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Wolf Totem (James Horner)

February 25, 2015


James Horner, 2015, Milan Records
13 tracks, 58:57

James Horner has been quiet, but now he’s back. Can his music match the spectacular visuals of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s latest epic, set in the rolling landscapes of Mongolia? Do you really need to ask?

Review by Pete Simons

WINNER 2015 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards

What is it?

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, “Wolf Totem” is an adaptation of the best-selling, though controversial, Chinese novel by Jiang Rong. It tells the story of a young man, Chen Zhen, who leaves Beijing to work in Mongolia’s countryside during China’s cultural revolution. He makes a point of studying the local Nomad tribes and strongly disagrees with China’s influence. He also studies a pack of wolves, and befriends a pup. Whilst the book was controversial for its political undertones, the film adaptation seems to suppress those. Instead, Annaud focusses largely on men’s relationship with nature, and particularly Chen Zhen’s relationship with the wolves.

The film, originally titled “Le Dernier Loup” (and I don’t quite understand why they didn’t simply translate that to “The Last Wolf”, which looks better to me than “Wolf Totem”), marks the 4th collaboration between Annaud and composer James Horner. Previously they worked on “The Name of the Rose”, “Enemy at the Gates” and “Day of the Falcon” (a.k.a. “Black Gold)”.

This will be the first Horner-review on this site. That feels somewhat odd, considering Horner is one of my favorite composers (in fact, my ‘number one’ spot seems to alternate between Horner and Silvestri). It indicates how quiet the composer has been in the last few years. He has openly spoken about his frustrations with Hollywood and his desire to write more for the concert hall, though he has also made it clear he absolutely adores films… provided it’s the right film and the right partnership. Annaud-Horner is a partnership that goes back nearly 30 years and is now drawing the very best out of one of the best composers of our time.

What does it sound like?

The album opens with “Leaving for the Country (Main Theme)”, which presents one of Horner’s lushest theme for horns backed by strings. It is just perfect. Musicologists will be able to explain how the harmonies interact, line up, and so easily appease us. All I can say is that it feels instantly epic. It exudes grandeur. It screams ‘wide open country’. The emotional response it evokes, is akin to “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart”, though his latest melody isn’t quite a long-lined as the ones he wrote back in the 90s (it’s more like a 6-note motif that moves through various chords, giving it a perpetual feel). It nevertheless packs a punch, right to the chest. If I were to nitpick, and it is partially my job as a reviewer to do so, I do find the cue’s resolution a little odd. Around 1.45 it shifts to twinkly piano and Horner’s typical suspense methods – it feels at odds with the majesty that preceded it. The cue also features some Eastern instrumentation, and throughout the score there are sprinkles of erhu, shakuhachi, taiko and other ethnic sounds. However, there is nothing distinctly Eastern about the writing; and the use of ‘regional’ instruments is limited. I would’ve quite liked to have heard more of it. It is less ‘Chinese’ than “Braveheart” was ‘Scottish’, less than “Titanic” was ‘Irish’. But it is a grand, sweeping orchestral (Western) score they way only Horner can do write them.

“An Offering to Tengger / Chen Saves the Last Wolf” is a typical example of Horner’s story-telling abilities. Packed into this 9-minute cue are various themes, variations on them, and a range of emotions. Around the 3.20 mark he introduces a secondary theme. It’s a 4-note motif that is repeated against various chords. It’s almost like an inversion of his famous danger motif. It is decidedly dramatic and recurs several times throughout the score.

Horner works his main theme into the majority of cues. As I said earlier, it’s not as long a theme as those he wrote twenty years ago. His themes, generally speaking, have become shorter – but that does make this one incredibly versatile. As presented in the opening cue, Horner’s 6-note main theme has a rising feel to it, but the composer easily swaps a few notes around to make it feel more romantic (as in “A Red Ribbon”, where it ventures slightly into “Mask of Zorro” territory), or even more dramatic (as in “Discovering Hidden Dangers”, which also features a lovely, playful passage based on the theme). “Little Wolf” features more playful music, some of it derived from the main theme or from its b-phrase. “Suicide Pact” sees the theme arranged for a dense string section, whilst it receives a wordless vocal performance in “Death of A’ba”. Having said that all that (about it being a short, but versatile melody), there is a b-phrase to it that elongates it. This section has a close resemblance to “Braveheart” or “Mask of Zorro”, without feeling it was lifted from either score.

And then there is the ‘action’ music, which is amongst Horner’s most rousing and brutal he has ever produced. It is certainly, at times, his harshest score since “The Perfect Storm”. The ‘Bartok pizzicato’, sharp percussion and swirling strings are first heard in “Wolves Stalking Gazelles”. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard from this composer before and it’s all the more exciting for it. Having said that, “Wolves Attack the Horses” does resemble a handful of previous scores, particularly “Apollo 13” and “Aliens”, but the composer manages to arrange the music in such a new and vibrant way that it really doesn’t matter. The way this cue builds up is fascinating. It starts rather slow but menacing and, around the 2.30 mark, bursts into action. The string writing is frantic, the brass is ferocious. The bass piano resembles my heart beating at two hundred beats a minute.  I nearly found myself crying “Mommy… why is Mr Horner is so angry?”

“The Frozen Lake”, “Scaling the Walls” and “Hunting the Wolves” are three more action-packed cues. I’d describe all three of them as ‘relentless’. Horner is not holding back, certainly not in “The Frozen Lake”. The other two have a slight playfulness to them. There is a passage in “Hunting the Wolves” (starting at 1.45, following a dramatic crescendo) for a rising string arpeggio, accompanied by clicking percussion and a soaring variation on the main theme. It one of favorite parts of the score. What really sets Horner’s action-writing apart from anything else you may hear in the cinema these days is just how melodic, harmonic and graceful it is. The brass parts in “The Frozen Lake” are as lyrical as anything from “The Mask of Zorro”, whilst being a great deal more aggressive. It’s like getting the shit kicked out of you by the noblest of gentlemen. Kicking you in the groin, whilst being “frightfully sorry, my old chap” – whack!

As is common for Horner, the album concludes with a lengthy finale, here entitled “Return to the Wild”. It’s another ‘storyteller’ of a cue where, in true Horner fashion, the a-phrase of the main theme is juxtaposed with its b-phrase. It’s beautiful, it’s epic, it’s heartbreaking all at once.

Is it any good?

An old friend has returned. But not just that… he sounds revitalised. wherever’s he’s been, he’s come back with wonderful stories to tell. “Wolf Totem” is just about as good as James Horner gets. When someone says “they don’t write ‘m like that anymore” we can now say “yes they do… James Horner does”. And merci beaucoup to Jean-Jacques Annaud for letting  him. The only reason this score doesn’t and cannot top the likes of “Legends of the Fall” or “Braveheart” is purely for sentimental reasons. Those scores have been with us for much longer; they were written when we were younger and hadn’t heard as much as we have now; and at a time when cinema still regularly allowed pure beauty in such abundance. I may be exaggerating, but it feels like a rarity these days. Thankfully, Jean-Jacques Annaud still makes those kind of films and still allows for those kind of scores. “Wolf Totem” is a grand, sometimes brutal, and always sweeping orchestral score with a truly majestic main theme – one that’ll stay with you for days, if not longer.

Rating [5/5]


01. Leaving for the Country (Main Theme) (2:17)
02. Wolves Stalking Gazelles (4:19)
03. An Offering to Tengger / Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup (9:22)
04. Wolves Attack the Horses (4:49)
05. A Red Ribbon (3:20)
06. The Frozen Lake (4:42)
07. Discovering Hidden Dangers (2:46)
08. Little Wolf (3:27)
09. Scaling the Walls (4:07)
10. Suicide Pact (2:17)
11. Hunting the Wolves (6:04)
12. Death of A’ba (1:35)
13. Return to the Wild (9:52)


Digitally and physically. Release dates may vary per country.



  1. There’s also a little reference to Horner’s first score for an Annaud film. In the last minute of the track Return to the Wild he reuses a portion of his score for The Name of the Rose.

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  1. James Horner A Composer’s Special [3/3] | Synchrotones' Soundtrack Reviews
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