Home > Reviews > HOSTILE TERRITORY – John Koutselinis

HOSTILE TERRITORY – John Koutselinis

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Hostile Territory is a low-budget western action-drama directed by Brian Presley, starring Matt McCoy, Brea Bee, Brad Leland, and Lew Temple. The film is set shortly after the American Civil War, and tells the story of Union soldier Jack Calgrove, who is taken as a prisoner of war by the Confederacy and eventually (and incorrectly) presumed dead. When Jack finally returns home years later he discovers that his wife has died and his children – who are mistakenly considered orphans – have been sent away on a so-called ‘orphan train,’ to be placed in a new home deep in the American West. Desperate to save his children, Jack teams up with a fellow former soldier and a band of sharpshooting Native Americans, and sets out to rescue his family. It’s one of those films which, in bygone years, would have been called ‘straight to video,’ but which now appears in those endless lists of VOD Videos-on-Demand that every cable TV service provides, and it would most likely have passed by without much fanfare, were it not for its outstanding score.

The score for Hostile Territory is by the excellent English composer John Koutselinis, who left an positive initial impression on the film music world following the release of his breakthrough score, The Great Alaskan Race, in 2019. Koutselinis has actually composed music for over 40 projects since he first emerged onto the scene in 2007, mostly short films and low-budget features, and he is clearly exceptionally talented. It’s also clear that he finds working with Brian Presley – who also directed The Great Alaskan Race – inspirational, because Hostile Territory is a genuinely excellent piece of music.

In interviews Koutselinis says he drew inspiration from many of the greats from the 1980s and 90s – James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, and Basil Poledouris, among others – but to me Hostile Territory actually feels like something Randy Edelman might have written at the absolute top of his game; Gettysburg, perhaps crossed with parts of more niche scores like Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill, The Quest, or The Hunley. The score is a fusion of the symphonic and the synthetic, performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nic Raine, and augmented by various instrumental and vocal soloists, but then bolstered by synth percussion and some ‘sweetening’ which adds scope and depth to the strings. The score is actually mixed very well, such that the music doesn’t ever feel diminished by the presence of the electronic elements; instead, much like it was with Edelman’s signature sound, it actually gives the score an interesting timbre that makes it distinctive.

The score is built around a recurring central main theme for Jack and his epic quest, which is introduced fully and given a rousing initial performance in the “Main Theme (Suite),” and which runs the gamut from broad sweeping strings to more intimate and tender pianos, all underpinned by militaristic snare drum riffs. Later performances in cues like “Through the Snowy Mountains” are impressive in scale and scope, and allow the score to develop a strong thematic identity that is often absent from contemporary film music. Every once in a while the chord progressions of the main theme brought back memories of another under-rated but excellent electro-acoustic hybrid score – Mark McKenzie’s Dragonheart: A New Beginning – which adds yet another tangential layer to the Randy Edelman element.

Secondary themes include a more wistful one that acts as a general marker for the American west and which receives prominent statements in the stirring “This Land” and “The Capture & An Act of Kindness,” and a hopeful, warm one for Jack’s son Phil and the concept of the orphan train, which can be heard clearly at the beginning of the lovely “Arriving at the Orphanage & The Beginning of a New Family,” a pretty piece for strings, woodwinds, and soft chimes.

At times the music also has a slight Gaelic lilt to it, possibly as a reflection of the Irish influences in American folk music of the period, and this side of the score is enhanced further by the performances of vocalists Rebecca Joelle and Melany Dantes-Mortimer in several cues. Interestingly, Koutselinis also intentionally alters the size of his ensemble depending on what type of scene he is scoring. The smaller ensemble tends to represent the more intimate family-related scenes in cues such as “In Hope to Belong” and “An Act of Kindness,” the latter of which gives me strong Legends of the Fall vibes. The choral moments tend to accompany more somber scenes of reflection, such as “Charlie’s Demise,” while the fuller orchestral arrangements dominate the more intense battle sequences.

Some of those action sequences are really quite superb. “Jack and Desmond Embark on Their Journey” has a driving, purposeful rhythmic undercurrent supported by strong brass. “The Ambush” uses rattling woodwinds and harsh percussive hits in a way that Ennio Morricone might have liked, and “The Battle of High Bridge” weaves a lilting solo violin figure through the orchestral and choral bombast. The pick of the crop is probably the two-fer comprising “The Battle & Father and Son Reunite” and “The Rescue,” which begins as a thrilling explosion of sound and fury that makes excellent use of James Horner-style anvils, hammering away underneath the breakneck orchestral writing, and ends with some superb vocal textures and a rousing action variation on the main theme.

“Riding on The Great Plains & The Time of Peace” offers a sweeping reprise of the main theme filled with a sense of relief, reflection, and strong positive emotions, and again has a clear James Horner flavor through the combined use of breathy woodwinds, and thematic statements that begin with cymbal rings – who does that any more?! The 7-minute “Finale & End Credits” is an outstanding final journey around all the score’s main melodic ideas, which includes some superb moments for solo violins, gorgeous inspiring voices, sharp percussion patterns, staccato action sequences, and more. There are even some hints of Hans Zimmer at his most rousing in the score’s final moments here; fans of scores like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron might be especially impressed.

One interesting thing I have noticed about Koutselinis’s work is that it tends to be quite complex, harmonically. I don’t have the proper musical vocabulary to correctly describe what I’m hearing, but in several cues he seems to layer his orchestra in ways which initially sound jumbled, perhaps even a little strange, with textures overlapping and blending together so that one phrase begins before the other one has really ended, resulting in a sort of intermingled sonic effect which is either fascinatingly unique or frustratingly opaque depending on your point of view– but then eventually it all resolves into powerful thematic statements of clarity and emotional strength. It’s clearly an intentional stylistic choice, because he did it on The Great Alaskan Race too, but I’ve never really heard a composer do this in quite this way before, and it will be interesting to see if this becomes a sort of ‘Koutselinis trademark’.

Overall, though, Hostile Territory is an excellent score, filled with grand orchestral flourishes, moments of intimate drama, and thrilling western action. I will say that anyone who has a strong aversion to scores that are clearly electro-acoustic hybrids, where the symphonic ensemble is heavily doubled by synths, may have issues reconciling that, because it’s blatantly obvious that that’s what Koutselinis did, and there’s no getting away from it. It is what it is, and that’s the sound it has. Personally, however, I was never distracted by it, and found that the composition, emotional depth, and rousing battle music more than made up for whatever sonic limitations the score has. As such, it comes with a strong recommendation from me, and I can’t wait to see what Koutselinis does next. The score is available as a digital download from the Moviescore Media label here: https://moviescoremedia.com/newsite/catalogue/hostile-territory-john-koutselinis/, and via all the usual streaming apps on Amazon, Apple, Spotify, and the like.

Buy the Hostile Territory soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Memories of Years Past (0:56)
  • Main Theme (Suite) (5:12)
  • Jack and Desmond Embark on Their Journey (1:07)
  • Through the Snowy Mountains (1:02)
  • The Ambush & Charlie’s Demise (2:39)
  • This Land (Suite) (3:20)
  • The Battle of High Bridge (3:04)
  • In Hope to Belong (3:15)
  • Arriving at the Orphanage & The Beginning of a New Family (2:22)
  • The Capture & An Act of Kindness (1:47)
  • The Battle & Father and Son Reunite (2:00)
  • The Rescue (1:00)
  • The Reunion (1:07)
  • Riding on The Great Plains & The Time of Peace (3:02)
  • Finale & End Credits (6:43)

Running Time: 38 minutes 45 seconds

Moviescore Media MMS-22011 (2022)

Music composed by John Koutselinis. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by John Koutselinis. Special vocal performances by Rebecca Joelle and Melany Dantes-Mortimer. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by John Koutselinis and Mikael Carlsson.

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