Music Composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith
Rating: ***** out of *****
This was the first score I ever bought, and it was something like ten years ago now. I still have the case and everything. In some ways it was unfortunate this was my first score, and my first Goldsmith score. My standards were set pretty high. Goldsmith was one of the greats when it came to writing music for film, and after listening to almost every score of his ever released on album, I can say that there are only one or two others of his that come remotely close to matching this score in power, theme, and orchestration.
The story of The 13th Warrior is Michael Crichton’s adaptation of the Beowulf epic, replacing the mythology of the old Norse world with a scientific explanation for Grendel. In Crichton’s take, Grendel wasn’t a single beast, but the last surviving Neandertal race. You know, the ones that hadn’t evolved into full humans yet (heh). The early Norse setting remains the same, but the Norsemen are accompanied by the 13th warrior, an Islamic Moor traveling through their lands and essentially forced to come along.
Goldsmith took this backdrop to write a simply phenomenal score that blends the flavors of the Middle East and the West. The first couple of cues are dominantly Middle Eastern (such as in “Old Bagdad” and “Exiled”), but the score then quickly begins to push the two together subtly (as in “Semantic,” “The Great Hall” and “The Sword Maker”). Goldsmith develops the Eastern flair with an effective use of tambourine and guitar with a lovely motif that is slightly reminiscent of his score to Masada. Typically we are cued into the appearance of this Eastern motif through the recurring guitar, but can also be heard showing up in the softer cues with other instruments as well, such as the upper brass, wind, and strings (“The Sword Maker,” “Honey,” and “A Useful Servant”).
While Goldsmith occasionally lets the full power of the orchestra loose with the Eastern motif (“Old Bagdad”), for the most part it is restrained to the softer moments. The other two elements of the score are the motifs for the Vikings and the “Wendol,” Crichton’s Neanderthal Grendel stand-ins.
The vast bulk of the score is centered around the pulsing, heart-thundering theme for the Vikings, performed at top volume by the brass section and accompanied by stampeding timpani, metallic clangs, gongs, full choir and tolling bells. This theme is meant to express pure Viking testosterone worthy of Beowulf, and Goldsmith. It really does evoke the “chilly northernness” that Tolkien wrote about the world of Old English, and it will get stuck in your head. It is completely heroic, but also has a hint of wildness about it, an uncontrollability that is perfectly suited for Norse spear-thanes. The score is top-heavy in this regard, with this Viking motif appearing in virtually every cue, but making its most glorious appearance in the stunning ten minute piece “Valhalla – Viking Victory,” where it battles with the dark and mysterious motif of the Wendol for dominance of the musical soundscape.
The Wendol theme is a slow, repeated two note motif that is played deep in the brass registers and slides up and down, rather like the infamous Shark theme for John William’s score to Jaws, creating an atmosphere of foreboding and elusiveness. It begins to show up in the more suspenseful cues (like “The Great Hall,” “Eaters of the Dead,” “The Cave of Death,” and “Mother Wendol’s Cave”), typically accompanied by meandering winds and a softly tolling bell, but it really begins to come into its own as a recurring set-piece in the action cues like “Viking Heads” and “The Fire Dragon.”
It’s most notable appearance is in the staggering cue “Valhalla – Viking Victory” where it and the Norse theme compete for dominance as the heroes do battle with the Wendol for final victory or death. This duel of motifs then coalesces into a beautiful resolution and finishes with the reappearance of the Eastern theme (which reached its peak about minute two into the piece and continuing for nearly another two minutes) in the final minute. The final cue, “A Useful Servant” sees the most beautifully orchestrated rendition of the Eastern theme and serves as a glorious closer for one of the best scores of the 1990s, of Goldsmith’s career, and of film scores generally. Highly recommended.