Hardly for the first time in a career comprised of more than 130 film scores did James Horner cross paths with the wolf, a fascinating mammal and a source of countless stories, rumors and legends.

Their first meeting dates back to 1981, when Wolfen, a horror thriller by Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) saw Indians-turned-wolves create havoc in the streets of New York. Distressing brass embodied the wolf’s dark side and its sharp fangs, continually threatening tender and innocent flesh.
This musical darkness was reprised a few years later with Aliens (1986), where it evoked the stifling atmosphere created by James Cameron, illustrating the tension created by a profound and persistent fear of the xenomorphs lurking behind every corner. Very early on, the composer incorporated into his discourse the cacophonic experiments of Krzystof Penderecki, most notably the sound of humming and blasting trombones, spelling nightmare like no other music can. Horner logically returns to the idea for Wolf Totem (2015), especially in the opening of Scaling The Wall, when a pack of wolves is about to attack a flock of sheep.
Following the same expressive pattern, the snowstorm, split into two pieces on the album (Wolves Attack The Horses / The Frozen Lake) is a new opportunity for the composer to render palbable, through jolts of cymbals, trumpets, trombones, the fear inspired by the ferocious appearance of hungry creatures emerging from the darkness. On screen, the music is a perfect fit for the representations of animal savagery intended by Jean-Jacques Annaud, who in this case reveals the most terrifying aspect of the wolf.
Unlike the creatures in Wolfen, the wolf in The Journey Of Natty Gann (1985), which accompanies the film’s heroine (played by the wolfhound, Jed, who a few years later would go on to star as White Fang), portrays a different picture of the animal, better alligned with the wolf myth as put forward by James Oliver Curwood or Jack London. In this Walt Disney production, adventures lived and miles traveled together yield a genuine, mutual bond that develops between the girl and the carnivorous mammal. This idyllic vision is nearly absent from Wolf Totem, where the friendship between Chen Zhen and "Little Wolf" seems to be almost exclusively one-sided, since the young Chinese man’s commitment to the animal is the one element that binds both.

Indeed, the only moments of closeness and tenderness occur during the first scenes with the cub, which has yet to find its place in this world. Growing up, "Little Wolf" is constantly chained to a leash or locked up in a cage, placing it in a very different world than Jeremy Kagan’s film. This does not prevent James Horner, painter of emotions, from conjuring up colors brimming with sweetness (Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup / Little Wolf) to express the compassion Chen Zhen feels for his protégé. As in the Farewell cue from Journey Of Natty Gann, the warm colors of the French horn announce the orchestral swell accenting the final goodbye (Return to the Wild).
Finally, the extermination of the wolf pack, which is the climax of Wolf Totem’s dramatic arc, is an opportunity for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s camera and James Horner’s music to take the wolves’ point of view. Now man is seen as a terrifying and insensitive predator, whose hunger for power inspires absurd and senseless acts. The composer hints at this in the second parts of Little Wolf and Scaling the Walls, where he opts for a light and playful melody to show us the futility and silliness of attempts made both by children and especially by adults to bring "Little wolf" into their own circle.
The human aspect of the story thus takes a backseat, somewhat like the animated film Balto (1995), whose heroes were sled dogs whose wolf-dog protagonist (in reality a pure Siberian Husky breed) dug deep to find the courage to save lives. Likewise, the brave characters in Wolf Totem are the wolves, who choose their own death rather than suffer human bullets (Suicide Pact). The hero of Wolf Totem is the pack leader, on a desperate and exhausting forty-kilometer run from the motorized hunting party (Hunting the Wolves). The composer’s adagios work to magnify the animals’ drama and pay tribute to the victims of the destructive folly of man.
Wolf Totem serves as a summation of the wolf’s many aspects that James Horner has set to music over the course of his long and distinguished career. Man and wolf, presented visually and musically alternately as the hunter and as the hunted, seem to belong to a single species: inhabitants of planet Earth. Their mutual existence depends on a balance that begs to be preserved and a fragile ecosystem that begs to be respected. Humans and animals are on equal footing. This much could also be gleaned from the first notes of James Horner’s Enemy At The Gates (2001), evoking through montage a subtle parallel of wolf and sniper showcasing their common mastery of the art of patience and stillness.
Photo credits:
Wolf Totem: © China Film Group Corporation – Edko Films – Reperage
Wolfen: © Warner Bros
Journey Of Natty Gann: © Walt Disney Pictures
Balto: © Amblin Entertainment – Amblimation – Universal Pictures

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