May 2011

Music of Indiana Jones: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

by John Williams

Keeping with our tradition, May is John Williams month. This month, I'm taking you through the music of two of the Indiana Jones movies. Now, you may ask, "but there are four movies; why are you only doing the music from two?" Well, these two are the best of the four, both in terms of music and overall film, in my opinion. Plus, the music from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" appears in all four films, so it's good to have a foundation.

We introduced John Williams back in May 2009. We also introduced his style of leitmotif, or the art of giving specific characters or actions their own melody or theme to let the music tell the story. Both of these things will come into play again this month.

In June of 1981, the world was introduced to a new hero. The creation of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, he is a rugged, adventurous archaeologist: Henry Jones, Jr., or as he is much better known: Indiana Jones. The movie was "Raiders of the Lost Ark", and it tells the story of Indiana Jones, in the late 1930s, attempting to find the lost Ark of the Covenant (see Exodus 25) before the Nazi regime does. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had previous successes using John Williams as the film composer (George Lucas with "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" and Steven Spielberg with "Jaws"), so it should come as no surprise that they both wanted Williams on the project. This proved to be very, very wise, as he came up with one of the most memorable themes in all of film (second, perhaps, only to "Star Wars").

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I had remembered seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when I was 12, but, given the release year, I had to have been 10 (unless it just happened to stay in theaters for more than a year). I remember it was during the summer, and I saw it in a different theater than our usual. I don't remember the city, but it would not have been Watertown or Madison (as I remember those distinctly). My dad took me and my brother Jay to see it. I remember that I was mildly hungry toward the end of the film, so the scene where Toht's face melts reminded me of "melted cheese and ketchup" (as I described to my dad and brother after the film). What struck me as funny, in retrospect, is that my Dad spoke of the character of Indiana Jones as if he were some sort of classic film hero that everyone knew from previous films, yet this was his debut. He was obviously modeled after earlier film heros that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would have grown up with. Perhaps that's what I misinterpreted. Either way, it seemed clear that Dad had seen this movie before, and, given some of the content, I'm glad of it. It would also explain why my sisters were not along.

In the summer of 1989, I had gone to see "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". I was skeptical of this movie, as "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984) really wasn't that great of a film. Still, "Raiders" had had a strong impact, and this one would include an aging Sean Connery (best known in earlier films as James Bond) playing Indy's father. I was not disappointed. This was not only a really great Indy film, but some of John Williams best work using leitmotif. The Last Crusade refers to the crusades that took place in the Middle Ages. Quests were often undertaken to reclaim objects of historical significance to the Catholic Church. In this case, Indy's quest was for the Holy Grail, legendarily supposed to be the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper and also the cup that caught the blood of Christ while he was on the cross. There's no scriptural backing for this one. It was merely a legend created by the Catholic Church (perhaps to rally the faithful).


I'd like to start by playing you a few themes. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" introduces the main theme for Indiana Jones, and we'll listen to that one last, but there are a couple of other really memorable themes that show up throughout the film. His love interest, Marion, has her own theme:

Marion's Theme from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" by John Williams (0:52)

And finally, the Ark of the Covenant itself has a very memorable theme. In fact, this theme actually shows up in both "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and, most recently, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". In both situations, it was a point where the ark was either directly displayed or being talked about.

The Ark's Theme from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" by John Williams (0:32)

Now, let's move on to "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". For this one, we've got a very memorable theme for the villains:

The Villains' Theme from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" by John Williams (0:09)

Next, we have the theme for the Keeper of the Grail. This is the last surviving knight that had found the Grail hundreds of years ago, and personally kept its secret safe:

The Keeper of the Grail's Theme from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" by John Williams (0:49)

Lastly, the Holy Grail has its own theme, which is equally as memorable as the theme for the Ark of the Covenant. I don't remember hearing it in any of the other films, but it is a wonderfully majestic theme:

The Holy Grail's Theme from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" by John Williams (0:27)

Last of all, the theme for Indiana Jones himself. Known as "The Raiders March", here is the main theme to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and Indiana Jones:

The Raiders March from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" by John Williams (2:52)

For those interested, these recordings are from the Original Soundtracks. John Williams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

John Williams is the master of triumphant-sounding music. The Raiders March is a wonderful example of that. It just makes you feel heroic. Despite all of the pitfalls and trials you're about to witness, you know that the hero will prevail.

"The Ark's Theme" is gravely mysterious. You get the feeling of something very powerful, but something that is difficult, if not impossible, to understand or control.

"The Holy Grail's Theme" is gorgeously majestic, yet sad. It represents great and sacred history to me. It's my favorite theme from "The Last Crusade".

Extra Credit:

This was a hard one to think of a good extra credit. Really, the best extra credit would be to watch the movies. They're wonderful (though parental guidance should be required).

For fun, I thought I'd throw in a parody. The Simpsons did a parody of a few scenes from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in an opening sequence. Notice that the actual Indiana Jones theme appears. How were they able to get away with this? Well, I suspect Lucasfilm had tight connections with 20th Century Fox (who owns The Simpsons). Enjoy!