Home > Reviews > THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH – Trevor Jones


lastplaceonearthTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Last Place on Earth was a critically acclaimed British TV mini-series, directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, which aired over seven episodes in the spring of 1985. It charted the epic race between two teams of intrepid adventurers and their efforts to become the first men to reach the South Pole – one from the United Kingdom led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and one from Norway led by Scott’s great rival, Roald Amundsen. Their trials and tribulations caught the attention of the world in 1912, but ended in great tragedy, as the entire British party famously died from a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold on the return journey, having been beaten to the Pole by Amundsen by just a matter of days. The series starred Martin Shaw as Scott, Sverre Anker Ousdal as Amundsen, Max von Sydow as Amundsen’s mentor, the famed explorer Fridtjof Nansen, and Brian Dennehy as the American Arctic exploration pioneer Frederick Cook, as well as several now-popular British actors in early supporting roles, including Hugh Grant and Bill Nighy.

The music for The Last Place on Earth was written by the then 36-year-old composer Trevor Jones, and was one of his earliest major assignments following his move from South Africa to the UK in the 1970s. He had already written acclaimed scores for films such as Excalibur in 1980 and The Dark Crystal in 1982, but was still working mainly on British television projects when he was hired to write The Last Place on Earth. In many ways, The Last Place on Earth is a prototypical Trevor Jones score, chock full of early versions of the things that would make him such a popular and in-demand composer throughout the late 1980s and 1990s: the stirring brass themes, the flagrant disregard for subtlety in his emotional content, and the incorporation of electronic elements, especially the ‘EWI’ electronic wind instrument that would feature so prominently in many of his most famous works.

After a few moments of sampled wind sounds, intended to depict the isolated snowy wastes of Antarctica, Jones launches into his “Main Theme,” a bold and heroic statement for the full orchestra, which speaks to the heroism and noble sacrifice shown by Scott and his team in the face of terrible and – ultimately – insurmountable odds. Scott’s theme works as a musical identity for the British Terra Nova team as a whole, but also as a personal motif for Scott himself. It reappears as a variant for harp and synths in “Kathleen and Scott,” is disguised as a pastiche of English pastoral classical music in the lush and pretty “Mabel Beardsley’s Soiree,” and appears prominently in later cues such as “Scott and Wilson Collaborate” and “The Departure of the Terra Nova,” accompanying the Captain as he arranges, and eventually embarks on his epic endeavor. A traditionally British-sounding piece, clearly intended to be reminiscent of the work of Edward Elgar or Hubert Parry, appears in “The British Set Forth Across the Barrier,” alluding to Scott’s resolve and unshakable belief that his quest will be successful with the might of the Empire behind him.

Amundsen and the Norwegians, aboard their famous ship Fram, have their own theme, a surprisingly sprightly and cheerful piece for woodwinds and la-la voices, which appears to have its roots in Nordic folk music. It is restated, re-orchestrated for acoustic guitar and flutes, and with a much more solemn aspect, in “The Fram Heads South,” and provides a fittingly emotional, understated accompaniment to Amundsen’s triumph in “The Great Nail”. “Heilberg’s Assault on the Glacier” cleverly pits both Scott’s theme and the Norwegian theme against each other, illustrating the professional rivalry between the two men, but the piece is marred by some rather anachronistic drum patterns, and even a saxophone solo, which dates it and gives it an unfortunate ‘cheesy’ feel that is hard to shake off.

The lonely beauty of the frozen south is encapsulated by the “Snow Mistress” theme, a distant, frigid, but somehow alluring piece for strings and the EWI, sampled to make it seem like a beckoning siren song, calling the brave and bold to their untimely death against her icy breast. It’s recapitulations in “The Furthest South” and “The South Pole” remind the listener of the strange, deadly magnetism of this most inhospitable of places. There’s also an action motif for spiky string patterns, martial snare drums, and electronic pulses, which is heard briefly in the opening cue, but which gets a much more prominent workout in later cues like “Forty Mile Dash” and the energetic “Ski Race,” where it is offset by another performance of Scott’s theme.

As the score concludes, and the fate of Scott and his crew becomes inevitable, Jones injects a touch of ‘The Last Post’ into “Death on the Glacier,” re-states Scott’s theme with funereal solemnity in “In Memory of Soldier,” and turns it into a barely-disguised homage to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ adagio from the Enigma Variations in the beautifully tragic “Message to the Public”. The final rousing performance of the theme in the “Closing Titles” respectfully pays tribute to one of Britain’s greatest heroes.

Fans of Trevor Jones’s work, especially his ‘epic adventure’ scores like The Last of the Mohicans and Cliffhanger, will find The Last Place on Earth to be a fascinating early entry in his filmography, especially as the seeds of those scores can be heard so clearly in this one. The only issue may be actually finding a copy, as the score has never been legitimately released on CD. Island Records released an LP of the score in 1985 to capitalize on the popularity of the series, but other than an LP-to-CD bootleg in the early 2000s on the Movietrack Classics label, there has been no other digital release of the score. As the vinyl release is long out-of-print, the only other place this music appears to be available is on Jones’s live Madrid Concert compilation album, which was recorded at the 1st Soncinemad Film Music Festival in 2006. The six cues included in the compilation – the “Main Theme,” “Snow Mistress,” “Norwegian Theme,” “Mabel Beardsley’s Soiree,” “Message to the Public,” and the “Closing Titles” – are well worth investigating, especially as each cue is available individually in iTunes.

Buy the Last Place on Earth soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Theme (2:41)
  • Snow Mistress (2:47)
  • Kathleen and Scott (2:56)
  • Norwegian Theme (0:56)
  • Scott and Wilson Collaborate (1:53)
  • Mabel Beardsley’s Soiree (2:53)
  • The Departure of the Terra Nova (1:11)
  • The Fram Heads South (2:50)
  • Forty Mile Dash (2:40)
  • The British Set Forth Across the Barrier (1:19)
  • Heilberg’s Assault on the Glacier (4:10)
  • The Furthest South (2:18)
  • Ski Race (1:08)
  • The Great Nail (1:58)
  • Death on the Glacier (2:12)
  • In Memory of Soldier (1:23)
  • Message to the Public (3:33)
  • The South Pole (2:54)
  • Closing Titles (2:06)

Running Time: 43 minutes 51 seconds

Island Records ISTA-8 (1985)

Music composed and conducted by Trevor Jones. Orchestrations by John Coleman, Peter Knight and David Lindup. Score produced by Trevor Jones.

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