A John Williams Score for every year of my life: 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

John Williams composed three scores in 1989, the year I turned 19. One of them was the searing score for “Born on the Fourth of July”, for director Oliver Stone. This was the first score Williams would provide for a Stone film, and he would follow it up with two further scores in the early nineties. The other two scores of the year were for Spielberg movies – “Always”, and this, the third of the adventures of Indiana Jones, the wisecracking archaeologist with a heart of gold played by Harrison Ford. The film itself was a return to the themes and feel of the first film in the trilogy, Raiders of thee Lost Ark. And in many ways the score feels like a return to the energy of that film. In many ways less atonal than Temple of Doom, as befits it’s lighter tone, it is however, in no way a rehash of the music to Raiders. In fact the only theme to return is the main Raiders March (and that sparingly), although the theme for the Ark of the Covenant does get a little quotation.

The score opens in the Nevada desert, with a young Indy Jones on a scouts trip. The music opens with mystery and sombre chords, as Indy makes the discovery that a gang of thieves is holed up in a cave with their loot, which includes the Cross of Coronado. This fictional artifact is represented in the score by a short but rather lovely Spanish-infused theme, heard at 3:30 in “Indy’s First Adventure”. The whole piece is a masterpiece of thematic development – one of those pieces in which Williams seems to ooze melodies out of every pore. After the mystery of the start, things soon notch up a gear with some wonderful chase music. The theme heard at 5:30 is particularly enjoyable. One can sense that Williams had a whale of a time composing for this scene, and it has a huge joyful and youthful energy. What’s perhaps surprising is that this comes from the imagination of a composer who had that year already turned 67.

There are a number of new themes which appear in the score and are used predominantly throughout the film. There is a theme for the new McGuffin – the Holy Grail, heard in “X Marks the Spot” at 0:28. It’s a simple theme redolent of medieval tombs and knights with a chordal construction. It’s very beautiful, but doesn’t offer much opportunity for variation or development.

There’s a theme for the quest for the Holy Grail, which also becomes a theme for Indy’s father, played by Sean Connery. This is what I would describe as a pastoral theme, with a melody line which lends itself more to development. And Williams puts it through its paces, although interestingly it always has something of that pastoral feel to it – the orchestration is kept in check, so whilst brass do occasionally make an entrance, it is mainly built around woodwind and strings. It can be heard at 0:42 in “The Keeper of the Grail”.

There is also a wonderful sequence involving motorcycles which has a piece of music attached to it which is called, rather fittingly, “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra”. It is Williams at his finest, full of flourishes in every section of the orchestra. In it you can also hear Williams’ new theme for the Nazis, written for this film (at 1:22). It also contains one of the very few iterations or the Raiders March, which is only used sparingly. Apparently Williams felt that after two Indy films we no longer needed to hear that theme for our buttons to be pressed, and I suspect he’s right.

There are so many other wonderful pieces in this score. The scene, for example, in “Ah Rats” in which Indy and Elsa discover one of the knights’ tombs, is scored with some of the most gorgeous ancient sounding string lines I’ve ever heard. You don’t even need to watch the film to sense that something ancient is being uncovered. It’s at about 1:22

Then you have the wonderful music from “Escape from Venice”, with some rather fabulous mandolin playing. Or “The Belly of the Steel Beast”, which is a throwback to the Desert Chase scene from Raiders. Or “No Ticket”, which reminds me very much of the sort of music Williams would provide over ten years later for Professor Gilderoy Lockhart.

In fact, rather than post more sections of the score, I’m going to post the entire score playlist – have a listen to the entire thing. It’s John Williams at the very height of his powers. It’s a wonderfully inventive score, full of melodies and exotic harmonies which I put up there with Raiders as one of my all time favourites.


Leave a Reply