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The Horsemen / Georges Delerue

Also included: The Cousteau Odyssey (The Nile / Blind Prophets of Easter Island)


Released in December 2008, the sumptuous boxed-set Le Cinéma de Georges Delerue contained two excerpts from a rare score, The Horsemen (Delerue's only collaboration with American filmmaker John Frankenheimer) for a movie based on an adaptation of Joseph Kessel's famous novel. Those excerpts were a foretaste of the present album, which now features the original soundtrack from The Horsemen in its complete version for the first time. For this epic fresco filmed in Afghanistan, a movie-spectacular combined with a psychological drama, Georges Delerue let the cavalry loose inside his imagination and wrote a grandiose score for orchestra and chorus with occasional forays into Afghan folk-music. You can hear the composer's taste for wide-open spaces inside each bar, together with rollicking stagecoach-rides, infinite lyricism... and also his taste for expressing torment, brutality and barbarity. In addition to the soundtrack you can hear two complete scores that have never been released on record before, scores composed by Delerue for Jacques-Yves Cousteau's documentaries The Nile and Blind Prophets of Easter Island. Here again, these works evoke distant lands, primitive civilizations and the notion of escape. Another cornerstone in the Georges Delerue edifice inside the Universal’s Ecoutez le cinéma!

series, with a new album that sounds like a call to adventure.


«I believe in the necessity of finding yourself. That's the real subject of Horsemen, a deeply serious one.»

John Frankenheimer


«I spent several months in Afghanistan with my crew. The closer you come to the heart of the country, you move into another dimension. It's still an archaic world under a feudal reign. Horsemen rule; they respect traditions a thousand years old, and they take part in these buzkachis, medieval tournaments, rodeos and polo-games all rolled into one. But it's a relentless game of polo, fierce and sometimes bloody. Fifty horsemen face each other in an arena: they're the chapandaz or war-lords, Samurai on horseback.


The prize is a freshly-killed calf, and they fight over it in a violent fury, ruthlessly wielding their crops. The winner has to bring the dead calf into a circle at the feet of the man presiding over the game. In Kabul the King himself is present at the supreme buzkachi, but in the provinces a buzkachi between friends can last half the night, if not a whole day.» American filmmaker John Frankenheimer was referring to the famous jousts which were given such a lyrical description by the famous adventurer and special correspondent Joseph Kessel in his novel The Horsemen, published in 1967.

This international best-seller drew interest from studios in California, where producers were seduced by the spectacular, human dimension of this vast epic set in the land of the Afghans. Columbia finally acquired the rights, and entrusted its screen-adaptation to John Frankenheimer and Dalton Trumbo, the tandem already responsible for the beautiful, humanistic fable entitled The Fixer. While the filmmaker's profile doesn't lack ambiguity -oscillating between more personal works and films that were nothing more than contracts Trumbo, on the other hand, was most unusual, one of the most corrosive scriptwriters in Hollywood, and his reputation increased when he made his only film as a director, the sensational Johnny Got His Gun.

Frankenheimer isolated the centre of gravity in Kessel's six-hundred page novel: it was a timeless theme – conflict with the father-figure – that he'd tackled as early as 1957 when directing his very first full-length feature, The Young Stranger. According to Frankenheimer : «I believe in the necessity of finding yourself. You have to learn how to break your ties with your family in order to build your own identity. That's the real subject of Horsemen, a deeply serious one.»


Toursen, the father-figure, is a wily, old, authoritarian chapandaz (Jack Palance, made to look twenty years older for his role), and his defiant son is Uraz (Omar Sharif, the Egyptian bridge champion, now in the role of an Afghan after being cast as a famous Russian doctor...) Handicapped by a broken leg, Uraz doesn't carry off the spoils at the buzkachi; he escapes from hospital to return home across the mountains in a long, initiatory journey. Looking for realism, Frankenheimer took his cameras out to shoot the film on location in the summer of 1969. He was aware of the risk: he had to avoid the pitfalls of filming an Afghan-flavoured western: «Despite the title, I did everything I could to avoid that trap. It determined the casting, for example: I couldn't use actors who were too American, which ruled out a Burt Lancaster figure to play the father. The same went for the rhythm, the music and the lighting.


To get people to understand the psychological conflict, it was necessary to capture the reality of a country quite foreign to us, a country whose main characteristic leaps out at you: it hasn't budged for centuries. Time has stood still.» With his film finished, Frankenheimer had somehow achieved an enormously difficult balancing-act: he'd secured Hollywood's financing for a film that escaped Hollywood's standards. That criterion also determined his choice of creative partners: the veteran Claude Renoir was chosen for the photography... and Georges Delerue came in to write the music.

The director had the opportunity to continue working with composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein or Maurice Jarre, but, no: Bernstein, famous for his western scores, would have gone quite against the grain; Jarre was an idée fixe among some tycoons who thought he was «a desert specialist», and the choice would have been too obvious. So the composer was Georges Delerue, the great ambassador of a certain idea of «French music», and his association with the project was an additional manner of relating The Horsemen, the film, to the language of Joseph Kessel and his novel. Frankenheimer offered the task to Delerue at a time when the composer's career was at a watershed: he was forty-six and, over the previous decade, his reputation had been considerably comforted by the international success of some Nouvelle Vague films that would become classics (Contempt, Jules and Jim), not to mention several Anglo-Saxon productions: A Man For All Seasons, Our Mother's House, Anne of the Thousand Days and especially A Walk with Love and Death, whose sumptuous, trompe l'œil, medieval score earned Delerue his first Oscar nomination.


The composer's prolific output and bulimic, demisemiquaver-side had given him a jack-of-all-trades business-card, unlike some of his contemporaries, Pierre Jansen or Antoine Duhamel for example, who were seen as more confined to cinema d’auteur or experimental films. Delerue, on the other hand, corresponded to all kinds of aesthetic, from Maurice Pialat or Gérard Oury to Alain Cavalier and Oliver Stone. When Columbia contacted him to do The Horsemen, he'd just finished Ken Russell's adventurous Women in Love, a radical experience involving a score written in a very cheeky musical language. Moving from Ken Russell to John Frankenheimer with no transition was precisely what motivated Delerue; it allowed him almost to apprehend each new project as a negation of its predecessor.


         In writing The Horsemen, Georges Delerue let the cavalry loose inside his imagination, tuned to the varying levels of the subject-matter: the epic and the intimate; the violence of the buzkachis and the complexity of the oedipal confrontation; the film's spectacular and human dimensions. The Horsemen opens with a grandiose main-title theme over vast desert landscapes filmed from a helicopter, with rivers and mountains whose summits ring to the echoes of traditional horns, transposed by the brass in Delerue's score. Once the majestic introduction is over, what strikes the listener most is the economy shown by the composer in the narrative, where he measures and reasons each musical contribution. Far from the canons of Hollywood, for example, Delerue refuses to accompany two bravura scenes : the final confrontation between father and son and, especially, the royal buzkachi, in keeping with the documentary aspect of the film that was desired (and proclaimed) by Frankenheimer.


On the other hand, he wrote an immense piece of uncontained savagery for the orchestra to evoke, in flash-back, the historic buzkachi that seals the end of Toursen's career as a horseman (Savage game for a king). When the Toursen character, now an old man, returns to the scene of his downfall, Delerue creates a bridge between past and present by declining the same theme in a brilliant variation (An old man rides). Several fair- and market-scenes, too, imposed apocryphal ethnic compositions invented by a Delerue who was only too delighted to immerse himself in the folk-music that comes from somewhere between Persia, India and Middle Asia. But he quickly escapes from this, notably in his theme for the journey through the mountains (Hills of Afghanistan), a long and heady lament for a male choir with strings in the upper register, in the image of an endless trail filled with incident.

That theme, in both its intention and its treatment, is a distant relative of his Marche dans la montagne in the film Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine (Up to His Ears), which also evoked an expedition to snow-covered mountains whose crests ring to the sounds of those same men's voices and their deep, ancestral timbres.

And, finally, the score written for The Horsemen where Delerue accompanies the voyage reveals one of the most beautiful love-themes he ever composed, Just as you are, I love you, the theme for the prostitute named Zereh, a disquieting, ambivalent character.

The melody is sensitive and gracious, a piece in three written by Delerue to clothe one of those lucky-mascot formulas of his that he'd outlined in Henri Colpi's film Mona, l’étoile sans nom (Nameless Star): a solo piece for a zither hovering over layers of translucent strings. In the space of just a few weeks, the Petite île theme from Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, and his piece Just as you are for The Horsemen, brought this magical combination to its zenith, a pure invention from Delerue the magician... assisted by the delicate phrasing of his favourite zither-player Monique Rollin.

The poetic fragility of this theme (turning to the sublime when Uraz and Zereh separate) contrasts with the savage fury of the wild cavalcades in the dust and sun; Delerue's sparklingly out-of-the-ordinary soundtrack feeds precisely on this type of vis-à-vis, taking Frankenheimer's Afghan scenes into even vaster territory: the realms of the imagination.


Released both in America and in Europe in the summer of 1971 almost two years after shooting began, The Horsemen met with a lukewarm box-office welcome. Paradoxically, despite the objective splendour of the score written by Georges Delerue, it was the last time the filmmaker and the musician crossed paths. Thereafter, Frankenheimer would choose his composers on a film-by-film basis, working intensely -although fleetingly- with the likes of Michel Legrand, Henry Mancini or John Williams. As for Delerue, he did return to The Horsemen indirectly in 1983, when he worked on The Black Stallion Returns, a film that allowed him to once more give vent to his taste for wide, open spaces and rollicking horseback-rides, writing with a lyricism that stretched to the horizon...


This first, complete edition of the music from The Horsemen needed a supplement to the programme that would be in keeping with its aesthetics. Together with Colette Delerue, we chose the original tapes (previously unissued on record) which had been composed by Georges in 1978-79 for two television-documentaries made for The Undersea World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau: The Nile and Blind Prophets of Easter Island. Captain Cousteau, after getting his fingers burned in a previous, doomed rendezvous with François de Roubaix (he didn't care much for the latter's flights of electronic fancy) confessed he liked broad, orchestral scores in Cinemascope, preferably in a prudent, neo-classical vein. You might say it was one way of stretching a television-screen...


Delerue duly complied with his wishes, and returned to his inspired musical accompaniments of the sound and light to be found at a Karnak or Monastir. Enjoying similar comforts to those normally reserved for feature-films, Delerue went into the Abbey Road studios and recorded two scores that recall distant lands, primitive civilizations and the notion of escape.


Even if he'd been a child of de Roubaix, Georges Delerue couldn't have imagined how far the cinema would have enabled him to travel, both through time and around the globe: from Kabul to Aswan, here are three sumptuous original soundtracks which, in their own way, sound like a call to adventure. Listen to them with your eyes closed, and they'll take you a long, long way and confirm the pithy remark that concludes Philippe de Broca's film King of Hearts: «The most beautiful journeys are made through the window.»


Stéphane Lerouge



about french composer

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Georges Delerue - Official Website

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