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THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER – Basil Poledouris

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The character Jack Ryan is ubiquitous in American popular culture. He was created by author Tom Clancy and starred in a series of ‘techno-thriller’ spy novels, the first of which was published in 1984. Depending on how old you are, most people associate two actors with the character: either Harrison Ford, who played him on the big screen in the films Patriot Games in 1992 and Clear and Present Danger in 1994, or John Krasinski, who currently plays him on the small screen in the eponymous Amazon TV series. However, Ryan’s first appearance was actually in this film: The Hunt for Red October, which was released in theaters in the spring of 1990. Here Ryan is played by Alec Baldwin, and the plot of the film revolves around Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), the captain of the nuclear-capable Soviet submarine Red October, which has disappeared while on maneuvers in the north Atlantic. When it is eventually re-discovered, the CIA realizes that the Red October is headed directly for the US eastern seaboard, and immediately fears that an attack is imminent. However Ryan, a respected intelligence analyst, offers a different theory: that Ramius is actually trying to defect. So begins a cat and mouse game between the CIA, the KGB, Ryan, and Ramius, in which each of them is trying to uncover the truth before the incident sparks World War III. The film was directed by John McTiernan, and has an excellent supporting cast including Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry, and a young Stellan Skarsgård.

With the exception of Sean Connery’s valiant but hilariously ineffective attempt to hide his Scottish accent while playing an ethnic Lithuanian (“we shail into hishtory!”), one of the most memorable things about The Hunt for Red October is its score, by the great Basil Poledouris. This film marked the composer’s only collaboration with director McTiernan, whose previous two films Predator and Die Hard are now counted among the greatest action films ever made. Poledouris was an expert at combining orchestral, choral, and electronic elements into his scores, as shown by many of his previous works; he was also well known for his punchy, masculine sound, which was a perfect fit for the alpha-male world of spycraft and nuclear warfare depicted in the film. As such, The Hunt for Red October is a bold, action-packed orchestral and electronic hybrid score that captures the white-knuckled intensity of the scenario. Interestingly, and memorably, Poledouris also explored his richly classical side in writing the “Hymn to Red October,” a bold and lusty Russian-language choral piece which any of the old Soviet greats would have been proud to have within their canon.

The Hymn is the centerpiece of the whole thing, and is an unashamedly Slavic Prokofiev-like work that, in another world, could easily have been the Soviet national anthem. The original lyrics speak of the great military glories of the Motherland – “sail on fearlessly, pride of the northern seas, hope of the Revolution, you are the burst of faith for the people” – and the performance by the male voice choir is just superb. The horns explode with patriotic fervor, the strings swirl, and the snare drums add a militaristic tone. It’s easily one of the most memorable things Poledouris ever wrote. Interestingly – and perhaps a touch disappointingly – this fabulous theme does not re-occur with any great frequency in the rest of the score. There are clear statements of it at 2:51 and 5:03 in “Nuclear Scam,” but that’s pretty much it, and beyond that everything else in the score is action, suspense, and drama, much of which combines orchestra with very prominent electronics.

These electronics may prove to be something of a sticking point for some people. Poledouris had written blended scores before, of course, with things like Robocop and Cherry 2000 springing to mind, but there is something about the synths in Red October that feel a little un-finished, perhaps a little poorly mixed, perhaps a little cheap and tinny? I can’t quite put my finger on it. There are rumors that the music budget for the film was slashed while Poledouris was writing his score and that the copious amounts of electronics in the final cut are a result of him needing to re-work his approach to the film very quickly to fit these new circumstances (apparently, his original plan was to transition from the “Hymn” to a bold and Copland-esque Americana equivalent by the end, but that idea was dropped). Whatever the case may be I feel that some of the more heavily electronic cues in the score could turn some people away from the work as a whole.

I hope I’m wrong, however, because even with this caveat parts of The Hunt for Red October are truly outstanding. “Nuclear Scam” is a 7-minute action set piece full of moody, shifting string figures and ticking percussive textures that often give way to explosions of orchestral and choral grandeur, throbbing rhythmic passages, and bursts of full-throated intensity. Some of the orchestrations Poledouris chooses – sleigh bells and tambourines in the percussion section, prominent clarinets in the woodwinds, certain ways of phrasing the strings – allow it to retain a sense of Russianness throughout, while the Robocop-esque electronic pulses give it a contemporary (for the 1990s) edge. “Putin’s Demise” – how’s that for foreshadowing! – is a short piece which uses tolling bells and dream-like synths under the orchestra to give Peter Firth’s character’s death a sense of finality. “Ancestral Aid” uses the chorus in a spookier way, alternating between whispers and bold chanting, and also using women’s voices for the first time, adding a new dimension to the otherwise quite dour orchestral and electronic suspense textures.

“Chopper” is a nerve-jangling piece of action writing that begins with some bubbling keyboard figures and percussion slams that feel like leftovers from the score for Iron Eagle or Flight of the Intruder, but becomes quite powerfully orchestral as it develops. There’s a hint of romance in “Two Wives,” a hesitant but eventually quite pretty string and oboe theme that has stylistic echoes of the theme for Alex Murphy and his wife from Robocop, but was omitted from the final cut of the film. “Red Route I” has a deliberate pace to its languorous string and woodwind figures, but also contains some gorgeous choral textures, as well as moments of brass-led scope and grandeur during its second half. “Plane Crash” is a superb but too-brief atmospheric cue, which explodes into life after the 60 second mark with a haunting chorus and a volley of overlapping, almost James Horner-esque trumpets and electronic textures. The conclusive “Kaboom!!!” features more of those irritatingly tinny electronic samples, and they would have come close to spoiling the entire cue were it not for Poledouris’s fervent percussive rhythms, breathless internal pacing, and relentless energy.

The original soundtrack album for The Hunt for Red October, on MCA Records, contained 10 cues totaling just over 30 minutes of music, and for almost 15 years the score album existed only in this truncated form, until it was expanded and re-released in 2013 by Intrada Records. The special edition CD added almost half an hour’s worth of additional music and bonus cues, although some discrepancies and audio issues remain. The album producer explained that “the end of the scoring process for Hunt for Red October was quite chaotic … in dubbing, they basically took it out of Basil’s hands and remade the score as they deemed necessary, remixing some passages from Michael Boddicker’s original synth stems. What you’re hearing [in some of the cues] is some of this last-minute manipulation that was not what Basil wanted”. With that caveat in mind, the expanded score is absolutely worth exploring for fans of the film and devotees of the score, although personally – and bearing in mind that I am not reallty either of those things – I have always found the original album presentation to be perfectly adequate, a concise representation of the best things the score has to offer.

Whichever album floats your boat (or submarine), The Hunt for Red October remains one of the essential Basil Poledouris scores, and is up there with some of his very best career works. The Hymn is, of course, sensational, and some of the action writing is strongly powerful and engaging, but the dated-sounding electronics do drag it down a notch or two, and may prove to be too much of a stretch for anyone who still finds late 80s and early 90s synth technology to be unpalatable.

Buy the Hunt for Red October soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 1990 ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Hymn to Red October (Main Titles) (5:04)
  • Nuclear Scam (7:17)
  • Putin’s Demise (0:54)
  • Course Two-Five-Zero (0:21)
  • Ancestral Aid (2:10)
  • Chopper (2:52)
  • Two Wives (2:41)
  • Red Route I (3:28)
  • Plane Crash (1:46)
  • Kaboom!!! (3:15)
  • 2013 EXPANDED RELEASE
  • Never Happened (0:41)
  • Hymn to Red October (Main Titles) (5:08)
  • Putin’s Demise (1:04)
  • Tyler’s Office/Ramius and the Doctor/Dallas Listens (2:44)
  • Course Two-Five-Zero/Interlude/Two-Five-Zero/Padorin Reads (1:25)
  • Ryan’s Wheels (Original Version) (0:39)
  • Ryan’s Wheels (Revised)/Tupolov/Buckaroo (3:17)
  • The Line/Red Route I (4:15)
  • Ancestral Aid (2:16)
  • Plane Crash (1:51)
  • Ryan Lifts Off/Emergence (1:35)
  • Two Wives (2:45)
  • Chopper (4:09)
  • Submarine Dive/Necessary Force (2:50)
  • Outer Doors (2:14)
  • Nuclear Scam (7:22)
  • Mini-Sub/Contact (3:18)
  • Tupolov’s Torpedo/Torpedo Hits (3:29)
  • Kaboom!!! (6:21)
  • End Title (4:36)
  • Putin’s Demise (Album Version) (1:03) BONUS
  • Red Route I (Album Version) (3:33) BONUS
  • Necessary Force (Alternate Mix) (2:23) BONUS
  • The Anthem of the Soviet Union (Vocal) (1:06) BONUS

Running Time: 29 minutes 48 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 70 minutes 04 seconds (Expanded)

MCA Records MCASD-6425 (1990)
Intrada ISC-25 (1990/2013)

Music composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Tim Boyle. Edited by Tom Villano. Score produced by Basil Poledouris. Expanded album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

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