R.I.P. James Horner, Composer of Classic Movie Scores


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You may not know the name James Horner, but there's a good chance you know his work. He's scored dozens of movies over the last thirty-odd years, including the James Cameron megahits Titanic and Avatar. In addition to those films, Horner also scored movies such as Glory, Willow, The Rocketeer, Braveheart, Sneakers, Patriot Games, Apollo 13, Cocoon, Commando, Legends of the Fall, Clear and Present Danger, Ransom, The Perfect Storm, and Apocalypto, just to name a handful of highlights. 

Not all of the movies he scored were great films, but more than a few were legitimate classics, and Horner's score made those good movies better, more memorable, films. Even his scores to bad films (Krull, anyone?) were frequently exemplars of the form, helping to establish character, place, and tone without simply instructing viewers on exactly how to feel. Horner was among the elite of Hollywood film composers, and along with John Williams and a few others, he helped define what contemporary movie scores were supposed to sound like—sweeping and grandiose, emotionally resonant without being manipulative. 

Horner's best scores added both cultural texture and operatic intensity; I'm particularly fond of two of his early projects, the scores for the 80s sci-fi classics Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. Horner's score for Khan launched his career, and it gives the film, which was conceived as a kind of spacefaring riff on Horatio Hornblower, a choppy, high-seas adventure sensibility.

His score for director James Cameron's Aliens is a classic that captures both the brooding, ambient mystery of the film's slow-building opening hour and the breathless intensity of its final act.

The heart-pounding, last-gasp kicker for the movie's finale is maybe the best kicker in the history of movie soundtracks, and became incredibly influential as it was endlessly recycled in movie trailers for years after. What's even more impressive is that Horner wrote the score, and in particular the final sequence, while facing incredible time pressure due to production delays caused by Cameron's micromanagement. Horner describes the intense, exhausting process in a brief interview from several years ago, which you can watch below.

Sadly, Horner died yesterday in a plane crash in California. He was 61 years old. R.I.P.

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  1. Huh?

    Oh, Suderman.

  2. Horatio Hornblower?

    1. Predecessor to Lucky Jack Aubrey. I read all the books in my youth. Very, very similar styles, though Hornblower was probably less historically accurate. For example, I can think of maybe one time Hornblower ever lost a mast or sail due to outright speed rather than enemy action. Aubrey treated that sort of thing as the price of doing business.

      1. That I knew, I was more perplexed by Suderman's comment that Khan was a riff on that, as opposed to it being a riff on Moby Dick.

        1. That actually goes way back. Kirk was loosely modeled on Hornblower. I quite like the Hornblower books. There was a decent BBC series based on the books.

        2. Nicholas Meyer, the writer/director of Star Trek II was a Horatio Hornblower fan. He pushed Star Trek to be more of a Hornblower type adventure series and many of the tweaks between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II are a result of the Hornblower influence. Meyer wanted a more militarized Star Fleet hence the uniform change with obvious naval styling. He wanted the futuristic equivalent of the guns being run out, so they built the torpedo loading set, etc...

          1. When TOS was originally pitched, Roddenberry explicitly referenced the captain as a "Horatio Hornblower" type.

            1. I did not know that. I heard Roddenberry did not like the more militarized direction that Meyer took the series, it's interesting that both were using the same novels for inspiration.

          2. Well, I stand corrected. Thanks for all that input - I was not aware (obviously).

  3. Not all of the movies he scored were great films, but more than a few were legitimate classics.

    Commando is a definitive 80s action flick, indeed! Not the best, mind you, but most 80s Action of them all.

    1. And what kind of an asshole doesn't like Krull? That movie was awesome and a defining fantasy movie up there with Time Bandits and Conan and Red Dwarf!

      Suderman down 10 more notches, TO THE WOODCHIPPER!!!!!


      yeah I said it!

      1. And what kind of an asshole doesn't like Krull?

        Excellent question, CB. Not sure I want to know the answer, but, still.

  4. He's not really dead, just as long as we remember him.

    1. He mostly comes out at night. Mostly.

      1. Well why don't you put her in charge?!?

  5. I watched Wrath of Khan on Sunday, as I do every Father's Day, and still love the score. It really made the movie.

    Horner had a tendency to recycle from film to film, but I suspect that every film composer does this. His were easier to pick out, since they stick in your memory so.

    1. RIP Horner, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan could have been scored by Danny Elfman and it would still be the greatest piece of cinema to come out of human existence.

      1. Are you implying Weird Science isn't one of the greatest films of all time?!?

        (slaps FoE with glove)

        1. Well I didn't think it was a whale's dick, honey.

      2. Hmph.

        Edward Scissorhands

        is one of my favorite scores.

        1. Oops - HTML fail

            1. Ouch.

    2. Horner was guilty of re-using a lot of his older material.

      For example, there are long segments from Aliens that he ripped off of the Khan soundtrack.

      However, as was pointed out, Horner had only 3 weeks to record and orchestrate the score, so it's easy to forgive his lack of originality. Also, John Williams is also a bit of a self-plagiarist.

      1. He also "sampled" Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" in Aliens...probably was intentional though.

        1. He also had to incorporate the original Jerry Goldsmith theme from the first Alien movie. He didn't have a lot of room to innovate on the soundtrack.

          He received the Oscar nomination for "Bishop's Countdown."

          1. Aliens is a great sci fi action movie, easily the greatest in the franchise which otherwise ranges from ok to...dont even mention it.

            Generally I think movies get way overscored and generally I'm content now if the score just doesn't irritate me.

    3. I liked the action theme with the French horns.

    4. He also tended to borrow from other composers (Shostakovich, Wagner, and Orff). Nonetheless he still made great music.

  6. I thoroughly enjoy his work, and though he does recycle, at least Sneakers is way different from STII:TWOK, which was very different from Braveheart. But John Williams is the most over-rated composer to ever write a film score. Star Wars was cool, and I will give him Jaws and Superman. But Jurassic Park, ET, Indiana Jones all pretty much the same.

    1. When people think of the work Williams did on the Star Wars movies, they often bring up the Imperial March. But I think William's greatest contribution was the Assault on the Death Star theme from the first movie.

    2. Star Wars was fantastically scored, though. I think the music played a significant role in the oomph of the movie.

      1. That and editing. Star Wars arrived at the right time to exploit the new school of film editors that appeared in the late 1970s. Combined with Williams' score, the editing helped to give the movie the exhilarating pace that made it so fun to watch.

  7. I'm sure he was a good man, and it's always sad to lose someone before their time. But the Titanic soundtrack sucked. The fake synth chorus sucked most of all.

    1. I remember him for Glory and Troy.

  8. Dick Van Patten has also passed. It sounds like it was the diabeetus.

    1. I hear Lou Reed's coughing up blood.

      Any day now....

  9. Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
    Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
    Baith rich and poor of all degree:?
    Timor Mortis conturbat me. 20

    He takis the knichtis in to the field
    Enarmit under helm and scheild;
    Victor he is at all mellie:?
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    That strong unmerciful tyrand 25
    Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
    The babe full of benignitie:?
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He takis the campion in the stour,
    The captain closit in the tour, 30
    The lady in bour full of bewtie:?
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He spairis no lord for his piscence,
    Na clerk for his intelligence;
    His awful straik may no man flee:? 35
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
    Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
    Them helpis no conclusionis slee:?
    Timor Mortis conturbat me. 40

    In medecine the most practicianis,
    Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
    Themself from Death may not supplee:?
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

  10. This will be the down fall to the greatest country on the planet. too many leaches think they are entitled to other peoples earnings. ?????

    1. Damn right; without James Horner around to score films this country is surely doomed. I just don't know of Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone will be able to keep the "leaches" at bay by themselves.

  11. Speaking of scores, I was at the Colorado Renaissance Festival this past weekend and one of the roving bagpipers was playing GoT theme song. Pure Awesome!

    1. I was on the University of Washington campus playing tennis a few months ago and the marching band was practicing for some upcoming event. What were they playing? The GoT theme. It was pretty funny hearing it from a bunch of brass.

      1. Speaking of scores, blah blah blab yo mama.

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