There have been cinematic shipwrecks since the first films set sail for the commercial waters, but few have run aground as sharply or as deadly as Cutthroat Island. It seemed like a surefire treasure cruise at the time: Renny Harlin, who had helmed the profitable galleons Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger was directing, his then-wife Geena Davis of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own was in the wheelhouse, and they sailed under the banner of Carolco Pictures, a studio that had underwritten such voyages as Rambo and Terminator 2. But an old-fashioned swashbuckling pirate tale was out of fashion in 1995, and the film’s marketing push failed to sell it to audiences. The movie cost up to $150 million doubloons to make but returned less than $20 million pieces of eight worldwide, a flop the likes of which would not be seen again until the wreck of the good ship Pluto Nash in 2002. Among the drowned: director Harlin’s blockbuster career, star Davis’s career as a leading lady, and studio Carolco’s very existence.
Renny Harlin had originally sought to engage rising young British corsair David Arnold to score his pirate extravaganza. Arnold was a sound choice, with his Stargate score from the year before having plenty of buckle and swash. Scheduling conflicts forced Arnold to back out of the voyage, though, and on the strength of a swashbucking synthesizer suite, Harlin brought Cap’n John Debney aboard as scoremaster. Debney’s career was, like Arnold’s, on the upswing in the early 1990s, having done yeoman’s work on modest hits like Hocus Pocus as a late replacement for James Horner. Cap’n Debney threw himself into the score for Cutthroat Island with a singular destination in his spyglass: to make the most of his scurvy crew from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices to craft a modern homage to Admiral Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose scores for classic swashbucklers like The Sea Hwak and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
While Admiral Korngold is the one given a 21-gun salute by Cap’n Debney, he happily plunders the very best of modern orchestral scoring for Cutthroat Island, taking inspiration for some of the orchestrations from the flourishes used by David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd in Stargate, John Williams in Hook, and James Horner in The Rocketeer. That’s not to say that the score is a cut and paste job, but rather that Cap’n Debney is able to load his guns with the best powder that modern film music has to offer, powering up Korngold’s piratey ideas with flourishes both orchestral and choral that the old admiral would never have had the budget or the equipment to match.
The themes and motifs Debney blasts out with a double-powder charge are almost too numerous to name, with a soaring main theme for the piratess heroine (“Morgan’s Ride”), a tender love theme (“Discovery of the Treasure”), and supporting musical ideas for the evil Uncle Dawg and the Morning Star pirate ship. The music is anchored by towering and rambunctious statements of these themes, with the “Carriage Chase” cue being perhaps the finest example of piratey swashbuckling ever recorded, a 7-minute tour-de-force of rollicking, thematic brass and percussion that builds a ferocious head of steam as is progresses. “Setting Sail” is one big rousing love letter to The Sea Hawk, while the massive concluding suite of “Dawg’s Demise” and “It’s Only Gold” is almost breathless in its intensity.
Cap’n Debney brings all of his Golden Age influences squarely into the modern era, with a crisp recording and none of the Hollywood treacle that Korngold was occasionally forced to write in between his magnificent statements of theme. The only real drawback to any listener looking for a piratey good time is the film’s breakneck (or cutthroat) pace: the moments of softer music are few and far between, making the lengthy score at times a bit of an endurance test in its unflaggingly adventurous pace. Pirate scores of the 2000s often suffered from the same problems, but the clarity and sheer overwhelming piratey spirit of Debney’s work makes this more forgivable than in some of his fellow Cap’n Zimmer’s less-inspired voyages.
The foundering of Cutthroat Island put an end to pirate movies, whatever flag they sailed under, for over a decade until the genre was refloated and salvaged by Pirates of the Caribbean. But Cap’n Debney was the last scoremaster to attempt to bring aboard the classic Golden Age Erich Wolfgang Korngold sound in a modern guise; future pirate movies would sail under the flag of Cap’n Zimmer and his Remote Control crew, whose very different ideas of piratey music would come to dominate the genre. Debney, though, was perhaps the only crewmember of the doomed vessel to escape unharmed: his score continued to be respected as a modern swashbuckling classic independent of the disastrous foundering of the film to which it was chained. A very generous album 70-minute album bubbled to the surface from the hold of the wreck in 1995, while the complete 150-minute score was brought into port 10 years later by Prometheus Records. Either release is highly recommended to all scurvy dogs that ply the seven seas; while Cap’n Debney has had many successful voyages since then, many still wait for his opportunity to sail under the Jolly Roger once more.