Uncommon Valor - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

Uncommon Valor - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Review

Back in the 80’s, Vietnam was big. Big for movies. Big for business. Big for an issue that still haunts America to this day – US POW’s left behind and incarcerated years, even decades, after the conflict officially ended. With the likes of Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket carrying on the crusade, it was left to Johnny Rambo to pick up the slack and to return to the Hell he called Home and right a wrong that the American Administration had blithely swept under a Stars ‘n’ Bars patterned rug. He was going back to rescue those poor boys who had been left behind to wither away behind bamboo stockades. And we loved him for it. Although Chuck Norris quietly pipped it to the post with Missing In Action, Rambo: First Blood Part 2 became the clarion-call for a resurging US patriotism and struck a chord that still reverberates with the staccato belch of machine-gunfire and the whupp-whupp! of chopper rotor-blades even today. Hollywood still had some issues with veterans suffering from post-traumatic-stress – step forward Mr. Martin Riggs and a whole host of other super-trained ex-Special Forces warriors with a chip on their shoulder and the lethal weaponry of a small army at their disposal – but that bit of unfinished business still rankles. Yet when Rambo and Missing In Action came out, and we all embraced them, there were those who couldn’t help pointing out that the story had been done before, and only recently too, in a film that had been largely overlooked, but was arguably more authentic. Therefore, the gung-ho, like myself, sought it out and, naturally, when held up against the sensational might of both Chuck's and Sly Stallone’s one-man-war-machines, the film in question, Uncommon Valor, seemed to come up short. It lacked the spectacle, the set-pieces and the mythic stature of such iconic heroes.

But this was doing the film a grave disservice.

Directed by the man behind Rambo’s debut adventure First Blood, Ted Kotcheff, and starring a wonderful line-up of cinematically honed veterans and newcomers alike – Gene Hackman, Robert Stack, Fred Ward, Tim Thomerson, Patrick Swayze etc – Uncommon Valor told the story of Colonel Jason Rhodes (Hackman) and his covert, privately-funded mission to return to Vietnam to rescue his own son, Frank (Todd Allen), who had been abandoned during a frantic airlift and left behind to be captured along with other platoon-mates in Laos. Years later, when Congress won't support him, Rhodes follows the typical “men on a mission” format, and seeks out and recruits some of Frank's former buddies, re-trains them with the aid of Stack's Texan oil tycoon, MacGregor, whose own son is also missing, and they slip back into Laos to find that elusive prison camp, end the war for themselves and free their comrades, and return home as heroes. But the reunion is bitter-sweet and tinged with personal tragedy for Rhodes, though the message was always clear from the outset – America had been deeply wounded, but Hollywood, at least, was struggling to heal that wound and get some payback for a war that the politicians had lost.

With such a jingoist story and its heartfelt and emotional core, the filmmakers turned to a young but brilliant, and extremely prolific, composer who had made a huge name for himself already with a string of successful and highly acclaimed scores. That man was future Oscar-winner James Horner. In short, there was no-one else working at that time who had the necessary enthusiasm, militarily musical energy, raw emotional writing skills and all-round passion as Horner. With Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn, Wolfen, Battle Beyond The Stars, Krull and Something Wicked This Way Comes, and many others, Horner had created a sound, a warmth and a rousing vitality that was unique and highly distinctive. He seemed remarkably able to marry action with sentiment, pervasive mood with riotous set-piece colour. The man was, and has remained, a musical genius. Just around the corner would be his acclaimed and cherished scores for Aliens, Commando, Glory and Gorky Park – and the themes that would go on to form that familiar trademark voice that his legions of fans adore and expect, and his detractors forever bemoan. All of this innate Hornerism is to be found and savoured in his score for Uncommon Valor, in which elements that would later go into 48 Hrs, Commando, Aliens and The Rocketeer positively shine right alongside some dazzlingly new exotic sounds that would evoke the atmosphere of Vietnam and a campaign that will never fully go away.

Now, for the first time on CD, Intrada present the complete score for the film, and listening to it afresh reveals a tremendously exciting, often primal-ethnic, highly adrenalized and ultimately very moving piece of work that contains all the trademark leitmotifs that James Horner is renowned for, and genuinely takes you along for a ride that is rousing and full of symphonic flair. At once modernistic in terms of ethnic colour and dynamics, the score that he came up with was also fabulously traditional as far as its military and jingoistic intentions go. The film has that distinct “men on a mission” vibe that we mentioned earlier, in spades, and Horner picks up on this with alacrity and an innate recognition for the history of such a genre. It is, therefore, as heroically playful as it is dramatic, ensuring that the score reflects the diversity of character that gathering together a team of “grunts” with individual personalities is sure to inspire. First and foremost, though, it is a rollicking good action score from a composer who would inarguably take the medium to a whole new level in the years to come.

Track 1 is an epic piece of work that contains two of the main themes that will run throughout the score. Beginning with a wonderful cue entitled Vietnamese Solo, we hear a Vietnamese harp form a defiantly blissful exotic voice that leaves us in no doubt that we are “in country” as the film's harrowing prologue begins. It should be noted that the clarity of this recording is incredible, and straight away the notes plucked on the harp shine through with scintillating beauty. As Frank's Recon Marine platoon struggles across the paddie-fields towards the choppers they hope will whisk them to safety, enemy fire destroys one of the aircraft and, in a panic, the other whirly-birds take flight, forced to leave several of the platoon, wounded and exhausted, on the ground and surrounded by the NVA. Very swiftly, the harp gives way to Horner's broadly used military snare motif, that came beating its way to massive cult-appeal in Aliens. He employs his beloved shakuhachi flute alongside ethnic reeds, ensuring that the exotic flavour of the setting is not lost within music now descending into a low and foreboding passage that begins to surge with relentless percussive drive. Cimbalom clatter gently in the background, further enhancing our relocation to another culture. The urbanised use of brass that would denote much of the action in 48 Hrs, Commando and Red Heat makes its first appearance here, in aggressive retaliation to this native-sounding traditionally eastern milieu. Horner's dramatic music is a fusion of his now-typical anvil clanging agitation with this poisoned tranquillity chiming right alongside it.

Main Title, which is the second cue in the track, brings in the next major theme – the heartrending motif for the tragedy and loss that Rhodes feels for his abandoned son, low listed as Missing In Action. This is one of those elements that Horner does with outstanding skill and the sort of authentic sentiment that is designed to clutch the soul and bring even the most stoic to their knees with emotion. He would use such soaring string motifs in greater degree in the likes of Krull, Khan, The Man With Without A Face, Braveheart, Glory, Titanic and most movingly of all, Legends Of The Fall, and this piece is noticeably brief in comparison, but we will hear it on three occasions throughout the score and it will be a high-point each time, the emotional effect upon us occurring with more intensity as the film and the score move along until the finale, where its poignant sting is powerful enough to make the angels weep. This first time is for the emotional memories that haunt Rhodes before he undertakes his own crusade to bring Frank back home. The drum cadence provides a noble reflection of duty and honour beneath the swooning strings, the French Horn having serenaded the loss in lieu of a bugle. As the film then comes forward in time, showing us a montage of Rhodes' Korean War veteran conducting his own private investigation as to the whereabouts of Frank in the chaos of an uncaring Bangkok, that violent, dispassionate drive of metallic percussion, ethnic colour and urgent orchestral rhythm returns, the sense of Rhodes' dedication and determination hammering its authority against the stone-wall of political apathy.

This has just been the first track, but Horner has been keen to have these two wildly different worlds collide – the militarily heroic theme for Rhodes and his mission, along with that soulful lament, and the exotic, ethnic-flavoured opposition to him that voices Vietnam. But one crucial theme was not included in the 7-minute barnstormer – and we encounter it in Track 2, entitled Airport.

Here, Horner is both having fun with his military cadences and establishing that time-honoured excitement of gathering together a team for a dangerous mission. This is very definitely the composer's take on what Elmer Bernstein did for The Great Escape, Frank DeVol did for The Dirty Dozen and Roy Budd did for The Wild Geese. As Rhodes recruits a diverse assortment of Frank's buddies – Fred Ward's haunted Tunnel Rat, Wilkes (a certain reminder of Charles Bronson's character in The Great Escape), Tim Thomerson's unhinged, fly-by-night chopper-pilot Charts and Harold Sylvester's reluctant second pilot Johnson, Randall “Tex” Cobb's bruising hulk Sailor, cherub-haired, blonde muscle-man Reb Brown as the team's demolitions expert “Blaster”, and the young Patrick Swayze as the rookie Scott, who must undergo the ridicule and scorn and resentment of the other men before revealing that he is going along to find his father, who is also a POW. The music for the reuniting and training of these men is something of a backbone for the first section of the film and the score. It is a jaunty march theme that is utterly addictive and sure to inspire a smirk of pride even in those who have no comprehension of the military ethos. For flute, snares and brass – those stalwart “soldiering” instruments – this fabulous cue can be heard in both Track 2 and Track 3's Tag. If this doesn't get you up and marching around the house in body, then it will surely have moving in-step in spirit at least. Cleverly, Airport descends into a more serious and apprehensive mode for its final stretch, and then Tag takes up this more dramatic low theme for a spell before then launching back into the Uncommon Valor march again – so, you can view these two tracks as being one longer piece, with a middle-section respite to allow you to get your breath back and adjust your uniform for inspection. Brilliant stuff, folks.

Track 4's A Lot Of Us Have Been Killed reveals just why Swayze's young buck rookie is so hell-bent on joining the team, even though they don't approve of his lack of experience in the field, with Sailor, especially, making his point by battering him with a display of martial arts that demonstrably betters the soon-to-be Zen brawler of Roadhouse. Horner's heartfelt emotional theme for loss and honour returns briefly to mark the squad's turnaround of feelings for the rookie when their commander informs them of the young man's motives. This cue then covers the scene when Rhodes pores over images of the lost men they seek to retrieve, tracing depictions of how he assumes they will look now after years of terrible captivity. The track then brings back the furious clamour of the ethnic material we heard at the start. Gamelan, metallic anvil percussion, shakers and cimbalom deploy as, following on from a marvellous rescue-rehearsal (which won't be how it works out for real, of course), the team reach Bangkok and discover, to their horror that the authorities have confiscated their weapons and equipment. The inscrutable, non-negotiable attitude of their enemy comes across with demented single-minded cruelty in Horner's music. This theme is continued in the next track, Steal The Sucker, as Rhodes and his boys use the money MacGregor has paid them to go and buy whatever weapons they can find on the black market, and to steal the necessary transportation. In the film, Rhodes doesn't actually say “sucker”, of course, but something that certainly rhymes with it! Funnily enough, this exotic menace motif now works for Rhodes and his men instead of being opposed to them. For this sequence it is used as pure covert mission-in-progress material.

Outfitted with all they can afford – wretched Second World War guns and explosives that are caked with dust and cobwebs – the team, with some sympathetic local guides, make their First Trek (Track 6, first cue) which replays the exotic material again, but vastly altered now, with the inclusion of a tremulous keyboard and a far more Westernised sound. The cue plays slower and slightly heavier than we've heard previously. Shakers flitter about, brass makes little sorties of heroic vigour. The theme isn't swaggering, Horner hasn't entered that phase of the score yet, but the beginnings of macho fanfare and posturing can be traced herein. If anything there is something of a Jerry Goldsmith frisson to the cue, which is very welcome. The second cue that makes up the track, Yellow Rain, maintains the same essential direction, but Horner caters for a little exotic mysterioso as well. I'm not sure if the insect buzzing sound that we get during this is from the synthesiser – I assume that it is – or from some other bizarre ethnic instrument, but its weird, alien thrumming rises and falls with a genuinely eerie quality. The scene in the film finds us alongside Rhodes and his men as they wander through the ghastly remains of a village that has been used for Mustard Gas practice – the bones of the victims of this “Yellow Rain” (as the second cue is called) litter the area. The film then delivers a decent action sequence in which a fire-fight with the Laotian Border Patrol ensues, but Horner does not score this skirmish.

Suspense and build-up comes next during the start of Track 7, with the initial cue, Pan Over Hill. The team have now split up to make their advance to the camp, and now we get our first look at the target. Shivering violins marry up with glistening chords from the mandolin. Other exotic instruments provide cover for the threat, as slow brass bridges over the snare-drum motif as the first squad decide how they are going to get in for a closer recon. Tense strings supply a glacial lid for the swirling undercurrents of agitation. Wilkes, the traumatised former Tunnel Rat, realises that a tight waste pipe is the only way that he can penetrate the camp undetected. Suffering from claustrophobia after his experiences last time around, he steals his resolve and enters the small conduit. One of the composer's familiar horn, brass and percussion stingers sizzles through the score as Wilkes encounters a snake in the tunnel and struggles with it. This is the sort of motif that made much of Aliens so nerve-jangling. That metallic ferocity comes on full-bore, chiming with terrified rage and venom as he uses his knife to despatch the veritable serpent. Horner's attention then switches to the second party as it advances towards the camp, martial drums prevailing with strong brass backup. He now cross-cuts between instances of suspense, via shakuhachi flute and marimba, and gradually building core elements of a more jingoistic and exciting nature with brass, drums and strings, slowly but surely turning the score towards its much-anticipated heroic phase. Wilkes gains access to the camp and begins to search out where the captives are located, whilst Rhodes and the second squad make a move towards the enemy's helicopter site in the next valley. Listen out for the great peal of chimes that suddenly glimmer across the top of the piece, too, something that Horner would employ brilliantly for Glory. The longest track on the score album, this marks a turning point for the story and the music. From now on, we and Horner are in full action mode.

In Attack Airbase (Track 8), there are little snatches and phrases recognisable from his scores for Wolfen and Star Trek II, little moments of rising brass topped off with sudden tribal-like anvil-crunches that help accelerate the pre-battle tension. Again, the actual skirmish is unscored, but then, as the men steal the NVA's helicopters, Horner piles on the bravado in Escape Airbase (Track 9). Quite why Rhodes and his men don't kill all the soldiers at the airfield – they merely hold them under very dubious and tentative guard whilst fuelling the choppers and taking-out the odd sniper - is beyond me. Don't take chances, fellers, kill 'em all, I say! Charts then has to deal with a tenacious hanger-on as Horner's score lifts off in-tandem with the pilfered choppers. The track commences just like a Bill Conti Rocky theme with a suddenly rousing brass fanfare capped-off with a glistening bell-like chime. We are definitely up and away now, and Horner isn't going to stop to take prisoners. Charts dumps his unwanted cargo into a handy roof, and the three birds form-up and head over the hill. Those drums are galvanising, rattling off a staccato fire of blistering aggression. And yet the track then slides into a final moment of suspense as the main camp still squats unaware of the trouble that is about to crash down upon it.

With the fuelling delay stalling the squad's time schedule, the first team take matters into their own hands, with Blaster sacrificing himself to make sure that the captives and their goons don't get across the bridge back into the main camp before it is too late. The NVA begin to drop like flies, explosions are going off left, right and centre and then, just when the ground-team have given up hope of air-support, they spot Choppers Over Hill (Track 10). Horner heralds this rag-tag Air Cavalry with soaring brass, rumbling drums, keening strings and a furious sense of derring-do. Many of his scores boast awesome martial drum displays, but Uncommon Valor is slightly different in that there is a brazen and almost jovial quality to the fury that goes some way to masking the tragedy as a couple of our newfound comrades give up their lives for the common cause. The sequence now looks quite tame compared to the type of material we have seen since the film was made, even Rambo, only a couple of years later, went stratospheric in terms of its helicopter assault and rescue, but Kotcheff delivers the goods with verve, including an incredible chopper nose-dive into the river after a patrol-boat takes down the irrepressible Charts. Clashing anvil-strikes evoke a primal clarion-call to arms, those drums surge ever-onward into chaos. Deep brass levels the enemy camp like Blaster's carefully laid mines and incendiaries, while the strings and French Horn swell with pride at the notion of righteous payback. Chimes echo in the background. The drums drift further away and then come hurtling back, mimicking the passage overhead of the circling choppers. The track is brief, but the exhilaration is terrific as Horner's music watches the backs of the men on the ground as they ferret-out the prisoners and begin hauling them to safety.

And then comes the Final Escape (Track 11) in which the ultimate revelation is smashed home to us like a thunderclap. The track begins with victorious drums and brass, but then dovetails into the unbearable lament for the fallen as the cost of the mission becomes clear. I can still remember how extremely moved I was when I first saw the film during the scene in the chopper as Rhodes, after searching the camp for Frank under enemy fire and rescuing the last American POW, learns of his son's fate. Hackman's excellent performance coupled with the imploring face and words of Paul MacGregor (Kelly Junkerman), the oil tycoon's son that Rhodes has saved from the Hole, were poignant enough, but it was Horner's music that broke the heart. Frank, it transpires, had gotten sick and had died some time ago. Rhodes clutches MacGregor in his agony, but is still clearly elated that his mission has resulted in the rescue of several MIA's that his country had all but given up on. Horner's emotional motif surges back with even more exquisite pain and splendour than it has been awarded before. Again, he keeps the tragedy brief – something that he would never do again – although this only seems to accentuate our grief all the more. Weirdly enough, when I watched the R2 DVD release of the film just earlier today before writing this review, this sequence seemed altered from the way that I had always remembered it, with the most affecting and emotional moment of the cue, as those strings harmonise so beautifully, dialled down too low. I can't imagine why they did this as it does detract from the scene. But this disc makes full amends, and that key motif hits all the right notes with amazing clarity and power.

Originally, James Horner composed a lengthy End Credits cue that returned to the upbeat, martial cadence fanfare for snare drums, flute and brass in an extended rendition. This wonderful cue can still be heard in its entirety here in Track 12, but the film's producers opted to go for the rock ballad “Brothers In The Night” written by Ray Kennedy, Kevin Dukes and David Ritz and performed by Ray Kennedy, which has been added to this disc presentation as the first of three bonus tracks. This lament for fallen and unforgotten comrades fits the theme of the film very well, and it was, no doubt, born out of Kotcheff's own predilection for such earnestly crooned ballads to sum up the drama and the character of his scenarios. First Blood had the decent “It's A Long Road” wailing over the top of Rambo's final arrest, and Uncommon Valor almost certainly helped cement such an action movie cliché, especially for those action movies that starred Sly Stallone – to wit Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (“Peace In Our Time”), Rambo III (“He Ain't Heavy”), Cobra (“Voice Of America's Sons”) etc. Although not quite “Horner”, this is still a nice addition to the album. In the film it works even better, to be honest, than the composer's track would have done. Playing over a marvellous image of Sailor dancing in silhouette against a majestic sunset, it refuses to be too suddenly and smugly upbeat about the events that the film depicts and the message behind the story. However, thanks to Intrada, we have the best of both worlds with this triumphant release.

Also included are the bonuses of Track 14's Main Title Extension, and Track 15's Parade Ground.

Main Title Extension is an immediate follow-on that Horner composed for the post-titles montage of Rhodes conducting his investigations in Bangkok. It is primarily a looped rhythmic figure of the weird and wonderful Vietnamese motifs for his exotic instrumentation. More of a source cue than anything else, this was dialled-in and out again in the finished film. Parade Ground is an extended military cadence for snares, bass drums, cymbals and bugles that is resolutely awesome. The cue, however, was not actually used in the film and it is difficult to imagine quite where it would have fitted in. But it sounds great here, though.

Intrada's terrific release comes with a great illustrated 12-page booklet with notes by Jeff Bond and Douglass Fake. The presentation was secured from mint condition 1/2" three-track stereo session masters that had been stored in the Paramount vaults. It is limited to 3000 copies worldwide and comes very highly recommended indeed. Fans of James Horner cannot afford to be without this classic early score from the maestro.

Full Track Listing -

1. Vietnamese Solo/Main Title 7.19

2. Airport 2.16

3. Tag 2.44

4. A Lot Of Us Have Been Killed 1.21

5. Steal The Sucker 1.38

6. First Trek/Yellow Rain 2.39

7. Pan Over Hill/Wilkes In Tunnel 7.30

8. Attack Airbase 3.09

9. Escape Airbase 3.16

10. Choppers Over Hill 2.48

11. Final Escape 2.16

12. End Credits (Not Used In Film) 3.38

Total Score Time 41.03

Bonus Tracks

13. Brothers In The Night (performed by Ray Kennedy/written by Ray Kennedy, Kevin Dukes, David Ritz)

14. Main Title Extension 2.25

15. Parade Ground (Not Used In Film) 3.54

Total Bonus Time 11.02

Total CD Time 52.14

There's been a lot of older James Horner material surfacing over the last twelve months or so, and … well, you can never have too much of a good thing, can you? Intrada's excellent score presentation for 1983's often neglected 'Nam actioner, Uncommon Valor, ticks all the right boxes for fans of the prolific composer. You've got incredible ethnic colour and dazzling orchestration. There is an addictive quality to the military posturing and the macho action cues are devoutly heroic and thoroughly rousing. The icing on the cake, however, lies in Horner's unique ability to inject into the mix a bittersweet poignancy and a truly haunting sentiment to go alongside all that exciting bravado. He had already proved this skill most emphatically with Star Trek II, but even this more down-to-earth story gave him the opportunity to have us shed a tear even as we beat our own chests with jingoistic fury.

Intrada have come up trumps again with a superlative release. Excellent cover art, a lavish booklet of informative notes, great bonus tracks and simply amazing audio quality make this limited edition of the complete score for Uncommon Valor an essential addition for any collector.

This is a glorious piece of work that comes very highly recommended indeed.






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