By Charlie Brigden
The basic premise of Michael Anderson’s Orca can easily be derived from the narration contained in the film’s trailer. ‘The ancient Romans called him Orca Orcinus – Latin for Bringer of Death – and like human beings, they have a profound instinct for vengeance!’ Pretty heady stuff, really.
Orca is generally regarded as a terrible film. I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m a pretty big fan and I don’t share a lot of the criticism you’ll find out there, but however you view it, it’s absolutely mental and has a great cast. A ship captained by Richard Harris tries to catch a killer whale for an aquarium and ends up not only fatally injuring a female but also killing its baby – the scene with the baby is pretty nasty and has been etched into my memory since I was little – so the mate of the whale goes after Harris and the crew of the ship, chomping on each of them – and biting Bo Derek’s leg off – until Harris agrees to a showdown in the icier bits of Canada. Man vs whale.
While the movie has a terrible reputation as one of the many Jaws ripoffs, the score really sets it apart. Dino De Laurentiis had a number of talents in his prime, one of which was convincing some grade-A composers to write music for some grade-D films, and John Barry was one of them, scoring Di Laurentiis’ remake of King Kong and the crazy Charles Bronson psychedelic western/horror The White Buffalo, as was Maurice Jarre who scored 1975 big-budget exploitation flick Mandingo. Coming aboard the Bumpo (the name of the ship in Orca – no really) was the incomparable Ennio Morricone. I have no idea if Morricone saw something in Orca or whether Di Laurentiis – whose film had backing from Paramount – just got him a giant paycheck, but either way it was a decision that certainly benefitted the picture.
Morricone’s music adds a lyrical dimension to the film and firmly embeds the whale as the protagonist, with the main theme dominating the score, and rightly so. It’s simply a gorgeous composition, full of beauty and so evocative, with Edda Dell’Orso’s soaring vocals a perfect match for the purity and majesty of the animals. Morricone also uses a secondary theme that acts as the bridge between refrains of the main theme, and instead of reverence it goes for the emotional hook, leaving the vocals and letting the orchestra do their thing to the best effect. The first appearance of the main theme is actually a lot subtler than most of its other uses, where it’s hinted at over the somber opening titles, which creatively are superimposed over a sonar screen, with a lonely woodwind playing a haunting version of the theme over tense strings, ticking sound effects, and actual whalesong. This actually acts as a great opening, as the credits end the screen opens up from black to the ocean and breaching wales, with the theme suddenly swelling in full. The full opening sequence is a bit like a Discovery special with better music, and you can really just kick back and enjoy the sights and sounds. And then you get to see Orca take out Jaws, or at least stock footage of a great white.
Moving away from the melody of the main theme, much of the score itself is tense and quite atonal in places. Morricone uses a lot of piercing strings and piano for the death of the mate and the vengeful Orca, as well as frantic metallic sound effects that emphasise the whale’s rage. It actually works surprisingly well, although it’s dialed down in a lot of places, usually when it’s fighting against whale vocalisation and the engine of the Bumpo. The strings are almost psychological warfare and some of it makes for an uncomfortable listen, but one that puts you in the mindset of this crazed whale out for revenge, like daggers in the mind that will not relent until the task is completed. And it’s really all that this is leading up to, a final confrontation, which happens when the whale bites off Bo Derek’s leg (after she dances to some pretty smooth euro-jazz courtesy of Morricone).
So when Nolan eventually follows the whale out to sea for the climactic battle. The departure from the harbour is a rare moment where the whale’s music – here the secondary theme – is used to give a moment of reflection, although much of it is obscured by Charlotte Rampling’s voiceover. The trip itself mainly returns to the harsh strings, punctuating with low brass, with the odd solo rendition of the main theme. Morrricone’s suspense writing works really well and creates a lot of tension, especially in contrast with the melody of the whale’s music, so the use of the theme allows for a surprising amount of thought, of retrospection, and those little moments also allow the score to breathe a bit away from the less pleasurable tones. The final battle cue is amazing, full of swirling brass and sawing cello as Nolan is surrounded by the whale on an iceberg, taunting him. As he’s killed by the whale, the main theme returns to follow Orca away, its quest over. The way Morricone uses the theme to bookend the film – and as a result, the whale’s narrative – is incredibly effective, and it’s interesting to note the use of vocals.
In the opening, Orca plays around in the sea with his mate and dell’Orso’s beautiful vocals soar. This is a theory only, but the female vocals seem to represent the mate, with credence given to this by the other scenes that feature voices – namely a scene of the whale pod frolicking, with Orca and his mate, and the end titles. The pod scene features a reprise of Dell’Orso’s vocals, but the end credits actually present lyrics to the main theme with the song ‘We Are One’, as warbled by Carol Connors. The lyrics are quite mental really (‘rainbows in her eyes’ – really?) but it’s the best killer whales in love song you’ll ever hear. But more than what it is, what it seems to represent is the resolution of the whale’s vengeance and its exorcism of the tragedy he suffered, which in this case spiritually reconnects the pair – thus “we are one”. Some believe Orca actually dies at the end of the film as well, stuck under ice without air, so that would also add to the thematic connection.
Orca got a bit shafted in the soundtrack department when the film came out in 1977, with its only commercial releases coming in Japan, where the TAM (Toho) label issued a twelve-track LP as well as a 7″ single containing two score tracks (the latter was also issued in France via the Philips label). A CD of the LP program (minus the final track) was released by italian label Legend in 1993, and this is all of the score that has made it out, so it’s crying for a proper treatment from a soundtrack label.
So Orca – its reputation as a bad movie lives on to this day, but it’s one of the greatest examples of how a bad picture can still generate some brilliant music, and especially how music is able to enhance a film. After all, it’s doubtful that if Ennio Morricone didn’t compose such a stunning score for Orca, we probably wouldn’t remember the film at all. Be thankful he did.