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PATRIOT GAMES – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Patriot Games was the second film to feature the character Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst and protagonist of a series of novels by Tom Clancy. He first appeared on screen in 1990 in The Hunt for Red October, played by Alec Baldwin, and returns in this second installment played by Harrison Ford. The film is directed by Philip Noyce and is, in my opinion, one of the best political action-thrillers of the 1990s. The story begins with Ryan on vacation in London with his family, where he inadvertently foils a plot to assassinate a member of the British royal family by an Irish paramilitary group, the ULA, a radical offshoot of the IRA Irish Republican Army. With the ringleader dead and the other terrorists in custody, Ryan is given an honorary knighthood by the Queen, and returns home a hero – but things become much more serious when Sean Miller, the brother of the killed ULA leader, is broken out of prison, and vows to exact revenge on Ryan. The film co-stars Anne Archer, Patrick Bergin, James Earl Jones, Richard Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, and a young Sean Bean, and is a terrific tale that offers an overview of Irish republican politics in the 1980s and 90s, a high level examination of ‘the troubles,’ combined with some excellent action and suspense.

The score for Patriot Games was by James Horner, the third of his four scores in 1992, and his first of his two collaborations with director Noyce (the other being this film’s sequel, Clear and Present Danger, in 1994). Despite Horner being my favorite composer, for many years I considered Patriot Games to be one of my least favorite efforts by him. It’s an aggressive, moody, ethereal, sometimes very harsh score which offers an unwieldy blend of Irish mysticism and folk music, contemporary electronica, and pulse-pounding orchestral action. In description that all sounds outstanding, but there’s just something about the score that never quite clicks for me, even though it should, and even though I like all the styles of the individual elements when they appear in other scores.

For me the most successful parts of the score are the parts that embrace Irish folk music. Patriot Games marked the first time Horner wrote Irish-inspired music for a film, and it clearly left a big impression on him; he would go on to adopt this style in numerous later scores, ranging from Braveheart to Titanic, and especially The Devil’s Own, which is probably the score that matches the style of Patriot Games most closely. But this isn’t the rowdy jigs or knee-slapping fiddle-de-dee stuff that a lot of people associate with Irish music – instead, this is the haunting, lamenting music, that speaks of mist-shrouded hillsides, dark and craggy cliffs, and laments for lost lovers.

The “Main Title” is a perfect example of this; Horner combines moody textures for percussion, echoing electronics, breathy pan-pipes, and a solo violin, with an evocative performance of a traditional song by vocalist Maggie Boyle. She is singing the original Gaelic-language version of the song ‘The Quiet Land of Érin,’ which appeared on her 1987 solo album Reaching Out, but is actually much older, and is based on an original song called “Árd Tí Cuain.” The lyrics tell of an Irish immigrant in Scotland who yearns to return home – and for those who like to sing along, are as follows:

Dá mbeinn féin in Aird a’ Chumhaing
In aice an tsléibhe ‘tá i bhfad uaim
Ba annamh liom gan dul ar cuairt
Go gleann na gcuach dé Domhnaigh
Agus och och Eire lig is ó
Eire líonndubh agus ó
Sé mo chroí tá trom agus bronach

The other traditional Irish part of the score is the song “Harry’s Game,” written by brothers Pol and Ciarán Brennan, and performed in Gaelic by the Irish traditional/new-age band Clannad, which is where the international superstar Enya originated from. This song isn’t original to the film either – it was actually written as the theme for a three-part British TV series from 1982 called Harry’s Game, which also focuses on ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The theme was a surprising pop hit in the UK, reaching number 5 on the Singles Chart, and it would also be nominated for a BAFTA for Best Television Music in 1983. The song is very similar in style to the sound of the opening titles – traditional Irish instruments accompanied by lush layers of electronics – while the vocals in the chorus (“fol lol the doh fol the day, fol the doh fol the day”) are based on a type of ancient Irish ‘lilting’ vocal music called portaireacht. In the film, the song plays over a scene where assassins creep up on the home of Patrick Bergin’s character, ULA leader Kevin O’Donnell; the music video of the song is playing on his TV.

Elements of these Irish folk tunes bleed into the score proper, specifically a pennywhistle motif that runs through many of the action sequences, and becomes a sort of calling card for Miller, O’Donnell, and the members of the ULA. There’s also a recurring texture based around the Japanese shakuhachi wood flute, which Horner used frequently throughout his career, often in scores which – like this one – have nothing at all to do with Japan. Horner simply liked the sound of the shakuhachi and the unusual sonic quality it brought, huffing and puffing rhythmically underneath the orchestra.

Somewhat disappointingly, there is very little recognizable thematic content in Patriot Games, which is probably one of the reasons I have always had trouble connecting with it on an emotional level. It works terrifically well in context, but as a standalone experience it is often unexpectedly anonymous, more of an exercise in rhythmic tension and suspense, albeit with frequent bouts of explosive action underscoring the chase and fight scenes.

Several of the action cues are actually quite effective. “Attempt on the Royals” weaves the pennywhistle solo through a series of rhythmic ideas featuring a great deal of pizzicato string work, wooden and metallic percussion, electronic bass, and some occasionally quite impressionistic orchestral textures. The 8-minute “The Hit” jumps backwards and forwards between the pennywhistle and the shakuhachi, layered on top of a series of peculiar electronic tones, clattering percussion items, and moments of unforgiving orchestral dissonance. This is dark stuff, a challenging test of patience, but it’s impressively staged and certainly increases the tension in context. There are stylistic echoes of numerous earlier Horner scores in this action writing – far too many to mention – but I was especially reminded of things like Gorky Park, Red Heat, and Thunderheart, as well as the more abstract ‘revenge’ moments he would go on to write for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall.

“Highland’s Execution” uses Maggie Boyle’s vocals to underscore the traumatic scene where Miller ruthlessly murders Inspector Robert Highland (David Threlfall) in cold blood, as he is being broken out of an armored transport moving him to jail; the combination of her voice and the relentless shakuhachi pulses give a sense of dreadful inevitability to the whole thing. The subsequent “Assault on Ryan’s House” is another 11 minutes of the same type of music from “The Hit,” but with perhaps even more brutality, jangling and clanking percussive textures, eerie electronic sound design, and shrill interpolations of the Irish pennywhistle motif. It’s tough going, and although Horner effectively follows the ebbs and flows of the scene in context with music that builds and then releases the tension, it does seem to go on forever.

I sort of like this music, but I also sort of don’t. I understand why Horner took this approach, and I certainly appreciate the creativity it takes to put together these layers of sound, but my taste is usually completely opposed to this style of writing. Nervous overlapping layers of rhythm with little to no melodic content test my patience, and the bulk of Patriot Games is this and nothing else.

The one final element of the score which gets a regular workout is the elegant but icy cold string writing that originated in the Adagio from the Aram Khachaturian’s 1942 ballet suite Gayane, and which Horner first adapted for use during the final scenes of Aliens in 1986. These elongated, graceful, but mysterious string figures are heard first in “Putting the Pieces Together,” but then return with much more prominence in “Electronic Battlefield,” which underscores a scene where Ryan and his fellow CIA operatives watch video footage of a British SAS military assault on a ULA training camp in north Africa. This chilling footage – soldiers bathed in the sickly fluorescent green light of night vision, mowing down banks of Irish and Arabic terrorists – is given a feeling of detachment and isolation by this music. Horner would go on to use this same music in Clear and Present Danger, as well as Sneakers, Apollo 13, and others, and despite the fact that it’s clearly stolen, it’s still highly effective.

“Boat Chase” is the one cue in the score where Horner unleashes the power of the full orchestra, taking the lilting Irish theme from the main titles and incorporating it into a thrilling action sequence full of string flurries, relentless percussion tattoos, and grating, scraping metallic textures. The rat-a-tat snare drum licks are unrelenting, and it builds to a dramatic, intense conclusion; in fact, the whole thing plays very much like a variation on the ‘Futile Escape’ sequence from Aliens, given a distinct personality by the pennywhistle.

The “Closing Credits” contain an extended version of the ‘Quiet Land of Érin’ song, alongside the pennywhistle motif, the snare drum riffs, and some of the moody electronic textures, as well as a wandering piano line and a solo violin that brings a new element to the proceedings. As was often the case with Horner’s end credits pieces, he allows this one to simply drift off into the mist and fog, an unresolved coda that is as thoughtful as it is enigmatic.

The original soundtrack album for Patriot Games contained just over 45 minutes of music for the film, including the Clannad song and the Maggie Boyle vocals. Then, in 2013, La-La Land Records and producer Dan Goldwasser released a 2-disc 3.000-copy limited edition expanded album, containing over 50 minutes of previously unreleased score, as well as source music cues and classical extracts by Mozart and John Philip Sousa. It is, essentially, more of the same, but it does include one additional action cue in “Arrest of the Bombers” which is worth experiencing.

I said at the outset of this review that, for many years, I considered Patriot Games to be one of my least favorite efforts by James Horner, and to some extent this is still true. The lack of anything resembling recognizable thematic content in the score is frustrating, and the harsh and angular nature of a lot of the suspense music takes a lot of warming up to, especially for those who have a low tolerance for synth drones, snare drum riffs, and shakuhachi blasts. But, having said that, I do find both Maggie Boyle’s vocals and the Clannad song to be effective and interesting in how they blend traditional Irish folk music with the defiantly modern sound of layered electronica. I also quite like the intensity of the action finale in the “Boat Chase,” and then as a lifelong Horner aficionado I appreciate the experience of hearing him develop specific sounds and textures across multiple scores, with Patriot Games seemingly being used as a stopgap test kitchen between other, more important works. If any of this seems appealing, then it might be worth exploring for those reasons; for those less into the minutiae of Horner’s work, Patriot Games might be one to skip until you find yourself wanting to plug discography gaps.

Buy the Patriot Games soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:56)
  • Attempt on the Royals (3:43)
  • Harry’s Game (written by Pól Brennan and Ciarán Brennan, performed by Clannad) (2:29)
  • The Hit (8:06)
  • Putting the Pieces Together (2:13)
  • Highland’s Execution (2:25)
  • Assault on Ryan’s House (10:58)
  • Electronic Battlefield (3:19)
  • Boat Chase (4:28)
  • Closing Credits (4:13)
  • Main Title (3:01)
  • Attempt on the Royals (3:53)
  • CNN News Report/Sean’s Interrogation (2:41)
  • Kevin Walks Away/Deadly Lover/Sean’s Trial (1:46)
  • Sean Obsessing in Jail/Highland’s Execution (4:59)
  • Strange Cargo (1:36)
  • The Hit (8:11)
  • Hospital Vigil/Jack Returns to CIA/Studying Sean’s File (3:38)
  • Arrest of the Bombers (1:35)
  • Putting the Pieces Together/Reading to Sally/Sean’s Midnight Call (6:12)
  • Girl in Photo/Cooley Escapes (3:39)
  • Two-Edged Surveillance (1:59)
  • Electronic Battlefield (3:22)
  • Assault on Ryan’s House (10:59)
  • Boat Chase/Aftermath (5:28)
  • Closing Credits (4:13)
  • Harry’s Game (written by Pól Brennan and Ciarán Brennan, performed by Clannad) (2:43) BONUS
  • Hospital Vigil (Alternate) (1:53) BONUS
  • Electronic Battlefield (Orchestra Only) (3:20) BONUS
  • Washington Post March (written by John Philip Sousa) (1:29) BONUS
  • Whelan’s Jig (traditional) (2:07) BONUS
  • The Hunt (traditional) (3:29) BONUS
  • Piano Trio in E-Flat, Op. 14 K. 498 (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) (1:35) BONUS
  • Piano Sonata in B-Flat, Op. 17, No. 1 K. 333 (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) (1:56) BONUS
  • Closing Credits (Album Version) (4:18) BONUS

Running Time: 44 minutes 50 seconds — Original
Running Time: 90 minutes 02 seconds — Expanded

BMG/Milan/RCA 07863-66051-2 (1992) — Original
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1259 (1992/2013) — Expanded

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by John Neufeld and Conrad Pope. Special vocal performances by Maggie Boyle. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Original album produced by James Horner. Expanded album produced by Dan Goldwasser.

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