James Horner, an Academy Award-winning composer who has written the scores for dozens of hit movies since the early 1980s, died yesterday morning when a S-312 Tucano MK1 turboprop registered to him crashed in Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara, California. Jay Cooper, Horner’s attorney, told the Associated Press that no one had heard from Horner since the crash, and Horner’s assistant, Sylica Patrycja, posted a Facebook message yesterday that read in part, “We have lost an amazing person with a huge heart and unbelievable talent. He died doing what he loved.”
Horner was one of Hollywood’s most sought-after composers. He scored the two biggest box office hits in history, 2009’s Avatar and 1997’s Titantic, both written and directed with James Cameron, and collaborated with Cameron on a much-admired earlier success that elevated both men’s careers: 1986’s Aliens, for which Horner earned his first Oscar nomination.
More recently, Horner wrote the music for Living in the Age of Airplanes, an IMAX documentary produced by National Geographic that premiered at the National Air and Space Museum in April. In an interview, director Brian Terwilliger, told me Horner had agreed to do the film’s score because of his own love of flying, and because he loved the footage of the film-in-progress that Terwilliger showed him. Ironically, that film’s narrator, Harrison Ford, is also a sought-after A-lister who signed on out of enthusiasm for the subject matter—and Ford survived a crash-landing on a Los Angeles golf course last March after his Ryan Aeronautical ST3KR lost power.
Horner won two Oscars for Titanic, and wrote the score for more than 70 features, including Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and two films in the Star Trek series. When I did a radio story in 2013 about the model of the Starship Enterprise used in the filming of the original Star Trek TV show in the 1960s, I deliberately used some of Horner’s music from the best Trek movie by far, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
That film’s director, Nicolas Meyer, wrote in his autobiography A View from the Bridge that he’d hired the then-little-known Horner because he couldn’t afford Jerry Goldsmith, who’d done the score for the prior Star Trek film. Meyer’s vision was to remake Star Trek in the style of the C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels — high-seas adventure stories about a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars — that he’d loved as a boy. He ordered the uniforms worn by Starfleet officers redesigned in a more nautical style, and decorated Admiral James T. Kirk’s apartment (as seen briefly in the movie) with a ship’s wheel and ships in bottles. He even had Khan, the movie’s iconic villain played by Ricardo Montalban, quote Moby Dick in the script. Horner’s swashbuckling theme was the key ingredient that changed the way Star Trek was perceived thereafter.
Here, just in case you feel like crying into your drink, is Horner’s cue from the climax of Braveheart.