A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 1981 – The Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - IMDb

With this, the first in the series of Indiana Jones films, John Williams created yet another outstanding opus – that surrounding the wisecracking, whip-swinging, fedora-wearing hero and sometimes archaeologist, Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford may have played the titular hero (and it’s a wonder that despite his resemblances and affinities to a certain smuggler in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, this new creation is in no way a carbon-copy of Han Solo), but John Williams provided his soul.

We don’t hear the main theme until some time into the score, which opens with “In The Jungle”, a mysterious piece based upon the first part of the Dies Irae – this helps to enshroud the beginning on the film, and the main character, in mystery, and a sense of danger. It is a wonderful entrance, because, it gives us no clue as to the sort of character Jones is. We, the audience, must learn what and who he is as the film unfolds.

Like the Star Wars trilogy, this franchise gave Williams the chance to write countless themes, creating a huge multi-layered work which would need more than this blog entry to explore all of the intricacies and to do justice to the sheer volume of motifs which appear. So I will share some thoughts on the main ones, but this score needs to be listened to intently to truly appreciate what Williams has done. Someone said of Mozart I believe that melodies just flowed out of him. That’s what this score feels like – every turn of action has a new rhythmic or melodic motif. It’s an incredibly rich tapestry.

So to the main theme, the “Raiders March”, as it’s often called. It makes it’s first appearance in the fourth cue in the full score soundtrack, towards the end of “Flight from Peru”. After a wonderful frenetic passage for pizzicato strings, it makes its first appearance at 1:03.

It’s a really wonderful theme, which seems, like many of Williams’ melodies, to be effortless. It is dominated by the brass, in a series of climbing phrases, which perfectly capture the spirit of Harrison Ford’s courageous yet risk-taking archaeologist. There is something childlike about the theme’s simplicity, too, which perhaps reflects the hero’s innate sense of right and wrong. His quests are never undertaken for personal gain or glory, and if he is ever tempted along those lines, he generally always makes the morally upright choice.

Williams says this of composing: “Writing a tune is like sculpting. You get four or five notes, you take one out and move one around, and you do a bit more and eventually, as the sculptor says, “In that rock there is a statue, we have to go find it.” I think this is so true of a theme like the Raiders march, which seems so inevitable, as if it could really go no other way. But of course it could have gone any number of ways – it’s the skill of Williams that makes us think otherwise.

Indeed, it very nearly did. Williams had written two distinct themes for the film – the one which we know as the Raiders March, and another theme. He played both to Stephen Spielberg, as he couldn’t decide which one to develop. Spielberg loved them both, and suggested that Williams used both of them in the main theme, and so it became – the secondary theme which is heard at 1:40 in the excerpt above was the second theme Williams had worked on.

There are countless other themes in the score. Williams is truly Mozartian in his ability to attach vibrant new melodies to almost every new piece of action. Yes, he uses the leitmotif structure – so that we often hear the Raiders March whenever Indiana Jones is on the screen, and Marion, his love interest, has her own theme (more on that in a while), and even the big Macguffin, the Lost Ark itself, receives a tremendous theme. But there are themes for the Nazis, for the amulet, and a prolificity of lesser known melodies which appear once and never again. A lesser composer might take care to save some of these for future projects in case the wellspring of creativity runs dry, but not Williams. He responds to the action of the film and creates whatever seems to fit the bill at the time. An almost careless abandon of creative ideas is what marks these scores out.

So to a couple of the other themes – Marion’s theme first. This theme shares it’s DNA with Princess Leia’s Theme from Star Wars, both melodically in it’s opening phrase (V – III) and also at first harmonically (Tonic, minor fourth). But this theme feels somehow more grown up, more curvaceous. It suits the character of Marion, who is old before her years. But it’s also got an exotic flavour to it, an almost Arabic feel which fits in perfectly to the Egyptian setting of much of the film. It is yet another wonderful example of character writing which Williams excels at. It’s also a slightly ambiguous theme, hinting at a relationship between Marion and Indy, but never quite stating this, which would suggest an ambiguity between the characters on screen.

And then we have the marvellous Theme for the Ark itself. This has got to be one of the cleverest themes ever created for the silver screen. In just a few notes and chords, it creates a sense of time and place and character. Let me explain. In the version of the theme I have placed a link to below, we are treated to a mysterious and unnerving melody. It feels hugely old, a throwback perhaps to some of the Biblical epics of Hollywood’s bygone days. It feels exotic, Hebraic. At the same time it feels utterly otherworldly, and is almost spiritual in the way it creates mood.

It is built around a descending melodic figure, played on the woodwind, which is accompanied by mysterious and ghostly harmonies – Minor tonic (Cminor) to minor augmented fourth (F#minor) and back again. As it develops, the harmonies become no less mysterious and unsettling, which gives the theme a sense of underlying danger. Shortly after the first iteration of the melody, we get a second motif, one that is used at times to represent the Nazis, underscored with some subtle militaristic percussion. This is followed by a climbing melody for strings which is truly chilling, and is akin to the opening from ET The Extra Terrestrial. It’s purpose here is similar – to create a sense of touching something from another world.

Then the main Ark theme returns, this time with swirling strings and picked out by quiet brass. After a short and rather wonderful Arabic sounding interlude, the military theme makes a re-entrance, but with more power this time. And then the Ark melody returns, and we see it’s full potential and power. Played by full brass and strings, with the eerie addition of ladies choir. When John Williams uses choir, you know he means business. The effect here is absolutely terrifyingly wonderful. The piece builds to an apotheosis on thrilling brass, as Indy is shown the way to the hidden Ark.

I could write so much more about this theme – I think it is a true masterpiece, not just in the world of film scoring, but in the whole history of music. It does exactly the right things. And I suppose, that’s what good film music should always be – a piece of music which does exactly the right things, pushes all the right buttons. It’s just that John Williams appears to be able to pull it out of the bag so very frequently. He knows just what needs to be said, and he says it.

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