Basil Poledouris

Film composer who scored 'Conan'


Basilis Poledouris, film composer: born Kansas City 21 August 1945; married (two daughters); died Los Angeles 8 November 2006.

Basil Poledouris was best known for scoring epics and fantasy action films, though they and their scores were often better than usual for such fare. He collaborated with the director John Milius on Conan the Barbarian and with Paul Verhoeven for Robocop, and also composed the music for The Blue Lagoon and The Hunt for Red October.

Poledouris was born in Kansas City in 1945. He began studying music at seven and seemed set for a career as a concert pianist. However, at the University of Southern California he "lasted about a semester as a music student":

Basically I was not prepared for 20th-century music... Every technique of composition being taught

at that time, primarily serial composition and 12-tone composition, left me disinterested... I wandered into the cinema department because of [Miklós] Rózsa, and immediately thought that it looked to me like film was the music of my generation.

The impression was confirmed by a record of Alfred Newman's score to The Robe (1953) - "I basically wore it out!" - and a fondly remembered bootleg copy of Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn (1958).

At USC, he studied all aspects of film-making. Poledouris had already scored many educational and TV projects when his fellow alumnus, and surfer, John Milius offered him the coming-of-age-and-male-bonding-surfing drama Big Wednesday (1978). Milius saw surfing as a mythic expression of American expansionism, and Poledouris buttressed it with lush orchestral music alongside more folksy themes.

It was Poledouris's big break and began a series of collaborations, the best of which was the comic-book übermensch fantasy Conan the Barbarian (1982) with its driving score. Poledouris's nine-year-old daughter Zoe also contributed a theme, earning a co-writer credit. Given that Milius's world-view makes him popular with survivalists, the collaboration was perhaps surprisingly sympathetic, with filming and scoring progressing side by side, music and images alternately taking the lead. However, fearing a flop, the studio economised by recording the score in mono rather than stereo.

Poledouris's best work was with regular collaborators, some of whom were old friends: his student film Glut (1967) was scripted by Milius and edited by Randal Kleiser. Poledouris then scored Kleiser's The Blue Lagoon (1981), whose romantic score is better than the film, Summer Lovers (1982), White Fang (1987), which studio politics made an unhappy experience, and It's My Party (1996) about an Aids victim's last party, for which Poledouris relied on his own solo piano playing.

Attracted by Conan and Conan the Destroyer (1984), another major collaborator was the musically astute Paul Verhoeven. Flesh + Blood (1985) has appropriately medieval music but given to a full-throated modern orchestra and two more films followed, each with a landmark score. Robocop (1987) had visceral pounding music but when Verhoeven moved on Poledouris was overlooked for the sequel and though the composer returned alone for Robocop III (1993) it lacked the original's energy, wit and intelligence.

For 1997's Starship Troopers Verhoeven wanted every cue to sound like a main title, underlining the film's ironic presentation of a fascistic United States. As with Conan, Poledouris was involved even before photography had finished, and Zoe wrote and performed an anonymously submitted song. Father and daughter also worked together on the quirky comedy Cecil B Demented (2000).

Romance in its widest sense and melody were at the heart of Poledouris's art, often using modal harmonies inspired by his Greek Orthodox upbringing, while The Hunt for Red October (1990) is based on Russian folk music. Nevertheless, for Red Dawn (1984), a fantasy about a Soviet-invaded US, he overcame his aversion to serial music and used it to evoke the victims' confusion, mixing it with Coplandesque Americana.

He would return to folk-ish music, winning an Emmy for the western mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989), replacing the clichéd harmonica with an accordion. It was the first of five films with the director Simon Wincer but only this and the last, Free Willy (1993), are notable.

Poledouris's non-film work includes "The Tradition of the Games", for the opening of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

John Riley

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