Music in the movies: Basil Poledouris

Our latest Music in the Movies column celebrates the work of composer Basil Poledouris, whose themes have graced such movies as Conan The Barbarian and Starship Troopers...

Basil Poledouris is among my favourite composers with him having provided scores for many great films throughout his career, including one of my favourite all time iconic theme tunes for Robocop, as featured in the Iconic Themes article (linked below).

Here are some of my favourite Poledouris compositions:

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

It’s hard to imagine that the original plan for the soundtrack for Conan was for it to be comprised of sourced pop songs. I’m not sure it would have fit with the mood of the film.

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When the pop song idea was scrapped, a number of composers were considered, including Ennio Morricone, but director John Milius handed the job to a former classmate of his, Basil Poledouris.

Poledouris’ score is packed full of leitmotifs for various characters portrayed within the film, and fills almost every second of the feature. The score is epic in scale, with a mixture of incredibly dramatic orchestral and choral compositions.

Riders Of Doom, for me, is the standout piece, but a curiosity is the track entitled Orgy, whichis rumoured to have been co-written by his daughter, who was nine at the time.

Conan The Destroyer (1984)

Whilst Milius didn’t return to direct the sequel, Poledouris was called upon again to provide the score. Although the quality of the film doesn’t match that of its predecessor, the soundtrack is a highlight and is an equal to what came before.

Themes from the first film are carried over, but given a new twist to give the piece its own identity. There’s an almost western style to much of Poledouris’ work here, which is appropriate given who was originally considered as composer first time around.

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Again, the score is integral to the narrative of the film and drives much of what’s seen on screen, which is why it’s such a successful piece of work.

Red Dawn (1984)

Red Dawn saw Poledouris and Milius re-unite for this 80s classic that’s very much of its era. It’s a slightly more mature and confident piece than the scores that preceded it. Much of the pieces that make up the score don’t dominate the film and, as such, much of it is quite subtle.

Not all of the score is understated, though, with the main theme reaching the dramatic heights required to convey the element of heroism and is a match for the main themes heard in either of his Conan soundtracks.

Lonesome Dove (1989)

Granted, Lonesome Dove isn’t a movie, but is one of the finest TV series of all time and Poledouris’ work here, in my opinion, is the finest of his career. His work is of such quality that I can’t think of a TV score that has surpassed it.

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The score brings out the best in the show by perfectly encapsulating the feeling of imminent change and enhancing the emotions of the characters portrayed.

I would highly recommend both the series and the score if you have no prior experience of either. The score that’s available only offers some of the music that accompanies the show, but even with this being the case, it stands up favourably against some of Morricone’s best. Poledouris was rewarded with an Emmy for his work here, and it was very much deserved.

The Hunt For Red October (1990)

Poledouris returned to another cold war action film following his score for Red Dawn five years earlier. Composer and the events that inspired them aside, there’s little comparison between the two films.

This is a huge leap forward from his score for Red Dawn, seeing Poledouris go all out and create a rousing and action packed soundtrack that creates a great deal of tension. Poledouris utilises talents of a Russian choir to brilliant effect and, as is often the case with his soundtracks, there’s a killer title song here in the form of Hymn For Red October, which is one of the finest pieces of his career.

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Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)

Not one normally associated with comedy movies, the choice to have Poledouris, who composed many an action score, compose the score for the sequel to the hit comedy Hot Shots may, on the surface, seem an odd choice, but in many ways heightens the comedy in the film.

What better way to send up films of a certain genre than having one of its finest composers provide your score?

Many of Poledouris hallmarks are present here, with his use of huge orchestrations, heavy brass and military percussion. One of the reasons that I enjoy this so much is that it’s clear that Poledouris is having a lot of fun here, clearly operating uninhibited, and producing really quite brilliant work that you wouldn’t necessarily expect of the material it accompanies.

In many ways this could be seen as a kind of thematic greatest hits of the great man’s back catalogue, as there are hints of many of his greatest compositions such as Robocop, Starship Troopers and Lonesome Dove present.

On Deadly Ground (1994)

The score for this Steven Seagal vehicle marks something of a departure for Poledouris, as it doesn’t rely on heavy orchestrations like much of his previous works.

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Without the benefit of a full orchestra, Poledouris instead utilises the talents of Inuit throat singers, Qaunaq Mikkigak and Timangiak Petaulassie, to drive the majority of the score and the film’s themes. It’s not one of his finest pieces, but an interesting oddity in his back catalogue that provides an interesting contrast to much of his work.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Paul Verhoeven’s ace sci-fi action epic and politic satire, Starship Troopers boasts an impressive Poledouris-composed score to accompany it. Rhythmic, chest beating, militaristic numbers dominate this soundtrack.

This is, in many ways, one of the most dramatic pieces Poledouris composed in his career. Full of dramatic brass and intense percussion, he must have given the orchestra one hell of a workout in coming up with this.

Sadly, the soundtrack released to accompany it misses off much of the material heard in the film, as it clocks in at around 30 minutes in length. This is disappointing, as some great material is absent. Still, as a score to accompany a film, this is a highly effective piece of work and proved that Poledouris was one of the go-to guys for heroic themes in genre films.