Home > Reviews > THE LIGHTHORSEMEN – Mario Millo



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Lighthorsemen was one of a series of critically acclaimed Australian films in the 1980s which looked at the experiences of that country’s soldiers during World War I and World War II, while also commenting specifically on the emergence of an Australian national culture and identity as it moved from being a British colony to attaining full independence. Capitalizing on the success of 1980’s Breaker Morant and 1981’s Gallipoli, which launched the international careers of directors Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir, The Lighthorsemen was directed by Simon Wincer and followed the experiences of four young and inexperienced Australian soldiers in a mounted brigade, fighting for the British against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East as part of World War I. The movie culminates with an extraordinary depiction of the Battle of Beersheba, which has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest mounted infantry charges in history, and one of the finest moments of Australian military success.

The score for The Lighthorsemen is by the great but grossly overlooked Australian composer Mario Millo. Having originally been a member of the successful Australian prog-rock band Sebastian Hardie in the 1970s, Millo emerged as a film composer at the same time as several contemporaries, all of whom took advantage of the success of the Australian New Wave cinematic movement. However, whereas composers like Brian May, Bruce Smeaton, Bruce Rowland, and Peter Best were able to translate this success into comparatively high-profile careers scoring movies in Hollywood, for some reason Millo never did – he continued to work infrequently in Australia, scoring projects like Brides of Christ in 1991, Paws in 1997, Changi in 2001, and the popular TV series McLeod’s Daughters, but despite this he remains virtually unknown outside his home country, and according to online information he hasn’t scored a theatrical movie in over 20 years. This is a real shame, because his work on The Lighthorsemen shows him to be a composer who is genuinely capable of great things. In fact, I could make a strong case for The Lighthorsemen being one of the greatest scores ever written for an Australian film – it’s a fully orchestral, thematic masterpiece, which was recorded in Melbourne by the Victoria Philharmonic Orchestra, and is overflowing with moments of heroism, drama, romance, and grand adventure.

There are two main themes running through the score, both of which relate to the Lighthorsemen, but which seek to convey slightly different emotional concepts. The first theme is what I am going to subtitle the ‘Adventure theme,’ and it first appears in the opening cue, “The Lighthorsemen,” which is actually the End Titles. It’s a rousing, heroic, upbeat theme filled with swirling strings, emphatic brass, and moments of pageantry and majesty. Its slightly light-hearted tone speaks to the embodiment of ‘larrikinism’ in Aussie culture – that of a slightly rough-around-the-edges rogue who will nevertheless put his life on the line for his mates when it matters the most, and who always has your back. The whole thing has a definite John Williams, Indiana Jones-esque vibe to it, in terms of the arrangements, the tone, and the orchestration.

The second theme is what I am going to subtitle the ‘Action theme,’ and it first appears in the second cue, “Horses and Train.” The theme that emerges as the cue develops is spectacular and exhilarating, full of movement, optimism, and an irrepressible spirit that follows these four lads leaving home and seeing the world for the first time. There is some especially wonderful writing for strings and woodwinds here, with a recognizable recurring rhythmic figure at its core.

As the score progresses, these two themes form the cornerstone, and to Millo’s credit he offers several interesting variations and adaptations, each tailored to the emotional needs of the scene in question. For example, “Palestine (Opening Titles)” is initially a little more downbeat and mysterious, but slowly moves through several militaristic statements of the Adventure theme, with the whole thing being given a touch of the exotic through some Middle Eastern phrasing in the strings. In “The Lighthorse Appear” the Adventure theme is majestic and grand, but a little apprehensive too, as the scale and scope of the conflict starts to become clear to the protagonists. Later, “Ruins at Khasif” provides the most difference, featuring a dark, menacing, tortured variation on the Adventure theme underpinned with intense rhythmic tones, and explosions of anguish from the brass; Millo himself describes this arrangement as intending to illustrate the moment the Lighthorsemen begin to full understand the horrors of war.

Meanwhile, the Action theme – as one would expect – tends to appear in the more intense action sequences, often providing a strong and forthright rhythmic undercurrent to the fights and battles. In “Bedouin Ambush” the theme is surrounded by Millo’s quite breathless action arrangements: string tremolos, churning cello figures, clattering xylophones in the percussion section, and an overall sense of tension and anxiety in the performance, where frequent key changes give it a more urgent, dangerous feel. “Leaving Khan Yunis” has a similar effect, where Millo’s thrilling rhythmic ideas are conveyed through scampering string writing and gong crashes. “Plane Attack” is superb, a mass of whirling string figures, punchy brass interjections, heavy percussion, and a sense of chaos and danger. “The Haversack” is full of tension and dissonance, featuring an ominous swirling pattern that passes from strings to brass, vaguely Middle Eastern textures, jangling xylophones, and an especially vivid setting of the Action theme that is frantic and severe.

To keep the score fresh, Millo often tempers it with moments of solemn reflection, and even some hesitant romance, to remind listeners of what the Lighthorsemen are fighting for, and what they have waiting for them when – or if – they should make it back to their home. “News from Home” is tinged with sadness and loneliness, and features a solo trumpet and soft strings playing a slightly folk-like melody, wistful and nostalgic. “Anne and Dave” is a romantic piece depicting the relationship between one of the Lighthorsemen and his girl back home; it’s intimate, tender, wholesome, and even has a few hints and variations of the Adventure theme, but it quickly becomes jaunty, almost whimsical, full of sparkling woodwind writing that captures the innocence of the young lovers as they enjoy a moment of peace at an outing to a market – there’s even a pretty statement of the Action theme on flutes. The passionate, longing statement of the Adventure theme on strings and oboes illustrates their emotions as they part; this writing also informs the subsequent “The Letter,” which is tender and soothing, and features some especially notable harp writing.

The score’s finale is written to accompany the climactic sequence of the film – the Battle of Beersheba itself. The sequence begins with “March to Beersheba,” which features the main Adventure theme arranged like a dirge, with especially forceful brass accented with tolling bells to give off a sense of relentless gritted-teeth determination. The battle itself is underscored by three cues – “The Charge,” “Under the Guns,” and “Saving the Wells” – but it is less spectacular and gung-ho than one might expect. Instead of celebrating and glorifying violence, Millo scores the tension of the combatants; it begins with a sense of eerie calm, filled with ominous string drones, piano chords, and high woodwinds. The main action sequence is apprehensive, but urgent, like an elevated heartbeat; Millo makes heavy use of snares and other war-like percussion items, stabbing ostinatos, and performances of the Adventure theme on both low purposeful strings, and brass. Some of the colors he uses are vivid, especially in the percussion section, which features more xylophones and multiple gong crashes. By the time the end of “Saving the Wells” kicks in, Millo has cleverly pitted both the Action theme and the Adventure theme against each other for the first time, shaded with minor key exclamations that are a little bitter, as well as various pulsating interjections from the orchestra which cleverly juxtapose different rhythmic ideas.

The conclusive “Victory at Beersheba,” although it is most definitely a celebration of military triumph, is nevertheless tinged with a sense of sadness and loss. It’s interesting to observe how the two main themes have altered, tonally, as the score progressed – the irrepressible optimism and wide-eyed sense of adventure heard during the first couple of cues has now been replaced with weary relief, and a nostalgic, almost reverent longing for home. A timpani drum roll and a cymbal clash ushers in the warm, sweeping final statement of the Adventure theme, bringing the score to a rousing close.

The soundtrack for The Lighthorsemen was released on vinyl LP at the time the film was released, and then came out on a CD in 1991 from the Australian label 1M1 Records, but it quickly went out of print internationally and within several years was an incredibly rare and high-priced collectible. In 2016 the score was re-released by American label Dragon’s Domain Records, digitally re-mastered, and presented in a handsome package featuring liner notes by writer and IFMCA member Randall Larson; it’s available to purchase from their website, or to download from most of the main online resources.

Although The Lighthorsemen is likely to be an incredibly obscure film to most American readers, and although Mario Millo is likely to be a composer that most people have never heard of, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The Lighthorsemen was written at a time when war films were still being scored with broad orchestral strokes, with strong main themes, and with an emotional integrity that allowed the viewers and listeners to empathize with the protagonists as they go from eager young bucks thirsty for adventure, to battle-weary veterans longing to return home. It’s also an important landmark in Australian film music as a whole, standing tall as one of the outstanding efforts of what is arguably the golden period of that country’s film industry, Finally, it’s also a timely reminder of just how much great film music talent was emerging from Australia during that time period, and how frustrating it is that Mario Millo’s ascendant star never quite reached the heights this score indicated he could attain.

Buy the Lighthorsemen soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Lighthorsemen (End Titles) (4:29)
  • Horses and Train (2:16)
  • Palestine (Opening Titles) (2:19)
  • The Lighthorse Appear (1:12)
  • Bedouin Ambush (1:57)
  • News from Home (2:15)
  • Leaving Khan Yunis (1:54)
  • Anne and Dave (4:29)
  • Ruins at Khasif (2:35)
  • Plane Attack (1:39)
  • The Letter (2:46)
  • The Haversack (2:53)
  • March to Beersheba (3:16)
  • The Charge (7:02)
  • Under the Guns (2:43)
  • Saving the Wells (4:14)
  • Victory at Beersheba (4:24)

Running Time: 53 minutes 03 seconds

Dragon’s Domain DDR-608 (1988/2016)

Music composed by Mario Millo. Conducted by William Motzing. Performed by The Victoria Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Mario Millo. Recorded and mixed by Roger Savage. Score produced by Mario Millo. Album produced by Ford A. Thaxton.

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