Home > Reviews > INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE – John Williams



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The third movie in director Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and whereas 1984’s Temple of Doom was a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Last Crusade was a direct sequel, set just two years later in 1938. Harrison Ford returns as the titular archaeologist-adventurer, who is sent off on a globe-trotting escapade when he receives news from American billionaire Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) that his long-estranged father Henry Jones (Sean Connery) has gone missing while searching for the holy grail. Jones teams up with his old friends and colleagues Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) on the quest to find his father, and quickly becomes embroiled in a vast labyrinthine plot involving ancient myths and legends, a brotherhood of religious warriors, way too many Nazis, and a beautiful Austrian art professor named Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) to whom there is more than meets the eye. The whole thing is a delight from start to finish, with several wonderfully exciting action set pieces, and beautiful location settings, but the cornerstone of the film is the father-and-son chemistry between Ford and Connery, whose outward gruffness and constant bickering masks a deep love and affection. Whereas Ford is an all-action matinee idol hero, Connery is a slightly bumbling academic, more at home with books and libraries than punching Nazis in the face, but who is still able to make his son feel like a 12-year old when he calls him ‘junior’.

The score for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was, of course, by the legendary John Williams. It was the ninth collaboration between Williams and Spielberg – the first being The Sugarland Express in 1974 – and was sandwiched between 1987’s Empire of the Sun and Always, which was released later in 1989; it would eventually earn Williams his 26th Academy Award nomination. By the summer of 1989 the Raiders March had firmly established itself as one of the most famous and popular movie themes ever written, and so of course Williams uses it again here as the recurring identity for the film’s protagonist, but it does not appear as frequently as one might expect. Both Spielberg and Williams felt that the Raiders March had the potential to become something of a crutch that pandered to audience expectations rather than making actual real dramatic sense, and so the decision was made to keep its use only to the most important moments. Instead, Williams went out of his way to create a multitude of new themes to represent the new characters, concepts, and locations specific to this film, ensuring that the score had its own musical identity. It’s this sort of thing which has always set Williams apart from his peers; while lesser composers would have been content to sit on their laurels and repeat themselves on third films in a franchise, especially if they had something as iconic as the Raiders March in their arsenal, Williams went the extra mile.

The main new theme heard in the score is the Grail Theme, which of course acts as a recurring idea related to Henry Jones’s lifelong quest to find the legendary artifact. A long-lined melody with clear religioso overtones, it is carried by both strings and woodwinds, sometimes separately, sometimes consecutively, and over the years it has become one my personal favorite ‘secondary themes’ from the Williams canon. The second main theme is the theme for Henry Jones, and it is tonally very similar to the Grail Theme; it is usually heard on warm oboes backed with sympathetic and elegant strings, and is often played sequentially after a statement of the Grail theme. This is a clever conceptual decision that Williams made as their constant juxtaposition allows the audience to develop an auditory link between the two ideas: Henry’s entire personality is wrapped up with his Grail obsession, so it stands to reason that the two themes would complement each other.

The third main theme is a sinister brass fanfare for the Nazis, a flurry of minor-key portentousness that appears whenever the book-burning goose-stepping goons are threatening the heroes. The fourth theme is a ‘Father and Son’ theme for Indiana and Henry, a slightly more playful motif that speaks to both their slightly strained relationship, and Henry’s penchant for using the most comically ineffective method imaginable to escape from whatever situation he is in. The fifth and final recurring theme is the one for the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, an ancient order dedicated to protecting the Grail from all those who seek it for selfish purposes; the Brotherhood theme is a slightly menacing motif that moves between a tinkling dulcimer and vaguely Middle Eastern-woodwinds on top of a bed of high string sustains and light electronic tones. Interestingly, the brief love theme for the relationship between Indy and Elsa is not really given much prominence, which marks a first for a series that has had more than its fair share of swooning musical romance.

The score actually opens with “Indy’s Very First Adventure,” an 8-minute set piece that underscores a flashback sequence to the influential moment of young Indiana Jones’s life as, while on a boy scout trip in Utah, he simultaneously discovers his love of both exploration and archaeology. Young Indy (River Phoenix) witnesses a posse of scavengers led by a handsome rogue in a fedora stealing an ancient artifact – the Cross of Coronado – from a cave. Determined to make sure that the cross ends up in its rightful place in a museum, Indy steals the cross from them, and is chased across the desert by the crooks, eventually ending up on a traveling circus locomotive. The cue begins with a series of beautiful orchestral textures that range from soft and mysterious to playful and whimsical, before an exotic-sounding motif for the Cross of Coronado is first heard at 3:27 amid a flourish of Spanish guitars. Thereafter the cue explodes into a rich, exciting action sequence which is initially underpinned with a recurring 6-note ostinato that moves between strings and woodwinds, but eventually develops into a jaunty and playful scherzo filled with flashing woodwinds, heroic brass fanfares, energetic string runs, and a palpable sense of fluid movement, all peppered with more statements of the Coronado motif. Some of the more horrific textures and dissonant moments towards the end of the cue accompany the scenes where Young Indy develops his fear of snakes, obtains the scar on his chin, and first uses a bullwhip – seminal incidents in the young man’s life.

Having learned of his father’s disappearance, Indy travels to Venice to meet with Elsa Schneider, an art professor who was helping Henry with his research. “X Marks the Spot” underscores the scene where Indy and Elsa visit the library inside the Church of San Barnaba, where Henry was last seen before his disappearance. Williams uses elegant orchestral lines, hints of the Raiders march, and several statements of the Grail theme to accompany Indy and Elsa as they use Henry’s ‘grail diary’ to figure out what he was doing and why. The whole thing has an upbeat, positive tone, and is notable for the first appearance of the Brotherhood motif at 1:08 as Kazim, the leader of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, watches them from afar. The subsequent “Ah, Rats!!!!” is a light horror sequence for the scene where Indy and Elsa find themselves trapped in the catacombs beneath Venice, and are swamped by thousands of rats trying to escape a fireball set by Kazim. Shrill cascading strings, dark brass chords, and piercing woodwind textures underscore the horror of the rats, while religioso writing for high strings and stately, noble statements of the Grail Theme give Indy and Elsa’s discovery of a crusader knight’s sarcophagus a real sense of dramatic reverence. Henry’s theme is introduced for the first time at 2:02 on thoughtful oboes as Indy muses about how his father would feel if he was there in the tomb of a knight; the answer comes in the finale of the piece, a bombastic action sequence for rampaging brass and string runs which Henry would not have liked at all.

Eventually, Indy and Else attempt to “Escape from Venice” by commandeering a speedboat and whizzing through the Venetian canals, with Kazim and the Brotherhood in hot pursuit. Williams introduces an exciting new action motif here, filled with throbbing brasses and surging strings, and interspersed with percussion hits and cymbal clashes. The amusing inclusion of mandolins speaks to the Venetian setting, and is a clever and unexpected addition to the orchestration. The rhythmic core of the piece changes after the 2:15 mark and becomes more urgent, like a countdown, as a set of massive steel propellers begin eating away at all the speedboats – and the people within them! Williams ends the piece with a clever combination of both the Brotherhood theme and the Grail theme, as Kazim reveals his true purpose and the motivations for his actions to Indy.

Indy and Elsa learn that Henry is being held captive by Nazis in a lavish castle in the Austrian Alps, and set off there to rescue him. Much of the music heard in the castle scene does not appear on the original album, and so “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” – which appears out of chronological order on the soundtrack – is the only piece of music from this sequence. It underscores Indy and Henry’s escape from the castle in a motorcycle and sidecar, as they careen through the forest pursued by various Nazi goons. The scherzo is a fun, energetic, propulsive action sequence for dancing flutes on top of a lively orchestral undercurrent. There is so much effervescence in the writing here, with wonderful interplay between the different sections, and the orchestrations are a sheer delight, featuring notably vivid brass trills, a number of pizzicato textures, and significant use of glockenspiel and celesta in the percussion. This cue also marks the first appearance of the Nazi motif on the album, at 1:23, although it is much more prominent in the film.

“No Ticket” is a light comedy sequence as Indy and Henry, having boarded a German zeppelin, try to evade a number of Nazi Gestapo agents. The combination writing for prancing strings and nimble woodwinds, slurring and slithering all around the orchestra, is wonderful, and offers a slightly farcical change of pace from much of the rest of the score. “Keeping Up With the Joneses” marks the first significant appearance of the Father and Son theme, forming the cornerstone of a third action scherzo, the majority of which was excised from the final cut of the film (but likely would have accompanied the deleted scene where Indy and Henry escape from the zeppelin in a bi-plane). The 10-note core idea of the theme is transformed into a rhythmic ostinato that darts between woodwinds and brasses, and is underpinned by some typically Williams-esque energetic orchestral flourishes. The more melancholy version of the theme at the end of the cue is interesting, and adds a different dimension to the piece that is more lyrical and thoughtful

The finale of the film takes place in Hatay, in what is now southern Turkey and western Syria. The Nazis are using tanks to cross the desert to the ancient temple where the grail is supposedly held, with Marcus captive inside one of them; Indy, Henry, and Sallah are tracking them, trying to rescue Marcus, and get to the temple first. “Belly of the Steel Beast” is a wonderfully aggressive, masculine action sequence that underscores the initial part of the chase; Williams uses militaristic brass, metallic percussion, a relentless rhythmic core that mimics the sound of the clanking Panzers, and flashes of the Raiders March at the most heroic moments. It’s a quite breathtaking piece of music – some of it foreshadows some of the militaristic writing from The Phantom Menace, while also offering echoes of the Battle of Hoth sequence from The Empire Strikes Back, especially when the staccato muted brasses and swooping woodwinds enter just after the 2:30 mark. Williams seems to musically equate Nazi tanks with Imperial AT-AT walkers, which of course makes perfect sense. “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon” begins with a slower version of the Father & Son theme, for the moment where Henry thinks Indy has perished falling off a cliff with a tank, and genuinely mourns for the son he loves; there is a playful moment when a light statement of the Raiders march reaffirms Indy’s survival, and father and son express their affection for each other – possibly for the first time in their lives. Low-key brass fanfares and Middle Eastern woodwind textures herald their eventual arrival at the grail temple; the subsequent sequence of tension and dissonance accompanies the numerous soldiers who repeatedly fail to navigate the temple’s booby traps… with appropriately gory results.

With his father having been shot in the stomach, Indy is now forced to navigate the temple’s booby traps himself, knowing that the only way he can save his father is to find the grail. “The Penitent Man Will Pass” accompanies Indy’s dangerous journey through the traps; there are repeated statements of the Grail theme, on noble and majestic brass, but the theme often sounds a little fractured, spoiled by a bank of nervous high strings commenting on the danger. This cue also sees Williams engaging in some instrumental and temporal variations on the Grail theme for the first time; the huge choral moment at 1:27 is a score highlight, while other variations perform the theme at a much faster pace, and with more emphasis on strings. “The Keeper of the Grail” – which is programmed to be the seventh cue, but actually appears here sequentially – is filled with gorgeous religioso textures, and several lyrical and inviting statements of both the Grail theme and Henry’s theme, as Indy finally enters the lair of the Grail Knight who has been guarding the artifact for hundreds of years, him having been kept alive by the Grail’s power. The cue builds through passages for heraldic brass and gorgeous string tones, but also has some moments of abstraction, reminding us that, if you want to find the true grail amongst the decoys you must not choose… poorly.

The 10-minute finale of the score is the “End Credits,” which accompanies Indy, Henry, Sallah, and Marcus, as they ride off into the sunset, with the bad guys having been vanquished, and the Grail itself rendered safe for all eternity. The piece is basically a medley of all the score’s main thematic ideas: Henry’s Theme at 0:21, a sweeping final statement of the Grail Theme at 0:40 as the Knight bids them a respectful farewell, a stirring performance of the Father & Son theme at 1:20, and then a full statement of the entire Raiders March beginning at 2:07. The Father & Son theme is reprised at 4:41, and there is an elongated statement of the Motorcycle Scherzo at 6:24 (with the Nazi Theme at 6:37!), before we come back to the Raiders March at 9:02 to finish.

The original Warner Brothers release of the score for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has been the recipient of a great deal of criticism over the years, for its non-chronological running order, and for its less-than-stellar sound quality, but mostly for the fact that it contains just 58 minutes of the more than 2 hours of music Williams actually wrote for the film. As much as I have always quite liked the original album, I was certainly pleased when some of these issues were addressed in the 2009 expanded release from Concord Records and producer Laurent Bouzereau.

The expanded album includes several long sought-after cues, including “The Boat Scene” where Indy re-acquires the Cross of Coronado for a second time and where Williams is able to provide some more variations on his Coronado motif, and much more music from the Castle Brunwald sequence, including some sultry jazz textures for the duplicitous Elsa in “The Austrian Way” – the score’s only clear statement of their love theme – and some playful action featuring more versions of the Nazi motif and the Motorcycle scherzo in “Alarm!” Possibly the pick of the new material, however, is “On the Tank,” a truly scintillating action sequence which takes place in the middle of the desert chase, where Indy engages in hand-to-hand combat with a never-ending line of Nazis. The piece is similar, tonally, to “Belly of the Steel Beast,” but somehow has a much more vibrant and expressive brass undercurrent that at times almost feels jazzy. It’s fantastic, and a genuine welcome addition.

If that were not enough, the Concord box set that includes all four Indiana Jones scores has a fifth disk featuring six more bonus cues not already included on the regular expanded album. Some of the cues are little more than padding, but one or two of them are noteworthy, including the fascinating variations on both the Nazi theme and Henry’s theme in “To the Blimp,” the slightly melancholy version of the Grail theme in “The Blimp Turns Around,” and the explosion of horror music cacophony at the beginning of “Wrong Choice, Right Choice” which illustrates beyond doubt what happens to those who drink from the wrong grail. The end of that cue also features some of the most moving statements of the Grail theme, sounding less traditional John Williams and more like something Miklós Rózsa might have written for Ben-Hur.

While some may be satisfied with the shorter original release, my personal preference is for the 2009 expanded version, as it offers several additional variations on the secondary themes which give the score more depth. Whatever version you choose, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade remains an essential purchase for John Williams fans. What I like about it the most is the fact that, as I said earlier, Williams never took the series for granted, or treated the film like a lesser version of itself due to it being a third sequel; the expansive thematic content and the numerous brilliant action set-pieces make it very much its own musical animal, distinct enough to be original but close enough to the others to be clearly part of a series. Speaking personally, I have always placed the Grail theme, the Motorcycle scherzo, and the Nazi motif among my all-time favorite John Williams secondary themes, and hearing them get so much love and attention here is superbly gratifying.

Buy the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Indy’s Very First Adventure (8:11)
  • X Marks the Spot (3:07)
  • Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra (3:49)
  • Ah, Rats!!!! (3:36)
  • Escape from Venice (4:21)
  • No Ticket (2:42)
  • The Keeper of the Grail (3:21)
  • Keeping Up With the Joneses (3:35)
  • Brother of the Cruciform Sword (1:53)
  • Belly of the Steel Beast (5:26)
  • The Canyon of the Crescent Moon (4:16)
  • The Penitent Man Will Pass (3:23)
  • End Credits (Raiders March) (10:36)
  • Indy’s Very First Adventure (12:00)
  • The Boat Scene (2:21)
  • X Marks the Spot (3:11)
  • Ah, Rats!!! (3:40)
  • Escape from Venice (4:22)
  • Journey to Austria (0:38)
  • Father and Son Reunited (1:48)
  • The Austrian Way (2:39)
  • Alarm! (3:05)
  • Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra (3:52)
  • No Ticket (2:44)
  • Keeping Up With the Joneses (3:36)
  • Brother of the Cruciform Sword (1:56)
  • On the Tank (3:37)
  • Belly of the Steel Beast (5:28)
  • The Canyon of the Crescent Moon (4:17)
  • The Penitent Man Will Pass (3:23)
  • The Keeper of the Grail (3:24)
  • Finale and End Credits (10:37)
  • Father’s Study (2:27) – Box Set Exclusive Bonus Track
  • Marcus is Captured/To Berlin (1:55) – Box Set Exclusive Bonus Track
  • To the Blimp (2:03) – Box Set Exclusive Bonus Track
  • The Blimp Turns Around (1:29) – Box Set Exclusive Bonus Track
  • Death of Kazim (2:26) – Box Set Exclusive Bonus Track
  • Wrong Choice, Right Choice (4:36) – Box Set Exclusive Bonus Track

Running Time: 58 minutes 43 seconds (Warner)
Running Time: 91 minutes 55 seconds (Concord)

Warner Bros. 925-883-2 (1989)
Concord Records CRE-31004-02 (1989/2009)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer, Alexander Courage and John Neufeld. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Original Warner album produced by John Williams. Expanded Concord album produced by Laurent Bouzereau.

  1. June 24, 2019 at 8:23 am

    Oh man, it took me ages to realize the Father & Son theme was different than the Grail’s theme. Or recognize its earlier performances… sigh. Regardless, I was reading your Beauty and the Beast review, and I was wondering if you intended to do the same with Aladdin?

  2. July 12, 2019 at 2:34 pm

    This has always been one of my favourite scores.

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