come off as it gets a truly huge arrangement twice over the course of “A Coward No Longer”, which also offers stirring takes on the score’s two other primary themes. It’s a remarkable piece of music, the likes of which it’s hard to imagine hearing again in film.

He wasn’t to everyone’s taste but nobody else could tackle a score with this sort of broad scope quite like James Horner did, with such emotional and dramatic depth. This was his bread and butter – films like this stopped being made, really, so this is one of the last examples in his career (The Missing and Troy are the only Hollywood ones left, then late on he went into more obscure territory just to find films that would allow him to write this sort of thing). It has one great theme and two exceptional ones, and the unique style of much of it makes it stand apart as something genuinely different in his body of work (he would work with vocalist Khan again in Apocalypto but the results were nothing like this; but I do realise we got to hear the love theme again, far more of it in fact, in For Greater Glory). I wasn’t taken by it at first for some reason but as the years have gone by I’ve come to love this score as one of the composer’s best of the 2000s.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Jim (Reply) on Sunday 24 May, 2020 at 21:01

    Hi james, thanks for the review, it really is an amazing score and whilst the film may not be the best out there the sequence featuring the tracks the Martyrs & the Madhi are in my opinion some of Horners best film & music pairings which he wrote, ever will he be missed

  2. Anthony Aguilar (Reply) on Sunday 24 May, 2020 at 21:42

    Hmm… I must give this a re-listen! I’ve only heard it once, and I remember liking it generally, but not loving it.

  3. ChloeFrazier (Reply) on Sunday 31 May, 2020 at 13:49

    Thank you so much for these James Horner Reviews! He is one of my favourite composers and I still miss him and his music.

    Love your site, you are doing a great job. Thanks to you I found some secretly hidden Soundtracks. Never stop doing your website please!