The 15 Best Film Scores of James Horner

historically inaccurate movies

These days, you can find music on your favorite satellite radio stations or Youtube channels for film music. This would be my recommendation to bring some of these scores and many others back to life or to hear them for the first time and prompt you to watch the film as a result.

Film composer James Horner was of the most memorable names in the soundtrack business over the last 30 years in Hollywood.

Even though his scores are not quite as well known as the legendary maestro and soundtrack God, John Williams, nevertheless, he produced many great scores over the years and was one of the most hard working film composers in the 1980s and 1990s.

He was nominated for two Academy Awards for two scores he did in 1995 for Apollo 13 and Braveheart. He was also nominated for Aliens, Field of Dreams, A Beautiful Mind, House of Sand and Fog and Avatar.

He won twice, both in 1997 for Titanic, Best Original Score and the Best Original Song (shared with Will Jennings for lyrics) “My Heart Will Go On”.

Horner has a total of 157 credits on IMDb under the category of “Composer”. His final effort appears to be the yet unreleased remake of “The Magnificent Seven” helmed by “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke which is due in theaters in September 2016.

Horner was born in 1953 and began the study of music at an early age. He began piano lessons at age 5 and studied at the Royal College of London. He finished his studies with a master’s degree at UCLA and also taught music theory. He also completed his PhD in Music Composition and Theory.

He first worked with mega B-movie producer Roger Corman before landing his first big-budget film “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” in 1982. He became one of the “go to” composers in Hollywood becoming a favorite of directors Ron Howard, Mel Gibson and James Cameron among others.

Tragically, Horner died when his small engine plane crashed in Santa Barbara, CA in June 2015. He was only 61 years old. He will be remembered through his massive volume of great film work which will live on long after he has gone.

(Movies in order of release oldest to newest)


1. Battle Beyond the Stars

An early film favorite showed legendary cheesy movie baron, Roger Corman, producing this sci-fi adventure in the post “Star Wars” sci-fi boom was actually also intended to be a sort of science fiction version of “The Magnificent Seven” where several independent rogue elements of the galaxy are recruited and band together to defeat a mutual enemy who threatens a peaceful world.

1970s television star of “The Waltons”, Richard Thomas, headlined an eclectic cast of characters including George Peppard, Robert Vaughn (who also starred in the original “The Magnificent Seven”) and John Saxon.

Even though Corman was known for very low budgets, the production value of this film was above average by comparison and still holds up today.

One interesting note is that future director James Cameron, who was hired to direct the special effects on this film, met his future wife and producing partner, Gail Ann Hurd, on this film.

If you are looking for a solid space adventure film you could do far worse than giving this one a try.


2. Star Trek II & III

Luckily for Horner, original “Star Trek – The Motion Picture” composer, Jerry Goldsmith, reportedly wanted too high of a salary for Paramount to agree to so they hired relatively unknown Horner at the time instead.

Paramount had liked the demo tapes they had heard of Horner’s previous work and wanted to go in a different direction since Goldsmith was too expensive to hire. They said they wanted a more “modern”-type score and Horner was up to the challenge.

You have to figure it would be difficult to come into a big project like this having the 1960s television show and previous film to use as themes, but still produce original material that would be faithful to the series yet be different enough.

The emotional nature of the struggle between Kirk and Khan, as well as the relationship and strong climatic death scene between Kirk and Spock, provided Horner with just the dramatic elements he needed to complete his swashbuckling score.

Paramount was very pleased with the results and rehired Horner for “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” which was released in 1984.


3. Krull

There is not anyone on the planet that worships “Krull” as much as me. It is considered by me part of the 1980s sci-fi/fantasy trifecta which includes “Flash Gordon” from 1980 and “The Last Starfighter” and would probably be considered “guilty pleasures” by anyone else.

Director Peter Yates gave us the classic “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen, “The Deep” and “Breaking Away” before he decided to tell us this fantastical tale of Colwyn (Ken Marshall) who loses his new bride at the hands of “The Beast” and sets out on a far-reaching journey, recruiting help along the way, to rescue her. As he proceeds, he encounters and successfully adds an elderly seer, a shape-shifting wizard, a strong-but-silent cyclops and a band of outlaws who aid him in his quest.

Looking back now, the plot seems reminiscent of “The Lord of the Rings” in its epic landscapes, journeys across great distances and fantasy characters.

Horner’s score is great here and echoes the fast-paced nature of the film and also has an emotional love theme.

This is one of the first times Horner uses female voices within the score to make a more rapturous feeling and majestic nature of events being depicted in the film. The uses of voice plus orchestration will end up becoming widely used by Horner in many of his most famous works throughout his career.

Many people have given me strange looks when they pull up beside me at a traffic light and they see me conducting this score or bouncing my head along with this thunderous symphony of sounds.


4. Aliens

Similar to his work on “Star Trek II”, Horner is now coming in to a film series with a previous installment in the books.

He had already known director James Cameron with their work on “Battle Beyond the Stars”, however, things were much different now that Cameron was hot off “The Terminator” and his clout in Hollywood was much improved.

Unfortunately, Horner was thrust into a situation which was less than optimal, having to score the film while it was still filming and being edited at the same time.

As per his usual routine, he was hoping to view the film in its entirety to get a complete sense of its arc and story before begins his score.

Thus was not the case here. After meeting with Cameron and touring several sets, he also viewed some rough cuts of the film in the editing room.

The final battle between Ripley and the alien queen had been reworked several times and things were changed at the last minute forcing Horner to change his scoring music cues as well.

Horner felt like he was not completely happy with his efforts and only had delivered 80% of the score he envisioned due to all the last minute changes. Cameron even denied Horner’s request to delay the film’s release so the score could be fully completed.

Having said all this, Horner’s score fit the film perfectly and was rewarded with his first Academy Award nomination in 1986.


5. Willow

Working for another disciple of Roger Corman, Ron Howard, Horner came back to the fantasy genre with another tale of good vs. evil when the diminutive hero (Warwick Davis) finds a baby and decides to return her to her own people and not keep her in his village.

Along the way, he befriends a scoundrel rogue (Val Kilmer) who he can’t decide is his friend or just another out to mistreat him due to his size.

The fantasy and comedic elements work well in the film, although the film did not perform robustly at the box office. The film had competition in the summer of 1988 with “Crocodile Dundee II” and “Rambo III” and kind of got lost.

Executive producer, George Lucas, said he was hoping for receipts closer to those of “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial”.

Horner’s choral elements in his score were evident here as well. One of the other elements Horner has always been known for was “borrowing” certain elements or themes based on famous classical works. He said he used several Mozart and Edward Grieg theme elements in “Willow” as well as several folk song influences.


6. Field of Dreams

Luckily, Horner was hired to score the baseball film.

Director Phil Alden Robinson has assigned a temporary track to the film which made Universal executives nervous, but then felt better once it was revealed Horner was on the case.

Horner liked the temporary track and based his score upon it drawing more of an emotional note he felt the film needed rather than his usual orchestral sensations he had done for several films in his past.

For this film, he even used portions of several pop songs popular at the time in his score including songs by The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Doobie Brothers and The Allman Brothers Band.

While not as grandiose as some of his other work, this score still supplements the film admirably adding to the emotional scenes while Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) goes on an emotional journey to find controversial author, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), and ultimately decides to build a baseball diamond in his back yard after being commanded to do so.

Horner was again honored with an Academy Award nomination for his efforts.


7. Glory

Another banner year for Horner was 1989, in addition to his score for “Field of Dreams” he scored the Ed Zwick drama introducing us to one of the first fully African-American Union Army units who saw actual combat during the American Civil War.

“Glory” is a compelling story with rich characters including the Academy Award-winning performance by Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes.

The opposition toward their use in combat was not hidden, they were initially used for clean up only or to burn down buildings after the actual battles were fought. Only through the perseverance of their commanding officer were they able to gain respect and thus played a pivotal role in the winning of a key battle in the war for the North.

In addition to Denzel Washington, the film also took home Academy Awards for Best Sound and Cinematography. It is too bad it was ignored for the major awards, as it should have been also nominated for Best Picture.

Horner’s work here in cooperation with the Boys Choir of Harlem, is haunting and a perfect match for the feel and tone of the film. It is my personal favorite Horner score and also won him a Grammy Award in 1989.