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GLORY – James Horner

February 12, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Blow the horn, play the fife, beat the drum so slowly. Blow the horn, play the fife, make the drum beat glory…

Stories from the American Civil War have fascinated filmmakers for decades. Films as great and respected as Gone With the Wind, The Red Badge of Courage, and even things like The Outlaw Josey Wales, have examined different elements of the conflict that so ravaged the fledgling nation from 1861 to 1865. However, for my money, one of the best movies about that period was the 1989 epic Glory, written by Kevin Jarre and directed by Edward Zwick. It tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a platoon of ‘free black’ soldiers and former slaves fighting for the Union Army. Under the command of Colonel Robert Shaw, the regiment becomes involved in numerous battles and incidents, culminating with their heroic charge on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in South Carolina. But the film is about more than that – it’s about bravery, and honor, and courage. It’s about the dignity of these African American soldiers, and how they inspired similar feelings of honor and dignity in their communities. It’s about the relationships between Shaw and his officers and soldiers, and how the racism and prejudice that still existed in the North was turned into friendship and mutual respect as a result of their experiences. The film has an astonishing cast – Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington who won an Oscar – and was a major critical success.

A large part of that critical success was because of the impact of the score, by James Horner. This was the first collaboration between Horner and Zwick, who would go on to make three more movies together – Legends of the Fall in 1994, Courage Under Fire in 1996, and the TV movie Extreme Close-Up, for which Zwick was executive producer. Horner and Zwick knew that, to do justice to this tale of valor in the face of impossible odds, the music would have to carry a significant amount of the film’s emotional weight. To that end, Horner wrote a score for a large symphony orchestra, and augmented it with vocal performances by the Boys Choir of Harlem, an ensemble of young black men from urban inner-city New York who brought both powerful musicality and inherent authenticity to the score.

The music is based around two recurring main themes which play off each other throughout the entire work. The specific intent of the two themes is never made explicitly clear, but from my understanding of the film the one which I am calling the ‘Glory Theme’ speaks mostly to the inherent nobility of the men the story follows, their struggles and travails and the sacrifices they endure in the service of hope and freedom, while the one I am calling the ‘Home Theme’ tends to represent the nostalgic vision of the United States that the men are actually fighting for, the homes and families they have given up for a greater purpose. Ultimately, Horner tends to use both themes interchangeably and contrapuntally anyway, so in many ways both themes represent all of the aforementioned concepts: an all-encompassing depiction of the war itself.

So, let’s get the main bugbear out of the way. Just as he did on numerous other scores, Horner once again drew from the classical canon for thematic inspiration for Glory. The Glory Theme is very close in tone and texture and melodic construct to Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the 1944 Russian epic film Ivan the Terrible. The Home Theme is clearly inspired by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 1910 classical piece Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis . And, of course, the entire “Charging Fort Wagner” sequence is a barely-disguised homage to Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna!” from the 1935 cantata Carmina Burana. As I have written before, these influences are completely clear and obvious, and in order to enjoy the score you simply have to acknowledge that this was something that Horner did, move past it, and enjoy the score for what it is.

Interestingly, the first thing you hear in the opening cue “A Call to Arms” is not either of the main themes, but is instead an authentic pastiche of a Civil War song, called ‘Blow the Horn,’ which is performed by the Boys Choir and is set to a relentless snare drum tattoo augmented by subtle electronics. The first performance of the Glory Theme emerges at around the 1:00 mark, filled with dramatic cello chords, tapped snares, and a hopeful, angelic choir. The theme switches to strings at 1:47, warm and emotional, before a clang of tubular bells and a cacophony of militaristic trumpet fanfares start to blend the two ideas together – the need for justice, and the armed conflict it will take to secure it. The subsequent “After Antietam” sees Matthew Broderick’s character, Shaw, recovering from battle wounds at home to the strains of the Glory Theme, in which the boys choir combined with muted snares and reveille trumpets in the background, creating an air that is regretful, contemplative, and a little distant. Shaw’s decision to return to combat and accept leadership of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment is illustrated by deep and important-sounding orchestral chords.

The first performance of the Home Theme comes in the third cue, “Lonely Christmas,” and it first appears as a gorgeous oboe melody, haunting, and full of remembrance and regret. The subsequent switch to horns is wholesome and proud, and the entire cue is awash in a sea of beautiful orchestral chords, many of which Horner used to superb effect throughout his career. The combination writing for woodwinds and strings throughout the cue is outstanding, but the phrasing in the strings at 1:22 is especially emotional. “Forming the Regiment” is an important cue as it marks the coming together of all the main characters for the first time, with Shaw leading the training of his new platoon. It opens with a refrain of ‘Blow the Horn’ for solo trumpet, but then quickly emerges into a series of beautiful statements of both main themes that move between gentle flutes and strings, accompanied by yet more of those gorgeous Horner chords. The whole thing erupts in to a snare-drum led fife-and-drum march after the 3:40 mark, martial and upbeat, which is redolent of all those famous Civil War songs that resounded across the battlefields of the country at the time – “Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and the like. The conclusive arrangement of both main themes in this new style is quite superb.

The film does not shy away from the darker and more brutal aspects of the Civil War, and neither does Horner’s score, and this is never more clear than in the cues “The Whipping” and “Burning the Town of Darien”. The former underscores the film’s most searing emotional moment as Denzel Washington’s character Silas Trip is unfairly whipped for desertion by his own commanding officers, in a stark echo of the brutal slavery of the south. Horner uses dark piano chords, low searching strings, funereal horns, and hints of the Glory Theme to underscore the gravity of the situation, and marks Trip’s moment of powerful defiance – he stares unblinkingly at Shaw as a single solitary tear of rage and sadness rolls down his cheek – with a subtle crescendo at the 1:09 mark. The latter underscores the scene where the men of the 54th, despite their own misgivings, are ordered to burn a small Confederate Georgia town to the ground – and all the townsfolk along with it. Horner’s music for this scene is full of darkness and anguish, juxtaposing beautiful searching strings and choral accents against scenes of horror and death. There is a large amount of amazing layered string writing underpinned with brutal snare drum rips and the deconstructed chord progressions of the Glory Theme, all of which gradually coalesce into a haunting performance of both main themes in counterpoint to each other.

The score’s most uplifting moment comes in “The Year of Jubilee,” which begins with a militaristic fife-and-drum march, and is quickly followed by a celebratory, almost buoyant version of the Glory Theme, and a statement of the Home Theme accentuated with cascading strings and choir. This is the regiment’s moment of triumph; having defeated a platoon Confederate soldiers in battle, these black men march in front of Southern plantation mansions, their crisp uniforms and held-high heads in stark contrast to the disheveled but newly-freed slaves who marvel at the pride and honor of the black soldiers who have liberated them.

The score’s emotional high comes in the next track, “Preparations for Battle,” as the men of the 54th gather on a South Carolina beach to launch an important attack on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold. This music underscores the moments before the charge, and the feelings of the men, most of whom know they are about to perish in service to their country. Horner lays on the emotions with every musical bone in his body, moving back and forth between both main themes, and increasing the power of the statements with each rendition. The enormous statement of the Home Theme at 1:26, as Shaw rouses his men with a patriotic speech of honor, sacrifice, and glory, is spine-tingling. The string textures and orchestral crescendos are expectant and deeply emotional, sorrow and regret blending with bravery and a sense of deep pride. There’s a brief refrain of “Blow the Horn” on actual horns, and a quick foreshadowing of the melody from Charging Fort Wagner at 3:21 which gives it a quiet religioso quality. Tubular bells usher in the final statements of the Home Theme at 5:28, and here Horner does something brilliant: he somehow adds a touch of whimsy to the phrasing of the woodwinds, which flutter and flourish as if to say that, in other circumstances, these men would actually enjoy being on this beach, with the waves lapping at their feet, the sun on their backs, fresh air in their lungs. It’s a simple but absolutely masterful stylistic choice from Horner because this one thing makes the men seem even more human, and relatable, and makes their inevitable imminent deaths all the more tragic. All this human life, all this potential, wasted. The music raises its voice in one massive final statement at 6:23 as the snare drums kick in and the actual charge begins, sprinting through the surf toward Fort Wagner.

The clatter of tubular bells, staccato trumpets, and snare drums leads into “Charging Fort Wagner,” possibly the score’s most famous piece, and the one which is clearly inspired by Orff’s Carmina Burana. Horner uses a massive orchestra and a choir singing and chanting in Latin to capture the immensity of the moment; the whole thing roils to relentless rhythmic snare drums, tubular bells, echoing trumpet triplets, and surging strings. If you listen carefully to the lyrics – and you translate them – you can see that they speak about judgment coming (‘quando judex ist venturus’), and are asking God to save them (‘libera me’) as the sound of trumpets echo in their tombs (‘tuba mirum spargens sonum per sepulchra regionum coget’). It’s all very epic, and wonderfully effective in context. The subsequent “An Epitaph to War” is a soft, solemn statement of the Glory Theme for an unadorned choir, lamenting for the dead and their ultimate sacrifice for freedom. In this scene, Shaw and Trip are dropped into an open grave after they both fall in battle – in death, no matter what their skin color, all men are truly equal in the end.

The opening moments of the “Closing Credits” have a startling similarity to Philip Glass’s score for the documentary Powaqqatsi, and features processed vocals and electronics underpinned with snare drums, tubular bells, horns, and a choral version of the Glory Theme. Eventually the music segues into a series of back-to-back statements of both main themes, large and powerful. The switch the Home Theme at 1:11 is accompanied by a cymbal clash and is especially effective, and is worth mentioning for its notably gorgeous cascading strings. The orchestra-only versions of the themes that begin at 2:31 are the score’s best; the unexpected change in direction of the melody at 3:45 gives it an indefinable quality of nobility and emotional power, and always makes me cry. Eventually the score simply strips itself down into yet more of those wonderful Hornery textures, which allow the music to drift off to its appropriate conclusion. The whole thing ends with a final sung statement of “Blow the Horn,” in remembrance of the fallen.

The emotional quality of James Horner’s music is something I have talked about for years. It is the primary reason I am so drawn to his work in the first place; I crave that connection with the characters that his music provides, and revel in the deeply-felt themes and passages that allow me to experience everything that the filmmaker is trying to convey to me with his movie. Glory is, in my opinion, one of the most accomplished emotional scores of Horner’s entire career, a bonafide masterpiece that brings the lives and deaths of these men who gave up everything roaring into contemporary relevance. It doesn’t matter that this all happened 100 years or more before we were born; the hopes and fears and unrealized dreams of these men, and the things they stood for, are just as important today as they were in 1863, and Horner’s music plays a major part in allowing us to feel that. The fact that it’s also beautifully written and orchestrated and performed is just icing on the cake. 1989 was a ridiculously strong year for film music, but Glory should have been nominated for an Oscar that year, ahead of several lesser works that made it to the ceremony instead. Despite this omission, Glory is a cornerstone James Horner score, is an absolutely essential part of every discerning fan’s collection – and marks the perfect way for me to end my exploration of the best scores of the 1980s, and move into the 1990s.

Buy the Glory soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Call to Arms (3:07)
  • After Antietam (2:39)
  • Lonely Christmas (1:54)
  • Forming the Regiment (5:26)
  • The Whipping (2:09)
  • Burning the Town of Darien (2:30)
  • Brave Words, Braver Deeds (3:09)
  • The Year of Jubilee (2:25)
  • Preparations for Battle (7:32)
  • Charging Fort Wagner (2:51)
  • An Epitaph to War (2:32)
  • Closing Credits (6:51)

Running Time: 43 minutes 05 seconds

Virgin Records 91329-2 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Special vocal performances by the Boys Choir of Harlem. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by James Horner.

  1. February 14, 2020 at 10:05 am

    Love this score. Horner was so good, back then. Its like every soundtrack album he released was so special, what a run he was on. Glory may have owed much to other, classical motifs etc but I didn’t care, it was just wonderful music.

  2. February 19, 2020 at 10:04 am

    Certainly one of his best and should have been nominated and won that Oscar. Still hard to believe we will never his like again. It has been in my collection since its release.

  3. K.A.K.
    May 5, 2022 at 1:58 pm

    There’s a cue on the expanded release of this called “The Battle Of Grimball’s Landing” that’s almost a straight lift from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky lol.

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