John Barry: The John Dunbar Theme


Born in 1933 as John Barry Prendergast, the budding young musician worked closely with film from a young age. His father owned a cinema in York, and it was here that his love for film music was born. Barry undertook his national service with the British Army, and here he began to learn the trumpet. He formed a band named ‘The John Barry Seven’ and they would perform to audiences on a regular basis. Through performance Barry became interested in composing and arranging music. 

After being noticed by the makers of the first ever James Bond film, Barry was invited to submit a score for the 1962 film Dr. No. As the producers for the film were unhappy with the original score composed by Monty Norman, this meant that Barry eased his way into the film industry very quickly. This relationship between Barry and Eon Productions then lasted for over 25 years. Barry subsequently composed scores for 11 of the James Bond films.

Barry composed and conducted film scores for a number of films including Goldfinger (1964), Born Free (1966), Out of Africa (1986) and Dancing with Wolves (1990). With a career spanning over 50 years, Barry was appointed OBE for his services to music. He received a plethora of awards for his music including five Academy Awards, a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music and one Golden Globe. 

Dances with Wolves was released in 1990, and is an American epic Western film. It was directed and produced by Kevin Costner. The film is an adaptation of Michael Blake’s 1988 book of the same name, and tells the story of Union Army lieutenant John Dunbar. 


The Music

The John Dunbar Theme features on the soundtrack that Barry composed for the 1990 film Dancing with Wolves. The soundtrack was composed and subsequently conducted by Barry himself. Barry won the 1991 Academy Award for ‘Best Original Score’ and the 1992 Grammy Award for ‘Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television’ for his soundtrack for Dancing with Wolves. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe and BAFTA for the soundtrack. 

The John Dunbar Theme appears as the second track of the soundtrack and is used as an introduction to this pivotal lead character. The warm opening from the strings is accentuated by plucked harps. There is a sense of nostalgia here, but also warmth and serenity, leading us to wonder what this character has in store. The luscious swooping strings jump from their earthy lower octaves to an octave higher, pressing on the listener’s emotional buttons. 

The main theme is heard in a number of variations. Largely led by the strings, there is a sweet interlude in the central section that is led by a solo flute. Barry’s masterful orchestrations add to the gravitas of the climaxes in the theme. The rich textures blend together, hinting at themes of strength and unity. The fragility near the end adds another dimension to our preconceptions of this character, making it a truly satisfying piece of music. 


Final Thoughts

John Barry’s John Dunbar Theme is full of rich string writing, memorable melodies and somewhat mysterious atmosphere writing. Barry’s keen eye for creating meaningful orchestrations shines brightly in this theme, leaving us wondering how this character will develop over the course of the story. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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