Review: The Hunt For Red October (1990)

Composer: Basil Poledouris

Label: MCA Records

Catalogue Nr.: MCAD 6428

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Few Submarine films from the 90's onward can proudly call themselves true classics. Especially in recent times submarine films have become barrel-bursts at the box office with rather weak productions as U-571 (2000) or K-19 (2002). The one and only undoubted 90's-sub-classic was The Hunt For Red October. Based on a best-selling Tom Clancy novel it introduced FBI agent Jack Ryan to the cinema audience, the hero in nearly all Clancy-books. Ryan becomes involved with the US government's hunt for a high-tech red army sub named Red October under the command of captain Marko Ramius heading straight towards the east coast. The government is convinced that Ramius is planning to attack the USA with nukes as vanguard of a wide soviet surprise attack, an assumption that seemingly becomes more clear when a large force of soviet naval units is leaving ports to follow the Red October. Only Ryan believes that Ramius has in fact stolen the sub with the intend to defect, so he has to proof his theory before it's too late. Ryan and the audience are then up for an exiting race against time and two superpowers. It's not just the tense atmosphere or the great story that makes John McTiernan's Clancy-adaptation The Hunt For Red October a classic of the genre. A whole line of excellent actors such as Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry and Alec Baldwin, all surpassed by Sean Connery as captain Ramius, makes this movie one of the best sub-films there is.

The score:

Now let's discuss another important aspect of this film which was essential to make it a classic. Of course this was the score by Basil Poledouris. The composer's entry into the 90's with such a blockbuster as McTiernan's submarine thriller was just a perfect finale for his entire body of work up to that point, with amazing scores for major and minor successes such as The Blue Lagoon (1980), Conan The Barbarian (1982), RoboCop (1987) or the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989). Poledouris career was unquestionably at the height when he scored this film (and sadly would never reach the same heights again until his untimely passing in late 2006), so it was only natural that he would pen another classic but this one is not on the timeless side as, say, his music for the Milius films. Instead, it will put you right back into the grim era of cold war from the very first bars of music. No other submarine score was able to reach the same regions of genius and effectiveness until this day.

Already the opening "Hymn To Red October" belongs to the hall of fame of ingenious movie music openings. Despite some famous misunderstandings in the public it is not a real Russian anthem but indeed an original composition with melody and lyrics by Basil Poledouris and a translation into Russian by Herman Sinitzyn. If you watch the movie for the first time, the hymn with it's grim male choir chanting these Russian vocals with their aggressive intonation will probably appear like a foreshadowing of a coming war. However, if you listen more closely and investigate what lyrics the choir is singing then the theme gets a whole new dimension. It's really a musical expression of the fear of war and the doubt that is driving Ramius and his officers to leave their country, perform a revolution by stealing the sub and heading with it towards unknown shores. The hymn suddenly carries a tragic and mysterious tone because they are leaving their country and steal the sub because they love their homeland so much. As pointed out before, this dramaturgic twist isn't really obvious on first viewing/listening because it's hidden within the lyrics which makes this piece even more a work of pure genius and I can't point out enough that Poledouris was simply gifted with the ability to create such effectively ambivalent and thought-provoking music.

Track's order on this CD is totally messed up and the finale cue "Nuclear Scam" is being completely misplaced here as track nr. two. It's another highlight which starts off mysterious with quiet string and cymbal clusters before boasting into a broad choral performance ringing in a fast-paced sequence of action/suspense music. There is an excellent integration of electronic elements during these intense moments which melts perfectly with the nervous strings that express the stress going on when the Red October crew is faking a reactor accident and abandons the ship. Glimpses of the hymn's melody appear here and there before it suddenly explodes in full glory and the Russian vocals soar out of the speakers, this time more straight forward to match the action nature of the cue. Trademark Poledouris fanfares follow closely which is an exciting thing to listen to and for the piece's coda, Poledouris beautifully starts to build up some more tension. I must admit that, despite the misplacement of most of the cues, the transition between "Nuclear Scam" and "Putin's Demise" works fairly well. The short cue accompanies Ramius murder of the sub's political officer. A secondary motif is heard for the first time here with a mysterious touch for low strings. It's apparently an expression for the aims of Ramius and is used in many different variations over the course of the score. The motif carries the music right over to "Course Two-Five-Zero" where it receives a broad statement for wordless choir to accompany shots of the Red October floating through the darkness of the sea.

"Ancestral Aid" is another cue that gets the doubts up in the audience by utilizing more grim Russian vocals at the beginning which almost come along as a black mass and later develop into a broader statement of the Red October hymn. The other half of the cue is suspense with some low key electronic pan flutes and synthesizers creating dark surroundings. "Chopper" is another action piece consisting of rotating synth-drum clashes accompanying a rising wall of whirling strings as Jack Ryan is boarding a chopper and performs a daunting stunt to get onboard the U.S.S. Dallas. Apart from being an exciting action/suspense piece the cue is also a perfect musical interpretation of a helicopter flying over troubled sea. "Two Fives" wasn't used in the picture but was most likely meant to accompany a private chat between Ramius and his captain 2nd rank Vasili Borodin about their dreams and hopes for their live in the United States. The music takes on a warm and human side here for the first time with gentle woodwinds and strings. The secondary motif is shining through here, completely stripped of it's grim, mysterious side in change for the intimate and softer touch that dominates the piece. "Red Route I" continues the subtle mood with some hypnotic writing for choir and strings supported by a repeated figure for harp. This track develops into a very interesting suspense cue carrying over the harp's repeated basis with some occasional choral outbursts as a way of accompanying a dangerous drive through an underwater canyon while each of the choral outbursts represents exterior shots of the sub. "Plane Crash" is more on the suspense side as well starting with subtle horns and drums until a sudden atonal swell of choir. More action comes now. "Kaboom!" features the most prominent usage of electronics in the entire score with looped synth-drums, cymbal strikes and occasional synthetic banging and crashing for the climactic battle between the Red October, another Russian sub and the U.S.S. Dallas.

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 91%

Score as heard on CD: 77%

TOTAL: 84%

 

The presentation:

Although this 30 minutes album presents a selection of the best cues from the score there is still another 30 minutes of music left unreleased which is sad because this film and its music is owned by Paramount pictures which means chances for an expanded re-release are nonexistent. The sound quality isn't top notch either because there is some distortion during louder passages due to the analog tape source of the material. Tracks are presented out of film order which sometimes works with individual transitions between cues but kind of ruins the development of themes and mood that is going on in the score over the course of the movie. The album art and booklet are very Spartan without any liner notes or additional information apart from the standard album credits. MCA wasn't really straining themselves when they produced this album which is a shame because there will probably never be another release of this music.

Presentation by the Label: 32%

 

Summary:

Comparing other submarine scores from the 90's with this one would be like comparing lead with gold. Poledouris' The Hunt For Red October easily scores them all off in every aspect. Mainly in terms of effectiveness it is far superior to other modern scores for the submarine-film genre. Especially the first half of the score is keeping a basic mood of paranoia going when there is still guessing about what captain Ramius is up to. It's once again some razor sharp scoring from Poledouris which can only fully unfold its brilliance when experienced within the film. However, the album of course offers a fair share of highlights which are mainly to be found in the action-heavy tracks and especially in the opening "Hymn For Red October" which belongs to the greatest and most clever compositions for a submarine film ever and the choral stuff that dominates the underwater scenes is just really amazing. Some of the synthetics and electronic elements, mainly the electronic drums, do sound a bit dated but they are mostly used in a rather subtle way (except maybe for the last couple of cues) and usually melt well with the orchestral basis. Obviously only a minor complaint which is barely hurting the overall experience, so just get this album and, most importantly, watch the movie to experience and appreciate one of the best submarine-scores ever! They just don't make them like that anymore!

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

                   Tracklisting:

01. Hymn To Red October (Main Title) (05:04)
02. Nuclear Scam (07:17)
03. Putin's Demise (00:54)
04. Course Two-Five-Zero (00:21)
05. Ancestral Aid (02:10)
06. Chopper (02:52)
07. Two Wives (Not contained in the picture) (02:41)
08. Red Route I (03:28)
09. Plane Crash (01:46)
10. Kaboom!!! (03:15)

 

Correct film order:

 

01. Track 01

02. Track 03

03. Track 04

04. Track 08

05. Track 05

06. Track 09

07. Track 07

08. Track 06

09. Track 02

10. Track 10