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WINDTALKERS – James Horner

windtalkersOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s getting more and more difficult to review James Horner scores objectively these days – and everyone knows why. Listening to and writing about Horner’s music is a bit like having an itch you’re not supposed to scratch – you know it’ll do you no good in the long run but, by God, it irritates you so much, you just can’t help yourself – and the short term relief is worth it. I am almost at pains to say so, but on the whole Windtalkers bored me. Horner rarely does this; if nothing else, Horner’s music is usually interesting and worth taking the time to listen to. But, here, its as though he intentionally drew the majority the heart and color from his score, leaving instead a soulless musical shell that is technically sound but bereft of anything remotely resembling emotion.

Directed by John Woo, Wind Talkers is a World War II action tale starring Nicolas Cage as Sgt. Joe Enders, a US Marine fighting Japanese troops in the Pacific post-Pearl Harbor. In an attempt to gain the upper hand in the war, the American Commanders decide to initiate a new code based on the Navajo language, which will be used to transmit important information to the field. Several Navajo Indians are employed as “wind talkers” and sent out into battle, and are assigned “protectors” to keep them, and the code, safe. Enders, and his associate Ox Anderson (Christian Slater) are assigned as protectors to Ben Yahtzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie), and the four men develop a bond during the vicious fighting at the Battle of Saipan. However, Enders and Anderson’s orders are to protect the code at all costs – even if it means killing their charges to stop them falling into enemy hands. And, as the war rages on, Enders begins to question his motives for fighting the war in the first place.

First of all, lets get the self-quotations out of the way. The score opens with a recapitulation of the American Indian motif that Horner first used in Thunderheart back in 1992, wailing ethereally over a bed of mystical, wandering strings straight out of Braveheart. The noble horn calls are pure Deep Impact, the drum trills are from Glory, the thematic seed and some of the action riffs are from Ransom, and there are other bits and bobs from The Perfect Storm, The Mask of Zorro and even Aliens, while the old four-note motif that has characterized virtually every Horner score since the dawn of time manages to keep out of the way for a mere two minutes and forty-nine seconds before making its mandatory appearance. I hate having to reel off these self-quotations like a shopping list, but such is the nature of Horner’s work that its almost compulsory. You either take it to heart and chastise him for it, or you write it off as a personal stylistic glitch and move on. I favor the latter option.

What Windtalkers does do well is create a heady atmosphere of tension and oppression. As John Williams and Michael Kamen did with Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers respectively, Horner’s music plays at odds with the violence on screen, underplaying and dramatizing the emotions of the protagonists rather than glamorizing the horrors of war. Horner’s music is, on the whole, low-key, with long-line string figures, chromatic horn calls and snare drum licks being the order of the day. The overriding somberness of Horner’s music is something which has become more prevalent in recent years – The Perfect Storm and Enemy at the Gates were both generally ominous in tone and style – although, as in those previous works, he does temper this with some vibrant action music. ‘Taking the Beachhead’, ‘Marine Assault’, the enthusiastic ‘Friends in War’ and the energetic ‘A Sacrifice Never Forgotten’ are prime examples of Horner’s modern action style, chaotic and crammed with thick and complex orchestrations, turbulent rhythms and forward-thrusting motion.

The single central theme, written as a indicator of the heroism of the Navajo protagonists, is not one of his more prominent or memorable; it’s sort of a variation on the end titles of Ransom with a bit of A Far Off Place thrown in for good measure, but it functions adequately on various levels, whether performed quietly on a pan flute, with orchestral grandeur as in ‘Taking the Beachhead’, or as a stirring, noble coda in the 10-minute finale ‘Calling to the Wind’. The ethnic elements are underplayed to a degree, and are certainly not as central to the score as one might have expected following the rich tribal rhythms he employed in Thunderheart. Other than the opening and closing cues, the moody ‘First Blood Ceremony’, and parts of ‘Losses Mounting’ the Navajo angle is virtually ignored the rest of the time, with Horner concentrating instead on the intellectual part of the score.

It’s difficult to summarize Windtalkers effectively. It certainly has moments of raw power and viciousness, and admirers of Horner’s action style (such as me) are likely to be impressed with several of cues (which I was). However impressive these moments are, though, the fact that they are surrounded by acres of little more than mood music is likely to put a large proportion of listeners off. They may be technically competent and dramatically sound, but no matter how much you try to justify it, there’s just far too much wandering nothingness to warrant an album of this length. Coupled with its plethora of self-quotations and a strange lack of individual personality, Windtalkers is ultimately a score which fails to ignite.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Navajo Dawn (7:54)
  • A New Assignment (4:38)
  • An Act of Heroism (5:59)
  • Taking the Beachhead (6:17)
  • First Blood Ceremony (2:09)
  • The Night Before (3:32)
  • Marine Assault (5:40)
  • Losses Mounting (5:06)
  • Friends In War (7:56)
  • A Sacrifice Never Forgotten (7:11)
  • Calling to the Wind (10:33)

Running Time: 66 minutes 52 seconds

RCA Victor 09026-63867-2 (2002)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford, Randy Kerber, James Horner, Steven R. Bernstein and Carl Johnson. Featured musical soloists Tommy Morgan and Phil Ayling. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Mastered by Simon Gibson. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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