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Thunderheart
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Intrada / 44m

A very fine film, Michael Apted’s Thunderheart stars Val Kilmer as an FBI agent sent to investigate a murder on a Native American reservation. The twist comes from his character having some Sioux heritage, which leads to him becoming increasingly conflicted as he becomes embroiled in the culture.

The film was the third collaboration between Apted and James Horner. In keeping with the previous two (Gorky Park and Class Action) it is predominantly electronic, although to the keyboard ensemble Horner added various Native American textures this time, both vocal and instrumental (and – it goes without saying – the Japanese shakuhachi flute).

James Horner

The composer’s music is dark and intense. Over the opening titles, we hear distant chanting over a bed of synths; piano and typical Horner electronic sounds dominate the following cue “The Oglala Sioux”. Action comes in “Jimmy’s Escape”, and it’s fairly abrasive. The main theme (for what it is) is heard in “Proud Nation” but despite the title, don’t expect any grandstanding – it’s subtle, with an air of mysticism.

That side of things provides the most interesting elements of the score – in the pair of cues “First Vision” and “Ghost Dance” there is certainly a spiritual feel. I’m not well-placed to say whether it is “authentic” or not, but it’s a much more serious attempt to be so than the kind of “Injun” music that dominated film music from the days of Max Steiner onwards. It’s so dark though – the atmosphere is note-perfect in the film but quite a challenge on album.

In “The Goons” we hear that now very familiar technique of using the shakuhachi as the rhythmic base for “ethnic” action music – I believe this was one of the first times the composer did it (perhaps even the first) and it’s very effective, though here it’s surrounded by some very abrasive synth sounds so again is more impressive with the picture than without.

The only time Horner allows any kind of sweep to enter the score is in the eight-minute finale “This Land Is Not For Sale”, but temper your expectations even for that – there’s still considerable restraint through most of it. The first half explores the main theme, the second reprises some of the more action-oriented ideas from the score. Within the film the score comes across as respectful and understated and supports it very well – it’s not often I say this about James Horner scores, but it just doesn’t function particularly well as an album.

Rating: **

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  1. Hawkins (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 10:39

    This isn’t much different from the review of “Thunderheart” that you wrote when Horner was alive – same sentiments about the music, same star rating and no substantial new information about either the film or the recording process. I don’t know why you bothered to review this score again if you had nothing new to say. But then again, maybe this kind of recycling seems appropriate in a meta sense, given you’re writing about a composer notorious for his tendency to recycle himself.

    In a career that was often distinguished by bombast and sentimentality, “Thunderheart” actually strikes me as one of the more intelligent and thoughtful works of Horner’s career, and as a pure listening experience, it’s easier on my ears than most of his other thriller scores.