The novel that catapulted the late Tom Clancy into the international spotlight, The Hunt for Red October was a shoo-in for a major motion picture adaptation, attracting such A-list talent as director John McTiernan of Die Hard fame and actor Sean Connery. The film became one of the first action blockbusters of the 1990’s, and went on to become a staple on TV, while spawning a loose series of Jack Ryanverse sequels that continued with multiple reboots into the 2010s The film saw the only collaboration between McTiernan and the late Basil Poledouris, the production of one of Poledouris’ signature scores, and the composer’s most financially successful project.
The album opens with a Russian-language hymn, written by Poledouris, that immediately establishes a Slavic soundscape with its energetic performance. The hymn is reprised in “Nuclear Scam,” and a similar Russian-language choral vocal appears in “Ancestral Aid.” Wordless vocals are also an important part of several other cues, notably “Red Route I,” where they lend a sense of power and majesty to the music. There are slower cues as well; some, like “Red Route I,” use the chorus to build up a sense of majesty and wonder, giving effects shots the titular sub dramatic heft. “Two Wives,” which was sadly omitted from the finished picture in favor of tracked-in music from an earlier Poledouris score, is more traditionally orchestral, with a warm, melancholy woodwind melody reminiscent of some Golden Age scores.
Aside from the choral aspect of the album, Poledouris employs a combination of electronics (mostly in the form of “pulses” or “clangs”) and orchestra that builds on his earlier experimentation on projects like Cherry 2000. The electronic accoutrements give the orchestra a hard, hi-tech edge perfect for Clancy’s techno-thriller world, and help create a sense of drive and urgency in the action set pieces. The aforementioned “Nuclear Scam” is an excellent example of this, a powerhouse action cue that combines a full orchestra and choir with synthesized pulses, and the climactic “Kaboom!” ratchets up the electronics still further, producing a pulse-pounding musical cocktail for the climactic sub fight.
These “pulse” and “clang” effects help to unify the two halves of the score as well; after Poledouris had recorded the most important cues with a full orchestra and choir, the music budget was slashed to help make late reshooting possible. This left the composer and his team with only enough funds to complete the score electronically, and forcing them to be creative with previously recorded material where that could not be done. By cannily mixing together three cues and fading the choir in and out of the mix, for instance, Poledouris was able to craft an end credit cue so convincingly that many people thought it had been newly recorded. It’s to his credit, and his team’s, that the score hangs together as well as it does.
As with Poledouris’ later Starship Troopers, for many years the biggest drawback to The Hunt for Red October score on album was its brief running time, just a hair over thirty minutes on the original MCA release. This omitted fan-favorite material like the end credits suite and the first half of “Kaboom!” as well as many shorter cues, some from the orchestral recording sessions and others from the later synthesizer-only work. Bootlegs with atrocious sound proliferated until 2013, when Intrada released a limited edition with the complete score in film order. The longer work is mostly superior, though in a few places (“Red Route I” being the most obvious) synth clangs from the film mix are included that were absent on the original disc. Luckily, the album mixes are also presented as bonus tracks.
Amazingly, considering its sometimes rushed and chaotic composition process, Red October remains the finest Ryanverse score so far, easily topping later efforts by James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, and Patrick Doyle. It’s a tribute to the heart that the late Poledouris, an active sportsman and sailer, put into his nautical scores, though it is a little depressing to think that he would never score another film as critically or commercially successful before his death from cancer in 2006. If Basil Poledouris’ experiments in combining electronics and orchestra in projects like Robocop or Cherry 2000 have ever intrigued you, seek out Red October on either the Intrada or MCA disc to experience his most impressive and action-packed development of those ideas.