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FAR AND AWAY – John Williams


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Far and Away is a romanticized film about the American immigrant experience, specifically those who came from Ireland seeking their fortune in the new world in the 1890s, while the country was still recovering from the great potato famine several decades previously. The film stars Tom Cruise as Joseph Donnelly, a poor farmer from rural Ireland who meets Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman), the privileged daughter of his father’s landlord, and they bond over their shared plans to emigrate to America. The film then follows the travails of the couple as they travel from Ireland to Boston, fall in with a local gang boss, and get involved in everything from bare knuckle boxing to prostitution simply to survive; the ultimate aim is for them to travel from Boston to Oklahoma to take part in a so-called ‘land race,’ the winner of which is given a plot of land and a shot at the American dream. The film co-starred Thomas Gibson, Robert Prosky, Colm Meaney, and Cyril Cusack alongside Cruise and Kidman, and was written by Bob Dolman and directed by Ron Howard – the same duo who made Willow in 1988.

Unfortunately, the film was not a success, neither with audiences nor critics. Although it was a handsome production with impressive and splendid visuals, it was criticized for sugar-coating and sentimentalizing many of the hardships faced by Irish immigrants at the time. Not only that, Kidman and Cruise sported some of the worst Irish brogue accents ever committed to celluloid, and one critic for the Washington Post quipped that “Far and Away is Ron Howard’s attempt to step into the cinematic shoes of directors John Ford and David Lean… and, certainly, he’s stepped into something with this sprawling, old-fashioned melodrama.” Perhaps the only aspect of the film to receive almost unanimous acclaim was the score, by John Williams. It marked the only collaboration between Howard and Williams in either men’s career – Howard’s previous films had been scored by Hans Zimmer, Randy Newman, and James Horner, among others – which is a shame, because Williams clearly responded positively to Howard’s visual and narrative stimulus.

The film gave Williams the opportunity to initially explore a sound new to his palette – traditional Irish music – and then slowly transition out of that and into a style that he hadn’t embraced fully since The Cowboys in 1972 – the epic western. Although Williams had written music for films set in the American west more recently than that, his scores for films like The Missouri Breaks and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing were rooted more in the revisionist 1970s style; Far and Away was symphonic and sweeping, more akin to the music made famous by Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross, by way of his own score for The Rare Breed from 1966. To that end, Williams’s score is a broad and adventurous work for the full orchestra, augmented by traditional Irish instruments including uilleann pipes, fiddles, pan flutes, penny whistles, and bodhrán drums, the latter of which often come courtesy of guest performances by the legendary traditional Irish folk band The Chieftains. This blending of styles – the Irish old country, and the adventurous promise of the New World – is at the heart of Williams’s score, and it makes for a delicious and massively enjoyable combination.

There are four main recurring themes weaving through the score, two of which are introduced in the opening cue, “County Galway/June 1892.” After a dark opening for moody pipes, the first performance of the Irish theme emerges, a bittersweet lament for pennywhistle and strings that somehow does the thing that all Irish music does – be both desperately sad and longingly beautiful at the same time. It’s a perfect musical depiction of the emerald isle, poignant and moving, steeped in tradition and wonderfully evocative. The end of the cue sees the introduction of what might be considered the score’s main theme: the American theme, a hopeful and optimistic piece that has its roots in the Irish sound, but transposed to the open plains of the wild and untamed west. This theme will be more prominent going forward.

The Irish theme is prominent in much of the first half of the score, weaving through the desperate times of “Joe Sr.’s Passing,” the moody pipes of “The Duel Scene,” and the unexpected synth parts of “Leaving Home,” which gives the latter cue an unusual timbre. I especially like the statement of the theme towards the end of “The Duel Scene,” where Williams performs it almost subliminally on low woodwinds. Later, “Burning the Manor House” is a surprisingly shrill action sequence that plays around with the chord progressions of both the Irish theme and the American theme, breaking them on a bed of aggressive and dissonant orchestral carnage, backed by a synth choir.

Alongside this wistful Irish theme is a more boisterous piece representing the rough-and-tumble of Irish working class life, drinking, fighting, chasing girls, and having a barney. This is the most traditional of the score’s Irish folk music, and it features the most prominent performances by The Chieftains; their instruments wheel and skirl, kept time by a rambunctious bodhrán beat, in cues like “The Fighting Donnellys” and in the latter half of “The Duel Scene”. Once Donnelly is Stateside and making his living as a bare knuckle boxer, Williams returns to this style again in “Fighting For Dough,” accompanying his successes and failures in the ring with feisty and rowdy fun. Related to this is the wonderful “Blowing Off Steam,” a vibrant and lively orchestral scherzo that follows the youthful hi-jinks of Donnelly and his boys, and has stylistic similarities to the scherzos from things like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, going all the way back to Dracula and Jane Eyre.

The American theme crops up at unexpected times during the first half of the score, usually when the prospect of moving to America raises its head, such as during the conclusion of “The Duel Scene,” and halfway through “Leaving Home”. It’s almost as if the very concept of America is what keeps these families moving forward through the most desperate of tragedies, and Williams plays to that promise with music that has a sort of magical, unattainable quality. However, once Joe and Shannon have relocated to America, it becomes their driving force, their goal, literally the thing that is keeping them alive, and as they come closer and closer to Oklahoma and the Land Race, it starts to take over the score. It weaves throughout all of “The Big Match,” which underscores the pivotal boxing bout that seals Joe and Shannon’s fate and contains some terrific action arrangements of several of the main themes underpinned with dramatically urgent strings, pulsing brass, punchy percussion rhythms, and tolling bells; the finale of the cue is especially impressive, as Williams runs the American theme through a tortured, anguished arrangement that coincides with the devastating end to the fight for Joe.

Also new to the score for the American setting is the love theme for Joe and Shannon, a pretty and delicate piece featuring a celeste, clarinets, and harp, backed by subtle strings. It has a delicate, magical tone that reminds me of parts of Hook, Home Alone, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while foreshadowing parts of the Harry Potter scores, and its performances in “Am I Beautiful” and the subsequent “Inside the Mansion” give voice to the reluctant romantic chemistry the two protagonists share. The similarly-arranged version of the American theme towards the end of “Inside the Mansion” is just lovely, but this all goes awry during the subsequent “Shannon is Shot,” which this time runs the American theme, the Irish theme, and the Love theme through a series of tortured-sounding orchestral textures and brutal dissonances, before ending on a determined, defiantly optimistic note.

The turning point of the score comes in “Joseph’s Dream,” which opens with an ethereal and longing variation of the Irish theme as he wakes from a nightmare about Shannon – who, in the aftermath of the shooting, has returned to the safety of her family in Boston, and who he will likely never see again. However, this also ignites a fire in his belly to fulfil what he believes to be his destiny in Oklahoma, and the score’s fourth and final main theme emerges – the Race theme – a brassy, timpani-pounding, cymbal-clashing adventure piece full of optimism and heroic anticipation. The theme was previously hinted at during “The Big Match,” but thereafter, the Race theme is heard frequently, usually in conjunction with the American theme, sequentially and contrapuntally, blending together to create a rousing identity for the land of opportunity.

Further statements of the American theme abound in both “The Reunion” and the jaunty and folksy “Oklahoma Territory”. The former includes some lovely performances led by pennywhistles, and some occasions where the theme blends with the Love theme as Joe and Shannon are reconciled, and the American theme again takes on the Love theme’s magical celeste-and-chime orchestrations. Meanwhile the latter is a wonderfully nostalgic throwback to the Williams western style of old, the closest Williams has come to recapturing the classic sound of the frontier since the early 1970s.

This all leads up to the score’s defining 9-minute set piece sequence, comprising “The Land Race” and “Settling With Steven/The Race to the River”. The former is a tremendously exciting and energetic action sequence that accompanies the various groups of Oklahoma settlers as they gallop headlong across the prairie on horseback, in carriages and wagons, and with whatever else they have, intending to literally stake their claim on their new homes. Williams takes elements of the Irish theme, the American theme, the Irish scherzo, and the Race theme, and blends them all together in a wildly entertaining chase full of festive string flurries, triumphant horn calls, fluttering and swooping woodwind trills, timpani rolls, and cymbal clashes. It’s all just wonderful.

“Settling With Steven/The Race to the River” is a darker take on the same material, as Joseph finally confronts Thomas Gibson’s character Steven Chase, his long-time rival for Shannon’s affections. Their violent encounter revisits some of the score’s most intense action material, including some strident minor-key brass clusters that drive home the danger Steven poses, but ends with a stirring statement of the Irish theme, and an unusual but effective variation on the American theme for leaping, trilling strings doubled by piccolos that has a lot in common with Williams’s celebratory Olympic music.

The conclusive “Joseph and Shannon” is where their love theme finally grows to epic proportions as Shannon rejects Steven and embraces Joseph, they declare their love for each other, and then literally drive the land stake into the ground to exultantly claim their prize and secure their future together. The “End Credits” is a wonderful summation of the score containing stirring statements of the Irish folk music, the American theme, the Irish scherzo, and the Race theme/American theme combo, back to back, all featuring rollicking performances by The Chieftains. The album also includes a song, “Book of Days” by Irish new age legend Enya, which was featured heavily in the film’s promotional campaign and became indelibly linked to the it, despite being written for her album Shepherd Moons almost two years previously. The original version was performed in Irish Gaelic, but was re-recorded in English for this soundtrack , and includes the line ‘far and away’ as an intentional nod to the film. I like the song a lot – I like most of Enya’s music – but fans of James Horner’s Titanic will hear this and immediately be reminded of large boats leaving the port of Southampton.

The original Far and Away album was released by MCA Records at the time the film was released, and was a decent hour long presentation of all the best parts of the score. In 2020 producer Mike Matessino and La-La Land Records released a 2-CD 3,500-unit limited edition album, expanded beyond the original soundtrack and featuring a selection of alternate cues. It’s a terrific album with some interesting additions, including an additional performance of the two main themes in “This is My Destiny,” and a lightly comedic version of the Race theme in “Into the Bath”. It’s definitely recommended for fans of the score.

It’s interesting how, thirty years down the road, Far and Away has somehow become one of John Williams’s overlooked masterpieces. The film is not especially well-remembered these days – dogged by accusations of promoting American exceptionalism and ignoring the plight of Native Americans whose land was stolen from them by the white settlers – and the score sort of gets lost in the fact that it was immediately preceded by such classics as Home Alone and Hook, and was immediately followed by legendary works like Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Personally, however, I think Far and Away is a terrific score; with its multitude of memorable themes, rousing Americana, thrilling action, and lilting and lively depictions of Irish music and culture, it’s one that deserves more attention.

Buy the Far and Away soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • County Galway/June 1892 (1:55)
  • The Fighting Donnellys (2:18)
  • Joe Sr.’s Passing/The Duel Scene (4:41)
  • Leaving Home (1:55)
  • Burning the Manor House (2:43)
  • Blowing Off Steam (1:31)
  • Fighting For Dough (2:02)
  • Am I Beautiful (3:38)
  • The Big Match (5:56)
  • Inside the Mansion (4:24)
  • Shannon is Shot (4:06)
  • Joseph’s Dream (3:08)
  • The Reunion (3:50)
  • Oklahoma Territory (2:12)
  • The Land Race (4:56)
  • Settling With Steven/The Race to the River (4:08)
  • Joseph and Shannon (3:14)
  • Book of Days (written by Enya Brennan and Roma Ryan, performed by Enya) (2:53)
  • End Credits (6:35)
  • County Galway, June 1892 (2:01)
  • The Fighting Donnellys (2:22)
  • Joe Sr.’s Passing (2:22)
  • The Village Burns (1:56)
  • Leaving Home (2:02)
  • The Barn/Running Away (4:32)
  • The Duel Scene (3:02)
  • This Is My Destiny (1:12)
  • Burning the Manor House (2:50)
  • Am I Beautiful? (3:43)
  • Blowing Off Steam (1:36)
  • Fighting For Dough (2:07)
  • My Own Man (1:15)
  • Into the Bath (1:37)
  • The Big Match (6:02)
  • Banished (3:40)
  • Inside the Mansion (4:30)
  • Shannon is Shot (4:13)
  • Day Dreaming (1:13)
  • Joseph’s Dream (3:13)
  • The Horseshoe (0:35)
  • The Reunion (Film Version) (2:57)
  • Oklahoma Territory (2:17)
  • The Land Race (5:03)
  • Race to the River (1:51)
  • Settling With Stephen (3:09)
  • Joseph and Shannon (3:22)
  • End Credits (6:43)
  • Joe Sr.’s Passing (Alternate) (1:37) BONUS
  • The Barn (Alternate) (2:41) BONUS
  • My Own Man (Alternate) (1:14) BONUS
  • The Big Match (Alternate) (5:24) BONUS
  • Oklahoma Territory (Film Version) (2:17) BONUS
  • The Land Race (Alternate) (5:01) BONUS
  • Joseph and Shannon (Alternate) (3:21) BONUS
  • End Credits (Alternate) (6:47) BONUS

Running Time: 66 minutes 05 seconds — Original
Running Time: 109 minutes 47 seconds — Expanded

MCA Records MCAD-10628 (1992) — Original
La-La Land Records LLLCD 1533 (1992/2020) — Expanded

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Alexander Courage and John Neufeld. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Original album produced by John Williams. Expanded album produced by Mike Matessino.

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