9 Favorite Film Scores of James Horner

I’m usually negatively vocal about the works of James Horner—in person and in print. I’ve criticized his uncredited borrowing from Prokofiev, as well as his over-reliance on certain motifs. Rumors to the contrary, I do not hate Horner’s music. Horner has a distinctive voice, but his flaws as a composer need to be taken into account in any discussion of his music, at least from my end. And while I will be the first to jump down his throat for any overused, annoying “Hornerisms,” Horner is a superb dramatist whose music illuminates—and often surpasses—the films he scores.

Horner certainly knows his way around a melody and his harmonic language is solidly based in tonality, making his music popular among film score fans and the general public. (TITANIC anyone?) But Horner’s overuse of those certain motifs—in particular a 7-note snare drum riff and an ever-present minor-key triplet “danger” motif in the brass—while immediately identifying the music as his, ultimately rob many of the scores of their spark and originality.

I prefer my Horner on the gentler side, in scores where he doesn’t seem to be straining so hard. For me, the music is more relaxed and personal, as opposed to the forced bombast of many of the bigger blockbuster scores, which, while often exciting, can come across as pale imitations other composers, as well as of each other.

When I first revisited Horner’s music in preparation for this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I thought I’d be hard pressed to come up with nine selections, especially considering how angry I get at him sometimes. But it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable few weeks of tonal film music, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had to whittle down a sizable chunk of solidly crafted film music.

9. ALIENS (1986)

[audio:aliens.mp3]

Every bit as effective, in its own way, as Jerry Goldsmith’s original ALIEN score, Horner’s music for the sequel was equally butchered and caused a rift in his relationship with director James Cameron. Yet even in its compromised state, the string chords and echoing brass capture the lonely vastness of space, while the top-notch action cues have been used in countless trailers ever since.

8. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (2003)

[audio:houseofsandandfog.mp3]

This dark film stars Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley as a recovering addict and the bullish head of an immigrant Iranian family battling over the ownership of a house. The music ebbs and flows as if in a dream, floating and drifting throughout the film, giving the story a harmonic haze that offsets some of the more unpleasant aspects of the story. A surprising Oscar nominee.

7. ALL THE KING’S MEN (2006)

[audio:allthekingsmen.mp3]

The Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of Southern political corruption had already been made into a 1949 Oscar-winning Best Picture. And with Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins on board, the remake had all the earmarks of further Oscar bait. But critics left the film hanging from the magnolia trees, and Horner’s dramatic score along with it. As with all tales of political corruption, the story is dark and so is Horner’s music. Anchored by a heartbreaking main theme that telegraphs Willy Stark’s downfall, Horner keeps his Hornerisms to a minimum and delivers an undiscovered gem of raw, dramatic power.

6. WILLOW (1989)

[audio:willow.mp3]

Based on a story by George Lucas, Ron Howard directed (and I use that term loosely) this wretched sword-and-sorcery fantasy film. This is one of those films I hated on sight and, because of that, have trashed Horner’s score ever since. I now publicly eat crow in my praise of the music, which I may have continued trashing if it weren’t for this post. The faux Renaissance trappings of the music don’t work particularly well, but the score has energy; a rousing, heroic main theme; and crackerjack action cues.

5. TESTAMENT (1983)

[audio:testament.mp3]

Nuclear holocaust is usually portrayed on film as the horror it is. In this understated gem of a film, Jane Alexander tries to keep what’s left of her family together as her world slowly succumbs to the effects of radiation. The film focuses on human relationships rather than makeup effects, and contains images that still stick with me nearly 30 years later. In this sparse score, chimes toll the coming devastation and a French horn melody cries in pain. But it’s the childlike flute theme that underscores lost innocence and a safe world that is no more. Sad, tender and heartbreaking, the music moves you without yanking on the heartstrings.

4. APOLLO 13 (1995)

[audio:apollo13.mp3]

The disastrous journey of Apollo 13 makes for prime drama and slick Hollywood filmmaking in the hands of director Ron Howard. The score soars in the main trumpet theme, while Horner captures the haunting loneliness of outer space and dashed dreams in the quiet moments. All those annoying Hornerisms are on full display, yet work wonderfully, in the action cues. Horner once again borrows from himself, using exact quotes from 1993’s THE PELICAN BRIEF, yet he ratchets up the emotional stakes to create a truly memorable, if not entirely original score.

3. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)

[audio:startrekii.mp3]

I know I said I liked the quieter aspects of Horner’s music, but sometimes you just want to hear some gutsy, balls-to-the-wall film music…and this score is nothing if not ballsy. Where Jerry Goldsmith created an ethereal (yet still exciting) space symphony with his original STAR TREK score, Horner instead focuses almost strictly on the action…and by God, it works! The score is a wild orchestral ride from start to finish, filled with music that is bold and brash, as if Horner knew the score was a make-it-or-break-it moment in his career.

2. IRIS (2001)

[audio:iris.mp3]

The frustrations of Alzheimer’s are sensitively and movingly portrayed by Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the older and younger versions of novelist Iris Murdoch and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville as her caretaker husband, fellow writer John Bayley. Horner scores the film with equally sensitive music, featuring violin solos by Joshua Bell. The music never strains for sentimentality, instead relying on lovely circling motifs that weave throughout the tender themes. In a strong year for film music, Horner’s lovely score got unjustly overlooked, most likely because of the film’s downer subject matter.

1. SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (1993)

[audio:searchingforbobbyfischer.mp3]

It’s hard to make chess exciting, yet this film does. Horner’s score captures every bit of excitement inherent in the clash of young intellects, while plumbing the emotion inherent in the complicated relationships between Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen and their young chess prodigy son. The score is tender, emotional, exciting, and one of my favorites of any composer. Nothing was going to beat John Williams’ SCHINDLER’S LIST score, but this should have easily been an Oscar nominee.

What are your favorite James Horner scores?

35 comments

  1. You are right about Horner endlessly recycling, but still he has produced some top notch music. I also rate Aliens and Star Trek II, but Name of the Rose is atypical for him, and my favourite – which admittedly sounds a lot like Commando and Red Heat – is Gorky Park. The Commando score is really unlistenable and Red Heat is generic, but Gorky Park was my first experience of the regularly heard Hornerisms and so is always the original to me.

    1. I’ve never been able to get into NAME OF THE ROSE, score or film. Perhaps if I was able to finish the film (hell, couldn’t finish the book either) it might resonate more with me.

  2. My favorite 9 James Horner scores are:
    1. Legends Of The Fall
    2. Brainstorm
    3. Krull
    4. Gorky Park
    5. Glory
    6. 48 HRS.
    7. Bicentennial Man
    8. Wolfen
    9. Commando
    Sorry I’m a sucker for his action scores, but I agree with you, Jim, the quieter, more intimate scores doesn’t allow him to go with his annoying Hornerisms.

      1. Thanks, Jim. Though I also must admit that I miss the James Horner of before, mostly because of his percussion. This current Horner sometimes gets kinda boring.

  3. This is a fascinating list. My list of nine favourite Horner scores would be totally different!

    Despite his shortcomings, I still believe that he’s one of the best film composers working today in terms of sheer musical ability; I just wish he’d rely more on this ability than on rehashing his previous output.

  4. Interesting list. Surprised to see a few on there like HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and ALL THE KING’S MEN. I adore SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER as well but I couldn’t live with myself unless I had THE ROCKETEER and BRAVEHEART and above all GLORY on my list.

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the Horner canon. I have a couple of his CD’s, KRULL and SNEAKERS, but his schmaltzy muscial flourishes and kiddie chorales are pretty hard to take under any circumstances. I must add that TITANIC was the epitome, for me at least, of everything wrong with contemporary Hollywood – and Horner’s contribution was a significant part of that gigantic piece of junk.

  6. Like you Jim, I’m not too fond of Mr. Horner as a person. I don’t like the way he’s always slagging off his colleagues. Especially the infamous Troy incident with Gabriel Yared. But I must admit that he has written some great scores, even with his borrowing and recycling.

    I haven’t listened to your numbers 1 and 2 yet, so I’ll try to find those. Besides the already mentioned scores, I also like:

    THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN (beautiful main theme)

    SNEAKERS (Playtronics Break-In is a great track IMHO)

    AVATAR (Yes, again it’s recycled stuff, but I can’t help but like it)

    And I wanted to put THE LAND BEFORE TIME here, because I loved the movie as a kid and the music has nostalgic value for me. But as I listened to it just now, I noticed how Horner used parts of Natty Gann (note for note) in this score. Hmmm… never notice it before.

  7. I’m not familiar with all of Horner’s scores, but a personal favorite, not previously mentioned, is “The Spitfire Grill.”

  8. The merits of James Horner’s scores–or any film composers scores–can be debated ad nauseum. That being said, I am a fan of Horner’s music, and agree with what most of the current posts. Star Trek II, Star Trek III, Krull, Titanic, Braveheart, Glory, Deep Impact, Legends of the Fall, *batteries not Included, Cocoon and Cocoon the Return, Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games, Searchng for Bobby Fischer, Bicentennial Man, Beautiful Mind, Avatar, To Gillian on her 37th Birthday, etc. are all great scores from a musical, and compositional standpoint.

    As far as the use of other composers’ music: A common practice used by many film composers…John Williams, Bill Conti (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in The Right Stuff), etc. Horner’s music is solid, and if one aspect does stand out, his scores successfully stand on their own merits sans film.

      1. Also, let’s not forget Horner’s Spitfire Grill…now that was one of his most original scores.

  9. Also, let’s not forget Horner’s Spitfire Grill…now that was one of his most original scores.

  10. I have loved James Horner’s music for many years.

    It’s easy for us all to sit back and be a critic but lets not forget that creativity is subjective and therefore should never question the effort put forth with each of his works. I believe his music will live on for many many years to come.

    I was giddy recently when the trailer for ‘Super 8’ was released and the first few bars of ‘Cocoon’ (easily one of his best scores) were heard over the opening shots.

    Here are a few of his scores I will always come back to time and time again.

    Brainstorm
    Dad
    Field of Dreams
    The Rocketeer
    Star Trek II & III
    Bicentennial Man
    Glory
    Aliens

  11. I miss my 1980’s Horner! He was young, trying so hard to move us and usually succeeding, elevating the movies he was involved with. My favorites:

    Something Wicked This Way Comes
    The Rocketeer
    Willow
    Star Trek II
    Krull
    Aliens
    Cocoon
    American Tail
    Land Before Time

  12. Hey Jim,

    Congrats on the site. I’m relatively new to Tumblr, but I quickly pounced on your page.

    I just hate it that my first response to your posts is regarding James Horner, but he was quite important to me in my youth (not as important as others, whom, not surprisingly, have remained important). The thing about Horner is the more you learn about music in general, the more you realise he’s a bit of a bozo.

    My fave of his would have to be Aliens – it remains so effective; a lot of it, while adhering to an exciting scene, is exciting in itself. I loved some of the Sneakers score (especially the ‘Cosmo… Old Friend’ cue) until I heard an Arvo Part piece which was, yep, EXACTLY the same.

    A lot of his themes (the main Titanic theme, and the one performed by the choir in Braveheart, for instance) are virtually trips up the scale, note by note. They always sound nice, but there’s something about their over-simplicity that irks me. That’s why I like his score for The Land Before Time so much – it befits a kids’ film.

    And, yes, check out, The Spitfire Grill. The film was screened, with another score entirely, at Sundance years ago and when it was received really well, a studio picked it up and hired Horner to write a new one. It’s quite lovely.

    Keep up the good work!

    Clinton

    1. Thanks for the nice words, Clinton. Glad you’re enjoying the site. Still haven’t gotten around to SPITFIRE. I will at some point.

      “Bozo”… LOL

  13. I loved the Gorky Park soundtrack and am sure I once caught a different film on TV in which it was recycled quite faithfully – I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to track down what that film was. Any suggestions?

    1. Ross: Does that mean you like all scores the same or you do not like Horner’s music? Please elaborate.

      Thank you–

  14. James Horner is my nr. 1 composer and for a million reasons. I just love his music so much and in a perfect world I would have had a lot more time devoted to the man’s music. All the scores on your list are great, I love them all, but my top 9 is definitely different:

    1. Krull
    2. The Perfect Storm
    3. The New World
    4. Mighty Joe Young
    5. Titanic
    6. Avatar
    7. The Legend Of Zorro
    8. For Greater Glory
    9. Bicentennial Man

  15. I liked Horner’s score to Where the River Runs Black, and also a tune from Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, called A Win, Finally!, but he’s not a favorite of mine.

  16. This my list:
    10. Windtalkers
    9. Bicentennial Man (Some recycled ideas of “Jumanji”, “Casper”, “Mighty Joe Young” and others but i like it. Really emotional)
    8. Commando
    7. Red Heat
    6. 48 Hrs
    5. Casper
    4. The Devil’s Own
    3. Mighty Joe Young
    2. Jumanji
    1. Titanic

    Scores like “Unlawful Entry”, “Jade” and “Ransom” are really awful. He is not gifted for thrillers apparently.

  17. Just can’t fathom nary a soul mentioned Mr. Horner’s greatest and Most Beautiful film score ever: ” BRAVEHEART “! ! !
    His Luscious,sweeping and Ethereal sound–track greatly enhanced this Masterpiece causing ” BRAVEHEART ” in becomming my most Favorite movie of all time immomorial! Along– side of the fact that I am Blessesed to be a descendant of Sir William Wallace; greatest Patriot!

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