Celebrating the music of the Indiana Jones films

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We take a look back at the music of the Indiana Jones film – and celebrate the movie scoring maestro that is John Williams. 

Whatever you think about any of the films in the Indiana Jones series, you can’t deny that the two constants are actor Harrison Ford and composer John Williams. The latter especially deserves all the artefacts in the world for musically defining the character of Indiana Jones, and it’s impossible to imagine his escapades without that iconic theme pushing him on. And with him currently chasing the Dial of Destiny in cinemas, what better time to look back at Dr. Jones’ musical exploits?

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

It was Steven Spielberg himself who introduced George Lucas to John Williams while he was making Jaws in 1975. Lucas went on to use Williams’ music in Star Wars, which effectively spurred a renaissance of classical symphonic scoring, so when the pair got together to create Indiana Jones, it was a foregone conclusion that the composer would be back at the podium for Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981.

It’s now a famous anecdote that Williams initially composed two separate themes for Spielberg to choose, with the director opining that they should be combined, creating what is known as the Raiders March. It’s perhaps the best heroic theme ever, an explosion of brass pomp fitting perfectly in the era of the ’30s with its structure pushing Indy along. The first part gloriously ascends as Indy goes for it, with the second descending to conserve energy before returning with an even higher ascent for the third, followed by a triumphant phrasing indicating our hero has succeeded.

The bridge, which contains the other theme (known as the B-section), acts as anticipation for Indy’s daring deeds and does a dynamite job of hyping the reappearance of the main melody. Perfection.

Raiders is chock full of great themes. The music for Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is a gorgeous love theme that seems to follow on from the music for Han Solo and Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, fitting right in for Marion and Indy’s tender side. The scene when they finally get a moment together on the boat uses it beautifully, with it building to what we expect is a huge crescendo, only for it to quickly diffuse itself as Indy falls asleep.

Then there’s the theme for the Ark of the Covenant, which immediately evokes all the mystical and magical energy contained within. It’s used wonderfully as a teaser before being unleashed when Indy hits the map room, a mere hint of the finale. Williams also includes a snaky motif for the headpiece of the Staff of Ra and a harsh-sounding march for the Nazis.

Williams creates some incredible set piece moments for the film, not least in the opening when Indy and his turncoat guide enter the idol’s temple, with those swirling and crawling high strings as tarantulas cover the pair. A light touch is used for the chase throughout the Cairo streets (known as The Basket Game), with some delightful and exotic-sounding strings and woodwinds, and the aforementioned map room is a masterclass in symphonic scoring.

Then there’s the truck chase, where Williams mainly uses the B-section of the Raiders March to propel Indy as he uses all his tricks to take over the truck, and then the finale on the island where they open the Ark. As the “wrath of God” is unleashed upon the Nazi villains, Williams uses terrifying piercing strings before playing the Ark’s theme in all its pseudo-Biblical glory.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

With Raiders a massive hit critically and commercially, Spielberg, Lucas, Ford, and Williams returned in 1984 with the controversial darker Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. The film has a great opening, with Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) singing Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (also a sly nod to the insane film itself) in a Shanghai nightclub – there’s a stunning and hilarious moment when she leads us into a dragon’s mouth where there’s a massive room full of chorus girls dancing to Williams’ effusive arrangement. the Raiders March returns in a big way where it’s used almost like the James Bond theme, fully underscoring all of Indy’s heroics, of which there are a lot.

Another heroic theme comes in the guise of Short Round’s Theme, a delightful and nimble piece that perfectly captures Key Huy Quan’s impish but heroic character, as well as another stunning love theme, arguably much more heightened and old Hollywood than Marion’s. An important theme is a march for the slave children, appearing in hints before exploding as Indy, Short Round and Willie free all of the kids in the underground mines. Then there’s the terrifying motif for the Sankara stones, which has a touch of Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen to it and is only utilised briefly, with the slave children’s march used in its place at the climax.

Temple Of Doom is outrageously scored, with almost wall-to-wall music, and it’s exhilarating, opening with the nightclub brawl seguing into Short Round’s Theme as he drives through the Shangai streets. When they go to the palace, there’s the terrific scene where Indy and Willie jibe with each other, which gives Williams a chance to show off the love theme, and the following sequence where Willie has to traverse the tunnel full of bugs to save Indy and Short Round.

This is a classic Indy cue, with the chugging brass increasing in tempo as the spikes come down from the ceiling, with a brief reprise of the Raiders March as they escape, Indy grabbing his hat at the last minute. The theme is played wholesale during the sequence after they free the children to brilliant effect, where it illustrates its versatility, with a victorious reading over the end credits where Williams interpolates it with Short Round’s Theme.

Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade

With the sequel/prequel another smash at the box office, a third instalment finally arrived in 1989 with Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, with Sean Connery joining as Dr. Jones Sr. as they go on a chase for the Holy Grail. No shrubbery included. Spielberg decided he had relied on the Raiders March too much in Temple Of Doom, so cut back in what was a lighter and more emotional adventure.

Williams wrote a marvellously warm theme for Connery’s Henry Jones that’s employed very well in the film, along with a regal and magical theme for the Grail. Of course, the Nazis returned, so Williams composed a new evil march used much more prominently than the one in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He also wrote an entrancing motif for the Cross of Coronado that Indy grabs in the opening of the film and a thrilling piece for the scene where Indy and Henry escape the castle on the motorcycle and sidecar.

The opening of the film is wonderfully playful, trading mysticism for madness as Indy traverses the entirety of a circus train and all its cars, with Williams using a mischievous motif not unlike The Basket Chase in Raiders. The sequence also uses the Raiders March in interesting ways, firstly in a hesitant reading as Indy gets his scar while trying to shoo away a lion, and more triumphantly as he gets away from the men chasing him. It’s then brilliantly used as a transitional melody, playing in a sumptuous mode as the lead guy pushes his hat down on young Indy’s head, only for it to cut to the older Indy as he raises it.

The Ark motif shows up briefly as Indy explores the tunnels underneath Venice, and the subsequent trip to Austria gives Williams a chance to write a lot of comedic action material as Indy and Henry bond over being chased by the Nazis, with a truly wonderful moment where Henry chases a flock of geese into the path of a pursuing aeroplane (“I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne,”).

Interestingly, this sequence was originally scored with a minor motif, but was re-scored with an insert that ends on an emotional reading of the Raiders March. The tank chase is another great Williams action moment, almost equivalent to the truck chase in Raiders, but it’s the final act where the maestro pulls out all the stops. Sweeping combinations of The Holy Grail Theme and Henry’s Theme are used in religioso readings before the Raiders March returns for an almost perfect climax.

Also on Film Stories:
Indiana Jones: spoiler-filled thoughts on Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny
Indiana Jones revisited: reconsidering Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones revisited: it’s time for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
Indiana Jones revisited: 1984’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom
Indiana Jones revisited: heading back to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Podcast: In conversation with James Mangold: Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, Girl Interrupted and more
Podcast: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) and The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

And that was it for nearly twenty years, until 2008 when Spielberg brought the family back together for Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. John Williams was again in fine form, although he and Ford were probably the only ones to come out unscathed from the critical reaction. For Cate Blanchett’s Soviet villain Irina Spalko, Williams composed a wonderfully beautiful but sinister melody that perfectly reflected her insidious intentions. Indy’s son Mutt also got a quite thrilling theme, with flourishes of strings that give it a Korngold-esque sound like it’s straight out of The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938).

But the best theme of the three is the fantastic piece for the titular crystal skull. Entitled The Call Of The Crystal on the soundtrack album, it’s a thrillingly atonal theme that sounds like it’s right out of 1950s science fiction, with a repetitive base that’s as hypnotic as it is in the film. Short quotations of Marion and Henry’s themes also appear.

After a fun opening title sequence using Elvis Presley’s recording of Lieber and Stoller’s Hound Dog, Williams interestingly goes back to some specific musical moments from Raiders Of The Lost Ark – particularly the Ark theme from the map room sequence – as Spalko forces Indy into Area 51, suggesting that it’s the same warehouse from the end of the 1981 film.

It’s not the last time he revisits music from Raiders either, as the “flying map” scene where Indy and Mutt travel to Peru ends with a quotation of the Raiders March from when Indy escapes in the plane after being chased by Belloq and his Hovitos. The original music is of the same standard, with a fantastic cue scoring a motorcycle chase through the grounds of Indy’s Barnett College that ends with a quotation of Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture as Indy answers a student’s question while escaping from the Soviet agents.

The grave-robbing sequence has a thrilling percussive score reminiscent of some of his music from Jurassic Park, with a similarly frantic cue for the scene where the flesh-eating ants appear. The Jungle Chase is a substantial action cue that brilliantly uses a propulsive rendition of Irina’s Theme before going back to the swashbuckling of Mutt’s theme as the pair clash with swords. The skull theme is a big part of the climactic sequence, with the main motif played on brass with some piercing strings as a chorus sings behind it, and there’s a fantastic minor mode version of the Raiders March as everyone is whisked out of the temple through the water, with the alien saucer rising and disappearing to a rousing non-thematic cue that uses brass to mimic the rapid circling of the ship as it disappears.

Marion’s theme opens the final sequence as she marries Indy, and the typical end credits begin with the Raiders March and subsequent reprisals of Irina, Mutt, and Marion’s themes. However, for the very end of the credits, Williams gives Indy’s theme an exciting extended finale with a terrific counterpoint section between two versions of the theme. This might have been intended as a potential grand fanfare for the end of the series, and it looked like it might have been – until James Mangold was recruited for Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny. Thankfully, he also brought John Williams back into the fold for the final bow.

And if there is another adventure, I’m sure Williams will be waving his baton once again with youthful exuberance. There is no substitute.

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