The Mission

The Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It

When people complain about the Academy Awards, it’s films like THE MISSION that justify that complaint. THE MISSION is the kind of film that Oscar loves–self-important and pretentious to the nth degree. Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro star as a Jesuit priest and his novice battling the Catholic church, Portugal, and Spain over missionary land in Brazil. Chris Menge’s stunning Oscar-winning cinematography does its best to gloss over Robert Bolt’s cardboard script and director Roland Joffe’s lethargic pacing. For film score fans, the film’s main asset is Ennio Morricone‘s memorable score.

Originally, Morricone didn’t want to score the film. After screening a rough cut, he felt that the film didn’t need music (wrong, it did…and then some). “It was so beautiful without it,” he explained in a 1987 Time interview. “But everyone insisted and begged me to write it.”

The Mission soundtrack
“On Earth As It Is In Heaven”
“The Mission”

The score is based on three main ideas. The first is a four-note theme, simple and elegant, against an ever-descending harmonic pattern. The theme is sometimes played on a solo instrument, such as oboe or pan flute, at other times by the full violin section.

The second theme is first heard a cappella as the priest uses his oboe to lure the natives. The melody is free-flowing but never without shape or design and is often later accompanied by harpsichord. When listeners mistook the third theme, sung by chanting voices, as Carmina Burana, Morricone bristled: “When people hear the choir singing out loud and staccato, they believe that is Carmina Burana, but they are deaf people who don’t understand!”

THE MISSION is widely considered to be Morricone’s masterpiece, and even non-film music buffs bought copies of the soundtrack. Director Sergio Leone (with whom Morricone had worked on numerous classic films) said the score was “practically like a sung mass.” Even the composer himself had to concede: “This music represents me nearly completely.”

When Morricone’s wife called with the news of the nomination, his mother replied, “These Americans! It is four or five years that they should have given him the Oscar! Let’s hope that this is the right time, the real time.” No such luck. However, it is not surprising that Herbie Hancock’s “score” for ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT won, given Hancock’s popularity and the ignorance of many voters who marked their ballots based strictly on a movie about music. It would take another 20 years before the Academy finally awarded Morricone for Lifetime Achievement. Morricone’s loss remains arguably the biggest injustice in the history of Oscar-winning film music.

When I finally gave in to the CD craze in 1987, THE MISSION was the first film score I bought. I’ve listened to the score countless times since then and I’ve even sat through the film a few more times in the hopes I was wrong in my initial assessment. Nope. How Morricone found such beautiful musical inspiration in that turgid religious claptrap is beyond me.

  1. I too love this score (I really need to buy it), and I also recently re-watched the film and found it plodding and unfocused.

    I’ve skimmed the surface of Morricone (with things like a 2-disc “greatest hits” CD), and I’m pretty familiar with most of The Mission—but I imagine that sooner or later I’ll begin a full-fledged mission into the vast lands of his work, and enjoy doing so.

    1. You’re not alone in that regard, Tim. Outside of his Oscar-nominated scores, I’m fairly unfamiliar with a lot of Morricone’s work. There’s so MUCH of it that I’m not even sure where to begin. And I really have to be in the mood for a spaghetti western. It would be great to get some recommendations. If anyone has any suggestions for Tim and I, that would be great.

  2. For most score geeks, Goldsmith’s ’79 loss to Delerue is the shock heard ’round the world, but this is mine, the loss that prompted the Music Branch to rewrite its rules, and then ignore them years later by nominating significantly diluted scores like “Babel.” I don’t hate Hancock, but Morricone deserved the Oscar. Nuff said.

    1. Goldsmith/Delerue and Morricone/Hancock…same situation. Original material vs. pre-existing tunes. In Delerue’s case it’s Vivaldi, in Hancock’s it’s jazz standards. I’d agree in both cases that Goldsmith (Star Trek The Motion Picture) and Morricone deserved the award. Yet there’s no denying the impact Delerue (A Little Romance) and Hancock had on their respective films. Plus, it’s hard to deny Delerue an Oscar somewhere along the way. Hancock is another matter. (Though I too don’t hate him or his music.) Such are the inherent issues with awards, eh? If only they’d ask us first, they could avoid so many of these problems, eh? :)

  3. You hit the proverbial nail on the head – I’ve loved the music for year and while I’m sensitive to the pastiche that film music often is – Morricone seems to rise above it like no other, and The Mission is where it went to.

    Have to say – never actually finished the film – I feel asleep!

    I put this one next to George Fenton’s score for Shadowlands as those that can be (and should be) listened to WITHOUT the film. :)

    Cheers and thanks for revisiting and re-introducing this to a new generation.


    1. Thanks for commenting, DJ. I’m jealous…you fell asleep. LOL

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard the score for SHADOWLANDS outside of the film. And I hated it when I first saw it. It was my first year in NYC, it was only playing at one theater, it was brutal cold in winter, I had to make two trips to the theater (one for tix, one to see it), and I had to wait in line OUTSIDE (no multiplex here) for an hour and a half just to see it. My best friend in Texas is convinced that’s why I hated it. I’ve never revisited it to see if he’s right or not. And I have no desire to. But I will check out Fenton’s score. :)

  4. No doubt Morricone in this film is way above Hancock. Morricone is 100% original score, Hancock not.
    Morricone is the #1 film composer. His music is recognizable, has has contributed significantly to the success of many films, not only spaghetti western. Morricone is the only film composer who can tour conducting a 120 musicians orchestra, with sold out concerts at Radio City in New York, in China, Europe and Australia.
    Even Metallica open every concert with Morricone track “Ectasy of Gold”. I’m sorry for the Academy, but they are really behind.

  5. “How Morricone found such beautiful inspiration in that turgid religious claptrap is beyond me.” Do not so flippantly dismiss this source of human betterment. I certainly cannot take your assessment of the film seriously in light of your religious antipathy, but you could at least honestly acknowledge that God and religion have been the inspiration behind many of the world’s greatest composers and works.

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