The Music for Orca: Tragedy of a Whale

By Randall D. Larson
Expanded from an article originally published in CinemaScore #1, 1979

orca

ORCA is a 1977 film that came and went without much ado and is not particularly remembered with any great fondness, yet its style and grace has the ability to overpower its obvious JAWS-influenced storyline. On the surface level, ORCA is extremely silly and quite a bit contrived. The plot concerns a fisherman who harpoons a female killer whale, killing it and its unborn pup. The whale’s surviving mate becomes understandably upset, and throughout the rest of the film pursues the fisherman with vengeance in mind, doing a number of things which stretch plausibility further than the film’s context justifies. In the end, the orca has lured the fisherman to the North Pole, where it finally kills him. The film closes as the victorious whale swims deeper beneath the polar ice to its own inevitable end.

Rather pretentious in concept, the film rises above the monster-versusmankind image it is built around. Putting aside the film’s lapses in logic and the cramped overacting of Richard Harris and Charlotte (not to mention the true debut of Bo Derek as the bimbo who loses a leg to the whale) and immersing oneself in the poetry of the visuals and the music, ORCA becomes the sadly beautiful story of a whale. The music endows the whale with human emotions (which they may or may not actually possess to an extent) and portrays its story from that aspect. In the early portion, we are shown beautifully photographed sequences of the whale and its mate playing  nuzzling and dancing in the sea and quite wrapped up in love for each other. Then the orca watches as its mate is brutally slaughtered and its unborn pup spilled out of her carcass in a gross miscarriage. After a night of mourning, the whale becomes obsessed with vengeance, and finally achieves that goal by luring the fisherman back into the sea and destroying him. The whale’s rage then sated, but still mourning for the loss of its mate, it swims to its own doom beneath the polar ice cap.

The film is benefited by two main elements – the directorial style of Michael Anderson (THE DAM BUSTERS, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM), and the music of Ennio Morricone, who composed for this film one of his finest and most beautiful themes. Morricone brings the emotions of the whale to life through two major themes: a soaring lyrical motif for violins and voice that emphasizes the romantic and sorrowful emotions of, first, the whale, and, later, the human protagonist, and a harsh, malevolent violin theme used in the sequences of the whale’s rampage and attack upon the small Newfoundland fishing village.

The main theme is first heard very subtly under the main titles, played by a solo woodwind with, in the film, sounds of a whale’s voice (a humpback whale, incidentally, not an orca) added. It then grows into a full orchestra for the first scenes of the two whales swimming playfully together. Strings dominate the music, flowing in a beautiful melody that at this time in the film is very inspiring, adding life and love to the whales as they swim about on the screen. The orchestra is joined by the voice of the unequaled Edda Dell’Orso, singing wordlessly the main theme in the style that has become Morricone’s forte. The theme is used again in an equally inspiring way as we see an entire pod of orcas swimming in a cold, churning sea; their heavy, spouting breathing the only other sound over the music  which, ironically, adds to the musical effect instead of detracting from it. The remarkable photography of the whale pod and their graceful movements as they cruise through the swelling waves, coupled with the sound of their breathing and the stronglymoving music, draws the viewer into the scene, joining the free spirits of the whales.

The same theme is then heard as the mourning orca pushes the body of its dying mate towards a lonely beach, initially accompanied by the rest of the pod but eventually left alone as the other whales  almost in a form of salute and expression of their individual concern  first overtake him and then turn around to file past him in two straddling rows as he pushes his mate towards shore. His fellows gone back to the open sea, he is alone with his fatally wounded companion. The music here is arranged the same as before, though its use is in complete reversal of what it had achieved earlier. The lyrical music lowers the spirits with the sadness of the whale, becoming, with the aesthetically beautiful procession of the whales, a lyrical dirge echoing the sorrow of the cetacean.

orcaAs the whale in pursuing its vengeance begins to rampage the Newfoundland town’s boatyards, and the film spends more time on its human protagonists – Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling – the sympathy begins to shift. The whale is no longer shown as a bereaved lover but a raging demon, possessed of implausible intelligence as it causes untold destruction to gain its end. The fisherman is no longer portrayed as a greedy killer but as a frightened and sad man who regrets what he has done and wishes the whale was able to accept a sincere and profound apology. In the end, the fisherman realizes he must return to sea and face the whale or else it will wreak more havoc upon the townspeople. As Harris and his small crew ride their boat out of the harbor, we hear the main theme again – this time both lifting our spirits in hope and also tugging at that hope with a despair as we realize the impending conflict that is to follow. The fisherman is killed, and as the whale – not happily victorious nor the enraged avenger, but again the sadly bereaved animal it was earlier – swims to its doom beneath the ice in a final resignation to the circumstances that caused the tragic turn of events, the main theme is again heard, emphasizing the loneliness and sadness of the creature. The music is finally intruded upon by an annoying vocal version as the end titles roll by, singing a short romantic stanza ending with “We are one.”

The main theme is intrinsic to the emotional level of the film, and works with the visuals to bring life to the events. In the same way, the visuals work with the music to achieve different emotional responses to similar arrangements of the theme in different places.

The secondary theme in the film – which really isn’t theme but a musical ambience for jagged, percussive strings and cymbals. This is vengeful suspense and attack music, predominantly slow, deep strings coupled with weird percussive effects. At one occasion the main theme is used briefly over the percussion, softly and slowly performed by flute. But most of this music is comprised of droning organ and low, somber violin under higher strings which weave a slow melody over the deep underscoring. This particular version is utilized in the polar sequences. Another variety, heard when the whale is attacking the fishing village and the fisherman’s shack, uses the same low droning strings and adds quick, sputtering, growling brass chords underneath chilling, highpitched strings which spiral higher and higher to a crescendo. This piece also, upon occasion, utilizes a number of bizarre percussion effects, as well as rapidly plucked strings.

There is also a short bit of incidental “source” music, heard from a radio in the fisherman’s cabin which two of his crew members (including Derek) dance to just prior to the whale’s attack upon the pierside cabin.

ORCA is, essentially, a tragedy that – for me, back in 1977 anyway – transcended the level of pretentious monster movie and moved me as the story of two creatures caught up in the sad whims of circumstance. The beautiful music drew me into the film and allowed me to share the feelings of its characters – both human and cetacean, despite the pretension of the storyline. As film music, Morricone’s score for ORCA is one of the most effective I’ve heard in achieving its purpose (making the film live despite its inherent flaws); and as music his main theme is among his most beautiful.

Initially, there was no soundtrack album issued at the film’s release (oddly enough for the film’s promotionconscious producer, Dino de Iaurentiis). Months after the film came and went in America, Toho Records of Japan released an original soundtrack recording on the TAM label. It was reissued on CD by Italy’s Legend label in 1993. There are five various arrangements of the theme on the album. The first (“L’Orca”) is played by strings; the second (“Dialogo Dei Ricordi”) is the wordless female vocal, underscored by wandering, highpitched strings; thirdly (“Notturno Per Un Rimorso”) is a plaintive rendition from solo oboe; fourth (“L’Arrivo Al Polo”) is a suspensetheme in which the main theme appears slow and somberly from a flute; and the fifth (“Finale”) is a full recapitulation of the main theme in a vivid and glorious fashion. The CD dispenses with the vocal version that was included on the LP (it is available as the first track on Bear’s Canto Morricone, Vol. 3 if you want to hear it); and I distinctly recall the presence of an annoying drum beat underneath “Finale” on the TAM LP which is, thankfully, not present on the CD. The recording also contains five selections of suspensetype music which is dramatic but not much to listen to, and a couple incidental pieces including the poprhythm danced to in the fisherman’s cabin.

Additional resources

For a lengthy and very entertaining examination of just how bad ORCA, the movie, itself is, see www.jabootu.com

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