Ravagers Soundtrack Review
Now here’s a rarity … this is the score for a film that I haven’t actually seen!
I know of the movie … Richard Compton’s 1979 post-apocalyptic hard adventure, Ravagers, starring Richard Harris, Ernest Borgnine and Ann Turkel (who was married to Harris at the time) … but it is such an elusive production that it is incredibly hard to track it down. To my knowledge, this adaptation of Robert Edmond Alter's novel “Path To Savagery”, is only “officially” available on the scratty old VHS cassette from RCA (with its chubby silver-grey box) which I have a copy of up in the attic, but no longer have the means of ever playing because I ditched my last VCR a loooong time ago. The film has never been the recipient of a DVD or Laserdisc release. Even TV showings are as rare as rocking-horse poop. We could hope for a BD release … but don't hold your breath. And, to my chagrin now, I realise that although the film is upstairs right now, I have never actually bothered to sit down and watch it. I've seen plenty of provocative stills from the film and it does look mighty intriguing … so intriguing that I can't, for the life of me, understand why I never viewed it when I had the chance. But, anyway, here comes the full score from Fred Karlin, courtesy of Intrada, in a limited edition that has seen almost all of the 1000 copies worldwide selling out. At last glance, however, there were still some left over at Intrada's site and, naturally, I would advise those interested not to delay any longer and snap up a copy as soon as possible.
In the bleak vogue of seventies nihilism, Ravagers seems to evoke a similar sort of milieu as that seen in such moral warnings as Ray Milland's Panic In Year Zero and Robert Clouse's violent Yul Brynner SF drama, The Ultimate Warrior, Damnation Alley, or my favourite of the early crop, The Omega Man, or even L.Q. Jones' classic fantasy-parable, A Boy And His Dog. The genre would explode into adrenalised comic-book territory in the following years with the Mad Max trilogy, of course, but Ravagers also seems to have foreshadowed the likes of Cormac McCarthy's disturbing end-of-the-line scenario in The Road, the Hughes Brothers' really rather poor The Book Of Eli and, much better again, Francis Lawrence's updated version of I Am Legend, with its air of hopelessness and doom. The story takes place in the aftermath of some vague nuclear apocalypse, the year is 1991. The ragged survivors are loosely linked within two separate but highly separate tribes. We have the titular Ravagers, who are the now clichéd bandit-types who lay waste to the landscape, ambushing other refugees, hunting in packs and committing rape and murder. The victims, however they may have banded themselves together, are known as Flockers, somewhat ramshackle drifters and stricken communities eking-out an existence amid the ruins of a fallen civilisation. The analogy between hunters and prey is clear. Eli Wallach's celebrated outlaw-chieftain, Calvera, in The Magnificent Seven probably summed it up best when referring to the peasant villagers he and his band have been persecuting - “If God had not wanted them sheared … he would not have made them sheep.”
But into this godforsaken world comes Richard Harris as Falk, a last bastion of dignity and honour. When the Ravagers murder his wife during an attack, he seeks vengeance and a tit-for-tat campaign against them continues after he slays their leader's best friend. The story tells how he then falls-in with other ragtag survivors, including an old Army sergeant played by Art Carney and Turkel's wench, Faina. Eventually they come across a commandeered naval vessel being run under the despotic rule of Ernest Borgnine's Rann. When the Ravagers turn up, a battle ensues and the survivors, under the collective term of Genesis, form a new society with Falk, who has taken Faina for his bride, as their new leader. An uncertain but slightly more optimistic future for the human race beckons.
Before this, Fred Karlin had produced the stylised electronic-flavoured orchestral scores for both Westworld and its far inferior sequel Futureworld, both compelling curios that added some spice to SF music in the wake of Jerry Goldsmith's experimental and trend-bucking score for Logan's Run. In this respect, he must have seemed a great choice for a film that would require the dark and daring textures of SF as well as a more lyrical and dramatic form of orchestral writing.
How Karlin breathes musical life into this desolate and dangerous environment is with a very strange and completely atypical style, for him at any rate, but one that certainly seems to compound the harrowing and darkly natured theme of societal collapse and base human instincts for survival. The score, on the whole, is sparse and barren, yet it is also punctuated with weird and unusual instrumentation and an arid, gentle two-chord progression that somehow stops it from becoming cold and inhuman. Almost all of the cues are melancholy and/or anxious. Musically, he is telling us of the despair and the misery that the survivors face. Orchestrally, he is in a very spartan and remorseless place. There is a lot of pain, pathos and tragedy here. His score is clearly of the seventies, which may seem like a strange thing to say – I mean there is no funk at play here and no Lalo Schifrin-inspired wah-wah guitars and percussion – but there is that sense of the over-the-hill and still distrustful attitude so prevalent to that decade and its Cinema. There is the quintessential anger here, but it feels tired and ineffectual, the protagonists lost in the gauzy curtain of doom and futility. Time and time again, when listening to this wistful and reflective musing on the defeat of humanity, there is the feeling that Karlin is saying that it is too late for us. There may be pockets of dignity left, and these may, if left unmolested, band together and make the best of it, but the end is definitely nigh. The barn door is swinging off its hinges and the horse has bolted for good.
This all sounds very depressing, doesn't it?
And, well … it is. This is not a rousing or exhilarating work by any stretch of the imagination.
But for those people who love the scores of the late great Jerry Fielding, there is the same beautiful yearning quality to it all. The same lyrical lament for a time and a way of life gone by. I am also reminded, for some reason, of the TV score for Kojack. Not of the main theme, you understand, but there is something tonally similar about the brooding, dark and cynical nature of what Karlin brings to the canvas that recalls John Cacavas' sleazy urban underscore for the cop show. Indeed, the gloom of Karlin's work here, as well as its simple and highly repetitive melodic structure, is also quite reminiscent of Cacavas' score for 1972's weirdly wonderful UK/Spanish co-production of Horror Express. Once again, as with Fielding, there is a stark beauty to the mournfulness, a hypnotic quality resonating within what, at first, appears to be a slow-moving dirge that comes across as dusty, weathered and more than a little beaten-up. And yet this “dirge” is what will stick in the mind whenever you think of the film.
The score is anchored by a four-note phrase that becomes the main theme propelling the majority of cues, underlying everything with a tone of blighted hope and whittled-down courage. This signifies the hero, Falk, but it will also come to denote both the Ravagers, led by pock-marked Reggie Nalder lookalike, Anthony James, with a slight variation, and the human flotsam and jetsam that the survivors encounter along the way. We hear this motif, first from the flute, but then from synthesiser, and the woods, keening strings, guitar and brass. Karlin does build upon this primal figure with trumpet, cello and sonorous, drifting strings, but the basic two chord step that flows within the four-note motif sinks deep into the mind and remains there. It is remarkable how much ground he gets out of it. In Track 11, The Fish, it receives one of its lightest and tenderest interpretations. The theme flows from wind-lifted flute to tired and lamenting strings, capped off with slight responses from the piano. In his thoughtful liner notes, Tim Greiving believes this to be the most optimistic of the theme's appearances. I would say that the tragedy of the scenario is still very much to the fore, Karlin's eloquent and sombre passage unable to escape reflecting on the moralistic mire that society has sunken into. But the theme is achingly pastoral at the same time. Even without the idea of a nuclear-blasted landscape full of deserted ruins and a new untamed wilderness yawning out towards the horizon, the mood evoked is one of sitting, alone, on the porch of a cabin way, way out in the sticks, cut off from everyone and everything, with just a sea of guilt and regret as your company. Coming at the end of the seventies, a crucial period in thematic creativity and a stark series of cinematic accusations, this seems to speak for a society still wondering just what the hell had gone wrong.
Many little passages remind of Jerry Fielding. The opening passage seems almost like a homage, coming from a cigarette-tainted, close-of-play solo jazz trumpet that wails out a forsaken plea across a bed of sustained strings. Whimsical phrases from flute or clarinet reflect as poignantly upon the situation as they did upon the fading-away of Pike's tough-guy ethics in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Melancholy strings and brass shrieks advise us of Man's inherent barbarism and his knee-jerk inhumanity towards those weaker than him – devices that are, once again, reminiscent of how Fielding dealt with violence and the more thoughtful interludes between such outbursts in his Western work for Clint Eastwood and his urban thrillers for Michael Winner. But this is taking nothing away from Karlin, who is able to produce a memorable and, indeed, haunting musical odyssey for the end of the world and those along for the final ride. But, throughout this score, I was still repeatedly reminded of other composers' works, both from before and after this was produced. As such, Ravagers, which came at a pivotal juncture for both movies and movie-music at the closing of that turbulent decade, feels like an important foundation and stepping-stone in the rich and varied tableau of film-scoring.
Fans of Michael Kamen should note that his main action cue for Bryan Singer's X-Men takes its root here in Track 2, Ravagers Attack Falk. The meandering of the main motif is quickened with a sort of jogging climb-and-descent phrase for cello, or trumpet or piano. The seriousness of the strings is complemented by the incessant rapid pulse of the cimbalom. It is the same motif in X-Men, except that Kamen substitutes the medieval syncopation of the cimbalom for the much easier beat of a synthesiser. The action hots up, the cue swiftly creating the second major theme of the score, that for the Ravagers, which actually just grows out of the primary motif. A furious ostinato from cello is flanked by dramatic brass and strings, and it is this racing phrase that Kamen seems to emulate for Singer's first mutant opus. Marvellous use of the cimbalom, throughout, provides an exotic, Eastern European vibe to many cues. This, once again, seems to root the score in that late seventies period. I think of Kenyon Emrys-Roberts' unnerving score for BBC's excellent 1977 Louis Jourdan adaptation of Dracula, which utilised the instrument to great effect. Track 7, especially, brings this to the fore. And, beautifully, there is even an soaring Indian-like bird warble from ethnic flute, perhaps, that, in a way, harks back to what Harris underwent in A Man Called Horse from Leonard Rosenman, and precedes the wonderful supernatural lilt that it provided for Ravenous from Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. And for those addicted to Channel 4's awesome Shameless, this effect will also sound quite familiar. The guitar toils away with sentimental plinking beneath the mourning of the high strings in Cabin, Track 6. The main motif never falters in its step, but this adds a beautiful rustic frontier sound that speaks of temporary sanctuary and reminds us of Hollywood's underlying fascination with the Old West. How many post-apocalyptic films adopt this neo-Western vibe? Karlin understands this aura of renegades and frightened settlers implicitly, yet refuses to embellish his themes with anything clichéd or conventional from the genre.
This cloaking blanket of aching melancholy occasionally gives way to some action. And in the cues that depict the Ravagers going about their beastly work of rape and pillage, Karlin provides some quite aggressive material. The two-chord progression is steadfast in the music's DNA, but savage sudden barrages from the brass add conflict, scything swipes from the strings cut into its steady momentum to provide a deadly counter-urgency. A great series of cues commences with Track 8, that begins violently with the Ravagers In Pursuit, that brings their raucous and more unpredictable motif into full swing. Then a drunken, woozy synth lurches about in the following track, before brass and woods are buffeted by cutting strings in a staggering, haphazard march. Track 10, Ravagers Inside House, produces cold and icy menace with the cimbalom, insistent slow pushes from low strings, glacial tremors from the harp and long sustained tones of dread. Obviously things then come to a brutal head in Ravagers Attack House, which follows. Trumpets bleat and wail, a furious pace, driven by drums and metal percussion, warps its way across the track, and this is rounded-off with the Native Indian warble that dances in lonely despair, with vague hints of a the distant cimbalom deeply submerged. And the climactic battle between the pursuing band of Ravagers and the new-born society that has begun anew aboard Rann's ship thunders and rolls in the dramatic and violent highlight of Track 14, Ravagers Attack Ship. Against the mesmerising chord progressing main theme, cimbalom rattles with increasing intensity, the cello cuts and slices and trumpets blurt with last-ditch anger as the skirmish rages. The two-chord motif segues into the four-chord sister phrase as Falk valiantly defends his new tribe.
The Ship, Track 11, is possibly my favourite cue of the score. This is exciting and rather “classical” stuff. An impetuous 6-note motif ploughs throughout. A two-note beat from the bass drum buoys the Royal Hunt-like momentum, spurring on a cue that sounds like some form of noble charge. Pressure from the strings builds, the cue racing along. Obviously, this heralds our trio of heroes as they first encounter Borgnine's floating empire, but the pace and the style of the cue is very reminiscent of an English country setting, red tunics becoming a blur against the landscape. Without a doubt, this is the most dynamic and propulsive element of the score. It also marks an abruptly colourful turn in a work that feels profoundly and intentionally jaded and worn, almost yellowed with age.
But we are not done yet.
What I found really adds to this unsurprisingly bleak and forlorn sounding score, and radically alters my overall perception of the album, is the inclusion of a trio of Karlin-composed source cues that appear at the end of this disc. The first, Folk Dance, is actually something quite wonderful. This insanely catchy and upbeat rag-time session was apparently the Cajun-esque ditty struck up by a Flocker band during a shindig in a cavern. It is a real riot of infectious tub-thumping beat, acoustic twiddling and slap-happy folk-flavoured jamming. Karlin's favoured jazz-trumpet takes centre-stage with a truly magnificent five-note motif that courses deliriously as fiddles rush about hither and thither and the acoustic guitar is plucked at leisure. The five-note motif is then passed, like a baton, to the clarinet, the whole lasting for a very rewardingly indulgent five-and-a-half minutes.
In massive contrast to this upbeat surge, we get the queasy, end-of-the-night, half-asleep Piano Solo from Art Carney's Sergeant that is like the hazy midnight hour after the revellers have collapsed, the gunfight is over and the last of the gamblers are sitting in the smoky corner of a Western saloon. Strangely wonderful.
This unorthodox trio is then carried over into the final track of helter-skelter vaudeville razzmatazz entitled Polka Dot Rag, which is pure vintage London music hall. This celebrates the sequence when Falk and Faina are married aboard the ship. Going by this material and some interesting imagery from the film, I would say that John Carpenter was influenced by Ravagers when he came up with some of the carnivalesque characters in Escape From New York (which also starred Ernest Borgnine), especially the troupe of stage performers.
Intrada's terrific release of this little-known score comes with an 8-page illustrated booklet. In his Tech Talk, album producer Douglass Fake tells us about the slight stereo reverb that he has added to enhance the dry room sound of the original recordings. He clarifies that this doesn't “stereo-ize” the music, merely adds a little welcome space to the overall sound. The resulting album, culled from ¼ inch 7 ½ ips full-track mono safeties from the 1979 recording sessions, sounds smart, crisp and detailed. This is certainly a wonderful and atmospheric score. The music and the film are extremely rare. As I say, I have an unseen copy of the movie on videotape that will almost certainly remain unseen, but this music makes me hanker for the film to get the new release that it so richly deserves. At least, for now, we can soak in the mean and moody ambience of how Fred Karlin saw this bleak and dangerous future-world.
Very soon, this release from Intrada will be as rare as Compton's SF thriller. Don't waste any more time … hunt it down now.
Full Track Listing
Military Installation No.1 5.11
Ravagers Attack Falk 3.59
Miriam Dead 3.33
Falk Kills 3.28
New Home 3.02
Military Installation No.2 3.34
Ravagers In Pursuit 2.20
Ravagers Kill 2.05
Ravagers Inside House 3.05
Ravagers Attack House 1.50
The Ship 2.01
The Fish 2.16
Ravagers Attack Ship 5.19
End Credits 1.25
Folk Dance 5.37
Piano Solo 2.39
Polka Dot Rag 3.31
Total Disc Time 58.15
Another wonderful rarity from a very under-appreciated composer surfaces thanks to the detective work of Intrada in this limited edition release of Fred Karlin's bleak but hypnotic score for 1979's little-seen SF adventure Ravagers.
With a wisftul, yearning flavour of doom and regret, the influence of Jerry Fielding may make itself apparent, but there is much that is unique to Karlin to savour here. A confoundingly simple main motif carries the bulk of the score, its very ease of structure acting like a primal impetus from which other themes and phrases evolve. There is darkness and despair here aplenty. There is also violence. But Karlin's addition of the cimbalom provides a quasi-medieval eloquence that is quite intoxicating and addictive. Although composed as a lament for a fallen civilisation, there are pockets of hope sprinkled here and there ... and this really comes into its own with Intrada's inclusion of three bonus source cues from the composer. The first of which is an unmitigated delight that just demands repeat playing.
The film has gone virtually AWOL from screens for far too long, but at least we can still enjoy its warped and aggressive moods and beautiful melancholy atmosphere with Fred Karlin's haunting score.
Get it while you can ... this one is rapidly disappearing. Just like the movie, itself.
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