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RAMBO III – Jerry Goldsmith

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Sylvester Stallone’s position as one of the decade’s most bankable Hollywood stars continued in 1988 with Rambo III, the third film about the exploits of John Rambo, a bitter and damaged Vietnam-era Special Forces veteran who keeps getting dragged back into war zones no matter how much he tries to live a quiet life. Directed by Peter MacDonald and written by Stallone himself with Sheldon Lettitch, Rambo III begins with Rambo being visited by his old army colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), who tries to recruit him for a covert special ops mission to bring weapons to mujahedeen freedom fighters battling the Soviets in Afghanistan. Rambo refuses, but is eventually drawn into the conflict anyway weeks later when he learns that the mission was a disaster, and Trautman is now being held captive by a the sadistic Soviet colonel Alexei Zaysen (Marc de Jonge). Vowing to rescue his friend and bring him home, Rambo travels to the region alone, intending to wage a one-man war on the kidnappers.

Could there be a more 80s action movie than Rambo III? Covert special ops teams bringing arms to Afghan rebels, fighting against the Soviets, a one man army drawing on his experiences in Vietnam to bring the Americans home safely, Sylvester Stallone – a mound of bulging muscles and baby oil – mowing down faceless enemies with a machine gun. Little did we know that in the space of a decade the Soviet Union would collapse entirely, and the friendly freedom fighters to whom the CIA happily gave arms would eventually morph into the Taliban, and partly precipitate the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. In many ways, Rambo III is something of a relic of its era, which is looked back upon now as a curious snapshot of the socio-political fears the world displayed at the time, but it was enormously successful with audiences at the box office, grossing almost $190 million and ensuring that Stallone’s action movie credentials would continue into the 1990s.

The score for Rambo III was by the great Jerry Goldsmith, continuing his association with the series that began in 1982 with the original Rambo movie, First Blood. The score is very much rooted in his iconic 1980s action style – a big orchestra (this time recorded in Hungary), his usual array of unique but now slightly dated-sounding electronic textures, plenty of rhythmic action music, and several moments of location-specific ethnic writing for regional instruments – all wrapped around numerous performances of his iconic Rambo theme. Interestingly, much of the original music Goldsmith wrote for Rambo III did not end up in the final film; director Peter MacDonald and producers Buzz Feitshans, Mario Kassar, and Andrew G. Vajna, ended up tracking in a not insignificant amount of the more action-oriented score from Rambo II, ostensibly to make the film more exciting. As such, this soundtrack album is the only place where one can hear Goldsmith’s original vision for the music.

The score opens with “Another Time,” which is more introspective and thoughtful than one might imagine; it features a solemn trumpet performance of the Rambo theme, ‘It’s a Long Road,’ underpinned with quietly melancholy woodwinds and strings, depicting the loneliness and self-imposed isolation of Rambo’s life in a Thai monastery. Things change in the second cue, “Preparations,” which is a somewhat unique cue in Goldsmith’s canon; it begins with heavy electronic tones, both sampled and live woodwinds, and some vaguely South East Asian string colors, supporting a drawn-out statement of the Rambo theme. However, during its second half, the cue changes to become an elongated sequence of insistent, multi-faceted percussion, providing Rambo’s mission with a sense of grim determination and inevitability. The percussion items are variously struck, rattled, and shaken, and combine with odd sighing and chattering vocal effects to create a nervous, edgy sound that is very successful. I should point out that, at times, the music threatens to break out into a performance of the BBC’s famous theme for their coverage of cricket, Test Match Special, aka “Soul Limbo” by Booker T. and the M. G.’s, but I’m probably one of only four or five people in the world who would pick up on that.

Once Rambo himself decamps to the Middle East the music changes, and Goldsmith introduces his new thematic ideas for this score. The first new theme appears in “Peshawar“ and is an unexpectedly beautiful piece for strings and synths augmented by middle eastern woodwinds, and some rhythmic underpinnings that feel like the genesis of the theme from The Ghost and the Darkness. The second theme appears in the subsequent “Afghanistan” and, again, is tender and a little reflective, with a peaceful and idyllic sound that stands at odds with the setting, shimmering synth strings backed by orchestra, chimes, and some faintly exotic chord progressions that hint at the geographic location. Although the inclusion of some militaristic drums in the middle section of the cue addresses the sense of danger, the whole thing is really quite lovely. I’m sure the idea was for the music to address the mujahedeen as being noble heroes fighting for a valiant cause, and this – combined with the visual majesty of the location itself – is what led Goldsmith’s hand.

Subsequent cues like “Then I’ll Die,” “The Aftermath,” and “First Aid” revisit these ideas; the former is an especially moving setting of the Afghanistan theme for woodwinds accompanied by gentle synth textures, with an especially gorgeous oboe performance, while the latter takes on a different hue, playing the same melodic ideas, but making them appear dark and embittered.

Interspersed within all this is a great deal of suspense and tension writing, underscoring torture scenes, stealthy sneaking around, plan-making, and some downtime. Goldsmith tends to use the electronics quite heavily in these cues, often employing a particular insect-like fizz-buzz that is very prominent in cues such as “The Long Time” and “Going Down”. Elsewhere, there are extended sequences for percussion and abstract woodwind flutters (“Night Entry”), unexpected collisions between dissonant textures such as groaning synths and scratchy percussion woodblocks (“The Cave”), and some militaristic snare writing which feels like it’s building up to a climax, most notably in “You Did It, John”. It’s to Goldsmith’s credit that, even in these moments, he was always inspired enough to do something interesting with the music on a textural level – they may not be memorable, or even especially enjoyable, but Goldsmith never dropped his standards and always went looking for that next cool idea to keep his music interesting.

However, what most people will likely take away from Rambo III is the action, and as always Goldsmith doesn’t skim on the thrills and spills. Throughout his set pieces Goldsmith continually works in nuggets of the classic Rambo theme, as well as the two new themes, embedding them in rhythmic ideas that are steeped in his characteristic action writing sound. Many of the cues reprise the action motifs Rambo II, and others have some similarities and echoes of the action music that first appeared in Supergirl, while simultaneously creating the genesis of the music that would eventually feature in scores like The Mummy almost a decade later. The first action piece of note is “The Game,” a highly rhythmic but surprisingly restrained piece for low brass, pulsating woodwind writing, ethnic percussion, and occasional outbursts where the main theme is prominent – although, for the most part, the music remains a little taut, with no overt statements of outright heroism.

Later, “Flaming Village” is especially ballsy, and sees Goldsmith working with multiple layers of synths, all overwhelmingly tense, accompanied by low brass outbursts, staccato pianos, and thrusting, insistent percussion rhythms. Cues like “Under and Over,” “The Boot,” and “The Show Down” are similar in tone and texture, but I feel I have to bring special attention to “Night Fight,” which is thrilling and energetic, features a great deal of interesting interplay between the horns and the piano, has some distinctly Goldsmithian synth pulses underpinning the orchestra, erupts into several florid statements of the main Rambo theme, and has some peculiar, whining, overlapping brass writing in the second half which gives it a unique sound.

However, the most surprising thing about this cue is the fact that it is the origin of the theme that would eventually become the main theme from the 2001 film The Last Castle – a theme which was, ironically, subtitled ‘September 11th 2001’. The first performance of the theme comes right at the beginning of the cue, on refined horns, and continues through much of the piece. It’s a great theme, and there’s nothing wrong with him re-purposing it for another film a decade or so later, but I do think there’s a delicious irony that Goldsmith chose this theme of all themes to work with, considering what it was being used for in context during Rambo III. Knowing how well Goldsmith was aware of his own filmography, I would be astonished if it wasn’t intentional.

The final cue, “Final Battle,” offers some wonderfully rhythmic arrangements, including prominent pianos and xylophones in the percussion, swirling strings under the punchy brass, and the most rousing statement of Rambo theme. The end credits piece, “I’ll Stay,” is a superb 9-minute summation of everything the score has to offer, including full and lush orchestral arrangements of both new main themes, and a rousing final reprise of the First Blood theme as Rambo signs off.

The score for Rambo III has been released several times. The original 1988 Scotti Bros. release featured just seven tracks from Goldsmith’s score on an album padded out with songs by Bill Medley and Giorgio Moroder. Intrada Records released a more complete version of the score in 1989, expanded to 23 tracks and more than 70 minutes in length, and then re-released this album in 2005 with identical content but re-mastered sound and more detailed liner notes and packaging; it is this album that is being reviewed here. In the spring of 2018 Intrada released yet another version of the score with a couple of additional cues, and a slightly re-worked chronological ordering, but truthfully the changes are negligible and anyone who already owns one of the two earlier Intrada releases has as much Rambo III music as they will ever need.

Fans of the Rambo franchise will find Rambo III to be the most subtle of the three scores Goldsmith penned for the series, but that doesn’t mean there are no thrills or spills to be had, or that the action music is any less fulsome than in previous installments. It just means that there are many moments of reflection and beauty to be found here too, which is surprising considering how much of a reputation these films had for macho carnage and gung-ho Reaganite patriotism. No matter what assignment he was given, no matter how bombastic the action was, Jerry Goldsmith always found the heart of his story first, and was always able to bring out that inherent emotion in unexpected ways. The heart of the story of Rambo III was of a man who, almost against his will, was forced into action over and over again in order to save his friends, but who through the course of three movies really wanted nothing more than to be left alone.

Buy the Rambo III soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • SCOTTI BROS. RELEASE
  • It Is Our Destiny (written by Peter Wolf and Ina Wolf, performed by Bill Medley) (4:32)
  • Preparations (5:02)
  • Afghanistan (2:40)
  • The Game (2:27)
  • Another Time (3:58)
  • He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (written by Bob Russell and Bobby Scott, performed by Bill Medley) (4:32)
  • Aftermath (2:45)
  • Questions (3:36)
  • The Bridge (written by Tom Whitlock, performed by Giorgio Moroder feat. Joe Pizullo) (3:59)
  • Final Battle (4:49)
  • INTRADA RELEASE
  • Another Time (3:58)
  • Preparations (6:21)
  • The Money (0:52)
  • I’m Used to It (1:00)
  • Peshawar (1:12)
  • Afghanistan (2:38)
  • Questions (3:37)
  • Then I’ll Die (3:34)
  • The Game (2:25)
  • Flaming Village (4:07)
  • The Aftermath (2:44)
  • Night Entry (3:58)
  • Under and Over (2:55)
  • Night Fight (6:50)
  • First Aid (2:46)
  • The Long Climb (3:25)
  • Going Down (1:52)
  • The Cave (3:31)
  • The Boot (1:53)
  • You Did It, John (1:08)
  • The Show Down (1:26)
  • Final Battle (4:50)
  • I’ll Stay (9:00)

Running Time: 38 minutes 20 seconds (Scotti Bros)
Running Time: 75 minutes 50 seconds (Intrada #1)
Running Time: 76 minutes 02 seconds (Intrada #2)
Running Time: 76 minutes 22 seconds (Intrada #3)

Scotti Bros. 72392-75241-2 (1988)
Intrada RVF-6006D (1988/1989)
Intrada MAF-7094 (1988/2005)
Intrada INT-7150 (1988/2018)

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Performed by The Hungarian State Opera Orchestra. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton and Nancy Beach. Recorded and mixed by Mike Ross. Edited by Ken Hall. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

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