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The Rare Breed
The Rare Breed

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Compositions: Films

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The Film

Release date: April 13, 1966
Studio: Universal Pictures
Running time: 97 minutes
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Cast: James Stewart, Maureen O'Hara, Brian Keith, Juliet Mills, Don Galloway, David Brian, Jack Elam, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Perry Lopez, Larry Domasin, Alan Caillou
Technical information: Panavision (2.35:1), Technicolor, mono

Neither an epic Western nor a routine shoot-'em-up, The Rare Breed mixes comedy, romance and drama in a tale loosely based on the introduction of Hereford cattle to America and subsequent attempts to breed them with Texas Longhorns.

Recently widowed Martha Evans (O'Hara) has traveled to America from England to sell her late husband's prize bull, Vindicator, for breeding. The animal is purchased by a Charles Ellsworth (Brian), for his partner, Alexander Bowen (Keith), but Ellsworth is more interested in wooing Martha than in breeding cattle. He asks Sam "Bulldog" Burnett (Stewart) to take Vindicator to Bowen's ranch in Texas, but Burnett declines, until a rival rancher pays him $1000 to turn over the bull to his henchman, Deke Simons (Elam), once they are on the trail.

To complicate matters, Martha and her daughter Hillary (Mills) insist on accompanying Vindicator to his destination. Hillary overhears the thieves' plan, but she can't convince her mother, who is quickly falling for Sam. Likewise, Sam becomes interested in Martha and decides not to go through with the plan. Nearing their destination, they encounter young Jamie Bowen (Galloway), who has taken some of his father's cattle and set out on his own. At this moment Simons decides to steal both Vindicator and the $2000 Martha was paid for him, in the process starting a stampede which injures Jamie. Simons is killed when he attempts to flee.

Understandably irate at Sam, Martha decides to remain at Bowen's fort until Jamie is nursed back to health. Bowen, a red-haired Scotsman with a thick brogue, is at first upset that Martha has taken over his home, but eventually attempts to woo her. Meanwhile, Jamie and Hillary have fallen in love and decide to marry. Bowen is convinced that attempts to breed Vindicator with his Longhorns will be unsuccessful, but humors Martha. Eventually, everyone but Sam gives up hope that the animal survived in the cold weather long enough to breed and Bowen tells Sam he is welcome to any crossbreeds he can find the following spring. Sam finds Vindicator's frozen carcass, but persists and eventually comes across several crossbreed calves. Martha finally decides to marry Sam instead of Bowen and they set about raising the crossbreeds with Jamie and Hillary.

Although Keith's performance is sometimes as overstated as his ridiculous red wig, the rest of the cast does a fine job and McLaglen keeps the action moving along briskly. The script may take a few hokey and predictable turns, but Stewart is, as always, irresistible. Discussing the scene where he finds Vindicator's calf, James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter observed:
The scene…with the camera entirely on Stewart's face is one of great poignance and tenderness. It is only one shot, that of Stewart's face, but it is the crux of the picture, and Stewart once again, as he has a hundred times, shows what it is to understand acting and to make it meaningful.
Other reviews were generally complimentary. Variety called the film "a well-made cattle drama, with action, romance and comedy mixed in a script that sometimes wanders," while the New York Times said the film "gives you a comfortable, easy feeling during and after. And if that isn't entertainment, we don't know what is."

The Rare Breed

The Film | The Music
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The Music

Music: Johnny Williams
Music Supervision: Joseph Gershenson

While John Williams' score doesn't break any new ground in the Western genre — it is firmly rooted in the Aaron Copland/Jerome Moross mold — and while it may not be considered the composer's breakthrough work, The Rare Breed is the first Williams score to give us a glimpse of the melodic variety and bold orchestral writing that would become his trademark.

In his previous dramatic scores, the composer utilized a primarily monothematic approach. While the Rare Breed theme permeates the score, there are several additional minor motifs associated with various characters in the film: Vindicator the bull, Martha and Hillary, Alexander Bowen, and Jamie and Hillary. Perhaps the folk-tune conventions and large-orchestra sonorities traditionally associated with Western film scores gave Williams more musical freedom than he had had in his earlier dramatic films, but whatever the reason the themes are all immediately memorable (if not as fully developed as the material in his later scores). Another trait heard here for the first time is the tendency for each cue to have an internal logic, in addition to its functional purpose in accompanying the onscreen action: that is, the cues are more likely to follow preconceived musical forms, often featuring a brief introduction or coda. This concept of a musical set-piece would become another important Williams trademark.

Although Williams would later make extensive use of folk instruments such as banjo, harmonica and nickelodeon in his scores for Westerns like The Cowboys, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and The Missouri Breaks (in which he would eschew the orchestra altogether), the conventional storytelling of a genre film such as The Rare Breed seemed to dictate conventional scoring practices. Williams employs a standard symphony orchestra with brief uses of anvil and guitar. Universal music director Joseph Gershenson has gone on record that music should generally be subordinate to dialogue and those sound effects important to the plot; since much of the music in The Rare Breed underscores dialogue scenes or action sequences which require noisy sound effects (e.g. a stampede), it is not surprising that Williams' score has been mixed at rather low levels through much of the film — only in the main titles and a couple of visually driven sequences late in the film is the music allowed to predominate.

Many melodies immediately recognizable as "Western" — in film scores such as Moross' The Big Country or ballets like Copland's Billy the Kid — are derived from the pentatonic scale: transposed to the right key, they can be played on the black keys of a piano. While Williams' themes for The Rare Breed aren't strictly pentatonic, they are close enough to trigger such associations upon first hearing. The main theme is derived from a six note motive (in F-Major, E-C-F-E-C-F) and in its complete form consists of four related phrases. This is often answered by a more lyrical "B" theme, which begins with the same four notes (E-C-F-E). The common source of these two melodies helps create a thematic unity throughout the film, whether the themes are used alone or together. These principal themes are generally associated with Sam and Martha, although they function less as character motifs (in the sense of providing psychological insight) than to propel the story forward and describe the wide open spaces of the film's settings. As in Williams' previous dramatic score for None But the Brave, the main theme is rarely used in its entirety, and often the opening six note motive is heard instead of a full melodic statement. While not strictly monothematic, these "A" and "B" themes are the only ones heard throughout the film. Even though they are employed repeatedly, these themes are rarely used the same way twice: Williams manipulates tempo, orchestration and harmonic accompaniment to great effect.

There are several instances of source music in The Rare Breed: some brass band pieces at the Cattlemen's Exposition, various people singing or whistling "God Save the Queen", piano music in a saloon, and Alexander Bowen singing in the bathtub and playing traditional Scottish tunes on the bagpipe.

Although one would expect the main themes to be heard over the opening titles, it is only suggested in a brief fanfare by the first few notes before the music segues into the main title, a Bb-Major march for brass band (with a smattering of flutes and clarinets); this is a source cue, ostensibly played on screen by a marching band at the St. Louis Exposition as the opening titles roll. This march is a tuneful Sousa-era pastiche, although the final bars exhibit some slightly more modern harmonic progressions (not unlike those at the end of Williams' Midway March). The march tune is not heard again, but this device allows Williams to reserve the broadest, most complete statement of the Rare Breed theme for the dramatic climax of the film, heightening its impact.

The first true underscoring commences during the "Rodeo Free-for-All", a brawl involving Sam and some other cowpokes. Williams plays it for laughs with jeering brass answering hoedown fiddle tunes. Near the end, the composer presents the Vindicator theme; although the animal is trained to answer to the tune of "God Save the Queen," Williams interpolates it into the score only once, instead using this mock-regal melody to underscore most of Vindicator's antics.

The next significant cue underscores Ellsworth's attempted romancing of Martha. The piece begins with a tongue-in-cheek minuet, a tune heard only twice, toward the beginning of the film. Associated with Martha and her daughter, the stately, vaguely European melody connotes the elegance of these two characters and effectively underscores the physical and verbal "dance" Martha does to evade Ellsworth's advances. As their conversation turns nasty, the music becomes more serious, then segues into a quiet statement of the main theme by solo clarinet for Sam's farewell to two friends. This is the first time we have heard the "A" theme, and it is immediately linked with both Sam and his mission.

For a sequence in which Sam runs along the top of a moving train and rescues Hillary, who has slipped over the side, Williams accompanies a martial D-major statement of the main theme with bold harmonies and percussive anvil. As the young woman slips over the side, the music becomes more suspenseful, then concludes in Bb-major as Hillary is returned to safety. When the train pulls into "Dodge City", the violins play phrases of the main theme, first in G major, then C major, the accompaniment modulating downward to underscore the slowing of the train. When Hillary mistakes a cowpoke for a railroad porter, we hear the minuet theme again.

When Sam whistles "God Save the Queen", "Persuading Vindicator" to get off the train, Williams answers with a polytonal rendition of the tune (perhaps a tongue in cheek reference to Charles Ives' Variations on America). As Martha enters the scene, a solo flute quietly intones the main theme in F major — it is now associated with her character as well. Vindicator's theme then accompanies the bull's march through town.

The following fight in a saloon is accompanied by two pieces of source music on the ubiquitous out-of-tune saloon piano. The cheerful nature of the music serves to effectively underscore the comic nature of the fight. Note how the last beat of the first piece "hits" the action of a cowboy flying through a plate glass window; thus Williams manages to make the cue function as both source music and underscore. The second piece ends abruptly both because the fight at this point turns more serious and because in the next shot no one is sitting at the piano (the player presumably having run for cover).

As the protagonists are "Departing Dodge", Martha's horse takes off unexpectedly, accompanied by a fast A-major variation of the main theme led by muted trumpet. As the scene changes to Sam and Martha riding horseback across the wide open spaces, we hear an expansive variation on the main theme, still in A major, followed by the first statement of the "B" theme, which here functions as a sort of love theme for Sam and Martha. (Note that the love theme for Jamie and Hillary, heard later in the picture, is also first presented in A-major. By choosing appropriate keys, Williams is able to achieve a "warmer" sound with violins, violas and cellos playing on open strings.)

The music turns more ominous as the villains threaten the heroes. We first hear a repeated figure based on the notes Bb-B-C-Db. Throughout the following sequence various "danger" motives are built around this Bb-Db interval, primarily using the notes A, Bb, C and Db.

One of the most exciting cues accompanies the stampede sequence. It beings with ostinati based upon the A-Bb and Db-C intervals. As the cattle panic we hear swirling strings leading to an energetic scherzo featuring trumpets and trombones. (Williams wisely scores this part of the cue for brass and percussion, as woodwinds and strings would not be heard above the noisy sound effects.) The syncopated, almost jazzy, figures recall his second-season theme for Kraft Suspense Theater as well as foreshadowing action cues from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. As Jamie takes control of the wagon and tries to steer it to safety, a new theme based upon the Bb-A-Db-C danger motive appears in the horns. The cue concludes with a nervous string ostinato.

The music leading up to "Simons' Death" begins with a solo horn outlining the danger motive, then becomes more brassy and energetic as Sam and Simons fight, subsiding briefly during Martha's outburst. When Simons escapes, strings and horns strike up a fugato figure based on the danger motive and trumpets cry out with a related triplet figure (Bb-A-Db). Unison horns intone a solemn fanfare after Simons' death.

As they hit the trail again a more somber variant of the main theme is heard, followed by the "B" theme as Hillary nurses Jamie's wounds in the back of the wagon. The first shot of Bowen's fort is accompanied by an expansive reading of the main theme, answered by trumpet with some "south-of-the-border" vibrato. At the close of the cue we briefly hear a Spanish guitar to help indicate the Texas setting.

When Hillary nurses Jamie with chicken broth, we hear the first statement of the lyrical A-major love theme for these two characters. The flute then repeats the melody, developing it somewhat; as the discussion turns to a quarrel, the music enters a foreign key and finally resolves in A-flat major to underline the resolution of the spat. This love theme is also Western-flavored — with the exception of one passing tone, it is derived from the pentatonic scale. We hear this theme once more in a later cue ("A Change of Seasons") when the two decide to marry.

For the exciting "Round-Up", Williams provides a driving 6/8 G-minor scherzo, the forbear of similar cues in Jane Eyre and Dracula (and the concert version of The Reivers). The first segment is based more on a rhythmic ostinato than an existing melody, while the central section features a bold statement of the Alexander Bowen theme by unison horns. Bowen's later "Marriage Proposal" is underscored by a lyrical, C-major setting of the Bowen theme in an English pastoral style reminiscent of Vaughan Williams or Delius. The theme is heard a third time as a 6/8 march, accompanied by droning lower woodwinds, when Bowen delivers "Flowers for a Lady".

Hillary's "Farewell to Vindicator", in which she sets the animal loose on the open range, is underscored by a moving piece for strings (with sparing accompaniment by horns). Williams' serious approach to the music turns what might have been a laughable scene into a poignant moment in the film. The opening string writing is reminiscent of his contemporaneous Essay for Strings; then a new melody is introduced and developed. Playful oboe and flute add a lighter touch as the cue concludes with the bull galloping away. Some of this music is recalled in later cues when Sam searches for Vindicator and his calves the following spring.

The musical centerpiece of the score (and the dramatic centerpiece of the film) is Sam's discovery of Vindicator's carcass during the "Spring Thaw". Although the sequence occurs near the end of the film, it features the grandest and most complete statement of the Rare Breed theme. The cue begins with a woodwind ostinato over variants of the "A" theme. A warmer statement of the "B" theme (in G-flat major) is heard as Sam arrives on the scene, followed by the "A" theme in the same key. When Sam recognizes Vindicator's carcass in the snow we hear a declamatory fanfare from the brass, followed by a passionate reading of the "B" theme (in A-major) by the strings as Sam tells Jamie and Hillary that he still won't give up hope. An ostinato figure builds to a full orchestra statement of the "A" theme (now in F-major), answered by trumpet, as Sam rides across the countryside. The "B" theme is played in full by the horns, answered by strings, and a shortened version of the "A" theme brings the cue to a quiet close.

"Vindicator's Legacy" begins with G-major variants of the main themes. As Sam spies the calf, tremolo strings lead to a triple-meter string ostinato, becoming more and more urgent, accompanied by strains of the Rare Breed theme. The music builds to an orchestral climax with swirling strings, but Williams defies expectations by accompanying the first shot of the calf with a playful solo oboe and strings.

The finale is accompanied by the "A" theme in F-major, followed by a related brass fanfare for the end cast.

Little has been written about this music since, but at the time Variety remarked that "Johnny Williams' score gives some zesty punch."

While The Rare Breed may not be Williams' greatest score from the 1960's (or even his finest Western score), it is an important landmark in his film career and it is indeed unfortunate that this music is not more widely known. This situation would undoubtedly be remedied if there were a soundtrack album (or a first recording of an extended suite culled from the score), but the lack of availability of the music on CD should not deter those interested in the composer's musical development from seeking out the film on video or television.

Decca DL 74754

Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra recorded the theme to The Rare Breed (in an instrumental fox trot arrangement by Charles Albertine) for the 1966 LP Shall We Dance (Decca DL 74754).

On June 22, 1999, Silva Screen Records released a 2-CD compilation album, Close Encounters: The Essential John Williams Film Music Collection (Silva FILMXCD 314 — purchase), which includes an 18-minute suite of music from the film performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic under the direction of Nic Raine.

The Rare Breed

The Film | The Music
Audio | Video | Sheet Music
References | Links

This film was released in letterboxed format on DVD (Universal Studios Home Video 22627 — purchase) on May 6, 2003.

Sheet Music

A band arrangement by Howard Cable of the main title march was published by Champion Music Corporation in 1966; it is now long out of print.

The Rare Breed

The Film | The Music
Audio | Video | Sheet Music
References | Links

The Rare Breed, Theodore Sturgeon
Greewich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1966. 176pp.

"Film Reviews: The Rare Breed," Muzi.
Variety, Feb 2 1966, 6:3

"Review: The Rare Breed," Howard Thompson
New York Times, Apr 25 1966, 42:3

James Stewart: A Biography, Donald Dewey
Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1996. 512 pp. ISBN 1-57036-227-0

The Rare Breed

The Film | The Music
Audio | Video | Sheet Music
References | Links

Internet Movie Database entry for The Rare Breed

Cinebooks Database entry for The Rare Breed

All Movie Guide entry for The Rare Breed

A page about The Rare Breed from the Jimmy Stewart Museum

Page last modified
June 05, 2006
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