Home > Reviews > ICEMAN – Bruce Smeaton

ICEMAN – Bruce Smeaton

icemanTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Iceman was a thought-provoking scifi-drama directed by Fred Schepisi, and starring Timothy Hutton as Dr. Stanley Shephard, an anthropology scientist who is called to a remote research station in the farthest reaches of the Arctic when the body of a prehistoric Neanderthal man is discovered frozen in the ice. Astonishingly, the man is resuscitated, and before long Charlie (John Lone) – now alive and awake after 40,000 years – finds himself at the center of a moral tug-of-war, with one group of scientists wanting to dissect and exploit him, while Shepherd and his more empathetic colleagues defend Charlie’s right to life. The film, which also stars Lindsay Crouse, David Strathairn and Danny Glover among others, is almost forgotten today, obscure apart from its occasional screenings on cable TV, but has always been a favorite of mine. John Lone’s sensitive central performance as Charlie – who communicates through rudimentary grunts and gestures – is remarkable in its complexity, while the ethical implications of the story are fascinating.

The score for Iceman is by Australian composer Bruce Smeaton, who came to international prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s via his scores for acclaimed Aussie films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, as well as the TV series A Town Like Alice. He would later go on to score Hollywood fare such as Roxanne and A Cry in the Dark (“a dingo ate my baby!”). Smeaton, who is now 76 years old and hasn’t scored a major movie for more than a decade, was never a significant player in film music circles, but his score for Iceman is one of the best of 1984: a haunting, lonely celebration of the life of a 40,000 year old man who yearns to return home.

To capture the juxtaposition of an ancient man adrift in modern society, Smeaton used the sound of the shakuhachi – a Japanese bamboo flute – offset by a contemporary orchestra and synths. Fans of James Horner, especially scores like Willow and Legends of the Fall, will be familiar with the breathy, haunting tone of the shakuhachi, which Horner often uses as a textural instrument, adding a layer of unusual sonics to the standard symphony. Smeaton, however, uses the shakuhachi to actually lead and carry the score’s main theme, in cues such as the “Main Title” and the extended finale in “Charlie’s Flight and End Title,” resulting in pieces that are quite breathtakingly beautiful. The primeval sound of the flute captures Charlie’s soul, and his prehistoric civilization, perfectly; romantic, expressive, emotional, but just a little distant, as if it came from worlds away from the life we know. The theme is present in several other cues, including the middle section of “Discovery/Charlie/Defrost,” parts of “Suicide/Memories,” and the cathartic “Dreamwalk,” maintaining a pleasing sense of thematic consistency throughout the score.

The rest of the score, where the theme is not present, tends to be made up of more impressionistic orchestra and synth scoring. Jagged string lines, skittery woodwind textures, xylophone trills, and eerie electronic tones characterize cues such as “Ice Cave,” the first half of “Discovery/Charlie/Defrost” and “Monitoring/Relics/It’s Alive,” illustrating the mystery and sense of danger felt by those for whose Charlie’s resuscitation is more of a threat than an opportunity. The “Vivarium” cue is an unusual mix of a light, airy solo shakuhachi performance accompanied by odd, watery electronic sounds, accompanying Charlie as he tries to adjust to his new life inside a specially-built primordial habitat inside the Arctic research station; later, the “Wild Pig” cue illustrates Charlie’s hunting prowess with Herrmann-esque string writing, thumping piano chords, chaotic percussion and another performance of the shakuhachi Vivarium theme.

More blatant action/suspense fare appears in cues such as “Messenger/The Bird,” “Breakout” and “Maynard Surprised/Freedom,” with their brass clusters, rumbling percussion, jazz-like piano riffs, inquisitive woodwind writing, and energetic rhythmic lines. Some of these cues also restate a minor motif for high, wavering strings first heard in the opening cue, “Ice Cave,” which seems to represent Charlie’s obsession with the Inuit god “beedha,” and proves to be the catalyst for the film’s emotionally powerful finale.

The score for Iceman is quite rare these days, having only ever been released on CD on the Southern Cross label in 1992, and as part of the compilation album ‘Bruce Smeaton at the Movies’ released by the Australian label Label X in 1996, but it’s well worth seeking out for those with a nose for scores well outside the mainstream. Bruce Smeaton is not a well-known name amongst film music fans these days – if he ever was – and his score for Iceman is probably wholly unfamiliar to the majority of film music fans, but I have always been a fan of its simplicity, its creative orchestration, and especially the stunningly realized central theme, which remains one of my all time favorites.

Buy the Iceman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ice Cave (1:17)
  • Main Title (3:28)
  • Discovery/Charlie/Defrost (1:43)
  • Monitoring/Relics/It’s Alive (2:07)
  • Vivarium (2:21)
  • Wild Pig (1:19)
  • Suicide/Memories (1:22)
  • Messenger/The Bird (2:04)
  • Breakout (2:31)
  • Maynard Surprised/Freedom (2:28)
  • Dreamwalk (1:26)
  • Charlie’s Flight and End Title (5:58)

Running Time: 28 minutes 04 seconds

Southern Cross SCCD-1006 (1984/1992)

Music composed and conducted by Bruce Smeaton. Orchestrations by Bruce Smeaton. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by Bruce Smeaton.

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  1. Keith Baggerly
    October 3, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Sounds interesting! Fortunately, it’s also not that hard to find –
    “At the Movies: Bruce Smeaton” (available from iTunes) contains the
    entire Iceman score, as well as two suites from A Town Like Alice.

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