Home > Reviews > RED DAWN – Basil Poledouris

RED DAWN – Basil Poledouris


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Red Dawn was a popular and successful action film, written and directed by John Milius, set in an alternate 1980s in which a Communist army, led by Russians and Cubans, launches an invasion of the United States in the aftermath of a devastating economic crisis. The story is centered around a small Colorado town, where a group of mostly teenagers embarks on a sustained campaign of guerilla warfare against the invaders, using the name ‘wolverines’, after their high school mascot. The film starred Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen in early career roles, co-starred C. Thomas Howell, a pre-Back to the Future Lea Thompson, a pre-Dirty Dancing Jennifer Grey, and Ben Johnson, and featured an original score by the then 39-year-old Basil Poledouris.

Red Dawn was the third of five scores Poledouris would write for Milius, following his debut Big Wednesday in 1978, the classic Conan the Barbarian in 1982, and before Farewell to the King in 1989 and Flight of the Intruder in 1991. Milius’s right-wing, gung-ho, slightly jingoistic cinematic ideals always seemed to me to be a peculiar match with Poledouris’s personality, but the two clearly worked well together, and Milius clearly inspired Poledouris to write some of his greatest music. They were both Midwesterners, classmates together at USC in the 1960s, and were so committed to each other’s work that Poledouris actually turned down the opportunity to score Dances With Wolves in 1990 so that he could honor a verbal agreement to score Flight of the Intruder instead.

In terms of his overall career output, Red Dawn is not one of Poledouris’s landmark works, but the popularity of the film helped propel him on to bigger and better films in the following years, and when listened to with hindsight one can hear numerous seeds of inspiration that go on to feature in some of his best works over the next couple of decades. It’s a typically punchy, patriotic score, with special emphasis on the brass section of the large orchestral ensemble, augmented by a bank of synthesizers performed in real-time with the orchestra – an unusual touch – which often doubled up the percussion section. The score is built around the rousing main theme, for noble horns underpinned by a throbbing bass pulse and light, feathery woodwinds, which is introduced in the “Main Title” and features strongly throughout the score, in cues such as “Fire!”, “Attack of the Wolverines”, and the extended finale “Death and Freedom/End Credits”.

The secondary theme of the score is the so-called Freedom Theme, which closes out the main title cue on warm trumpets underpinned by synths, and appears in later cues such as “Dead Tanks”, “The Eulogy”, and the tragic “Daryl Shot” as a leitmotif for the ideals the Wolverines are fighting for. This theme is closely related to the Resistance Theme, which is first introduced in the latter half of the otherwise introspective “The Drive-In”, a subtle ascending motif for strings that gradually comes to represent the physical battle the teenagers face in trying to defeat their foreign oppressors. This motif grows in intensity and ferocity during both “Fire!” and “Wolverines”, underpinning the action with a clever musical structure that blends several of the score’s recurring ideas together.

The action music is typical of the conventions of the era, often pitting throbbing brass figures against a repeated low-end piano ostinato and unusual, turbulent rhythmic ideas in both the strings and the electronics, some of which are intentionally styled to mimic the sound of helicopter rotor blades. Much of this music pre-dates the similar music he would later write for scores like Robocop and The Hunt for Red October, and is highly typical of Poledouris’s personal style. Cues such as “The Invasion”, “Attack of the Wolverines” and the excellent “Attack of the Helicopters” are exciting and interesting, often incorporating variations on one or more of the main themes in a more robust setting.

These macho, masculine pieces are tempered by a couple of quieter pieces that represent the changing relationships between the Wolverines, who mature into adults as the war rages on. “Love Scene (Flowers) features a typically lovely Poledouris romance piece for clarinets and a sweet variation of the Freedom Theme for strings; other cues, including “Let It Turn”, the aforementioned “The Eulogy” and “Toni’s Death” are equally understated and at times quite beautiful.

In another echo of the music for The Hunt for Red October, Poledouris adapted the then-Soviet national anthem in “The Funeral”, in which it plays in ironic juxtaposition to a somber scene of burial and remembrance. Politics aside, I have always felt that this anthem, and its current incarnation as the national anthem of Russia, is one of the most musically rousing national anthems in the world, and Poledouris’s brass-and-snare heavy arrangement of it is excellent.

Despite still clearly not being at the same exalted level of his most celebrated works, Red Dawn nevertheless sees Poledouris in fine form, writing a multi-themed, powerful score for a film which needed it. Possibly the only drawback to the score is the slightly dated sound of the synths, which may cause younger score fans to cringe, and which at times do stand out like a sore thumb in contrast to the rich orchestral passages the score contains elsewhere; such were the technical limitations of electronic instruments in 1984. If you can overlook this element of the music, then fans of Poledouris’s work will certainly want to check this out. The original Intrada Records release of the score in 1985 contained just 9 cues and ran for a touch over half an hour; this expanded release of the score contains an additional 30+ minutes of music, some bonus cues and alternate takes, enhanced sound quality, and excellent in-depth liner notes by album producer Douglass Fake.

Buy the Red Dawn soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:43)
  • The Invasion (5:19)
  • Sky Shots; October (0:31)
  • Dead Tanks (1:59)
  • The Drive-In (6:19)
  • Wrong Fire (0:47)
  • The Funeral (National Anthem of the Soviet Union) (written by Alexander Alexandrov, arr. Basil Poledouris) (3:45)
  • Let It Turn (1:10)
  • Fire! (2:07)
  • Wolverines (3:11)
  • Early Birds (0:30)
  • Love Scene (3:04)
  • Attack of the Wolverines (2:26)
  • Winter (0:17)
  • The Eulogy (2:52)
  • Daryl Shot/Windmill (5:36)
  • Attack of the Helicopters (3:52)
  • Toni’s Death/Toni’s Last Grenade (4:39)
  • Jed and Matt/Bella Letter (2:03)
  • Death and Freedom/End Credits (6:36)
  • Russian Army Cadence (Solo Percussion) (0:52)
  • Early Birds [Alternate] (0:50)
  • Death and Freedom/End Credits [Rejected Version] (6:39)

Running Time: 69 minutes 24 seconds

Intrada MAF-7099 (1984/2007)

Music composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris. Orchestrations by Jack Smalley, Greig McRitchie and Steven Scott Smalley. Recorded and mixed by Aaron Rochin. Edited by Stan Witt. Score produced by Basil Poledouris. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

  1. Gary Dalkin
    August 15, 2014 at 2:17 am

    Certainly a far better score than this extraordinarily silly film deserved. Nice review, as always.

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