Home > Reviews > SHADOW OF THE WOLF – Maurice Jarre

SHADOW OF THE WOLF – Maurice Jarre


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Shadow of the Wolf is a French-Canadian action adventure film directed by Jacques Dorfmann and Pierre Magny, set in the snowy wastes of the Arctic in the 1930s. The film stars Lou Diamond Phillips as Agaguk, an Inuit warrior who has a violent hatred for the white men encroaching on his territory. A series of incidents leads to Agaguk being banished by his shaman father, and he is forced to live in isolation in the most inhospitable parts of northern Quebec with his wife Igiyook. Things get worse for Agaguk when he gets into an altercation with, and accidentally kills, a white fur trader, an incident which brings the might of the Canadian police to bear on his tribal home. The rest of the story intends to be a serious exploration of themes related to the culture clash between white men and the Inuit, dressed up with an action-adventure police manhunt plot, but unfortunately it was hamstrung by terrible dialogue, poor acting performances, and a screenplay that erased all the nuance and subtlety of Yves Theriault’s acclaimed original novel. At the time the film was the most expensive Canadian film ever made, but it sank without a trace at the box office, and is mostly forgotten today.

In keeping with its high-minded ambitions, Shadow of the Wolf was scored by the multi-Oscar winning French composer Maurice Jarre, and he was ultimately able to give the film some of the gravitas and dramatic weight that other parts of the production failed to do. By 1993 Jarre was finally – finally – beginning to emerge from the self-imposed ‘experimental electronica’ period that dominated his work through much of the 1980s, and was returning instead to the symphonic orchestral sound that brought him so much acclaim at the beginning of his career in the early 1960s. Jarre’s electronic scores never worked for me – they always sounded like the work of a symphonic composer trying to shoehorn his music into a sound palette that just never meshed with the way he wrote, and as such came across sounding clumsy and amateurish – but his orchestral sense never deserted him, and large parts of Shadow of the Wolf is a showcase for that gorgeous, lush style.

The score is performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with augmented synths and electronic wind instruments performed by an all-star lineup of keyboardists featuring Mark Fisher, Ralph Grierson, Rick Marvin, Judd Miller, and Nyle Steiner; the EWI is something that Trevor Jones aficionados will recognize as something that he used to add a unique, desolate, haunting tone to many of his ‘wind-swept landscape’ scores, and Jarre makes use of it in similar ways here, capturing the vast Arctic vistas with a great deal of mysterious musical beauty. The score is arranged into six lengthy suites of between 5 and 11 minutes, and most of it is excellent.

The opening suite, “Agaguk,” introduces all the score’s main ideas, beginning with the score’s huge, sweeping main theme, bold and brassy and tremendously powerful, with chord progressions that clearly build on familiar figures related to native American music. Interestingly Jarre also makes use of what sounds like sampled Iniuit throat-singing and other unusual choral textures to add a sense of cultural authenticity to the orchestral music, and when the two styles blend together the effect is really quite outstanding. The second part of the suite, beginning at the two minute mark, contains an superb new theme that is passed between romantic strings, EWI, and more fulsome horns for several minutes, and eventually builds to quite superb, resplendent heights. This is Jarre at his thematic best, scoring gorgeous landscape vistas, Lawrence of Arabia-style, and it’s quite wonderful.

The third part of the suite, beginning at around 4:45, is darker and more mysterious, and features longer passages of abstract electronic tones and more of that unusual chattering Inuit vocal music, as well as some quite jarring explosions of angry percussive dissonance that, unfortunately, recalls some of the terrible keyboard action music he wrote in the previous decade. Look, you can’t have everything; this was a transition score. Thankfully this music gives way to more intimate, gently romantic music for strings and harp, and some variations on the main theme that illustrate Agaguk’s love for his wife Igiyook and their baby that is born out there on the frozen tundra. Some of the glassy electronic textures Jarre uses here are actually quite interesting, almost like he is playing music on ice itself, and some of the sound combinations he uses recall parts of the score for Dead Poets Society, especially the final statement of the main theme for big, wet synth keyboards that ends the piece.

“The White Wolf” starts out as a nervous action sequence, featuring an array of unusual layered percussion items, including the iconic Morricone-esque twang of a jaw harp, but quickly becomes more boldly symphonic, an orchestral approximation of Inuit tribal rhythms that is very enjoyable, despite perhaps being a little hackneyed and stereotypical in its depiction of ‘native warrior’ musical tropes. “Igiyook” is the name of Jennifer Tilly’s character, the Inuit woman who falls in love with Agaguk and must endure the harsh conditions with him after he is exiled. Unusually, her music is not light or romantic, but is actually quite harsh and abstract, with experimental-sounding electronic tonalities and chattering vocal textures dominating. The serious, dramatic action sequence in the middle of the cue is excellent, but then it quickly devolves into a series of breathy, synthy reprises of the main theme that are less impressive.

“Henderson” is the name of Donald Sutherland’s character, the dogged investigator with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who heads north into the Arctic to try to bring Agaguk to justice. His music is the most aggressive of all, a plethora of brooding synth pulses and rhythms surrounded by stabbing chords and more of that peculiar, chattering vocal work. Some of it descends into incomprehensible chaos – oh, how I dislike Jarre’s synth action music! – but despite that I can actually see how it gives a horrific, almost alien soundscape to the character, which is how he must have seemed to those primitive tribesmen.

The fifth suite, “To the Top of the Wolf,” thankfully dispenses almost entirely with the synths, and is instead a straight orchestral piece capturing some of the more positive, beautiful, even happy elements of Arctic life. The opening sequence is light, pretty, almost jaunty at times, and has some percussion ideas and chord progressions that feel more Japanese than anything else, and are perhaps leftovers from his score for Tai-Pan. Statements of the main theme run through the rest of the piece; the brass performances are warm and stately, the strings are lyrical, the woodwinds are elegant and effervescent. It’s just lovely. The EWI does come back for a brief sequence of mysteriousness halfway through the cue, but it’s phrased in a good way, and actually complements the rest of the music.

The sixth and final suite, “The Shaman Hawk,” begins with an unexpected saxophone-led version of the main theme – orchestral, not jazzy – but quickly re-adopts the bold symphonic tone of the opening cue, and runs through several statements of the main theme with an enormous sense of epic grandeur. The choral embellishments and layers of cascading brass that Jarre adds are especially outstanding – there is real gravitas here – and the crescendo at the 3:50 mark that leads into the end credits is remarkable, soaring and majestic. Milan’s album also features two versions of an original song, “Always and Forever,” written by Jarre and Nathalie Carsen, and performed by Carsen in both English and French. They are actually rather nice.

Shadow of the Wolf is a great, little known Maurice Jarre score that, for me, stands out as one of the best works from the last decade of his career. Between this score and his final film, Uprising in 2003, Jarre would write a number of outstanding symphonic works including A Walk in the Clouds, The Sunchaser, Le Jour et la Nuit, and Sunshine, and it’s almost as if he was having a last hurrah, triumphantly returning to the majestic symphonic sound of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago after spending much of the previous decade noodling around with synths. There is still some of the atrocious keyboard thumping action music present here, and it does mar the album listening experience as a whole a little bit, but the first, fifth, and sixth suites are so sensationally good that it’s easy to overlook the bad parts. As such, Shadow of the Wolf comes with an unhesitating recommendation to anyone who has ever been drawn to Maurice Jarre’s most stirring orchestral works.

Buy the Shadow of the Wolf soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Agaguk (10:55)
  • The White Wolf (5:09)
  • Igiyook (6:03)
  • Henderson (5:19)
  • To the Top of the Wolf (8:43)
  • The Shaman Hawk (7:33)
  • Always and Forever [English] (written by Maurice Jarre and Nathalie Carsen, performed by Nathalie Carsen) (2:33)
  • L’Amour Eternel [French] (written by Maurice Jarre and Nathalie Carsen, performed by Nathalie Carsen) (2:55)

Running Time: 49 minutes 10 seconds

Milan Records 35634-2 (1993)

Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Christopher Palmer. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Dan Carlin. Album produced by Maurice Jarre.

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