A colossal flop on release that near enough bankrupted its studio Carolco and halted the career of star Geena Davis, Cutthroat Island is nowhere near as bad as its dismal reception made out. Perhaps it was the old-fashioned approach (aside from a distinctly modern Davis in the lead role) to galleons, gold and pirates that didn't sit well with 1995 audiences expecting something more hip from their blockbusters. Truthfully, it's far more entertaining than any of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (not the first, though) and there are some thrillingly staged action sequences along with some enjoyable, lightweight performances (especially the ever terrific Frank Langella as the baddie).
One of the few to emerge unscathed from the flotsam and jetsam was composer John Debney - in fact, the film did more than most in elevating the career of its composer to even greater and more prolific heights. Pirate movies have always been a terrific springboard for composers, and Debney (replacing David Arnold) grabbed the opportunity with open arms, fusing the classic Korngold sound with a resoundingly modern approach. The result was one of the most thrilling scores of the 90s, a landmark action work, and one of Debney's greatest achievements.
Truly, Debney's score is one that isn't afraid to think big. But then the composer (perhaps attempting to boost the mediocre quality of the film) takes our conception of big and amplifies it tenfold, putting the London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices through the wringer. Based around a terrifically rhythmic and energetic central theme, propelled by a vigorous brass section and frequent input from a resonant choir, it's the kind of music for which the word 'swashbuckling' was invented. It's both old-fashioned and uncompromisingly modern at the same time, Debney walking the finest of lines between homage and contemporary action score.
The composer weaves this central theme around a plethora of other ideas, just about preventing the score from becoming too overbearing. The palate is suitably varied with a gentle love theme (The Language of Romance/First Kiss) getting a spine-tingling choral rendition in The Discovery of the Treasure, some unnerving throat singing for Dawg (Morgan Captured/Sword Fight) and appropriately nautical segments (Setting Sail). All of the above is terrific, evoking all the clichés of unfurled sails, Jolly Rogers and the like, but the one element that grabs the most attention is the utterly relentless action music.
Here is where Debney conjures some of the most blistering material of the decade, with Carriage Chase, Escape From Mordechai's, and especially, the enormous finale of The Battle/Dawg's Demise, packed with so much energy and momentum they must surely have given the musicians an aneurysm. Compared to the controversial Remote Control outings of Pirates of the Caribbean, Debney's robust orchestrations are a thrillingly old-fashioned jolt, pitching the listener into battle on the open seas through the powerful combination of orchestra and choir.
It's Only Gold/End Credits which follows is as magnificent a wrap-up as you'd expect, tying all the thematic ends together and moving through various whimsical/romantic material to an astonishing finish with the terrific central theme. Throughout the sense of windswept adventure is intoxicating; and the same could be said of the whole of Debney's score. It's a wonderful achievement, and singlehandedly launched him into a successful career, scoring a double-whammy of Iron Man 2 and Predators just this year. It's in Cutthroat Island though that he really lets rip, crafting a masterpiece for the ages. Buckle that swash, me hearties!
The score has had multiple releases. The original (clocking in at 70s mins), released alternately by Silva and NU Millenia Records at the time of the film's release, has been reviewed here. In 2005, Prometheus released the complete score in a lavish 2 disc set with over two hours of music. While the initial release is easier to come by, the second takes a bit more work to track down and is more expensive: The original release is at www.amazon.com and www.amazon.co.uk, while the extended edition (pictured at the left) is at www.amazon.com and www.amazon.co.uk
Track Listing for Original Release: