Following the recent promo release of Howard Blake's Flash Gordon
this new title presenting two distinguished scores by the composer from the late 70's, and is
one of the most notable archive releases of the year. We are offered two scores which compliment
each other well, superb sound quality and a nicely produced and illustrated booklet on thick
glossy paper, elegantly designed by Christopher Landry, who also wrote the informative notes.
The entire design, including reproductions of various posters for the two films and a back
cover still from the end of The Duellists (1977), speaks of quality.
The Duellists was Ridley Scott's feature debut, and those few of us who saw it immediately
realised that here was a filmmaker to watch. The film won a Special Jury prize at the 1977
Cannes Film Festival, but it was not a commercial success. One of the finest films of the
1970's, it tells of a series of duels fought between two officers during the Napoleonic Wars.
One wonders if it is now gaining a soundtrack release because of the superficial similarities
with Scott's most recent feature, the massively successful Gladiator. However, where
was about big gestures - on every level, including musical - The Duellists is an impeccably
crafted miniature; a work of art rather than a multiplex crowd-pleaser. What both
The Duellists and Gladiator have in common, as do all Ridley Scott's films, is a use
of music to accentuate character. Hence Howard Blake's music is just as anachronistic
as was Hans Zimmer's for Gladiator, in this case finding its anchor firmly within the
20th century British classical tradition; making, in such cues as 'Military Life' and
'The Challenge', only brief nods in the direction of authentic period music.
The low budget of the film did not prevent the music being recorded with the National
Philharmonic Orchestra - as indeed was The Riddle of the Sands - and both the performances and
sound are first rate, with no evidence of deterioration of the mastertapes. The score opens with
the title track, a lovely folk-pastoral melody played on the flute, music in the tradition of
Richard Rodney Bennett's Far From the Madding Crowd, but with a haunting quality all its own.
Of course this melody recurs in various places through the score, from a solo piano version in
'Mne. deLeon's Salon', finding a Wagnarian apotheosis in the 'End Titles' - and foreshadowing
Zimmer's use of Wagner in Gladiator by almost a quarter of a century. Pieces such as the jaunty
'Armand and Adèle' have a baroque flavour, yet the orchestration is more contemporary,
suggestive of fin de siècle salon music. This is a score in which the elegant solo piano,
pastoral orchestral writing and unsettling psychological cues mix; the duels themselves
score more for suspense rather than all-out action.
The Riddle of the Sands was based on the famous Erskine Childers' adventure novel of the
same name, and at the time of release in 1979 much was expected of the reunion of Michael
York and Jenny Agutter following their starring roles in Logan's Run (1976). The success of
that film was not to be repeated, and like The Duellists, The Riddle of the Sands sank
without trace. In-fact today both films are conspicuous by their absence even from the
afternoon TV schedules. This score adds choir, the John McCarthy Singers, and a larger
sound for this tale of espionage at the dawn of the Great War. It is a strong work throughout,
with a convincing main theme and much well crafted dramatic music. If it is not quite as
memorable as The Duellists, it is perhaps because the rather bland movie failed to inspire
Blake in the same way. Nevertheless, it is a superior score and well worth adding to any collection.
With fine sound, excellent presentation and great value-for-money running time this CD is
an example of how well archive material can be presented. Other companies should take note;
this really is the way to do it.
Gary S. Dalkin