Film lovers lost one of the most important voices in movie history today. James Horner, the Oscar-winning composer of Titanic, Aliens and Avatar, died unexpectedly in a plane crash near Santa Barbara, CA, after spending nearly four decades making some of the best and most popular movies ever made a whole lot better.
Whether you pay attention to motion picture composers or not, you are probably intimately familiar with James Horner’s best work. His evocative themes made audiences feel joy and tragedy and adrenaline and inner peace.
Please join us as we celebrate the inspiring work of James Horner, by remembering twelve scores in particular that will stick with us forever. Many of them are among the most celebrated and successful motion pictures in history. We invite you take this guided tour through what we consider to be the composer’s finest work, and to consider the enormous contributions that this incredibly talented man made to our shared cultural experience at the movies.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
After the reverent Star Trek: The Motion Picture dazzled the eyes but dulled the senses, it fell to Nicholas Meyer to jumpstart the motion picture franchise with an adventurous space saga filled with drama, action and emotion. He wisely enlisted James Horner – already the composer of Wolfen, Deadly Blessing and Humanoids of the Deep – to help transform the public’s opinion of Star Trek. It was Horner’s biggest project to date, and arguably his first bona fide triumph. His compositions made us cheer during the intense space battles, and cry during the most devastating moments of the entire Star Trek series.
One of the great action movie scores, James Horner’s compositions for Aliens remains influential and heavily sampled. “Bishop’s Countdown” in particular became one of the most heavily sampled themes in movie history, used in a plethora of temp scores and trailers to escalate suspense to maddening degrees. Horner’s contribution to James Cameron’s iconic sci-fi thriller should never be underestimated. He helped transform what could have been a straight-up creature feature into a motion picture event, as powerful and thrilling as any “serious” war drama.
James Horner’s second score (of many) for director Ron Howard was a classical adventure theme, evoking the heights of John Williams without ever outright aping the themes to Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s an enchanting quality to Horner’s Willow score, full of fun and romance, that made this underrated fantasy tale feel truly fantastic.
Field of Dreams (1989)
James Horner captured something very special in his score to Field of Dreams. In his lilting theme one can sense that we are on the verge of something truly remarkable, and what’s more, that we can find it just on the other side of the horizon. “If you build it, he will come” is what Phil Alden Robinson’s beloved Americana tearjerker promised us. Horner laid the foundation beautifully.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Joe Johnston’s loving ode to serializes superheroes and the glory of flight remains one of the best films of its kind, thanks in large part to James Horner’s impressive and heroic odes. His themes are sweet and old-fashioned, but more exquisitely, the sound like they are taking off with us as the title hero catches the wind and soars from cloud to cloud. For our money, The Rocketeer still has one of the best superhero scores ever composed.
Phil Alden Robinson’s second collaboration with James Horner is an all-star ensemble heist picture, but one of the most unconventional ever filmed. Horner matched the ingenious plot and eccentric characters of Sneakers note for note, composing a mysterious and sometimes outright lovely score that stands out as one of his very, very best. Branford Marsalis contributes his very special talents to a film that’s all about the especially talented.
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
One of the best films ever made. We’re just coming right out and saying it. The directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) tells the story of a young chess prodigy who becomes torn between the love of the game, and the love of his father, which becomes increasingly dependent on his child’s many accomplishments. James Horner’s absolutely wonderful score captures the incredible feeling of victory, the innocent devastation of childhood disappointment, and the masterful suspense of a climactic master class chess game that remains one of the most exciting competitions in movie history. The above composition in particular – about gradually rediscovering a thing you used to love with all your heart – is one of our very favorite motion picture themes. Ever.
Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic may be a terrible piece of actual history (since practically nothing about its story is accurate), but it feels right, and it feels important, and James Horner’s epic score is a vital component of that success. Horner knew how to build Gibson’s film up to overwhelming heights, and sell the hell out of one of the most melodramatic climaxes in the history of cinema. Somehow, it doesn’t feel crass. At its best, Braveheart feels truly larger than the life, the way the best legends do.
Apollo 13 (1995)
James Horner and Ron Howard retimed for a nail-biting real life thriller, about astronauts stranded in space with almost zero hope for survival. It could have been a tragedy, and instead it’s one of NASA’s finest hours. Horner’s score honors the majesty of space travel, the overwhelming terror of being trapped in an infinite void, and the richly deserved thrill of overcoming impossible odds.
James Horner won only two Academy Awards throughout his entire career, and they were both for Titanic, a film that still divides audiences to this day. Cynics point out the naive dialogue and hopelessly broad plotting, and optimists can’t deny the film’s deft straightforwardness. Titanic is a film about inevitability, hope and most importantly scale. It’s a grand romantic epic made all the grander by Horner’s loving themes, which evoked wonder and awe and wormed their way into the CD collection of practically everybody who lived in the year 1997. You can call it corny all you want. Just don’t ever pretend that it’s not effective.
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Swashbucklers were out of fashion long before The Mask of Zorro came around, but James Horner went the old-fashioned route anyway, proving to audiences around the world that the classics were classics for a reason. His playful and sometimes downright sexy themes for Martin Campbell’s reboot confirmed that this new old school adventure was on par with all the classics, thrilling us with every sword fight, every explosion, every impulsive and forbidden kiss.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
James Horner’s score for the Oscar-winning biopic A Beautiful Mind evokes positive memories of both Sneakers and Searching for Bobby Fischer, crafting a sense of wonder out of ideas that might seem to intellectual to really thrill. But throw this score on top of college professors doing complex math problems and all of a sudden you have a victorious chill running down your spine. Some folks might balk at A Beautiful Mind‘s rampant emotional manipulations, but Horner manipulates like a master.
That was his job, after all: to make you feel something special. Few composers succeeded on the same level James Horner did, and when he was at his best, nobody could touch him.