Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – John Williams



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1973 George Lucas wrote a story titled “The Adventures of Indiana Smith”, drawing inspiration from adventure movies of the 1930s and 1940s. While on a shared vacation to Hawaii with Steven Spielberg, Lucas pitched his story, and convinced him to direct a trilogy of films. Upon Spielberg’s suggestion, the surname was changed to Jones and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was hired to create the script. The major Hollywood studios all rejected the project because of the $20 million price tag and Lucas’ exacting terms. Eventually Paramount took the gamble and Frank Marshall was tasked with producing the film. After exhausting efforts to cast the lead man, Spielberg convinced Lucas to cast Harrison Ford for the role of Indiana Jones. Joining him on the project would be Paul Freeman as Dr. René Belloq, Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht, Denholm Elliot as Dr. Marcus Brody, and Wolf Kahler as Colonel Dietrich.

The story is set in 1936 and embraces the classic sensibilities of Golden Age adventure films. Government agents advise archeologist Indiana Jones that the Nazi’s were actively seeking to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant in hopes of employing its awesome power to advance their cause. He agrees to accept the mission to recover the Ark for America, motivated not as much by politics, but instead his love of antiquity, and scientific curiosity. He sets off on an adventure, seeking clues to the Ark’s location, which takes him from the Himalayan highlands of Nepal, and to the Well of Souls in the mystical buried Egyptian city of Tanis. Clashes with the Nazi’s nearly kill him, but in the end, he is victorious thanks to Nazi hubris. The film was a massive commercial success, which resonated with the public, earning a staggering 22 times its production costs of $18 million, and spawning a franchise of four films. The film was also a critical success, earning 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, winning four for Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects and a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing.

Raiders of the Lost Ark would serve as Spielberg’s fifth collaboration with Williams; one, which, I must say, has achieved one of the greatest artistic synergies in cinematic history. Williams understood that his music would have to speak to the spirit of adventure, animate and propel our hero, evoke the mystery and power of the Ark, and speak to Indiana’s and Marion’s love. To that end he underpins the score with three primary themes, and three secondary themes. First, and foremost, is the iconic Raiders March, which has passed unto legend. Again Williams creates a theme that is instantly recognizable, and woven indelibly into the public’s collective consciousness. The Raiders March emotes with an ABA construct, and serves as Indiana Jones personal thematic identity, exuding confidence, optimism and fully embracing his irrepressible spirit of adventure. Worth noting is that Williams offered Spielberg two themes for Indiana. After hearing them played on piano he declared that he liked both and asked Williams to utilize each of them. The A and B Phrases of the theme constitute the original melodies. The A Phrase is declared by four proud unison trumpets, which propel ever upwards, an inspiring marcia bravura, indomitable, and unstoppable! Determined strings and bold horns carry the B Phrase, which continues the march’s rhythm, yet its rising and then descending statements suggest struggle, in that they never culminate. It speaks to Indiana’s perseverance and determination. The march permeates the film, and Williams employs both phrases either independently or joined to animate and support the unfolding adventure.

Marion’s Theme provides the necessary feminine juxtaposition for the score’s more dominant masculine identity. It serves as her personal identity, but also as a Love Theme. It is kindred in its articulation, and sensibilities to the Love Theme of “Superman”, and equally as moving. Whether expressed by solo flute delicato and tremulous strings, or sumptuous stings adorned with woodwinds gentile, the evocative theme offers some of the score’s most beautiful moments. The Ark Theme has the greatest gravitas of the primary themes, and emotes with both mysterioso, and religioso sensibilities. Its construct offers ominous descending, and repeating three-note phrases, which speaks to the Divine presence, embodying both his beneficence and awesome destructive power. There are three secondary themes, including the Medallion Theme. The Medallion of Ra is the artifact, which unlocks the location of the Ark. As such, it is intrinsically linked to the Ark Theme, for which it is kindred. It emotes as a mysterioso carried by woodwinds, tremolo violins with harp adornment. Later after the Ark has been found, it emotes more powerfully, informing us that it was the catalyst that unleashed the Ark. The Discovery Theme relates to situations when Indiana discovers a new artifact. It also offers a mysterioso born by contrapuntal woodwind lines over a bass sustain. Lastly, we have the minor modal Nazi Theme, which supports our villains. It emotes as a martial and menacing declaration by horns sinistre. So, let us begin our journey…

“The Raiders March” is not linked to a film scene. It was played in the theater, like overtures of the Golden Age past. It offers a rousing full rendering of the Raider’s March in all its glory. At 2:10 diminuendo reprise of the A Phrase takes us into the film. “Main Title – South America, 1936” offers a tension cue, which reveals Indiana leading a small party through a tropical jungle, in search of a hidden temple. Meandering woodwinds create a mysterioso, filled with unease as the opening credits roll. Eerie strings and formless nativist drums join and bring disquiet in their wake. A stinger a 1:13 supports a crewmember’s machete revealing a fearsome totem, which evokes terror. As Indiana looks at his map, a man draws and clicks his pistol, but Indiana is alerted and at 3:00, supported by fierce horns of alarm, turns and snaps the gun out of his hand with his whip. Blaring horns carry them forward, and a foreboding diminuendo by woodwinds mysterioso bring them to the temple entrance.

“In The Idol’s Temple” offers a tension and suspense cue, which explodes into action. Williams creates a terrible unease with unnerving atmospheric writing, filled with disquiet as they navigate the dark torch lit tunnel. A shower of pizzicato strings at 0:37 support Satipo wiping tarantulas off Indiana’s back. Horns of doom portend danger as Indiana senses a trap. A sharp stinger at 1:22 supports spear heads thrust against the tunnel, revealing an impaled corpse as Satipo screams in terror. At 1:34 horns declarations empower a marcia energico, which propel Indiana and Satipo’s progress as they swing over a bottomless pit. At 2:02 writhing strings and a horn of doom support our view of the shimmering golden idol. The Discovery Theme born by contrapuntal woodwind lines inform us of Indiana’s desires. Strings joined by bassoon sow unease as he carefully approaches the altar. At 3:28 a crescendo of tension slowly swells as Indiana prepares to replace the idol with a bag of sand. We crest at 3:50 as he makes the substitution. A pause of apparent success is dashed, as all hell breaks loose at 3:53 atop horns feroce as the temple begins collapsing, and Indiana runs for his life. Satipo, now safely across the pit, barters with Indiana, offering him his whip to swing over the chasm in exchange for the idol. Tremolo strings and horns of futility support the Indiana throwing him the idol and Satipo’s betrayal. Horns of doom resound as a desperate Indiana leaps across the chasm, and safely slides under the descending stone slab. A stinger at 4:59 reveals Satipo’s impaled corpse. Frantic rapid-fire horns now propel Indiana as he runs for his life in front of a massive rolling rock. He crashes out of the entrance and rolls to a stop, surrounded by Belloq and his native assassins.

In “Flight from Peru” As Belloq turns his back and the natives kneel before their idol, Indiana bolts, again running for his life. Williams supports the chase unconventionally with a torrent of pizzicato strings and chirping woodwinds. At 1:03 Indiana’s Theme resounds as he reaches the plane and escapes. It carries their ascent, but at 1:38 a grating string ostinato supports Indy’s discovery of Jack’s pet snake in the cockpit! We conclude upon his theme as they fly into the sunset, closing on an idyllic diminuendo as we shift to his college. “Journey To Nepal” reveals Indiana accepting an offer by the US government to find and retrieve the Ark of the Covenant, lest in fall into the hands of the Nazis. He relates to Brody of the need to find the expert on the Ark, Professor Ravenwood, and his daughter Marion. Her name elicits a fleeting introduction of her theme on solo flute delicato, as there is history between them. As Brody relates the significance of the Ark, the Ark Theme joins as a mysterioso as it remains hidden. As Indiana boards a plane at 0:48, an embellished and exotic rendering of the A Phrase of his theme supports his boarding. An utterance of the Nazi Theme at 1:18 by horns sinistre informs us that agent Toht is also on the plane. We close on the A Phrase of his theme, which carries the progress of the plane’s flight across a map of the Pacific to Nepal.

We segue into “The Medallion”, a cue of mystery, drama, suspense and menace. We see Marion, drinking a local man under the table in a contest. When Indiana enters the reunion sparks Marion’s long repressed anger. They work through the past as he gives her $3,000 to buy the Medallion of Ra from her. He leaves at her insistence and as she pulls out the Medallion, its theme is introduced. An exotic solo English horn supported by shimmering tremolo violins and harp adornment creates an alluring, yet intangible mysterioso. At 0:43 the Nazi Theme resounds with menace as Agent Toht and his henchmen enter the saloon seeking the medallion. Sinister, dark horns and snare drums sow a growing unease as Marion rebuffs his offer. At 2:06 grotesque strings enter as Marion is forced down on a table by Toht’s men, as he grabs a red hot metal rod, and moves to sear her. We build upon a crescendo terrore, which is severed as Indiana snaps the rod out of Toht’s hand with his whip. The ensuing fight scene is unscored. In “To Cairo” the saloon has been destroyed by fire and Marion, who is holding the Medallion, asserts to Indy that she and him are now partners until she is paid in full. The Medallion Theme supports her demands. They board a plane to Cairo, and as it flies over a map, their progress is carried by interplay of their themes. As they arrive in Egypt, Williams bathes us in exotic Arabic auras. At 0:46 woodwinds giocoso support Marion and kids being entertained by a monkey. We close on Marion’s Theme as we see affection rekindled between her and Indy.

“The Basket Game” offers a score highlight, its first action cue, which is both energetic, but also comedic, if not farcical. It supports Arab henchmen ambushing Indy and Marion on a Cairo street. Horns sinistre sound the Nazi Theme, informing us of their lurking presence. At 0:19 they are ambushed and the fighting and chase scenes are fast paced and comedic. Williams provides a perfect marriage of scene and music, supporting with nontraditional action music consisting of rhythmic playful woodwinds, strings animato, percussion and staccato horns. At 2:20 horns barbaro sound as a man with a scimitar confronts Indy. Indy disdainfully dispatches him with his revolver and resumes his pursuit of Marion carried by the rhythmic playful woodwind line, now joined by a pulsing bassoon. Pizzicato strings join to sustain the light and bouncy rhythms of the pursuit until 3:53 when menacing horns support Indy being subjected to machine gun fire. We build on a crescendo as he shoots the driver of the truck, causing it to crash and burn in a fiery explosion. He is devastated, as he believes Marion has died. A plaintive rendering of her theme unfolds as Indy drinks to numb his pain. We close on the Nazi Theme as they arrive and ask him to come with them.

“The Map Room: Dawn” offers a magnificent score highlight where Williams’ music joins with Spielberg’s cinematography with stunning dramatic power. With 9:00 am approaching, Sallah secretly lowers Indy into the map room. The Ark Theme supports his descent and exploration of the chamber. Interplay with the Nazi Theme on horns sinistre and snare drums joins as Sallah is captured and their proximity threatens. We bear witness to one of the film’s most dramatic moments as Indy sets the medallion crowned staff into the mounting hole. The Ark Theme, with interplay of the Discovery and Medallion Themes, is now empowered by chorus and orchestra, both rising in their registers, building inexorably upon a crescendo to an astounding breath-taking climax born of trumpets brilliante declarations at 3:00 as we see a searing beam of light illuminate the location of the Well of Souls on the city map below. Indy records the location and is tossed a rope by Sallah, who managed to escape. The Ark Theme closes the cue, supporting their departure. In “Reunion And The Dig Begins” the Nazi Theme dominates as Indy and Sallah move unnoticed through the camp. Indy is forced to duck into a tent to avoid German soldiers, where he discovers Marion alive, gagged and tied up. Marion’s Theme supports his surprise and their kiss. The Ark Theme joins as he describes to her that he has found the location. He realizes that he cannot free her now, as the resulting search would prevent their sunset dig. He re-gags her and promises to return, and parts carried by her theme. As he uses a scope to mark the location of the Well of Souls the Ark and Nazi Themes entwine, raising suspense. We close with a horn crescendo of the Ark Theme as they begin their dig, which closes on a mysterioso diminuendo.

“The Well of Souls” supports two scenes; Marion dining with Belloq in his tent, and the discovery of the Well of Souls. The music for both is unstructured, ambient and threatening. We open with the discovery of an access slab on the roof of the Well of Souls. Ominous horns resound, and are joined by slithering strings, which support the discovery of a nest of snakes below. As the camera scans the floor, Williams supports with an atonal cacophony of grotesque trilling woodwinds and slithering strings, which creates feelings of dread in Indy. At 1:04 Belloq arrives and unties Marion, offering her food. Her attempt to escape is blocked by armed guards. Dark, ominous horns and low register woodwinds speak to his menace. The music softens as he asks that she change into a beautiful gown. As she emerges, he approves and the music becomes flirtatious as Marion seeks a means to placate him and escape. At 3:08 we shift back and see Indy being lowered into the Well of Souls carried by a musical descent. At 3:30 he lands hard and faces a Cobra. Darting and trilling woodwinds, eerie string figures, and growling horns sow tension as he calls for Sallah. A grotesque crescendo builds as Indy uses fire to keep the snakes at bay. We shift back to Belloq at 4:42 where pizzicato strings, join the earlier woodwind line as Marion tries to drink him under the table. The cue does not complete the scene, and excludes the Ark Theme supporting Indy and Sallah’s discovery of the Ark.

“Airplane Flight” supports a fierce action cue, which features some of Williams most intense and aggressive music of the score. Belloq sees the dig site and Nazi’s raid it and steal the ark. As the soldiers race to the dig site, Williams unleashes horns bellicose, which usher in at 0:18 the Nazi Theme, which resounds with aggressive and brutal power, transformed into a horrific marcia dall’inferno. A beleaguered rendering of Indy’s theme speaks to the hopelessness of his circumstance as they cast off his rope, throw Marion into the tomb, and seal the lid. At 1:13 a martial, snare drum percussive, and aggressive line propelled by horns bellicoso supports Indy’s and Marion’s escape from the snakes, and ultimately the tomb. At 1:48 Indy seeks to prevent the German plane’s preparations to fly the Ark to Berlin. As he and Marion fight three Germans, Williams provides a kinetic powerhouse with aggressive variants of the Nazi Theme contesting with his theme. As they run away victorious, his theme resounds as the plane blows up. “Desert Chase” brings us to an astounding score highlight, which features one of the finest marriages of music and film in Williams’ career, and for that matter, cinematic history. The Nazi’s load the Ark on a truck, and a convoy departs for Cairo. Indy rides out to stop them, an archetypal hero atop a white horse. He boards the Ark truck cab, commandeers it and we bear witness to one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. A highly rhythmic and staccato percussive rendering of the Nazi Theme contests for ascendency with the Raiders March, as advantage shifts back and forth between the Germans and Indiana. The sequence timing is extraordinary, and Williams’ music propels the fight with kinetic force. Well, Indiana overcomes all odds and successfully retakes the Ark, escapes capture, and the March concludes the cue, supporting his triumph!

In “Marion’s Theme” a very sore and beat up Indy has his wounds attended to by Marion, as their freighter departs for London. As she ministers to him and kisses him, her theme on flute delicato supports their intimacy. Slowly, yet inexorably the theme unfolds with stirring romantic power, blossoming with sumptuous ardor as they kiss. Yet, the moment is lost as he passes out from exhaustion. At 1:37 we shift to the ship’s hold where we see rats writhing in pain as the Nazi swastika is burned off the crate wall. Williams supports the scene with a frightful, otherworldly screeching string tremolo and ominous low register horns. “The German Sub” reveals the advantage shifting back to the Nazi’s as they intercept and board the freighter. Horns sinistre usher in the fierce martial staccato rhythms of the Nazi Theme fully carrying their malevolence as they take Marion hostage and retake the Ark. In an audacious move, Indy swims to the sub, which he boards, supported by a celebratory rendering of his theme! At 2:18 we segue into “To The Nazi Hideout” as the Nazi Theme carries the sub across a map to an obscure Greek island. We conclude with tension and suspense writing with interplay of a subdued Indy’s Theme, which supports his stealth movement off the sub to the dock, and his subduing a German for his uniform. In “Ark Trek” the Germans proceed in a faux religious procession to an altar site where a Jewish ritual will be performed to open the Ark. We open with a brief phrase of Indy’s Theme as he has embedded himself in the ranks. The Medallion Theme joins with the Ark Theme rendered as a grim marcia della morte, which crescendos with solemn and dramatic power. We close on a diminuendo as Belloq calls Indy’s bluff to blow up the Ark, resulting in his capture.

We now come to the film’s finale, “The Miracle of the Ark”, an astounding score highlight, where Williams masterfully evokes the mystery and wrath of God. Horns of doom sound as we see the Ark placed upon an altar. Lights and cameras have been setup to record the ceremony, and Belloq is dressed in ornate rabbinical robes. Indy and Marion are in the back, prisoners, tied to a stake. At 0:11 the Discovery Theme dances illusively as the ceremony commences. Formless woodwinds support Belloq’s ceremonial words, and portentous horns join as the Ark lid is removed. Woodwinds mysterioso and grim horns supports Belloq’s look of incredulity as the Ark’s contents is revealed to be sand, not the anticipated clay tablets of the ten commandments. Formless and twinkling ambient effects support the Colonel’s hand returning the sand he scooped out to the Ark as agent Toht snickers. At 1:38 the Ark Theme resounds as we see the lights and generators short out and explode. A diminuendo and string sustain supports the men’s stunned faces. At 1:59 the Ark Theme returns as a mysterioso as lights and sounds resonate within the Ark. Indy tells Marion to close her eyes, no matter what happens. The Ark Theme slowly intensifies with a growing menace at 2:36 as luminous angels begin flying out of the Ark and swirling about the men. At 2:41 the theme resounds on horns feroce and is joined at 2:55 by the Medallion Theme, as Nazi’s stand transfixed by the angelic beauty. At 3:31 Williams unleashes a horrific slashing ostinato as the angels transform into to hideous demons and begin attacking the Nazi’s. Bolts of lightning radiate out of the Ark, incinerating the men. The Colonel and agent Toht melt before our eyes as Belloq head explodes. The Ark Theme returns as a pillar of fire soars up through the clouds, as a purifying fire incinerates what remains of the Nazi’s at the site. The theme climaxes at 5:05 as the pillar of fire returns to the Ark, sealing it with its lid. Marion and Indy have been spared, their binds seared off, and they embrace in love supported by the Love Theme.

In “The Warehouse” the US government has taken possession of the Ark, paid Indy and the university handsomely, but refuse them access to it. Marion consoles a dejected Indiana and as they walk away hand in hand, with the Love Theme carrying their progress. At 0:25 we change scenes to a massive government warehouse filled with identical wooden boxes, where we see a lone man pushing the box enclosing the Ark to its new resting place. An eerie string tremolo supports a final reprise of the Ark Theme, again rendered as a mysterioso, which concludes with finality, offering one last declaration. “End Credits” provides Williams’ classic concert version of the Raiders March, which offers multiple statements of the A and B Phrases now joined with a full-extended rendering of the Love Theme. It is a popular encore favorite with fans around the world, a testament to its popularity.

I would like to thank Nick Redman for this excellent reissue of John Williams’ masterpiece, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Several unreleased cues and unreleased material are included, which makes for a more complete offering of the score. The sound quality is excellent and provides an exceptional listening experience. Williams recaptured the rousing spirit of Golden Age adventure scores with this inspired effort. Once again he captured a film’s emotional core with the Raiders March, a theme instantly recognizable to the public, and a popular encore demand by fans around the world. Williams’ conception of the score offers a testament to his genius. Three primary themes capture the essential elements of the film’s narrative; one bold and rousing for our hero, one tender and romantic for his lover, and one that speaks of the mystery and wrath of God for the Ark. Three secondary themes round out the score and support the suspense, mystery and villains. This is an iconic adventure score that may indeed be peerless, except for subsequent scores in the franchise. This score is a Bronze Age gem, and I highly recommend that you purchase it for your collection.

Buy the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Raiders March (2:50)
  • Main Title: South America, 1936 (4:10)
  • In the Idol’s Temple (5:26)
  • Flight from Peru (2:20)
  • Journey to Nepal (2:11)
  • The Medallion (2:55)
  • To Cairo (1:29)
  • The Basket Game (5:04)
  • The Map Room: Dawn (3:52)
  • Reunion and The Dig Begins (4:10)
  • The Well of the Souls (5:28)
  • Airplane Fight (4:37)
  • Desert Chase (8:15)
  • Marion’s Theme (2:08)
  • The German Sub/To the Nazi Hideout (4:32)
  • Ark Trek (1:33)
  • The Miracle of the Ark (6:05)
  • The Warehouse (0:56)
  • End Credits (5:20)

Running Time: 73 minutes 23 seconds

DCC Compact Classics DZS-090 (1981/1995)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams. Album produced by Nick Redman.

  1. July 23, 2018 at 11:33 am

    Nice one Craig.

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