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Remembering James Horner: His 5 greatest movie scores

James Horner, composer, conducting orchestra in recording studio, working on score to Braveheart film circa 1995.James Horner, composer, conducting orchestra in recording studio, working on score to Braveheart film circa 1995.
James Horner, composer, conducting orchestra in recording studio, working on score to Braveheart film circa 1995.Photograph by Phil Dent — Redferns/Getty Images

On Monday, June 22, film composer James Horner died in a plane crash just north of Los Angeles, California. The 61-year-old was piloting a small two-person aircraft and was the only person on board. The circumstances of the crash are not yet known. News of his passing was met by an outpouring of grief from members of the film community, who had worked alongside him for years.

“Brilliant Composer James Horner, friend and collaborator on seven movies has tragically died in a plane crash,” director Ron Howard tweeted. “My heart aches for his loved ones.”

The winner of six Grammy awards and two Oscars, he earned his first film scoring credits in 1980 when he was only in his twenties, with such low-budget Roger Corman movies as “Humanoids from the Deep” and “Battle Beyond the Stars.” He worked his way up to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” and finally earned his first Oscar nomination for 1986’s “Aliens.” It lost to “’Round Midnight” by Herbie Hancock, but the association with “Aliens” director James Cameron would prove handy a few years down the road.

The average moviegoer not steeped in film trivia is unlikely to know Horner by name, but his work is another matter. He composed some of the most enduring and well-known scores of the past 30-plus years, much of which can be heard in some of the most critically acclaimed and highest-grossing movies ever made. Here’s a look at some of his most unforgettable contributions to the movies.

An American Tail

In 1986, Horner’s name appeared on the credits for “An American Tail.” The animated story of Russian immigrant mouse Fievel Mousekewitz and his late-19th century adventures in his newly adopted home, the U.S., it received a positive reception from audiences and was a modest box office success.

In addition to the film’s score, Horner also wrote the song “Somewhere Out There,” with the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The song was sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, and won Song of the Year honors at the 30th Annual Grammy Awards.



1995’s “Braveheart” was an epic historical film taking place in 13th-century Scotland. It was directed by Mel Gibson, who starred as William Wallace, the man credited with leading the Scottish in a war against the occupying army of King Edward I.

“Braveheart” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Horner’s score among them. Unfortunately, it did not win in its category of Best Original Score, which went to the soundtrack of “Il Postino” instead.


Apollo 13

In addition to “Braveheart,” another 1995 movie with a James Horner score was “Apollo 13.” Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, the movie is based on the true story of the failed 1970 Apollo 13 moon mission, and the efforts of the astronauts on board and on earth to bring the space capsule back home safely.

The film took in an inflation-adjusted domestic gross of $272 million, and the score was nominated for an Oscar but lost to “Il Postino,” just as the “Braveheart” score had. As frustrating as it must have been to be nominated twice in the same category and still lose, Horner would not go unrecognized by the Academy much longer.



1997’s “Titanic” is a fictional love story taking place aboard the real-life doomed ship. Whether it was a brilliant film in which everything worked, or just a product of lots of good timing, it became the highest-grossing movie ever made up to that point, taking in an inflation-adjusted domestic box office gross of $890 million.

Directed by James Cameron, it was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11. It also reunited Cameron with Horner, whom he had last worked with on “Aliens.” The composer finally got to take not just one, but two statuettes home, one for the film’s haunting score and for the movie’s theme song, “My Heart Will Go On,” which he co-wrote with lyricist Will Jennings.

“My Heart Will Go On” was performed by Celine Dion and went on to sell over 15 million copies. It remains the composer’s best-known work.



“Titanic” director James Cameron took 12 years to follow his 1997 film, finally doing so with the 2009 science fiction movie “Avatar.” Like “Titanic,” it was an enormous box office success, taking in an inflation-adjusted domestic box office gross of $831 million and a global box office take of $3.1 billion, making it the highest-grossing film of all time.

It also featured music by James Horner, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. It lost to Michael Giacchino’s music for the Pixar movie “Up.” The composer went on to score 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and on July 24, his musical contribution will be heard in the Antoine Fuqua boxing film “Southpaw.”


Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.