THE MISSION – Ennio Morricone
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
There are moments in film music history where you can listen to a score, and upon its conclusion sit back and be content in the knowledge that you have just experienced a genuine masterpiece. It doesn’t happen very often, because it has to be a perfect combination of everything that can possibly make a film score great. It has to fit the film, of course, carrying the story and enhancing the drama and elevating it to a point where the two seem inseparable, and where the film would be immeasurably diminished by it not being there. But then it also has to have all those things that make it excellent as pure music – everything from recurring themes that develop through the score, to orchestration, technique, and those intangibles of “beauty” and “memorability,” which of course are purely subjective, but nevertheless often affect a wide range of people in similar emotional ways. Ennio Morricone’s 1986 score for The Mission is, undoubtedly, one of those scores which ticks every box, a masterpiece on every conceivable level.
The film, which was directed by Roland Joffé, stars Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, and Liam Neeson. It is set in South America in the 1740s, and explores issues of faith and morality through the eyes of various Jesuit priests and other religious figures, as they work to convert the native Guaraní population to Christianity. De Niro plays Mendoza, a mercenary and slave-trader, who renounces his former ways and seeks to make amends by helping Father Gabriel (Irons) build a mission church in a Guaraní village. However, conflict emerges when a political treaty transfers control of the area from the Spanish to the Portuguese; the Portuguese, who allow slavery where the Spanish do not, embark on a series of raids to collect slaves from the Guaraní community, with the blessing of the local colonial government, and with the tacit approval of the Vatican itself. However, Mendoza, Gabriel, and their colleague Father Fielding (Neeson) vow to protect the natives, even if it means sacrificing their own lives in the process.
Although the film was lauded by most critics, and received seven Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture, The Mission was unfortunately not a success at the box office – its convoluted plot, labyrinthine political and ecclesiastical machinations, and long periods of introspective ‘scenery footage’ left audiences alienated from the core story. However, Ennio Morricone’s score for the The Mission vastly outstripped the legacy and fame of the film for which it was written, and in the intervening thirty years has gone on to be lauded as one of the most significant film scores written during the 1980s. Trying to pinpoint what makes Morricone’s score so wonderful is almost a futile exercise, but I’ll start where most people start: with the themes.
Unsurprisingly for a film of this scope, there are no less than three recurring main themes weaving through the score, as well as several minor ones which appear more infrequently. The first, which relates to the Guaraní mission itself, is first heard in the opening cue “On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” which is actually the end titles track. A rhythmic theme for harpsichord, strings, and a Latin choir, it gradually picks up a bed of ethnic percussion that increases its rhythmic core, as well as a contrapuntal statement of Gabriel’s theme (more on that later) that underpins the choral chanting and speaks to the culture clash at the center of the story – that between western civilization and the church, and the Guaraní themselves. The second theme is “Falls,” a stunningly beautiful melody for harp and strings, which picks up a blissful pan flute element, and a dramatic (if almost subliminal) plucked bass, which gradually swells into a spine-chilling performance for the full orchestra. This theme relates specifically to the Iguazú Falls, an immense waterfall which today marks part of the international border between Brazil and Argentina, and which has an ancient importance as the center of Guaraní culture.
The third theme is arguably the most famous: “Gabriel’s Oboe,” which is initially performed on-screen by Jeremy Irons’s character. Astonishingly, Morricone wrote the theme by watching the randomly improvised finger movements Irons acted during that first scene, and matching the music to those movements, as if that was what Irons had been playing all along. The fact that Morricone could write such a haunting, evocative, legendary theme from this basis is astonishing; the simple orchestration for oboe, strings, and harpsichord is sublime, capturing perfectly the essence of the peaceful, gentle Father Gabriel, who enchants and gains the trust of the Guaraní with his beautiful music.
These three themes form the cornerstone of the entire score. On any other film, just one of these staggeringly beautiful pieces would have been enough to earmark it as a classic, but the fact that Morricone wrote them all for one film is wonderful overkill of the highest order. Cleverly, Morricone allows his themes to develop and refine in subsequent scenes. In “Vita Nostra,” for example, he introduces a tribal variation on Gabriel’s theme transposed to flute, accompanied by ethnic drums, and offset by a contrapuntal performance of the chanted Mission theme.
In “Climb” Morricone gives a slow, steady, relentless performance of the Falls theme that ascends through the string section, until the final rapturous performance of the theme as Liam Neeson’s character Father Fielding successfully makes the dangerous ascent up the Iguazú Falls to join Gabriel at the mission. Later, in “Remorse,” Morricone re-orchestrates the Falls theme into a dark, churning variation for low, throaty strings, ruminating on Mendoza’s actions and his need for salvation, and the difficult challenge Gabriel imposes on him as atonement. The tortured harmonics of this cue has echoes of both Bernard Herrmann and Wojciech Kilar in their depiction of intense psychological damage, and it’s a testament to Morricone’s skill that he can re-arrange such a beautiful theme and make it sound so aghast.
Other cues which contain notable thematic variations include “The Mission,” which reprises the Falls theme with gentle, welcoming peacefulness, and in which flutes trill like birds fluttering through tree tops, speaking to the idyllic nature of Father Gabriel’s paradise haven. Later, “River” reprises the Mission theme to underscore a scene where a Vatican official is serenaded by Guaraní as he journeys up the Iguazú river to visit Gabriel’s mission; the celebratory brass trills, and the gradual intensification of the singing, reminds me of the wonderful finale from his 1969 score Queimada!
If that were not enough, Morricone also was able to write two pieces of liturgical choral music, “Ave Maria Guaraní” and “Te Deum Guaraní,” both of which are performed by a solo choir of South American natives. Their layered vocal harmonies are ragged and raw, but somehow rousing and deeply spiritual, and sound so authentic and ancient-sounding you can’t quite believe they were written and performed in 1986. There is also a secondary theme, “Brothers,” representing the relationship between Mendoza and his brother Felipe (Quinn); the gentle, sentimental theme for guitar, flute, and strings, speaks to their strong fraternal relationship before love and betrayal tears them apart – this secondary part is addressed in the subsequent “Carlotta,” where the guitars are darker, alluding to the fact that Carlotta (Lunghi) herself is the catalyst for the breakdown of the brothers’ relationship, and Mendoza’s subsequent quest for redemption and forgiveness.
Much of the last third of the score is given over to moments of tension and anticipation, building up to the climactic confrontation between Gabriel and Mendoza’s group of Guaraní warriors, and the mighty forces of the Portuguese colonial army. “Penance” features the low, throbbing bassoon writing that Morricone would later use to excellent effect in The Hateful Eight; the swirling central figure is gradually joined by strings, brass accents, and percussion, growing and building almost obsessively. Later, “Refusal” is the first of several cues full of stark tension, a collision of fluttering pan flutes, rumbling percussion, and militaristic bugles underpinned by brutal piano chords. This abstract, dissonant writing recalls some of Morricone’s work for director Gillo Pontecorvo in the 1960s, especially scores like The Battle of Algiers, and carries on through the subsequent “Asuncíon,” “Alone,” and “Guaraní”.
“The Sword” features the final statement of Gabriel’s theme, albeit with a merest hint of swashbuckling panache through a series of brass and piano flourishes that recall the trumpet fanfares from the Refusal cue, signifying again the clash of cultures as the militaristic colonials go head-to-head with the peaceful, pacifist Jesuits. The last stand of the Jesuits is represented by a transference of Gabriel’s theme to bass flute, dark and full of regret, before the conclusive “Miserere,” a solemn, ridiculously beautiful solo boy soprano performance of the Mission theme.
However, talking about the themes in such a way really doesn’t go any way towards explaining what Morricone does with them, which is a large part of the score’s genius. With this music, Morricone paints a picture of the Amazon jungle as a vast, beautiful, unspoiled wilderness, a celebration of one of God’s most beautiful creations on Earth. He depicts the Jesuit priests as humble, holy men, genuinely trying to help the Guaraní and bring them into the (at the time) modern world. He juxtaposes scenes of death and violence with music of such grace and beauty that the resulting imagery seems almost dream-like; the film’s iconic shot of another priest, condemned to die by the Guaraní, floating serenely down the river and over the Iguazú Falls on a makeshift cross, would be horrific were it not for Morricone’s wonderful music, which instead characterizes the priest’s sacrifice as heavenly martyrdom.
Talking about the themes in such a way also doesn’t explain why this score, amongst all others, is one of the few film themes to achieve a level of enduring popularity amongst the general public. One can never predict when a theme from a movie will enter public consciousness and transcend the film for which it was written, but The Mission certainly has. There is something intangibly appealing, indescribably primal, about Morricone’s writing on this score; it taps into and speaks to some sort of dormant spirituality that people all over the world somehow connect with. I’m not a religious man, but Morricone certainly is, and the film’s universal themes of giving glory and reverence to a higher power clearly inspired him to musically express himself at an unprecedented high level. It is perhaps no surprise that “Gabriel’s Oboe” has been arranged into the classical repertoire for several celebrated soloists, and was given Italian lyrics by writer Chiara Ferraù in 1998 prior to being recorded as ‘Nella Fantasia’ by soprano Sarah Brightman. This level of public awareness and acclaim is something that Morricone shares with just a few other film composers in the history of film music – John Williams, Henry Mancini, and John Barry among them.
Talking about the themes in such a way also doesn’t explain the level of compositional excellence Morricone displays on The Mission. I don’t have the technical knowledge to describe it properly, but you can just feel that this is outstanding music on a pure, intellectual level. The way all three of his main themes are able to play against each other contrapuntally, despite them all being clearly and identifiably different from one another, illustrates the great lengths Morricone took to structure his music in such a way that it can convey complicated, sometimes conflicting, emotional nuances simultaneously. The way Morricone is able to tweak the key, the tempo, or the orchestration of his themes to depict subtle differences in dramatic intent is also consistently superb. I honestly believe that, had this exact same music been written in the 1800s, for either a play or a ballet or simply as a celebration of the glory of God, this music would be part of today’s classical repertoire, acclaimed by even the most devoutly anti-film music snobs.
In what is undoubtedly one of the worst decisions in Academy history, Ennio Morricone lost the 1986 Oscar for Best Score to Herbie Hancock’s Round Midnight, which contained barely 15 minutes of original music, and was instead loaded with classic jazz standards. Although the jazz pieces were admittedly performed by some of the most legendary jazz artists alive in the 1980s, and are very good, Oscar voters clearly voted for the classic non-original work heard in that film rather than for Hancock’s minimal original contributions; as such, Morricone not winning for what is inarguably one of the greatest achievements in the history of film music is one of the biggest Oscar-related miscarriages of justice.
People often talk about ‘essential’ scores, and sometimes we get carried away by recommending things that may not live up to their hype, but The Mission really is something different. It’s perhaps the one, single, perfect example of what makes Ennio Morricone a genius – thematically, intellectually, emotionally, and dramatically – and why, even thirty years down the line, he is still a vital and important voice in world film music. There are other landmark scores in his canon – The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, and Cinema Paradiso among them – but I honestly believe that The Mission represents the pinnacle of his career as a composer It’s by far the best score of 1986, ranks in the Top 10 scores of the entire 1980s, and easily makes the list of the greatest 100 scores ever written.
Buy the Mission soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- On Earth As It Is In Heaven (3:50)
- Falls (1:55)
- Gabriel’s Oboe (2:14)
- Ave Maria Guaraní (2:51)
- Brothers (1:32)
- Carlotta (1:21)
- Vita Nostra (1:54)
- Climb (1:37)
- Remorse (2:46)
- Penance (4:03)
- The Mission (2:49)
- River (1:59)
- Gabriel’s Oboe (2:40)
- Te Deum Guaraní (0:48)
- Refusal (3:30)
- Asuncíon (1:27)
- Alone (4:25)
- Guaraní (3:56)
- The Sword (2:00)
- Miserere (1:00)
Running Time: 48 minutes 47 seconds
Virgin CDV-2402 (1986)
Music composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Incantation, London Voices and Barnet Schools Choir. Orchestrations by Ennio Morricone. Recorded and mixed by Dick Lewzey. Album produced by Ennio Morricone.