May 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Ancient Rome Feature

The Gladiator

DECCA 467 094-2 [61:49]
Purchase from: Crotchet  Amazon UK  Amazon USA

It is suggested that this review is read in conjunction with the interview with Hans Zimmer, new on this site this month, in which Zimmer comments in-depth on his music for Gladiator.

I have to say from the outset that the album impressed me more than the usage of the music in the film. In fact I have grown to like this album more and more on repeated hearings.

As Hans Zimmer says, he wanted to equate Lisa Gerrard’s music with Maximus’s, the Gladiator’s, thoughts of family and home in Spain. I have to confess feeling rather ambivalent about this choice, I was not entirely convinced. The music has a definite Middle-Eastern, almost Arabic feel about it, which might be thought to be at odds with the rather lush Spanish countryside where Maximus comes from. One can argue and justifiably, that the Moorish influence spilled over into Spain and Middle-Eastern modes strongly influenced European music well into the early centuries of the last millennium but that is to be unnecessarily academic. Anyway the opening shot, of the film, of a hand brushing over wheat is accompanied by this type of music with the voice of Lisa Gerrard, before the scene dissolves to reveal Maximus daydreaming of home in a wintry forest landscape just before the battle with the northern barbarians. This occupies the first two tracks of the CD segueing into the substantial 10-minute cue ‘The Battle’.

As Hans explained, ‘The Battle’ is based on the Viennese Waltz -- but brutalised. I will confess I was amazed at this explanation but listening carefully to the cue again, I could recognise the pattern. If you think about it, Hans may have a point, the Viennese Waltz is very formal, disciplined and the men often in uniform. Zimmer’s brutal, disciplined music is often submerged beneath the action as the legions, like some well-oiled monstrous machine, smash through the barbarian enemy. The rich, multi-layered music is a study in crescendo with many interesting facets including droning voices (anticipating mourning?), Spanish-rhythmed guitar chords, staccato jabs and slurs, and war-like trumpet figures. In places ‘Mars’ from Holst’s The Planets is recalled; at others, Walton’s ‘Battle in the Air’ from Battle of Britain. A seething cauldron, this music which can be enjoyed independently of the rest of the album (just forget the quotes, enjoy the ride). It’s a hi-fi enthusiast’s delight. So too is the 5½-minute cue ‘The Might of Rome’ although in this case I was disconcerted, when I saw the film, with Zimmer’s Wagner quotations (from Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine and Funeral Music). The associations created seemed confused, a real mixed metaphor—the mental link one could make between Wagner, Hitler, Commodus, Rome (before Commodus has a chance to exert his evil machinations) is somewhat tortuous and tentative, and anyway Siegfried was a hero! That apart, the music makes an impact, beginning in barbaric splendour, it is brutal and proud and hints at carnal pleasures before the Wagner-like music heralds majesty and solemnity. The other big set piece is the 11-minute cue, ‘Barbarian Horde’, exciting, fierce, crushing, very energetic; very much akin to the Battle music, with the Holst influence again apparent. The rhythms seem to have a swaying motion rather suggestive of the progress of a closed phalanx of soldiers moving relentlessly forward into battle confrontation, the brass braying in fury.

Of the other cues, I particularly liked the emotional restraint of ‘Patricide’. This is the music that underscores the complex scene between Commodus and Marcus Aurelius, in which the father is torn between sincere paternal affection for his wayward, dissolute and cowardly son and his duty to provide a strong succession for Rome. Commodus is devastated when he learns that his father has decided to favour Maximus and so suffocates Marcus Aurelius to inherit power. Zimmer’s music nicely captures these strong emotions and the dilemma, culminating in a crescendo for the murder. The music then segues into the cue ‘The Emperor is Dead’ in which the cymbalom/zither-like Chinese instrument is used. Again, this choice puzzled me because I could see no relevance, and when it reappeared during a scene between Commodus and his sister I was nonplussed unless it was some sort of signal for Commodus’s madness and evil? Whatever, it sounds good.

I would just mention ‘Am I Not Merciful?’ and ‘Now We Are Free’. The former is apparently music of the arena, in the aftermath of the fighting. It begins with an oblique reference to the Dies irae stated on double basses, low in the strings. The music’s heavy, mournful tread picks up as the music moves up through the strings and the tempo quickens but the atmosphere remains tragic and there is an echo of Lisa Gerrard’s music, men’s voices, wordless intoning, until a requiem-like climax is reached. The concluding cue, ‘Now we Are Free’ brings more relaxed, warmer music with Lisa Gerrard singing a muted celebration of victory mixing joy and optimism with grief; this is a victory bought at a price. This might be the commercial exploitation track that usually comes with big blockbuster epics these days.

Gladiator might be regarded as a flawed minor masterpiece in the Zimmer canon.


Ian Lace

Gary S. Dalkin adds:-

Gladiator must be the most discussed film score of the year so far. Not so much because it comes from a film which has proved a major box-office hit, but for the in some quarters controversial nature of the scoring.

Music and the films of Ridley Scott often sit in uneasy and frustrating conjunction, the visionary director famed for replacing parts of Jerry Goldsmith's score for Alien with temp tracks from previous Goldsmith scores, for replacing Goldsmith's score for Legend completely for the American release of the film, and for increasingly favouring electronic music in films where it sometimes sits awkwardly. Electronics worked brilliantly in Vangelis score for Scott's Blade Runner, and against all the odds, form a successful part of a complex blend of orchestra, choir, ethnic instrumentation in 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Then again, the 'lost' Scott film (I saw White Squall in an otherwise completely unpopulated cinema) was an excellent film marred by a sub-Vangelis score by Jeff Rona, while about G.I. Jane, the less said the better. Now comes Scott's most eagerly awaited film since, well, probably since Alien, and certainly his first bona fide hit since Thelma and Louise.

Though he has written highly effective scores for films such as Beyond Rangoon and The Thin Red Line, Hans Zimmer is not the first name that would come to mind when looking for someone to score a $100 million Roman epic. His familiar blend of orchestral/rock electronics may be rousing, but it is also lacking the scale, grandeur and complexity a true epic requires. As such, he seems almost as inappropriate a choice as Eric Serra was for Joan of Arc. Except that Gladiator is not an epic in the accepted sense. Apart from one battle at the start - which is fairly lavish, but nothing compared to the scale of combat depicted in Spartacus (1960), War and Peace (1968) or Waterloo (1970) - Gladiator is a surprisingly small film. It is really no more than a remake of Rollerball with a spaghetti western finale, a film structured around four fights involving a limited number of personal in two locations. It is not an epic in the Ben-Hur, King of Kings and El Cid tradition. All of which were of course scored by the ultimate master of the classic Hollywood film score, Miklós Rózsa.

Much of the dissatisfaction with the score comes from the fact that it was not written by Miklós Rózsa. Given that Rózsa is dead, this might have been difficult, but in his stead it is argued that someone such as Jerry Goldsmith or Basil Poldouris would have made an acceptable substitute. There is something rather nasty about all this. A trace of a sort of cinematic fascism which suggests that there is really only one way to make a movie, and that way happens to be the way they did it in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. This is actually not just nonsense, but insulting nonsense that borders on xenophobia. Film and film music does not begin and end with Hollywood and America, and there are many ways of doing things. Some which work, some which don't. Gladiator is not a traditional Hollywood epic, and it would have been ludicrous to score it in Rózsaesque fashion. In look, mood, sensibility, the film is like all of Ridley Scott's movies, eminently European. It may wear the clothes of a Hollywood epic of 40 years ago, but it is altogether something else inside.

In composing the score Hans Zimmer has taken a line between the traditional and the modern. He has combined orchestra and chorus with ethnic instrumentation, solo female wordless vocal and electronics. Of these, the voice of Lisa Gerrard has proved the source of much vexation, the electronics perhaps understandably the same. Zimmer has done something else which has provoked intense debate. He has all but incorporated passages from Holst's The Planets (Mars) and Wagner's Siegfrield's Funeral Music from Götterdämerung

The Holst is because Mars was the Roman god of war, and Holst's Mars is suitably aggressive and menacingly doom-laden for the conflict at the heart of the film. I had my doubts when I first heard the soundtrack album. I thought it sounded tacky and obvious, but I have to admit that despite the fact that I think it shouldn't do so, in the film it does work. This is not subtle, but then nor is the film. This is not great film music, but then Gladiator is not a great film. It is appropriate. It works. Only the album it gets the blood pumping, it is thrilling, it is exciting, it is stirring. It is not Miklós Rózsa.

The Wagner does not work so well. In-fact it does not work at all in the film, largely because the scene to which it is applied (the Emperor's entry into Rome) does not work. It does not work because the contrived lighting of the scene makes the whole thing look completely artificial and ridiculous. It does not work because this is supposed to be proto-fascist Italy, not fascist Germany. It does not work because it reminds anyone who has seen of an infinitely better film. John Boorman's masterpiece, Excalibur.

There are other moments in the score which will please the traditionalists. 'Patricide' is an extremely powerful cue for string orchestra. 'Am I not Merciful' has a similar tortured intensity. The gentle, atmospheric pieces written or co-written with Lisa Gerrard work well in the film, and are beguiling on album. Gerrard is an extremely talented musician, songwriter and composer, one half of the late-lamented Dead Can Dance, one of the few bands to come out of anything approaching rock music that were ever worth paying attention to. If you need convincing, listen to the album In the Realm of a Dying Sun. It is wonderfully dark, gothic film music which just doesn't happen to have a film to accompany.

'The Might of Rome', which ends with the Wagner, begins as an exhilarating, successfully fascistic number of big, pounding relentless drumming. It sounds like it could have been a Dead Can Dance number from Aeon, and when I checked I was surprised to see that it wasn't written by Gerrard, but by Zimmer. Clearly the influence is spreading.

Not all of this works well in the film, but then not all of the film works well. There are moments which jar, and others which are very effective. There is just over an hour of music on the CD, divided into 17 tracks which seem to flow effectively as one almost unbroken sequence. This is a huge score, and arranged almost in film order, the disc is very enjoyable. The sound does sound somewhat compressed in places, very forceful but not as defined as it might be. There is a distance to the recording which could have been opened up and allowed the breath more. However, the combination of disparate elements works more often than not. One possible grumble: having only seen the film once I am not sure if the music which comprises the second part of the end-title music is somewhere on the album. It certainly is not after the music which comprises the first half of the end title, a piece called 'Now We are Free', which feature's Gerrard's vocals and is infinitely superior to the currently customary female vocal led power ballads which routinely conclude such period dramas. The piece is in keeping with the rest of the score, and is suitably valedictory in tone.

Luc Besson's recent epic Joan of Arc makes musical reference to Orff's Carmina Burana, which appeared in John Boorman's Excalibur. Gladiator makes reference to the Wagner which appeared in Excalibur, but just for fun see if you can spot where Zimmer borrows from his own score for Boorman's Beyond Rangoon. Meanwhile enjoy a thoroughly entertaining album.


Gary S. Dalkin


Ian Lace

Gary S. Dalkin

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