Essays · Movies

An Indy Darling: John Williams and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

As ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ turns 40, Charlie Brigden explores how composer John Williams gave Indiana Jones his groove.
Raiders of the Lost Ark opening
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on June 12th, 2021

There’s a moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazis have taken the Ark from the ship transporting it, and we have no clue where our hero is. All of a sudden a crewman points him out on the hull of the enemy ship and John Williams‘ indelible “Raiders March” kicks in with all the pomp and circumstance needed; we’re back in the game, pumped up and ready to fight. This is why Williams’ score is so important and why it doesn’t just supply the heart but also the guts behind the man known as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr.

When Indy was first introduced in the now forty-year-old thrill-a-minute adventure, his rousing theme was never far behind, quickly defining him and his escapades as Williams had previously done with the terror of the shark in Jaws (1975) and the innate heroism of Superman (1978). Indy is cut from the same cloth as Bogart‘s Fred C. Dobbs and Charlie Allnut and what defines him are his feats and his stamina to go along with them — remember, it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. Williams, who is kind of like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s little golden idol, realizes this and injects a healthy dose of wit into Indy’s adventures, stretching his theme from major to minor and using all sorts of tricks to keep the audience on their toes.

The story of how the Raiders March was created is as mythic as the tale of the lost Ark itself. Williams played two melodies to director Spielberg and asked him to pick one; a brash heroic throwback to Max Steiner and even the swashbuckling days of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and The Sea Hawk (1940), or a propulsive phrasing easily fitting the avoidance of pitfalls and booby traps headlined in the job description of our favorite “obtainer of rare antiquities”. In a genius move, Spielberg picked both-the first as the main theme and the second as the bridge and B-theme-and they work perfectly in tandem, a musical engine propelling Indy’s spirit forward at every moment, even if the flesh is spongy and bruised.

Raiders of the Lost Ark again illustrated John Williams’ frankly frightening talent when it comes to composing themes. The love theme for Indy and Marion Ravenwood almost sounds like a sister piece to Williams’ love theme from The Empire Strikes Back the previous year; but while that was made for nebula-crossed lovers, Marion’s Theme was perfectly in tune with the 1930s setting — not the reality, but the movies and that gorgeous and lush sound from romantic scores like Korngold’s Anthony Adverse (1936). Far from Han and Leia’s more noble piece, it’s on the verge of being lustful as it builds and builds, and whether or not the resolution is truly fulfilled depends on how much sleep Indy has had.

Speaking of letting go, the theme for the Ark of the Covenant screams “unlimited power” but is really about the warnings that come with trying to control that. Spielberg and Lucas always encouraged Williams to come up with some of the darkest material in his career, and here the Ark Theme is a biblical ghost story that lives up to its terrible mythical tall tales-what could be better? Throughout the majority of the picture, the Ark Theme is in a foreboding setting, its melodious tendrils reaching out to the almighty, but when its power is unleashed, Williams introduces a majestic chorus that underlines its potency and its threat.

Perhaps the greatest scene in the film, musical or otherwise, is when Indy sneaks into the map room in the city of Tanis, to use the Staff of Ra to find the location of the Well of the Souls, where the Ark is hidden. As he works out where to put the staff, Williams teases with the Ark Theme’s mercilessly doom-laden nature which underlines that maybe it’s not a good idea for him to be doing this in the first place, but when the dawn sun comes and reveals the Well of the Souls, Williams is deep in exhibiting the beautiful religioso fury of the theme. Heed the warnings.

Williams even manages to prefigure this with his almost mathematical music when Indy is about to take the idol at the beginning of the film, with an identical rhythm, although replacing it with a bag of sand doesn’t go anywhere near as well. The resulting hightail out of there—complete with the infamous boulder chase—is in equal measure thrilling and hilarious as Williams channels Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley before bringing out the main theme as Indy swings into the river. The film is full of these setpieces where you can tell Williams is having the time of his life, such as the “basket game” where Indy searches for Marion in a marketplace full of wicker baskets which the composer scores with a delightful swirling maze-like woodwind motif.

Of course, the bigger action scenes come nearer to the end of the film, and what’s brilliant is the way Williams uses them as the beating heart of our frankly knackered hero. For example, when Indy has the aircraft fight with the giant Nazi mechanic, Williams plays the Raiders March in a resigned and laconic vibe as Indy is like “I have to fight this giant guy? Okay, just hold on a second and let me catch my breath.” It’s a thrilling sequence musically, with using those huge brass phrases like the blades of the airplane and using snippets of Indy’s theme to score his quick wins.

Williams then one-ups himself with the desert chase sequence, with a powerful driving motif pushing the Nazis and the Ark along while using copious quotes of the Raiders March to score Indy’s progress. He also emphasizes Indy’s overconfidence, so when he gets shot and ends up being dragged behind the truck by his bullwhip, we are right there as he clambers back into action. What’s spectacular here is the way he uses the B-theme as its own little action motif that pushes our hero on and on as he finally gets control of the truck — it’s just amazing. While technically the desert chase is broken into three separate cues, it’s a mammoth eight-minute action piece that is just thrilling at every turn.

As is the entire score really, and as long as Indiana Jones is there to be thrown into outrageously difficult and dangerous situations, John Williams is there to score him. No one but him knows what the future films will bring musically or otherwise, but until then, we always have Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that is the true miracle.

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)