For Greater Glory (James Horner)

Final Musings: Much of how you feel towards Horner’s self-borrowing tendencies will determine how you feel towards this score. Pulling pages directly from past works like The Four Feathers, Avatar, The Missing, Braveheart and Titanic, it will be tempting for some to throw the score out the window. But despite its lack of originality, Horner shows once again how capable the composer is of putting together great music. With an intelligent execution of musical colours, thematic development and emotional resonance that is expected of the man when it comes to projects like this, listeners may find it hard to not enjoy this work. For what this score lacks in originality, it makes up for in sheer gratification.

Old fashioned Hollywood style epics like El Cid and Lawrence of Arabia are just not made anymore. They had to back down to make way for the heights of today’s CGI giants. But every now and then, some foreign production will try to relive the glory days of the once beloved genre of film, sometimes with great success. For Greater Glory is such an attempt, although perhaps without the success it aspired to achieve. The film is the directorial debut of veteran visual effects supervisor Dean Wright, a man whose name is attached to gargantuan blockbusters like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings. Set it in Mexico, the narrative sheds light on the unsung rebellion that came of the Mexican government’s persecution of the Catholic Church; also known as the Cristero War. Having signed on stars like Peter O’Toole and Andy Garcia, Wright certainly hoped to have quite a lavish production laid before him. And while the picture was praised for its ambitious scope, it was ultimately bogged down by paper-thin characters, a poorly written screenplay and overbearing pro-Catholic overtones, consequently passing into relative obscurity without making much of a splash. 

On the bright side, the film gave composer James Horner the chance to score yet another grand scale ethnic drama, which is always a welcomed affair. Now, anyone who’s rather familiar with Horner’s body of work should be aware of his aggravating “self-borrowing” tendencies. One can’t help but wonder how the composer thinks he can get away with so many rip-offs of his classics over the years, but he seems to be fine with it. Accordingly, there seems to be two major schools of thought that Horner fans have assembled themselves into. One consists of those who have become tired of Horner’s recycling and seeing no end in sight, they’ve dismissed him as a talentless hack who’s trying to relive the glory days of his career. On the other hand, we have those who have chosen to accept the man’s flaws and embrace his reuse habits as if his selective group of motifs and themes are being developed throughout his career as an ever evolving symphony. Where you lie in the matter more or less dictates how you’ll feel about this score.

For Greater Glory offers very little that you haven’t heard before in some form or another. Horner approaches the film and its topic in a fairly predictable manner, making use of the musical colours heard in similarly themed projects of the past. Stylistically, the score lies in the vein of The Four Feathers, The Mask of Zorro, Titanic and even Avatar to an extent. It consists of three major thematic identities. The main theme can be first heard at 1: 07 in “Entre La Luz Y El Pecado” and it’s one that is clearly taken, note for note, out of The Four Feathers. The other two ideas, while not as obvious, are still very much well within the confines of Horner’s typical constructs. The composer wisely opens the score with his religion theme, which he uses to represent the Catholic Church and the film’s more spiritual moments. It’s certainly an attractive idea, and is brought out quite well throughout the score. The third major idea is a melodic progression that largely plays out for the rebellion and its efforts. It’s an uplifting phrase that harkens back to his material for The New World (if not a dozen other Horner scores), especially in cues like “General Gorostieta”. The antagonists receive a simple descending 3-note motif whose malleability aids it in its consistent application throughout the body of the work.

And after a reasonable absence from Horner’s recent output, the infamous danger motif now returns with a vengeance! The composer once again uses the motif as a rhythmic device to drive the pace of the music as he did in past scores like Troy and Enemy at the Gates, with the same tenacity in appearance too. One can’t deny its effectiveness, but that last statement will have either put a smile on Horner’s affectionate supporters or more likely, have sent his critics on some twitching spasms. Alas, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of it all. Horner-isms are aplenty here with his signature tubular bell crashes and the ever exhausting snare rhythms from Glory. More disturbing will be however the numerous direct quotations of past themes. You’ll hear a mutilated variation of the love theme from Avatar in “Cristeros”, the main theme from The Missing halfway through “A Bullet On The Floor”, what some will consider to be a rather jarring page torn straight from Braveheart at 1:43 “Men Will Fire Bullets, But God Decides They Land” and more. At the very least, this score differs from Avatar in that these references are one-time incidences (with the exception of Horner’s apparent affinity for The Four Feathers).

The key to appreciating the merits of this score is to look past the Horner-isms. Once you do this, you’ll realize there is a lot to like here. Horner does an excellent job of putting the pieces together to craft an incredibly satisfying whole. In terms of specialty instruments, nothing radically new is employed. The usual array of ethnic flutes are used with the shakuhachi flute being no exception of course. An acoustic guitar is also added to tie the music to its Hispanic roots, although its application is particularly intrusive at 2:43 in “Ambush”. The highlights of the instrumentation lies in the vocal work. Horner really uses the London Voices with great effectiveness. Having them perform in a native fashion (not unlike the Navi sounds of Avatar) adds wonderful flavour to the work. And the colourful choral accents are intelligently employed in action cues like “Ambush”. Having said that, the real star of the score is Clara Sanabras. Horner clearly has her follow along the lines of what we heard in A Beautiful Mind. The result is nothing short of stunning. Sanabras adds the appropriate yearning quality that the religion theme calls for. Horner also crafts wonderful lines for her solo work in cues like “The Death of Padre Christopher” adding an intoxicating condiment to his usual orchestral melodrama. And to hear the paramount statement of the religion theme with the London Voices supporting Sanabras’ voice in “Jose’s Martyrdom” is an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling moment. In fact, the choral writing in general offers some especiously engaging material, as portrayed by the haunting work in “The Dead City”. It’s at these instances that one can’t help but admire Horner’s keen sense of musical direction.

On that note, the thematic applications are commendable. The ideas are thoroughly developed as the score progresses. And it’s nice to hear the melodies subtly play against each other and go through several permutations. To the score’s benefit, the album is also ripe with beautiful Horner passages as showcased in “The Death of Padre Christopher”. Resultantly, there is nary a dull moment in the score. The music goes out of its way to keep you emotionally engaged for its entirety without every getting too syrupy. A lot of credit goes out to an excellent performance by the 100-piece London orchestra of course. The spirited action cues are executed incredibly well and the performance adheres to Horner’s lyrical style in a suitable fashion. And while the action material may not be particularly revolutionary in the composer’s career, the forceful writing in “Ambush” and “A Bullet On The Floor” offer great appeal.

Muse on These:

–          The Death of Padre Christopher

–          Ambush

–          Jose’s Martyrdom

–          Cristeros

–          Just Another Chapter of History (Closing Credits)

In the end, this may not be the most original score of the year, but it ends up being a very entertaining one and will make a fine addition to any Horner collection. Scores like this are just not written as much anymore. And in an age where many composers are adapting their styles to catch up with the times, it’s gratifying to see Horner stick to his musical roots and produce works like this. Some may never forgive him for the recycling, but the final product regardless makes great music. Horner simply knows how to put together a great score. And he proves that with For Greater Glory because for all its lack of originality, it remains to be wonderful music. It’s hard to come to the last cue and still hate it. The nature of Horner’s work often presents a rather strange phenomenon. It’s easy to dismiss Horner’s credibility as a composer due the lack of originality in themes and such. But when that’s taken out of the picture for just a second, the incredible attention to detail becomes clear. He knows how to assemble the right elements, colours and textures to befit the spirit of the film and still give the score a distinct personality. It’s what made scores like Avatar (which used up every page in Horner’s all-too-familiar bag of tricks) so enjoyable, and it’s precisely what plays to the strength of For Greater Glory. The regurgitation of past works is certainly a regrettable fault, but the score makes up for it in sheer gratification. Ultimately, the critic will find this to be nothing more than another worn out and perhaps irksome exercise in redundancy. But the enthusiast would beg to differ. And this score seems to be rather capable of making an enthusiast of even the cynical.

Rating:  * * * *

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2 Comments on “For Greater Glory (James Horner)”

  1. Craig Richard Lysy says:

    Nicely done! I just loved this score and once again you highlight the essential points with fine insight. All the best!

  2. Phantom21 says:

    Ironically self borrowing, although sometimes tedious from Horner, is something I greatly desire to hear in the up and coming Hobbit film! Shore’s score had better resonate with the classic themes from the much loved original trilogy.

    Yes, I understand that this reply is slightly off topic from your review (which was very insightful btw), however when you mentioned “The Lord of the Rings” in paragraph one it sent me off into blissfull musings…


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