In the post Star Wars boom when fantasy action was all the rage, one of the more adult entries was John Milius' sex and violence filled Conan the Barbarian starring Arnie as the meat headed hero and James Earl Jones as his shape shifting nemesis. Although it tried, the film never quite transcended its origins, but as a fantasy sword and sandal epic, it's a satisfying and well made flick, boosted immeasurably by Basil Poledouris' ripe and adventurous score. In perhaps a similar way to George Lucas, Milius seems to have imagined the film being told through the music and so the score has to do a lot of the storytelling. This is especially important for the early scenes where dialogue is minimal and the music has to thrust the viewer into the narrative. That kind of freedom allows for a bold, tuneful and satisfying epic score of Miklos Rozsa type proportions and in many ways, just as good.
Although suffused with an exciting rhythm, Anvil of Crom is a fairly simplistic percussion and horn opening, but its impact was such that Jerry Goldsmith did a sci-fi version for his terrific score to Total Recall almost a decade later. Much more satisfying is the exciting choral work of Riders of Doom (very Tolkein-esque), even if it does allude to one of the less famous passages from Orff's Carmina Burana. Poledouris' musical mirror to the story is best demonstrated in the grinding Wheel of Pain, a scraping metal sound added to the percussion emphasizes the trials of the hero. The mark of a truly successful epic score is to balance the loud with the intimate and Poledouris does a particularly good job in this area. Theology and Civilization takes the love theme and transforms it into a broad, lilting waltz, but with a Rozsa inspired exotic edge and some well placed percussion. A hint of Rozsa creeps in on a number of occasions, most notably the brassy and percussive Mountain of Power Procession, although it is more Poledouris' use of certain intervals (notably fifths and fourths) that suggest the Roman epic sound.
The highlight of the closing stages is undoubtedly the Battle of the Mounds, a case where the music has far more grandeur and excitement than the actual onscreen action. With all the praise heaped on Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings scores, they seem somehow less inspired than Poledouris' classic effort; while exciting in their own way, a lot of Shore's music comes across as full of bluster and portentousness, with little feeling for the story or characters. However, Poledouris makes his score a proper musical journey, drawing on the spirit of Rozsa and making it his own, with music that works as a tone poem in itself and transcends the film with supreme confidence. Due to some overdubbing of certain parts, the sound quality is slightly compromised on occasion, but not enough to be truly detrimental. A fulfilling, epic score in the true sense; colourful, filled with melodies, exciting where necessary, but always in counterpoint to effective and revealing intimate moments. Superb.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad