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  • Composed by James Horner
  • RCA Victor / 2002 / 67m

After making some financially successful action pictures in Hollywood, Hong Kong director John Woo aimed for a more “serious” film when he made Windtalkers, which was notionally about the Navajo code used by the Americans in World War Two and the Native Americans used to pass it on.  It turned out to be more about Nicolas Cage and was very poorly received when it was finally released following several months’ delay after 9/11.

Part of Woo’s drive to get a bit of credibility to it came in him eschewing the Media Ventures composers he generally favoured for his American films and turning instead to James Horner.  (Ironically in 2015 people probably turn to Hans Zimmer when they want some gravitas for their film.)  For the composer it was the second WWII score within the space of a year, following Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates.  Horner’s next two scores would both also be for films set during times of conflict – one older, The Four Feathers; one newer, Beyond Borders – and the diversity between these four scores written within a couple of years of each other make the claim – heard often at the time – that the composer was in a creative lull seem rather silly, even if parts of this score do have something in common with that for Annaud’s film.

James Horner

James Horner

The album begins with “Navajo Dawn”, distant voices calling at the opening of the piece with a clear ethnic component that I’m surprised the composer didn’t explore further through the score – he rarely missed an opportunity through his career to delve into ethnic sounds and add them to his more standard orchestral palette, but there are only bits and pieces in this score.  In fact it’s not long before a very conventional passage of Americana, a Copland approximation not unlike those John Williams used in the body of Saving Private Ryan.  A burst of the familiar danger motif – here extended by a full 50% to six notes – introduces a more tense passage of music, which culminates in a very interesting variant on one of the composer’s staples, the Khachaturian Gayane adagio, interpolated more subtly than in Aliens and elsewhere, darker and more intense here (and developed further as the main secondary theme as the score progresses).

“A New Assignment” is much warmer despite a palpable nervousness and builds to the gorgeous main theme, first for a lilting flute solo before being taken up by the strings later in the piece.  It’s a variant on a melody the composer had used several times before, perhaps most prominently in Enemy at the Gates, but it took on a rather different form in that score.  The secondary theme is heard again to open “An Act of Heroism” before an ethnic flute plays the main theme which mutates into an action motif, snares and discordant brass heralding the start of the score’s first real thrills, but that’s rather short-lived with strained strings entering not long afterwards.  “Taking the Beachhead” is the score’s action centrepiece, dark and growling to begin with but picking up a real sweep as it moves on, the highlight (indeed of the whole score) being the glorious performance of the main theme by the whole orchestra, snare drums underneath and heraldic trumpets on top.

A moment of calm follows in the brief “First Blood Ceremony”, the ethnic flute (played by Phil Ayling) taking on the lead role, with accompaniment from some distant percussion.  In “The Night Before” Horner offers an extended, low-key take on the main theme which is very nice before another action onslaught is launched in “Marine Assault” – there’s a lot going on in the cue, considerable depth to the orchestration, great intensity to the writing and more than a dash of heroism coming through.  “Losses Mounting” is much more strained, the second half very contemplative and surprisingly detached from the action.  The action is back front and centre in “Friends in War”, thrilling string runs contrasting with brassy flourishes and occasional peaceful interludes.  It’s one of those lengthy constructions that were one of Horner’s trademarks, eight minutes of extremely fluent writing running through a gamut of emotions and indeed narrative points, including the most John Williams-like music he ever wrote (some of the more martial passages of the action) and some familiar plundering from his beloved Russian greats.

“A Sacrifice Never Forgotten” opens with a terrific, up-front version of the secondary theme which leads into a piece of epic sweep, including some wonderful arrangements of the main theme.  I love the call-and-response dialogue between two trumpets which is heard in the middle of the cue, a clever technique which is musically very satisfying.  There is no surprise in the fact that Horner closes the score with a lengthy (10’33”) finale, “Calling to the Wind”.  The voices heard at the very start of the score make their first reappearance, playing their part in by far the score’s most emotional piece, which is a series of little episodes and pockets of melody sewn together masterfully, Horner tugging away at the heartstrings as he did so often and so skilfully.

Windtalkers received genuinely mixed reviews when it was released, with the 2002 version of me being in the camp of non-fans while others were considerably more enthusiastic.  It feels much easier to appreciate it now, benefiting from the passing of years.  There’s actually a lot going on in it and apart from the total absence of romance it’s pretty close in style to those exceptional scores he wrote in the mid-1990s.  It’s a classic by no means and I understand that in a body of work like James Horner’s it’s easy for some things to get a little lost, particularly back from the time he was so prolific, but I suspect a lot of people who may have dismissed this at the time (like I did, foolishly) would have a very pleasant surprise were they to get the album off the dustier part of their CD shelf and give it another chance today.  The music is surprisingly detached at times, but like an emotional thunderbolt at others (particularly the finale, a piece so good it adds a whole star onto the rating).

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Nate U (Reply) on Tuesday 14 July, 2015 at 00:44

    I feel as though Horner’s later output is going through a similar reconsideration of merit by film music critics as Goldsmith’s 90s output did. Sometimes you just don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.

    Slightly more controversial statement: I would not at all be surprised if a similar thing happens with Zimmer’s recent output, eventually. Time can illuminate many truths….

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Tuesday 14 July, 2015 at 20:01

    I think you’re right about Horner, Nate. For my part, I certainly underrated him for a few years but I did find myself eventually in a similar place to where I was for a long time with Goldsmith, hearing a new score and wondering how on earth so few people seemed to like it as much as me.

    I guess time will tell with Zimmer. People seem to rate him pretty highly already, much more so than either Horner or Goldsmith in their last 10-15 years respectively.

  3. tiago (Reply) on Wednesday 15 July, 2015 at 02:16

    I have to admit that I didn’t like Windtalkers much the first time I heard it on album (on the movie, it worked wonderfully), although I’m a big fan of Enemy at the Gates and, specially, its brilliant End Credits cue. Guess I’m more into russian music than Navajo’s (just kidding, folks).

    But, thanks to your review, James, I’ll give Windtalkers another chance. It worked pretty well on The Perfect Storm, a score that I liked more on the second time I heard it, based on Movie Wave, than on the first.

  4. Daniel Henderson (Reply) on Wednesday 15 July, 2015 at 08:51

    I think the biggest issues with most of Horner’s score of this period is Simon Rhodes’ mixing. This might just be me talking, but the orchestral details aren’t highlighted as well as Bruce Botnick or Joel Iwataki. The details are there, but you have to listen harder to hear them.

    Better example is in his Zorro scores. The detail of the soloists is mind blowing while the orchestra sounds muted in comparison.

  5. John (Reply) on Wednesday 15 July, 2015 at 16:37

    This review makes me look forward to a possible reevaluation of The Four Feather. I’ve always found TFF to be one of his finest works, despite some annoying repetition on album. Perhaps this distance from the release has made you feel similarly? Great work as always, James!

    • James Southall (Reply) on Wednesday 15 July, 2015 at 20:07

      Definitely, John. (By strange coincidence I am listening to it at this very moment!)

  6. Adam Cousins (Reply) on Thursday 16 July, 2015 at 10:01

    Just ordered this as for some reason I’ve never got round to picking it up. Your review was just the nudge I needed!

  7. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Friday 17 July, 2015 at 23:57

    first and last tracks disappointing and unoriginal Horner but anyone fans of Horner’s ethnic wails (a la Apocalyptico or uhm eh, Black Gold should download the bookended tracks’ .

    “Navajo Dawn” and” Calling to the Wind” and

  8. Kevin (Reply) on Sunday 19 July, 2015 at 04:13

    This score and Enemy at the Gates are two of Horner’s most underrated works. Great war scores.