Perhaps an immediate sign that Bernard Herrmann was the ideal choice for Ray Harrryhausen’s Mysterious Island (1961) is Herrmann’s eye on gravitas rather than outrageousness, be it a monstrous encounter, or in the film’s opening scenes - a prison breakout and flight to freedom by balloon.
The main title music may herald an adventure filled with unimaginable strangeness and excitement, but Herrmann never lost touch with the characters. It’s also a beautifully constructed theme which Herrmann quotes and reconfigures using amazingly colourful orchestrations, either imparting gentility, or smashing ferocity.
The main theme’s most identifiable aspect is a sense of motion – undulating like wind, water, or primal rage. If the title music is ostensibly a herald for the audience to gather like children for an awesome storytelling experience, then the balloon ride (“Escape to the Clouds”) is the first plunge into adventure. Every instrument seems trapped in a swirling figure, with cymbal clashes and rumbling percussion accentuating every increasing level of danger. A sustained bass clarinet tone may offer a gradual pause, but it’s an unnerving sound that merely tells us to wait for the next onslaught.
When strings present a retarded theme recap, it’s almost elegiac, capturing the wonderment and fear as characters drift through and above a weather maelstrom. The subsequent blend of strings, flutes and harps underscore the men’s slow descent towards the ocean, and warbling woodwinds infer a sense of unknown and instability, foreshadowing the loss of ballast that sends the balloon back to earth at rapid speed, and the men poised to drown in another whirlwind storm.
Mysterious is such a stark example of the remarkable colours Herrmann could create with his crazy choice of instruments, whether its multiples of what’s normally reduced to a few or single instruments, or an emphasis on sounds deliberately close-miked to emphasize performance and orchestral power, of which the best example is the insane growl from vibrating tones inside woodwinds (namely clarinets).
Towards the end of the lengthy cue, Herrmann reassembles his percussion section to emphasize the intense danger as the basket is torn from the balloon, and the separated men hold onto anything before they approach the island’s rocks. Swirling figures undulate around a fixed 8-beat pulse; banks of brass create a momentum that’s part sea storm and animal gallop; and whole tones are held before a quick recap of the main theme’s 3-note core.
The score’s second-best theme is the trumpet fanfare that’s heard whenever the survivors see or suspect something very weird is going on. Cloud Nine actually places it at the head of the CD, but it’s heard again in its full version in “The Cave,” a cue that only appears on a separate Cloud Nine Herrmann compilation, and consists of delicate harp, and Herrmann’s exquisite strings, conveying the haunting beauty of the island and its almost desolate animal life.
A related cue on the Mysterious CD offers the score’s major tonal pause: slowly rendered chords, warm woodwinds, and genteel strings which cover the burgeoning love between the youngest members of the survivors, as well as the camaraderie that’s developed among the stranded men and women.
“The Granite House” features a gentle title theme recap, a quotation of the trumpet fanfare (again functioning as an omen of imminent weirdness), uneasy high register strings, and a gradual slide towards guttural sounds – namely bassoons and bass clarinets virtually grinding away through low tones. Herrmann colours the background with subtle metallic shimmering, and glides the sounds into a greater assembly of brass before a sharp stab, marking the moment a lizard is found under a box, and later the skeletal remains of the cave’s last tenant, hanging from a self-made noose.
Herrmann recaps his balloon escape & title theme in rigorous forms when the pirates materialize, and their ship mysteriously sinks. There’s also a great minimalist version when Nemo makes his first on-camera appearance – arguably his best screen introduction, and one of actor Herbert Lom’s top moments.
A more abstract main theme version occurs in “The Cephalopod” with rising tides of brass, woodwinds, and gnashing metal, but the two prior creature encounters are the real monster music gems.
The group’s first discovery is a giant crab. As the men save a colleague by roping and wrangling the creature, Herrmann goes for a dance of percussion, bawdy brass figures in two and four-note couplets, and rippling sounds that seems to include tympani, gongs, bells, and cymbal crashes.
In “The Phorarhacos,” Herrmann begins his music prior to the onscreen arrival of the giant bird, first inferring massive horror with rumbling percussion, as a shadow chases one of the men. The cue then flips to a dance-like theme for a geeky bird that’s dangerous in size, but also ridiculous, resembling a stunted ostrich. It’s a careful balance Herrmann maintains through slight colorations of mood as he infers menace, absurdness, whimsy, and mortal danger - grounding the fantastical scene, and preventing it from building into something unintentionally comical.
In the CD’s final cue, Herrmann recaps his main thematic material after the group escape to the sea and watch the island be smothered by the fury of the volcano. It’s a rather abrupt end to the score after a series of lengthy, thunderous cues, but it reflects the fast wrap-up of the film, where characters observe the mayhem they escaped, and the end credit that quickly follows, much like Herrmann’s other epic score for Harryhausen, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).
Mysterious Island exists in several versions for Herrmann fans. After releasing a mono LP pressing in 1984 (quite pricey in its day), Cloud Nine issued then newly-discovered stereo tracks made from existing Left-Centre-Right tracks on CD in 1993, and a year later the previously unreleased mono cue, “The Cave,” appeared on the compilation CD Classic Fantasy Film Music, with surviving mono stems from Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Tribute Classics re-recorded the complete score in digital stereo for their 2007 CD, including cues not in the final film mix.
The Cloud Nine CD cues + material from the music & effects mix (which previously appeared on the 1995 laserdisc release from Columbia) were integrated into an isolated music track on Twilight Time’s 2011 Blu-ray, so fans have a choice between the original score in an edited form, complete form, and rerecorded in full digital splendor, or under the baton of Herrmann himself in suite form on the London Phase 4 album Mysterious Film World of Bernard Herrmann from 1976.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan