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IN COUNTRY – James Horner


Original Review by Craig Lysy

For years Director Norman Jewison had eschewed making a film about the Vietnam War. Yet with over a decade passing since the fall of Saigon in 1975 he felt the time was at last right to address the war. As such, he chose to adapt Bobbie Ann Mason’s celebrated novel “In Country” for the screen. He did not wish to comment on the politics of the war, instead choosing to embark on a more intimate exploration of the lives of the men who fought bravely and honorable for their country. For his film he chose to explore the aftermath of the war on four men who fought it, as well as their families. The story reveals teenager Samantha Hughes (Emily Lloyd) who yearns to fill the void left by her father’s (Dwayne) death in Vietnam, or “In Country” as veterans describe. She also seeks to better understand her uncle Emmett and his friends Tom, Earl and Pete. Each man has returned home scarred and damaged by their tour of duty and unable to discuss their war experiences. Ultimately Samantha’s unyielding quest to discover her father initiates a liberating catharsis when she and Emmett visit the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. Regretfully the film was a box office disaster and also failed to evoke any critical acclaim.

James Horner had by this time firmly established himself as top tier composer and was a natural choice by Jewison to score the film. He chose to support the film’s intimate and introspective narrative with a small chamber ensemble that often featured melodic lines emoted by solo instruments. Only for the battle flashback and the climatic finale does Horner employ the power of a full orchestra. For the film he provides several themes, first and foremost being the Distant Memories Theme, which animates the score. The music is complex in that it is elegiac, full of the pathos of loss, and yet also full of longing and yearning. The theme features two phrases; the elegiac A Phrase carried solemnly by woodwinds and strings with militaristic snare drums, and the yearning and more lyrical B Phrase, which features lush strings, horns and snare drums that provide a stirring and profoundly moving statement of what could have been. Next we have the Loss of Innocence Theme, which speaks to us of the shattering and life altering effects suffered by young men thrown into the horrors of war. The theme is intimate, and carried by solo guitar and piano. We have the plaintive Emmett’s Theme, which speaks to the unwelcome unlocking of his memories of war. It features an ascending melodic line of woodwinds that play over low register strings and piano. The final theme is Dwayne’s Theme, a bright, noble and warm major modal line carried by horns, which speaks to this fine young man cut down in service to his country.

Lastly there are two motifs, a tender Contemplation Motif emoted as four notes by solo piano, which is used for moments of introspection or contemplation, and the Taps Motif emoted by solo trumpet, which echoes the traditional military funereal honor afforded to the fallen. The film opens with the Taps Motif, which sets the tone for the film. For the CD we open with “Distant Memories”, which opens with this same motif, but does not progress further in the film. It is provided on the CD by Horner to showcase a full and eloquent statement of his Distant Memories Theme. The cue does not disappoint and is a score highlight. It offers enduring testimony to Horner’s mastery of understanding a film’s core emotions. The piece opens and closes with the Taps Motif and is expressed with classic ABA phrasing, which powerfully emotes a stirring elegy, but also a yearning for what could have been. The interplay of these emotions is profoundly moving. Cues such as this are the reason I love film score music. In “Dwayne’s Letters” we see Samantha reading her father’s letters. This is a masterful cue that features both the A and B Phrases of the Distant Memories Theme with a celli carried contrapuntal line, which emotes Samantha’s yearning for the relationship with her father that never was. The competing melodic lines never entwine or lose their individual identities, instead maintaining a detachment, which perfectly conveys Samantha’s inner state. This cue is brilliantly conceived!

“Faraway Thoughts” features a fine interplay of themes. It is a folksy and intimate cue, which opens with the introspective Contemplation Motif. From out this motif arises the plaintive Loss of Innocence Theme carried by piano and guitar, which are joined by woodwinds. A bridge of tremolo violins ushers in the Distant Memories Theme now carried with a tender beauty by solo oboe with kindred woodwinds. This is just outstanding writing. “Three Generations” features Irene (Samantha’s mother) finally revealing to Sam the details of her brief time with her father Dwayne. Horner understood the emotional potency and intimacy of this mother daughter moment and so used a solo piano to emote the Loss of Innocence Theme. Though tender, the music is tinged with the sadness of loss and regret. Horner’s music perfectly supports the film’s narrative here – nicely done! In cue 14 “Three Generations” the cue is presented with the orchestra accompanying the solo piano. “The Letter Home” also features Samantha reading a letter from her father and offers a fine interplay of motif’s and themes. We open with the Contemplation Motif on shimmering tremolo violins, which interplay with the Taps Motif on solo trumpet. Woodwinds inform us of the Loss Of Innocence Theme, which is beautifully countered by the Distant Memories Theme, emoted first with the intimacy of solo guitar, then later elegiacally by solo trumpet.

In “In Country” Horner creates an amazing soundscape, which speaks to the lone war flashback in the film. The scene features Samantha camping alone in dark woodlands and reading her father’s last diary entry. Horner creates an eerie, threatening and portentous soundscape with a series of ominous shifting chords, tonal flutes and timpani echoes. He slowly builds tension with darker and more ominous chords now augmented with wailing flutes and distant trumpets, which swell and grow increasingly harsh and discordant. Throughout the score Horner uses the very ethnic shakuhachi flute to emote the Vietnam setting. The piece culminates with harsh thundering drums and wailing shakuhachi flutes as we bear witness to Dwayne’s tragic death in a torrent of bullets. We conclude with an elegiac Loss Of innocence Theme on solo piano and flute, which emote Dwayne’s final gasping breaths. This cue demonstrates Horner’s mastery of his craft as it is perfectly attenuated to the film’s imagery. Well done! Proceeding to the next cue “Emmett”, we see Emmett speaking to Samantha of his war memories. The scene opens with woodwinds expressing the A Phrase of the Distant Memories Theme, with counters by militaristic snare drums and a wailing shakuhachi flute. As the theme subsides we are introduced to Emmett’s Theme by plaintive woodwinds, which play over a bass sustain and are countered by shakuhachi flute and later guitar. The juxtaposition of these two themes is brilliant and informs us of Emmett’s struggle for reconciliation.

“The Vietnam Memorial” features Emmett, Samantha and her grandmother traveling to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam War Memorial. We hear the A Phrase of the Distant Memories Theme sound on muted trumpets with militaristic snare drum percussion, which is answered by a counter trumpet emoting the Taps Motif. From out this flows a new melodic line born by strings and woodwinds, which emote a sense that a great weight shall soon be lifted. “Fallen Friends” is the score highlight and in your author’s opinion, a masterpiece in film score composing. The scene reveals Samantha and her grandmother searching for Dwayne’s name as Emmett searches for his fallen comrades. Horner provides us with a masterful interplay of his themes and motif’s that is stirring, poignant and profound. With initial hesitancy but with growing determination and resolve we begin a slow yet inexorable ascent towards, hope and reconciliation. Horner supports Samantha climbing of the ladder with a musical ascent, which culminates beautifully when she reaches and at last kisses her father’s name. This tearful yet celebratory moment finds voice with a liberating and stirring expression of Dwayne’s Theme. First emoted by muted horns, it swells to a refulgent statement by full orchestra that brings a quiver and a tear. This is the only time the theme is emoted and for me it marks the cue’s apogee – and the score’s supreme moment. On a parallel path we bear witness to Emmett’s journey, which is speaks to us of his yearning for release through an impassioned repeating of the B Phrase of the Distant Memories Theme. Fading echoes of shakuhachi flutes speak to us of Emmett’s final release from the war’s terrible grasp. We conclude with a final statement by the Taps Motif and fragment of the A Phrase of the Distant Memories Theme. As the music concludes it informs us of Emmett’s healing and reconciliation as he leaves his medal for his fallen comrade – a touching and most satisfying closure.

As for the extras, I will speak to four. “First Flashback” reveals the film’s first flashback of Dwayne and features a variant of the Taps Motif on trumpet. In “Finding Photo” Samantha discovers a photo of her father and we hear a soft rendering of the Distant Memories Theme. “Just a Country Boy” reveals Samantha alone in her bedroom speaking to her father’s photo. Horner speaks to Dwayne’s youth and country boy innocence through the Loss Of Innocence Theme. “The Storm” reveals Samantha pressing Emmett for knowledge of her father and what it was like over there. Set during a fierce thunderstorm the tension elicits terrible flashbacks for Emmett who snaps. Horner speaks to Emmett’s torment with growling bass, harsh wailing shakuhachi flutes and snare drum percussion. Horner’s music perfectly emotes Emmett’s torment.

I must thank Douglass Fake, Roger Feigelson and Intrada for this long over due and well needed release of the complete score of “In Country”. DDP mastering of the original two-track stereo session mixes is first rate and of the highest quality. Horner’s music is masterfully attenuated to the film’s imagery and perfectly supports its narrative. He once again provides us with a multiplicity of fine themes and motifs, which not only speak to us quietly with a tender intimacy through solo instruments, but also dramatically with a noble and profound elegiac power. The “Fallen Friends” cue in and of itself stands as one of the best elegiac cues ever written in the history of film score music, and reason enough for you to seek out this score. This long sought score by James Horner is of the highest quality and I highly recommend it for inclusion in your collection.

Rating: ****

Buy the In Country soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Distant Memories (5:04)
  • Dwayne’s Letters (2:45)
  • Faraway Thoughts (3:59)
  • Three Generations (Piano Solo) (2:49)
  • The Letter Home (2:37)
  • In Country (6:52)
  • Emmett (2:30)
  • The Vietnam Memorial (2:11)
  • Fallen Friends (10:04)
  • First Flashback [BONUS] (0:54)
  • Finding Photo [BONUS] (0:46)
  • Just a Country Boy [BONUS] (1:12)
  • The Vietnam Memorial [BONUS] (1:03)
  • Three Generations (Piano With Orchestra) [BONUS] (2:48)
  • Family Supper (Part I) [BONUS] (1:14)
  • Family Supper (Part II) [BONUS] (1:15)
  • The Storm [BONUS] (2:32)

Running Time: 51 minutes 31 seconds

Intrada Special Collection Volume 230 (1989/2013)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner and Grieg McRitchie. Featured musical soloists Jim Thatcher and Malcolm McNab. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

  1. Riley
    April 17, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Great review as usual Craig! Gotta find this score somewhere — I loves me some Horner.

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