A John Williams Work for every year of my life 3: The Cowboys (1972)

John Williams was 40 when he wrote the music to the Mark Rydell film, “The Cowboys”. In the same year, he produced what has to be his most avant-garde score for the Robert Altman film, “Images”. I just want to briefly look at his work on this latter film before taking a more in depth look at “The Cowboys”.

Images tells the story of an authoress’s descent into madness. The music more than suggests this – it is deeply unsettling, with disembodied voices and strange otherworldly instruments peppering the pieces on the score album. The only recognisable melody is “In Search of Unicorns”, but even this begins with disjointed piano wanderings, before it begins a sombre and deeply disturbing elegy, written for piano and strings. Any sense of eerie peace is disturbed by a horrific outburst on rather weird percussion and what can only be described as a siren. Periodic returns to more melodic iterations are intermittently disturbed by more deeply unsettling and frankly shocking interludes.

The main theme, such as it is, returns at points later in the score – such as in “Dogs, Ponies, and Old Ruins”

Throughout the soundtrack there are elements of John Williams musical language which found their way into later scores, such as Close Encounters, The Empire of the Sun, and War of the Worlds. But this is Williams at his most unconventional, his most experimental. It is not pleasant listening. Very interesting, but not pleasant. This really is the stuff of nightmares, of horror movies. It’s interesting to note that the film itself is not a horror film – maybe the intention is to make us feel that there is nothing more horrific than the descent into madness of the human mind.

So to “The Cowboys”.

The Main Theme is gloriously bright, positive, exuding a wonderful Americana which could very well have come from the pen of Copland. You can almost smell the horses! And where Images created it’s sounds around strings, piano and a selection of non-Western percussion instruments, “the Cowboys” is written for full orchestra, with occasional help from the mouth organ, and electric piano.

This is John Williams at his most jubilant, his most melodic. I defy anyone to listen to the main theme and not go away humming part of it. The film is about a rancher who must find replacement drovers when he is deserted by his ranch-hands. He finds his troupe in a group of school-boys. The music reflects their joie-de-vivre, and even though the film has it’s dark turns, there is little in the original score album to take away from that first sense of fun we hear in the opening theme.

As an example, “Wild Horses”, the 4th track, is absolutely, wonderfully joyful, conjuring up a horse-ride through the majestic plains of the Wild West.

And then, as if the main theme wasn’t enough, we get an alternative main theme, which I presume was written, recorded, but never used. It is just wonderful! If anything, I love it even more than the actual theme that was used. It has something of the theme to Dallas about it – maybe in those sawing strings.

In “The Ranch” we hear one of the secondary themes from the film. This is a beautiful theme full of wide-open space, and if you’ve got the feeling as you listen to it that you’ve heard it before, then maybe it’s because it’s the precursor of the wonderful pastoral theme from Superman, played predominantly when Clark Kent takes his leave of his mother in the cornfields. This is the full coming of age of the theme which we hear first in the Cowboys.

For me, this is what good film music is about. It accentuates and emphasises the emotional charge of a scene. Witness the point at 2:53 where Clark embraces Martha, but John Williams doesn’t bring in the big music just yet – that would be too obvious, too hackneyed. He lets us feel the emotion of the action first, just for a few seconds, before the music ramps up to make sure that we get the full emotional importance of the scene.

If you’ve never discovered the music to “The Cowboys”, then I urge you to give it a listen. It’s John Williams as he was entering what might be seen as the golden age of his cinematic work. It’s full of beautiful melodies, of drama, of intricate orchestrations. These are the hallmarks of his trade which are then seen in his countless scores up to the present day.

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