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A FAR OFF PLACE – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A Far Off Place is a children’s adventure movie directed by Mikael Salomon about a group of teenagers who must survive in the African desert after their families are killed by poachers. It stars a then 17-year-old Reese Witherspoon as Nonnie Parker, a young girl who lives on a game reserve with her father; after the poachers attack and her father is killed, she is forced to flee into the Kalahari with a young African boy named Xhabbo (Sarel Bok), and along the way they are joined by an American teenager named Harry Winslow (Ethan Randall), who is also trying to escape from the poachers and their leader, corrupt ivory smuggler John Ricketts (Jack Thompson). The group faces many dangers in the harsh desert environment, including dehydration, starvation, encounters with dangerous wildlife, and further attacks from Ricketts, but eventually they discover evidence of the poachers’ illegal activities and decide that they must try to put an end to their operation. The film was received as a slightly updated version of the 1971 Australian film Walkabout, and was praised at the time for its beautiful desert cinematography, but it has become somewhat forgotten in the intervening years.

The score for A Far Off Place was by James Horner, and was the second of an astonishing TEN scores by him that would be released in 1993. For years there has been internet scuttlebutt about just how many of these scores were written by Horner and how many of them were farmed out to ghostwriters – possibly Don Davis, possibly Thomas Pasatieri, possibly others. A Far Off Place is one of the scores that has been dogged by these rumors; many observers have noted that the score is curiously absent of many of the usual Horner-esque compositional tics and influences that dominated his writing during the period. Personally I have never noticed this, and I have no knowledge of who wrote what one way or the other – although, frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if he had some help, considering the logistical challenges he would have faced writing and recording so much music so quickly – but whatever the case may be, the end product is in no way diminished.

The score is an outstanding, sweeping, fully orchestral effort that combines a majestic main theme with some more intimate writing for flutes and gentle percussion, and then some violent, jarringly dissonant action music that accompanies the protagonists’ various encounters with dangerous animals and murderous poachers. Also of special note is the fact that this score sees the return of Kazu Matsui and the shakuhachi Japanese bamboo end-blown flute to the ensemble, the haunting and breathy sound of which featured so strongly in scores like Willow, and which would go on to be a staple part of his orchestration for years to come.

The five-minute “Main Title” acts a sort of a mini-overture for the score as a whole, introducing many of the score’s recurring ideas in sequence. The African drums and rattles in the opening moments are reflective of the film’s African setting and sometimes recall the faux-tribal sounds he used on scores like Vibes and Where the River Runs Black in the 1980s. The bombastic writing for drums, brass, and pounding crashing pianos illustrates the danger served by the poachers, and is harsher and more cacophonous than one might expect to hear in a children’s adventure film. The main theme finally emerges in all its glory after the 2:45 mark, ushered in by a blast of the shakuhachi, and then soaring majestically on a bed of resplendent strings. The theme has both an A-section and a B-section that can be performed either together or independently of each other – the B-section has a hint of what would later become the theme for Legends of the Fall – and it’s just glorious. Horner was always brilliant at capturing through music the beauty of a majestic vista, and A Far Off Place is no different.

Much of the rest of the score offers variations on these styles, with the action sequences standing out for their unexpected brutality. “The Slaughter” has a sense of profound drama and tragedy, underscoring the scene where Nonnie and Harry’s parents are ruthlessly gunned down by the vicious poachers. Horner hammers away with percussion, intense piano clusters, darting string runs, and banks of powerful brass, but tempers the onslaught with more lyrical writing that gives emotional depth to the horror that comes when the children discover their parents’ bodies. I have always loved Horner’s use of ‘crashing pianos’ as a recurring calling card, and the extensive use of them here is terrific.

Later, in “Attacked From The Air,” there is a long sequence of writing for rattling percussion backed by stark strings, which eventually gives way to a series of anguished-sounding variations on the main theme, and then a frantic action sequence that passes a turbulent rhythm around the orchestra, backed by xylophone runs in the percussion, and which often rises to bold crescendos. Similarly, “The Swamp” is darkly arresting, and again sets deconstructed versions of the main theme against a whole host of dissonant orchestrations, including hammered anvils, insistent snare drum riffs, and clattering xylophones, as well as a particularly brilliant rhythmic section that passes a motif around between slashing strings and cacophonous pianos, some of which have a flavor of the score for Aliens.

On the other hand, cues like “The Elephants” and “Gemsbock Gift” offer outstanding renditions of the main theme, often in a more pleasant and lyrical manner that emphasizes the friendship between the main trio of children, Xhabbo’s deep connection to the Kalahari desert, and the different animals that help them on their way. There are still some moments of darkness and danger, of course, but it’s the lovely thematic statements that stand out the most here. The writing for flutes and strings in “The Elephants” is especially lovely, while the delightful “Gemsbock Gift” features pretty piano lines, darting flutes, and lovely string rhythms that capture the playful and whimsically agile spirit of the titular antelope breed.

“Sandstorm” is harsh and stark and a little impressionistic, shakuhachi blasts, rattling percussion textures, and moody orchestral lines serving to illustrate the danger and disorientation of the children as they experience one of the desert’s most treacherous natural phenomena. There are some moments here where the texture of Horner’s orchestral writing reminds me of the ‘Widow of the Web’ sequence from Krull – another scene that features ‘deadly sand,’ albeit in a different context. It’s really excellent, innovative and challenging stuff, and the statement of the main theme that ends the cue overflows with breathless relief. The score’s finale is ”Death in the Mine,” which underscores the conclusive confrontation between the children and the evil Ricketts in his mining facility, where he has stored his illegal hoard of ivory; it’s a menacing, heavy piece for brass, strings, and tumultuous percussion that at times boils over with anger and frustration, but ends with a sense of satisfaction that the murderer of Nonnie’s parents has seen justice served.

The final cue, “Epilogue/End Credits,” reprises all the score’s most important thematic ideas in the most glorious, sweeping fashion, extended to almost six minutes of majestic, moving, melodic Horner goodness. I’ve always loved this piece in particular, and it still pushes all the right emotional buttons for me, thirty years down the line. The gorgeous cascade of strings and harps, leading into the cymbal crash statement of the main theme at 3:57, has always elicited in me a massively positive response, and listening to it again while writing this review was no different.

The original soundtrack for A Far Off Place was released by Intrada Records at the time the film was released, and offered a reasonably generous 40 minute run time that covered all the bases of everything the score had to offer. Then in 2014 Intrada released an expanded edition that almost doubled the running time to 73 minutes, in a package that featured re-mastered sound and new liner notes by writer John Takis. Some of the new cues are worth hearing; “Impossible Plan,” “Inner Feelings,” and “Gemsbock Hunt” feature some especially lovely variations on the main themes, while “The Most Beautiful Gemsbok” features some pretty oboe writing that at times starts to head into Ennio Morricone territory. Furthermore, there are several additional action and suspense cues worth hearing, including the dangerous-sounding “Scorpion”. Overall, it comes with a recommendation from me for fans of the score, who want to hear more depth and variation.

Despite the persistent rumors about its creation, and despite the fact that the film itself is largely forgotten today, A Far Off Place remains an easy recommendation for James Horner fans. The main theme is a knockout, sweeping and bold and forthright in all the best ways, and the copious action music is for me a triumph of interesting orchestration and rhythmic ideas; the use of ‘crashing pianos,’ the shakuhachi, and the wide range of percussion textures makes it an especially fascinating listen. The album is well balanced between softer material and more violent outbursts, and is well presented with thematic bookends that stand among Horner’s best and most satisfying writing from 1993.

Buy the Far Off Place soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (5:17)
  • The Slaughter (4:35)
  • The Elephants (5:06)
  • Attacked From The Air (3:43)
  • Gemsbock Gift (2:14)
  • The Swamp (3:46)
  • Sandstorm (6:58)
  • Death in the Mine (2:48)
  • Epilogue/End Credits (5:40)
  • Main Title (5:17)
  • Nonnie’s Rescue (0:38)
  • Cat Food Pâté (0:59)
  • Night Departure (2:47)
  • Entering the Cave (2:31)
  • The Slaughter (3:02)
  • Nonnie Finds The Parents (1:01)
  • Revenge (1:36)
  • Nonnie Escapes (3:18)
  • Impossible Plan (1:18)
  • First Night Out (0:52)
  • The Elephants (5:04)
  • The Baobob Tree (1:15)
  • Attacked From The Air (3:43)
  • Plane Aftermath (0:56)
  • Inner Feelings (1:38)
  • Digging for Water (2:49)
  • Xhabbo the Poet (2:02)
  • Gemsbok Hunt (1:21)
  • Gemsbok Gift (2:12)
  • The Most Beautiful Gemsbok (1:25)
  • Memories (1:41)
  • The Swamp (3:46)
  • Scorpion (5:17)
  • Sandstorm! (6:49)
  • Reunion With Mopani (1:56)
  • Ricketts’ Death in the Mine (2:47)
  • Epilogue/End Credits (5:32)

Running Time: 40 minutes 07 seconds – Original
Running Time: 73 minutes 32 seconds – Expanded

Intrada MAF 7042D (1993) – Original
Intrada Special Collection ISC 303 (1993/2014) – Expanded

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Frank Bennett, Brad Dechter, Thomas Pasatieri, Joel Rosenbaum and Arthur Kempel. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Score produced by James Horner. Expanded album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

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