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FOUR FEATHERS, THE: SOUNDTRACK

Review by Brad Green:
We really must excuse this old chestnut if it’s starting to wither; service beyond the call of duty in the Sudanese desert is bound to take its toll. Back in cinema’s silent days, barely a couple of years could go by and the red coats would get dusted off and readied once more to march for The Empire; the titular feathers would be preened, and that oh so foolish young officer would receive his call to courage in the mail. Fancy being naive enough to trust that Victorian sensibility could cop a chap who’d rather make love than war! 

By the time the Korda brothers made a more or less definitive version in 1939, cinema had well and truly claimed A.E.W. Mason’s story as one of its staples. Which means much admiration is owing to James Horner. He’s drawn such an unlikely degree of inspiration from this aging stalwart that he’s delivered a soundtrack that ranks among his best. 

The first impression might be that this is Horner’s take on the Black Hawk Down approach. A modern Western sound raged against the noble savagery of tribal chanting. But the comparison is superficial. Experimental electronica as a symbol for American military technology can hardly be equated with Horner’s symphonic representation of a Victorian milieu. As for the ethnic element, it has become something of a Horner trademark to embellish his orchestral scores with a particular feature. Uilleann pipes guest starred on Titanic, Charlotte Church’s pure tones drifted through A Beautiful Mind and violinist Joshua Bell graced Iris with his virtuosity. 

Here, the Islamic element is represented by the extraordinary voice of Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan is a master of qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis. Sufism is the mystical sect of Islam. In the simplest terms, all of Islam holds that man’s path is to God, but Sufism, which includes the Dervishes, strives for a connection in this lifetime – by surrendering oneself to spiritual rapture. Some Sufis whirl; and some sing. If Qawwali isn’t one of the purest forms of “soul music” I don’t know what is. I also don’t know if the practitioners really become one with God; but to hear Kahn flex his supple larynx around exotic, harmonic minor-inclined scales, is certainly to make a connection with Beauty.

Horner has an innate gift for melody, but he sometimes doles it out sparingly. Monothematic scores are not uncommon in his catalogue; and sometimes the special features of his scores serve to fill gaps elsewhere. Here, however, Khan’s performances enhance an already rich score. 

A brass fanfare, supported by rippling, reverberant snares provides the military motif. Hardly an original idea, but rarely executed so engagingly. The harmonies and rhythms are imaginative and sophisticated; the trumpets curl on top of each other unpredictably and even the military snare rolls stutter into appealing variations. 

Then the romantic theme is introduced. In the course of the score we hear it on piano, flute and with full orchestra. It is a gorgeous, lengthy melody; familiar sounding at its start, middle and end; yet with contours that embody a unique quality. Horner writes a lot of accessible motifs, but rarely has he conjured one so accessible and substantial.

There is also a typically Horner-esque four note pattern (plus resolving chord), built around an oscillating semi-tone and a minor third. In this case Horner brings it to life with an answering line that builds in interest and emphasis as the score develops until, with raised accidentals over two octaves, the motif’s coda becomes an essential element of the motif itself.

Between these themes, there are solo piano moments of minimalist chords and open intervals, worked into intriguing figures. Then Horner brings everything together in the final cue – all the motifs, the piano patterns and Khan’s ethereal, vibrating voice. You couldn’t call this score innovative. You couldn’t call it courageous. But there exist other virtues, and they abound here. No feathers to Horner from me. Four stars (out of four) instead. 

Published February 6, 2003

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TITLE: The Four Feathers
ID: SK89744
Sony
SCORE: James Horner
VOCALS: Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
TRACKS: 13







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