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THE LION IN WINTER
Startlingly dramatic Barry classic
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2001 Silva Screen Records Ltd.; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall.
A tale of twelfth century royal infighting was an unusual place to find composer John Barry in 1968, already famous but mostly for James Bond. That he wrote what is arguably his greatest score for the film is testament to his rarely-acknowledged ability to stretch himself across a number of genres. It's a great film - Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn as the warring King Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitane are exquisite (the latter getting a well-deserved Oscar) and there are notable supporting turns from the young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. The film's other Oscar was for Barry - his third - and it was also entirely justified.
Barry had never written anything like this before - the combination of Gregorian plainsong and his striking, brassy orchestral music (with more than a hint of jazz about it in the rhythms) is tremendously striking. The portentous opening heraldic blast of the trumpets sets the dramatic tone straight away - there is not a literal war in the film, but the war of words is almost as bloody in its way; Barry leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the strained conflict to come. The Latin plainsong accompanying the piece makes it one of the most powerful main title themes I can remember; pure brilliance.
What follows is every bit as good. The choral harmonies of the a capella "Allons Gai Gai Gai" stunningly beautiful; and speaking of beautiful, it doesn't get much better than "Eleanor's Arrival", even when put up against the body of work of a film composer who has written more gorgeous, lyrical themes than most others combined. Barry has not worked with a choir often, but the effect he is able to generate here is spellbinding. There's a real ethereal quality to some of this music - thoughtful, reflective - "The Herb Garden" in particular is outstanding in that respect.
Of course, a film like this is not going to have a score which is all sweetness and light - and the dramatic potency of some of the pieces is particularly stirring. It's all in the brass - so powerful - nobody could listen to "To the Chapel" and not feel themselves sitting up straight. "God Damn You" is in the same vein; "To Rome" is startlingly similar to the "Map Room" sequence years later in John Williams's Raiders of the Lost Ark, and is also startlingly good; but best of all is "Media Vita In Morte Sumus", featuring probably the most frenzied music of Barry's career, with choir and brass ending the piece in a tumultuous battle.
My favourite track, though, is the conclusion - "We're All Jungle Creatures" - with a stirring arrangement of the main theme bringing the score to a powerful climax. It's classic film music and deserves a place in anyone's collection. The original recording was released on CD first by Varese Sarabande and then by Sony; but my preferred recording is this one on Silva Screen, conducted by Nic Raine, which is surprisingly faithful (given the slightly eclectic nature of the music) and benefits from the improved sonics. It also features a suite from another classic Barry score - Mary, Queen of Scots. I couldn't recommend it more highly.