Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Seminal Scores: The Ghost and the Darkness (Jerry Goldsmith, 1996)

Sadly neglected on release, Stephen Hopkins' The Ghost and the Darkness is a rip-roaring (literally!) old-fashioned actioner. Despite underwhelming lead performances from Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas and a pervasive feeling of familiarity, the fact it is based on a true story is too astonishing to ignore.

Set in 1898, it's the horrific tale of Irish Colonel John Patterson's (Kilmer) attempts at building a railway across Kenya, suddenly thwarted by the presence of two monstrous lions who proceeded to stalk and eat in excess of 30 people over a nine month period (Patterson claimed, in his book 'Man Eaters of Tsavo', the figure reached 135). Dubbed 'the ghost and the darkness' by the locals, who attributed the lions' dogged persistence to evil spirits, Patterson faced not only challenges to his authority but a much more immediate sense of danger.

It's an incredible story and the film, in all fairness, probably doesn't do it justice, adding in Douglas' fictional character presumably to sell the film to American audiences. Where it does succeed however, is in the realm of atmosphere, rendering the Kenyan landscape a mystical and engrossing place of conflicting cultures and unseen dangers lurking in the undergrowth. Adding immeasurably to the drama is the magnificent score from Jerry Goldsmith, one of his finest efforts in the genre and one that confirmed his mastery at fusing authentic ethnic sounds into a sizeable orchestra.

Goldsmith, for his part, paints on a broad canvas, rendering the film musically as a grand colonial adventure. It's the best possible approach: bold in the sense of wonderment at the African landscape, fused with a sense of mystery and also sheer terror as the fearsome lions go on the rampage. His 'Main Theme' is a terrific blend of three disparate cultures, Irish, English and African, with a lively flute melody leading into a powerful horn/Swahili choir combination, saying all that needs to be said about the film in the space of 2 minutes. No-one else would likely have attempted such an ambitious thematic blend. It so perfectly mirrors Kilmer's initial reactions to the lush landscape that you wonder if the film would work at all without it.

But of course, Goldsmith being a professional, he doesn't rest on his laurels. The early parts of the album put the theme through a number of variations, from the celebratory 'The Bridge' to the tender, gorgeous romance of 'Catch a Train', prior to the later, unfortunate turn of events. The malleability of the theme, combined with its complex construction, marks the composer at his absolute best.

'Lions Attack' marks a complete turnaround and explodes in frenzied terror as the film's villains cause havoc in the Tsavo camp, the piercing vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan cutting through the orchestral carnage. This is then undershot by a moment of heartbreaking sadness as the aftermath of the massacre is unveiled, before leading into the lion theme proper, an imposing brass led melody with Ali Khan's vocals and the tribal percussion sounding an ironic triumph for the animals.

'First Time' indicates that things may be on the up again with a glorious rendition of the main theme but it doesn't last. 'Starling's Death' is pure bone-chilling horror, the choir used in a whispering counterpoint to Goldsmith's brassy outburts, percussion and disturbing screeching effects. In combination with the shots of mysterious, swirling grassland as seen in the film, it works absolute wonders. As the score continues, the lions' theme is taken to even greater heights, even, in 'Lions Reign', taking on a definite supernatural sheen through the eerie vocal and wind effects.

'Preparations' leads the charge back, the orchestra and choir used in a more defiant, heroic fashion before 'Remington's Death' reintroduces a note of genuine heartbreak in the face of adversity courtesy of some powerful orchestral work. 'Prepare for Battle' builds the heroic material again through the bolstered brass section and choir. 'Final Attack' is the most abrasive and terrifying of the action material as Kilmer reaches the showdown with the monsters, the snarling orchestra and undulating choir/screeching percussion reaching dissonant proportions. The subsequent noble rendition of the theme at the track's close is like a sunrise on a summer's day, ushering in the magnificent finale 'Welcome to Tsavo' that reinstates the theme in both its colonial romantic variation and celebratory African one. Truly, it's one of the composer's finest pieces.

Jerry Goldsmith was truly one of a kind, on his best days able to transport the listener to whatever milieu or situation he was representing. With The Ghost and the Darkness, he takes us across the plains of Africa, stares terror in the face and celebrates the beauty of a magical country. It's a brilliant, brilliant score, and deserves to rank among his more famous masterpieces. And remember: 'If you dare lock eyes with will be afraid...'

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