Home > Reviews > BUCKLEY’S CHANCE – Christopher Gordon

BUCKLEY’S CHANCE – Christopher Gordon

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Buckley’s Chance is an Australian action-adventure film for children, written and directed by Tim Brown. The film stars young Milan Burch as Ridley, a teenage boy from New York who moves with his mother Gloria (Victoria Hill) to live with his estranged grandfather Spencer (Bill Nighy) in Western Australia after his father dies. Ridley hates his new life, mourns for his father, and resents his grandfather, but soon things get much worse when Ridley gets lost in the Outback. With only a dingo dog named Buckley for company, Ridley is forced to make an arduous journey across hostile territory trying to reach home – while, on the other end, Spencer and Gloria frantically search for the boy. The term ‘buckley’s chance’ is an idiom in Australian slang, meaning ‘something which has a very small chance of succeeding,’ and likely dates back to the 1800s and a man named William Buckley, an escaped convict who somehow survived the burning temperatures of the Outback and lived with a tribe of Aborigines for more than 30 years – a real life episode which partly mirrors the events in this story. Despite some lovely cinematography, the film was unfortunately not well received by reviewers, who especially criticized its juvenile tone and Bill Nighy’s accent.

The score for Buckley’s Chance is by the great Australian composer Christopher Gordon, who has been working as a conductor-for-hire for several high profile movies lately, but who hasn’t really been given an opportunity to stretch his own compositional legs on a film like this in quite some time. Gordon is a superb, old-school orchestral composer with a knack for lovely themes, powerful orchestrations, and strong emotional content, which naturally means that his music is completely out of fashion for most mainstream films these days. This is a great shame because, when he’s given the opportunity to shine, he can be up there with the very best. His scores for films like Moby Dick (1998), On the Beach (2000), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Daybreakers (2009), and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) are testament to this, and Buckley’s Chance is yet another addition to this list of excellence.

Director Brown asked Gordon for a 1980s-style adventure score, and boy did Gordon deliver. Buckley’s Chance is a classic orchestral work in the Hollywood style of composers like Bruce Broughton, James Horner, Joel McNeely, and others, filled with memorable melodies, impressive action, moments of emotion and introspection, and an unapologetic lyricism and romanticism. There are several recurring themes weaving through the score – one which appears to be for the dingo Buckley, one which appears to represent the Australian outback itself, and one which is sort of an all-encompassing ‘loss/regret/family’ theme for Ridley, Gloria, and Spencer – which recur with pleasing regularity. What’s also impressive is the fact that the director seemingly gave Gordon the opportunity to write long through-composed cues that allow time for development; seven of the ten cues on the almost hour-long soundtrack album are more than four minutes in length, with two of them more than 10 minutes each!

One of these epic length cues is the opening track, “Riddles,” which introduces almost all of the score’s main thematic ideas, and can be seen as sort of an overture to the score as a whole. The theme that opens the track appears to be the one for Buckley the dingo; the theme teems with life and a sense of optimistic adventure, and there is playfulness in the interplay between the strings and woodwinds that is just superb, while the rousing melodic statements in the brass give you a sense of endless possibility. More serious music emerges around the 2:30 mark through a series of darker, more ponderous oboe phrases, while just before the 4:00 mark Gordon presents the first appearance of the score’s main action motif. The action music is frenetic, but beautifully orchestrated, passing a descending rhythmic idea around the woodwind section while a thrusting string ostinato pulses underneath, and the strings perform a lyrical melody.

The hooting, undulating oboe lines in the action music remind me of Alexandre Desplat’s action music from the Harry Potter franchise, or from something like The Ghost Writer, which is very pleasing indeed, while the accompanying brass phrases add a level of dramatic weight. Gordon’s orchestrations here really are something to behold; every section of the orchestra is, for the most part, doing something completely separate from all the other sections, either rhythmically or thematically, but the way it all fits together like a perfect puzzle is masterful. This intricacy and sophistication is light years beyond what the majority of mainstream Hollywood action scores are doing these days, and it’s such a relief to know that there are filmmakers out there that still appreciate this type of writing.

Around halfway through the cue the music shifts again, this time to present the ideas associated with the Outback itself. Gordon’s music here is at times quite dissonant, and feels heat-baked, like a mirage; he couples a range of impressionistic orchestral textures with rattled and shaken percussion items, almost as if he was scoring the sound of rough sand under your feet. At times the music reminded me of John Barry and his music for Zulu, or perhaps the ‘Pawnee’ music he wrote for Dances With Wolves, with its slightly savage sound and underlying sense of danger. The bold brass and string outbursts just after the 6:00 mark have a hint of James Horner to them too, anguished and tortured-sounding. At around 7:40 the Family Theme makes its presence felt, bittersweet longing strings enhanced by piano, which speaks to the broken familial relationships that drive the emotional heart of the story. Finally, at around 9:50, the theme for Buckley returns, this time arranged as a sprightly combo of woodwinds and harps that capture the essence of the wild animal who bonds with a young boy in the most desperate of circumstances, and guides him home. The flourishes in the finale of the piece have the same sense of flamboyant pageantry as John Williams’s Olympic music; it’s just superb.

The rest of the score is, essentially, a series of reprises of this material in different combinations, applied to the story where it makes the most dramatic sense. For example, “Arrival in Australia” combines variations on the Family theme with the nervous, rattling Outback orchestrations, which have a slightly apprehensive, alien sound, representing Ridley’s first experiences in his new and unfamiliar surroundings. “Outback Adventures” begins with a playful, wondrous statement of Buckley’s theme, but also contains a hint of trepidation as the Outback orchestrations encroach into the fun. “Desert Camp” has a sneaky little homage to James Horner’s four-note danger motif embedded in some languorous string passages, before the Outback orchestrations return, again offering a sense of danger and suspense to this harsh but beautiful landscape.

“Kidnap and Escape” is a thrilling expanded exploration of the action style that builds superbly over the course of more than 10 minutes. Gordon takes his time to create the suspense and the atmosphere, so that when the action material really kicks in you feel like you’ve earned the electrifying payoff. There’s some superb stuff going on here with pianos, and with different parts of the brass section playing through mutes and doubling up against trilling woodwinds, which again feature a little bit of that Desplat sound.

“Lost in the Desert” revisits the Outback orchestrations in perhaps their most vivid and discordant form, but becomes quite emotional during the finale when Gordon injects a palpable sense of longing into the strings. “The Camera” offers some moody woodwind variations on the Family theme ideas, accompanied by lyrical strings and beautiful textures for piano and harp, before heading back into action territory during the second half of the cue. “The Rapids and the Search” blends the action writing with the most sweeping and adventurous version of Buckley’s theme, resulting in what is perhaps the score’s standout cue. Gordon’s writing here is turbulent, exciting, and intense, and boldly heroic, and slowly crescendos to a wonderful finale that is daring and thematic and full of excellent interplay between the brass and woodwinds. The conclusive “Home Movie” is a lush and lyrical combination of Buckley’s theme and the Family theme with a sweet, welcoming tone. Of course, these films always have a happy ending, wherein grandson and grandfather solidify their relationships as a result of their adventures with the titular dingo, and Gordon’s music intensifies this resolution.

Scores like Buckley’s Chance remind me what a great composer Christopher Gordon is, and how under-valued he is in general in terms of the type and number of films he scores. I had hoped, after the critical success of films like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Mao’s Last Dancer with American audiences, that Gordon would receive more high profile assignments in Hollywood, but this did not prove to be the case, and so we much instead receive every new Gordon score with an acknowledgement that they are too few and far between. Scores like Buckley’s Chance remind also me how much I miss those big, expansive orchestral adventure scores that were so common in the 1980s and 90s but are now rarer than hen’s teeth.

The score was released as both a digital download and in limited physical copies by Gordon himself on his own label, Magic Fire Music; I would recommend purchasing it from the composer’s own website at https://christophergordon.net/album/1958249/buckley-s-chance, so he gets all the profits and cuts out the middleman.

Track Listing:

  • Riddles (11:21)
  • Arrival in Australia (5:27)
  • Outback Adventures (3:48)
  • Desert Camp (5:27)
  • Return Home (0:51)
  • Kidnap and Escape (10:30)
  • Lost in the Desert (4:50)
  • The Camera (4:26)
  • The Rapids and the Search (6:57)
  • Home Movie (2:07)

Running Time: 55 minutes 47 seconds

Christopher Gordon/Magic Fire Music (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Christopher Gordon. Orchestrations by Christopher Gordon. Recorded and mixed by Christo Curtis and Craig Beckett. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Christopher Gordon.

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