Homing in on Horner’s musical score for that little man, big adventure movie…
A dwarf is called on to assist a baby princess to meet her destiny and to do so he goes on an adventure of a lifetime.
Willow Official Trailer #1 – Val Kilmer Movie (1988) HD, Movieclips Trailer Vault
Recently I watched the Life’s too Short (2011-13) series which starred Warwick Davis as a twisted version of himself. This comic mock-documentary, chronicling his life and times as a show-biz agent dwarf was written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. There are more than a few wee references to one of Davis’s more famous roles in Willow (1988). Including an appearance in this show from his Willow co-star, Val Kilmer.
The film screenplay for Willow was based on a story that was written especially for Davis who was only 17 at the time of filming. It is a unique film as the dwarves are played by little people rather than CGI or special effects, a lovely touch. And only replicated once that I know in Time Bandits (1981). So, it’s back to the 1980s once more for one of this one of the more memorable film fantasy adventures of this time.
The story was written by George Lucas who worked with Davis on Star Wars VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) and made into a screenplay by Bob Dolman. The film has impressive on and off-screen credits, with the film winning Oscars for the visual and sound effects. On-screen we have Davis as the titular lead, with support from Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley and Jean Marsh.
Kilmer, of course, had recently starred in Top Gun (1986) with this only his fourth film – after his debut in Top Secret (1984) – compared with Davis who had more films under his belt. Marsh starred in The Eagle Has Landed (1976) where she starred alongside Michael Caine as a bad guy half Cockney-half German and a moustached good guy played by Larry Hagman, just before he hit the road to Dallas (1978-91).
Other off-screen mentions go to director
Richie Cunningham Ron Howard and the fantastic fantasy musical score composed and written by James Horner. Howard had worked with Lucas when he starred in American Graffiti (1973) – alongside a then little known actor called Harrison Ford.
Horner’s first film score was in 1979 for The Lady In Red, and he was becoming more well-known in the 1980s with his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) in which he has a wee part as an Enterprise crewman. Since then and until his recent passing, his work covered all genres from biopic to romance from superhero to sci-fi.
In this particular review post, I’ll be looking at Horner’s work in relation to Willow. This is a film I first watched as a teen, and more recently one Christmas Eve with my Darlin’ Husband the stepdudes. And it’s justly now a family favourite and is significantly less dark and frightening for your wee ones than Labyrinth (1986) or The Dark Crystal (1982). Or maybe that’s just me.
The film tells of a prophecy that the nasty sorceress, Queen Bavmorda (Marsh) will fall from power when a baby girl is born with a special birthmark takes her throne. As a result, all pregnant women are seized and imprisoned.
This baby is born and the mother urges her nursemaid to take the baby to safety. This leads to the film’s credits with Horner’s terrific opening score as this woman travels with the baby. At times the music volume increases and speeds up – conveying her urgency in her mission – as she is pursued by dogs.
After she pushes the baby downstream in a raft, the music reaches a crescendo as the woman is killed. Furious the baby is gone, the evil Queen – with sinister music heralding her welcome – sends her warriors led by daughter Sorsha (Whalley) and General Kael (Pat Roach) – with what looks like a Skeletor mask based on the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-85) bad guy – to find the child. The evil Queen is warned her daughter will betray her.
The raft and baby are found in the river close to the village of Nelwyn, by two small sibling dwarves, who race and tell their father about it. Their father Willow (Davis) is unwilling to look after the Daikini (man) baby, and he is called away to settle a debt with Burglekutt. Willow’s wife is more understanding and takes the baby in and notices the birthmark. However the family bond with this Daikini baby.
The next day, Willow and his kids go for a kind of job interview for a sorcerer apprenticeship with the village wizard, High Aldwin (Billy Barty). Unluckily Willow’s disappearing piglet trick goes awry and he is not taken on. The dogs return – with accompanying eerie music – causing havoc in a search for the baby. This with foreboding music leads to an increasingly intense and dramatic score as the villagers flee, which stops after the dog is killed.
The baby, however, is still safe, and Willow tells his fellow wee village people about finding the baby in a village meeting. After this, the wizard dispatches Willow, Burglekutt and some others to take the baby to the Daikini people. This leads to some almost Scottish bagpipe sounding music – or maybe I’m just homesick – as they travel. En route, they come to a crossroads where a Daikini named Madmartigan (Kilmer) is found captured in a crow’s cage.
Madmartigan and Willow don’t hit it off at all. Willow won’t release him despite this man’s pleading and his assurances that he will look after the child. However, all Willow’s band of helpers apart from Meegosh head for home, assuming that Madmartigan will look after the child. An army approaches hoping to overpower Queen Bavmorda led by an old friend of Madmartigan, Airk Thaughbaer (Gavan O’Herlihy). After this encounter, Willow lets Madmartigan free and Madmartigan sets off with the child.
However, on his return home, the baby literally falls in his path again, after a bird of prey drops the baby. The bird had snatched the child from Madmartigan. Willow and Meegosh are then pelted by teeny-weeny bows and arrows after some teeny-weeny Brownies (a very wee sized race of people with mouse pelts for clothes) who attack them and take the baby.
The dwarves are tied and bound by the Brownies. They are headed by a bickering pair, Franjean and Rool who always disagree on everything and anything. Then a haunting voice is heard and some lights are seen accompanied by Horner’s dreamy ethereal musical track.
The dwarves are saved by Cherlindrea, a Fairy Queen, who tells Willow the baby is Elora Danan. Elora Danan is a future princess of Tir Asleen who will restore happiness to the kingdom. She tells the dwarf of the evil queen and designates Willow to assist the baby to fulfil her destiny.
The pair then is reunited with Madmartigan as they bump into him in a tavern, he’s dressed as a woman in a bid to avoid the wrath of her enraged husband. The tavern is then invaded by Sorsha, General Kael and her army. Leading to a moment where Madmartigan kinda falls for Sorsha. Although it’s very much one way.
In the ensuing battle, Willow, Madmartigan and the two Brownies, Franjean (Rick Overton) and Rool (Kevin Pollak) escape and head for the island where they can get the assistance of a sorceress, Fin Raziel. This scene with some in turns dramatic and frantic music as the bad guys give chase as Willow steers the horse and cart.
Meanwhile, a few battles with the bad guys show Madmartigan’s prowess in sword fighting and dispatching the bad guys single-handed. These swashbuckling scenes will keep you on the edge of your seat, for the outcome along with a teasing score from Horner adding to the suspense…
This as you will have guessed is not the end of the story or the end of Horner’s terrific score. Which comes and goes supporting the story in the remaining scenes. Horner adds several more musical themes to the tale which include a lovely short romantic part to a track (but for whom?), some more dramatic, foreboding music for other key parts (but with who?) and often a tune titled Willow’s Theme is heard.
On reading more about the score, the soundtrack was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Horner is quoted on Wikipedia, telling how he reached the inspiration for this film score:
“I also enjoy metaphors, the art of quoting and of cycles. The harmonic draft of the Willow score, and most particularly its spiritual side, came from such a cycle, from such mythology and music history that I was taught, and that I myself convey with my own emotions and compositions.”
Other musical influences for Horner are listed for this film – in this article – including Leos Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Mozart’s Requiem, and compositions by Sergei Prokofiev. Willow’s Theme was also inspired by part of the theme of the first movement, Lebhaft of Robert Schumann‘s Symphony No 3.
However, despite his strikingly wonderful musical contribution to this movie, Willow’s soundtrack was not nominated for any musical awards. However, after this film and throughout his career, his music was to win a massive 80 nominations with 51 wins. Most of his musical scores were awarded after this movie for work in films such as A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Braveheart (1995). He worked alongside more famous names such as James Cameron and Oliver Stone.
However, surprisingly Horner won just two Oscars. After ten Academy Award nominations, he was finally awarded his first two Oscars, on the same night. The Oscars were for the accompanying music for that Titanic love song, My Heart Will Go On. Along with an Oscar for the Best Music, Original Dramatic Score for this film.
As we hear his film musical scores even after his death will in our hearts – like the song – will go on. And now we can remember the ways, this cult little person movie soundtrack helped led to a big personal movie music career.
2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon 2017 No 32
This film was reviewed for the 2nd Annual Remembering James Horner blogathon, run by Film Music Central. Other reviews with this cast include Warwick Davis in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Val Kilmer is reviewed in Top Secret and Top Gun. Jean Marsh stars in The Eagle Has Landed.