As a child growing up, one of my favorite authors was Jules Verne. I found his ideas fascinating and his enthusiasm for science and travel addicting...so much so that at one point I wanted to climb down the crater of Snaefellsjøkull myself, just to see whether it was possible to Journey to the Center of the Earth. Fortunately, I never tried that (neither did I ever try to shoot myself to the moon in a 900-foot cannon, incidentally), but my love for Verne's books remains. One can only imagine how excited the 11-year-old me was in 2004 when I heard that there was a new movie coming out based on Around the World in Eighty Days...and how disappointed when that film turned out to be a despicable, insulting, grave-spitting, overcommercialized butchering of Verne's globetrotting classic into a slapstick embarassment. Honestly, Jackie Chan as Passepartout? I can't think of a more miscast role in recent history...hell, ever. Fortunately, I discovered Michael Todd's 1956 film on DVD soon afterwards, an ambitious three-hour production which truly does the story justice with excellent casting, a huge number of delightful cameos (from Frank Sinatra to Jack 'Mussolini' Oakie), spectacular location shots (in 13 countries, no less!!), lush cinematography and an equally lush score from composer Victor Young, who would win an Oscar for his effort but not live long enough to accept it.
The story is relatively straightforward: in 1872, eccentric English gentleman Phileas Fogg (a pitch-perfect David Niven) wagers half his fortune that he can travel around the world in just eighty days. Accompanied by his new valet Passepartout (the Mexican comedian Cantinflas) and dogged by a detective, Fix (Robert Newton), who believes Fogg to be a robber, Fogg sets out, battling countless obstacles and rescuing Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine in her breakthrough role) along the way. The book was not so much written to tell a riveting story as it was to allow the reader a glimpse of the world (and, perhaps, a sly parody by Frenchman Verne of British determination and imperialism in Phileas Fogg). The film follows suit, passing through London, Paris, Spain, Egypt, India, Siam, Hong Kong, the Pacific, the Wild West and the Atlantic on its circumnavigation, pausing for several minute-long shots of pure scenery - and pure music.
In short, the canvas that composer Young had to paint on was immensely broad. The array of motifs and styles that this score touches on is mindboggling, almost overwhelmingly so, but this certainly serves to keep the interest level high throughout the score - there is literally never a dull moment. He does 'pen' one theme which serves as an overarching identity for the film (and doubles as a love theme later on) - I put the word 'pen' in quotation marks because I have this niggling feeling that the sweeping, romantic, unashamedly old-fashionedly orchestral waltz comes from some external source. Certainly Young does incorporate a lot of pre-existing music into his score: Rule Britannia appears throughout, especially towards the end, as a theme of sorts for Phileas Fogg, and there are plenty of other familiar tunes that make token appearances.
But whoever wrote the waltz theme, it makes for great, nostalgic listening. It is introduced in the 'Overture', but receives its standout concert arrangement in the wonderful 'Sky Symphony', accompanying Fogg and Passepartout as they travel over the Alps in a balloon (a scene not featuring in Verne's book, but which has, oddly, become synonymous with it). The lush strings on display here are classic Golden Age film scoring. The waltz appears every now and again throughout, notably a tender recaptiulation on solo violin in 'Temple of Dawn', before closing the score in 'Epilogue' and 'Exit Music'.
After the orchestral first four tracks, Young begins to branch out into the ethnic with the next three, set in Spain. However, these three are arguably a detraction; never do they really sound authentically Spanish. The enthusiasm in 'Arrival in Figueroas' and 'Invitation to a Bullfight' is enjoyable, even if both cues are rather repetitive, but it is difficult to get around the fact that the second half of 'Passepartout Dances' sounds more Eastern European than Spanish (all the castanets in the world aren't going to change that), making for an awkwardly inappropriate cue. Things soon perk up again, with a token Middle Eastern progression in 'Arrival in Suez' giving way to more of the charming orchestral demeanor of the opening tracks in 'Passepartout on the Ship' In this and other tracks, there is a perky eight-note motif for Passepartout (usually on flutes and glockenspiel) which Young references quite cleverly throughout the score.
One of the cues I remember most from the film is 'India Countryside', accompanying one of those minutes-long montages of scenery ('Sky Symphony' is another) which really allow the music to take wing. Here, it's of the steam train chugging through continental India. Young introduces a singular, beautiful theme here, but it's the chromatically-descending eighth note scales that really make the piece so memorable. Towards the end of the piece there is a comic, accelerating march of sorts - the accompanying visual is of elephants fleeing off the track into the forest. It's a delightful moment. Rather less delightful is the lengthy next cue, 'Suttee/Pagoda of Pillagi', which accompanies the rescue of Princess Aouda with ethnic percussion, bells and woodwinds. The odd reference to the descending figures of the previous track is a clever touch (establishing an 'India motif' of sorts), but it kind of just goes and goes until it stops. 'Royal Barge of Siam' is rather more interesting, introducing a vaguely ominous deep male choir (the only vocal accents in the score) over clanging bells. It's all a bit hokey and not the least bit authentic, but in a Hollywood sense it's very exotic and evocative.
After the brief finale cue - cleverly and bombastically merging Rule Britannia with Yankee Doodle to represent the Pacific crossing - the score arrives in the Wild West and arguably enters its strongest portion - a fantastic 'mini Western' score from tracks 17 to 20. 'Transcontinental Railway' is another train montage cue, and like its Indian counterpart, it's a highlight. Over a chugging snare rhythm (representing a puffing steam locomotive), Young introduces a beautifully sweeping Americana theme, before interrupting it with some incredibly stereotypical 'Injun music' - pounding percussion and a simplistic, key-rooted four-note motif come to the fore. It's not politically correct by any stretch of the imagination (you almost expect somebody to say 'How' in a deep voice), but again, it somehow works in an old-fashioned sense. The final minute of that cue is a rowdy brass explosion in the tradition of Aaron Copland, which is a whole lot of fun.
The true highlight, however, is the eight-minute 'Sioux Attack', during which Passepartout is taken captive by Native Americans. It's the only real action cue on the album - but what an action cue! It gives absolutely no quarter, with explosive brass layers, pounding percussion and swirling string triplets (the progression from 1:40 to 1:48, oddly, sounds almost like something a Media Ventures composer might write) dominating from beginning to end, all at an absolutely exhausting pace. It's the brass that is really put through the paces, tossing the four-note Indian motif from trumpets to horns to trombones with reckless abandon. As the American cavalry begins to ride to Passepartout's aid, more heroic fanfares begin to infiltrate the cue (and there's the odd nod to Passepartout's own motif), as well as an amazing statement of the Americana theme at 4:10. The fanfares and Indian music do battle for the rest of the cue, with the former winning out in the end - with the aid of the William Tell overture in the final minute! A potential distraction, but otherwise this is a phenomenal cue - exhausting, complex, melodic, fast-paced, everything good action music ought to be. It's a shame there isn't more of this type of thing on the album.
Anything following that cue is bound to be something of an anticlimax, but 'Prairie Sail Car' does introduce a clever device: swirling strings, an appropriate accompaniment for the clever wind-driven contraption Fogg devises for traveling along the rails without a train. 'Land Ho' then accompanies Fogg's desperate attempt to cross the Atlantic before time runs out: by buying a steamship, running it at full steam and then destroying its superstructure and burning that (leaving, essentially, a hull and an engine). It's not the most entertaining cue in the score, but you can hear Fogg's strained desperation battling with short moments of hope, until a massive statement of Rule Britannia accompanies the sighting of land at the end. The final two cues, 'Epilogue' and 'Exit Music', then offer a whirligig ride through the score's various themes and styles, a microcosm of the score itself. Of course, at the end of 'Exit Music', the main theme returns for its obligatory sendoff.
The greatest problem I can see anybody having with Around the World in Eighty Days is that, like the book and film, it is episodic by necessity. By flashing from country to country the way it does, the score never really creates a narrative structure or develops its themes. The main theme, for example, is never incorporated into any of the various other styles Young imitates, rather staying aloof in its stately orchestral form - a missed opportunity, perhaps. The sum, therefore, is slightly less than its parts. Some of those parts, however, are nothing less than spectacular. The Wild West music in particular is worth the price of the album alone.
One rarely sees this score mentioned amongst the Golden Age classics, and perhaps it is not quite on that level - but there is some really strong music here. Highly recommended.