The 15 Best Film Scores of James Horner

8. Legends of the Fall

This film reteams Horner with director Ed Zwick and focuses on a family of three brothers and their father in the Montana plains of the early 20th century and their troubles in dealing with life during that time in American history.

The film stars Anthony Hopkins and the three brothers are Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn and Henry Thomas. The film was a box office hit in 1994 bringing in over $160 million on a budget of only around $30 million.

The Montana landscapes were beautifully shot by cinematographer John Toll and he was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1994.

Reviews on the film were mixed, critics citing the film being too melodramatic as one bad event after another happened to the family at the center of the story.

Having rewatched the film recently, the film still holds up well based mostly on the strong acting of the four male leads, the strong supporting performance of actress Julia Ormond and yet another great James Horner score which providing sweeping orchestrations which match the majestic, open scenery.


9. Braveheart

Another collaboration between director and star Mel Gibson and Horner (he had also scored Gibson’s directorial efforts Man Without a Face and Apocalypto) was one of his most successful soundtracks. It got him another Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score and was considered one of his most epic and sweeping works to date.

I was surprised when my wife returned from her Scotland vacation a few years ago, many people there detest “Braveheart” mostly due to its historical inaccuracies. In doing research for this article, there are certainly important elements filmmakers changed for cinematic effect, but Hollywood had done this for years and a film is not supposed to be the definitive version of any story.

“Braveheart” was actually voted as one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time; however, Gibson has always defended the film saying what he did was only for dramatic effect and the true crux of the story remains intact. In truth, Paramount only agreed to finance the film with Gibson in the lead role even though he was twenty or so years older than William Wallace at the time he made the film.

Some Scots actually revere the film and watch it annually during the holiday season. The film was cited as helping to increase Scottish tourism in the years since its release.

One bit of trivia is the name “Brave Heart” was actually given to Robert the Bruce, not William Wallace and his heart was actually carried into battle after his death giving rise to the nickname.


10. Apollo 13

1995 was another banner year for James Horner. He had his work for “Braveheart” and his work on this film nominated for Best Original Score in the same year. Not a very easy thing to do at all.

One of the signs of a great film based on a historical true story is that it keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you already know the outcome of events.

Thus is the case with Apollo 13.

Tom Hanks was really on a role in the mid-1990s, having won back-to-back Academy Awards in 1993 and 1994 for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” and then receiving his 3rd nomination in a row for this film. It tells of the ill-fated NASA Apollo 13 rocket launch into space which had mechanical problems while in orbit and crew in space and on the ground frantically try and come up with the solutions which bring the three astronauts back to the Earth safely.

Like some of his previous work, Horner drew on the emotional dramatic elements of the film to wrap his score around, this time featuring Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics as a guest vocalist.

The soundtrack of the film also featured period songs used in the film from Jefferson Airplane, James Brown, The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Apollo 13 ended up being wildly successful doing over $172 million at the U.S. box office in 1995.


11. Titanic

And then there’s “Titanic”!

This film and “Avatar” definitely have its haters out there in us cinephiles; however, no one can doubt the magnitude of the success of the film and the fact it was a film phenomenon at the time of its release as moviegoers could empathize with the tragic love story set against the historical backdrop of the most famous ocean liner in history.

It may have been the success of “Titanic” and “Avatar” which prompted the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opening during the Christmas season, rather than during the summer.

Horner was actually surprised James Cameron called him to write the score for “Titanic” after their last collaboration on “Aliens” was so stressful for them both due to all the last minute changes.

Cameron was impressed by Horner’s work on “Braveheart” and was anxious to work with him again as a result. Horner chose Norwegian singer “Sissel” to perform vocals on the soundtrack which has been described as “evocative” and “haunting” and ended up breaking records upon its release making it the highest selling mostly orchestral soundtrack of all time.

The song “My Heart Will Go On” Horner had written without Cameron’s knowledge and sprung it upon him with test vocals being done by Celine Dion. The director had expressed he did not want to have a song containing words in the film and would not want to have a “Hollywood song” in the film.

His mind changed when he heard the song and gave his approval for its use in the film. The result is probably one of the most successful uses of a song in film of all time.


12. Troy

Longtime German director Wolfgang Peterson (“Air Force One”, “Das Boot”, “The NeverEnding Story”) brings us the memorable tale of Greek mythology featuring Achilles (Brad Pit), Hector (Eric Bana), Helen (Diane Kruger), Paris (Orlando Bloom), Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) and Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Although the film grossed $135 million in the U.S., it was still considered a disappointment largely because of the budget of a whopping $175 million.

Also “Lord of the Rings” trilogy which had just ended in 2003 with almost everyone agreeing those in “Rings” were better. The original version of the film still ran a long 163 minutes with the “Director’s Cut” going up to 196 minutes.

The new version was release on DVD in 2007 and featured almost 30 extra minutes. The was more nudity of Kruger, longer battle scenes including the character of Ajax (X-Men’s “Sabertooth”, Tyler Mane) and the pillage of Troy itself. There were also new bookend scenes added which no one seemed to like.

History has been more kind to this film than in its initial theatrical release with it gaining in popularity since.

Original film composer Gabriel Yared, who had scored “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain” was fired when test audiences thought the music was “too old-fashioned” and Horner was hired as his replacement. Due to the late hour, Horner had to write and record his complete score for the film in only four weeks.

The replacement score also used vocals from English singer Tanja Carovska which Yared had also used and featured “Mediterranean” style music with a large brass sound.

Horner was criticized for drawing too many melodies directly from other works especially from Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”.


13. The New World

Horner himself was proud to have been involved with a project by famed director Terrence Malick, however was not pleased with the final result.

The film provides the story of the adventures of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas as well as the founding of the American colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

As with most of Malick’s work, the cinematography was beautiful and the country sides were breathtaking. Malick has a method of storytelling which usually has a hard time finding mainstream audiences and this film was no exception.

Horner’s score itself was edited by Horner himself after the film was reedited and the final result was felt by some to not fit the new version of the film.

Malick ended up including a few classic works by Wagner and Mozart to augment the score, which still holds up as a solid effort by Horner despite the challenges.


14. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The successful novel by John Boyne was adapted by write and director Mark Herman and involves an 8-year-old boy befriending a Jewish boy in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

It is hard not to tell an emotional, compelling story when dealing with the subject of The Holocaust, so the film hits all the right notes there.

Both the novel and film adaptation were criticized saying they glossed over some of the deeper, darker true situations and events for which it is based even saying young children were never allowed to exist and would have been killed immediately since they could not work.

The material also provided the backdrop for the belief the German people were in denial about events which were happening around them during this time and it would have been impossible for them not to notice and it is believed many lived in denial rather than face the truth.

Horner’s score for this film was beautiful and fit the mood and events of the movie perfectly including the tragic climax.


15. Avatar

Say what you want, you know you will.

Horner’s third collaboration with James Cameron roved to be his most challenging to date. Horner said “Avatar has been the most difficult film I have worked on and the biggest job I have undertaken.”

He also said he worked on the score upwards of 16-18 hours per day for 18 months wanting to get it just right.

He felt he essentially had to write two scores for the film, one from the prospective of the Na’vi people since they had a very tribal, musical culture and then combine those elements with a more “traditional” film score highlighting and augmenting the story and plot elements.

Horner liked to use three note motifs in certain scenes of his films which he did here in the scene where the Home Tree falling.

He also wrote the theme song “I See You” for the film which was sung by Leona Lewis. Avatar is polarizing among cinephiles, it seems, but general audiences couldn’t get enough.

Honorable Mentions:

48 Hours
Patriot Games
Searching for Bobby Fischer
Deep Impact
A Beautiful Mind
House of Sand and Fog

Author Bio: Andy Kubica is a life-long cinephile. Having spend time as a video store manager, movie theater manager and the first DVD buyer for a former rental chain he now spends every waking moment reducing his film “bucket list”.