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  • Stefan Riedlinger

Raiders of the Lost Ark - John Williams - Soundtrack Review

This week another legendary soundtrack, John Williams "Raiders of The Lost Arc". With the role of Henry Indiana Jones Jr Harrison Ford get his second role in another very successful franchise and became finally a legend for action fans. John Williams composed the music for both franchises, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was another step in becoming the best-known composer of soundtracks.

The movie

The first movie in the “Indiana Jones”-franchise was the result of George Lucas' intention to create a modern version of the serials of the 1930s and 1940s he watched as a kid. These series had a very straight forwarded storytelling and each episode ends with a cliffhanger, a scene which features the main character in a very dangerous situation he had to escape off, e.g. he was confronted by a many of bad guys, lost his weapons, fall into a trap, was locked into a room with a bomb etc. The idea of these cliffhangers was to make sure that the audience will return to see how the hero survived this difficult situation.

Here is the trailer:

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a 1981 American action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay written by Lawrence Kasdan, from a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Harrison Ford plays the archaeologist Prof. Henry Jones who finds himself soon fighting against a group of Nazis who are searching for the Ark of the Covenant, which Adolf Hitler believes will make his army invincible.

The film co-stars Karen Allen as Indy's former lover Marion Ravenwood who returned for the fourth movie and finally get married to Henry Jones. Paul Freeman plays Indiana's rival, the French archaeologist René Belloq, John Rhys-Davies gives a great performance as Indiana's sidekick, Sallah, Ronald Lacey is unbelievable good as the sadistic Gestapo agent Arnold Toht who is killed in a shocking way in the end; and Denholm Elliott gives his first performance as Indiana's colleague Marcus Brody the typical stereotype of an academic lecturer who has trouble to survive in the real world.

The first movie is perhaps the best in the whole franchise. The sequel is unnecessarily violent, and the fourth one is overall not a good movie. With Sean Connery playing Indiana Jones’ father, the third one is by far the most entertaining one of the series. The showdown of “Raiders” scared the crap out of me when I saw it as a teenager, especially the face melt scene, but also the opening scene... my God, I hate spiders!

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” opened at #14 and grossed $1,673,731 during its opening weekend. The film, made on an $18 million budget, grossed $384 million worldwide, and was the highest-grossing film of 1981 in the US. It remains one of the top twenty-five highest-grossing films ever made when adjusted for inflation.

The music

By composing the music for this movie, I am sure John Williams had no idea that he was composing the music for the next big franchise his name became tight to. The Raiders-March is one of the most popular themes in movie history and like the Imperial March from “Star Wars”, the “Superman”-theme, the theme for “Jaws” or recently the “Harry Potter”-theme another iconic theme Williams composed.

If you compare all four soundtracks to the “Indiana Jones”-movies, I think the first one is the best. What I really like in this score is the haunting atmosphere, similar to John Williams’ music for “Dracula” which I discussed in this book, too.

Therefore, my favourite track is the "The Map Room Down". Here you can listen to a perfect example of how to underscore a movie scene in a perfect way. The piece starts slowly with the haunting theme, builds then up the suspense, and when the sun finally comes out and shows Indy the way to the Ark, the orchestra opens and the music finally erupts. If you listen to this music, you have immediately the scene in your mind. This track is for sure one of the best tracks Williams ever composed.

There are different versions of this soundtrack, so I will not mention the track listing here. The CD I have has 19 tracks and begins with “The Raiders March”. If you compare this soundtrack with the later Indiana Jones scores, then this music is the most modern one in the way of composing.

Some tracks are very dependent on the dramatic structure of the film, e.g. “Main Title: South America, 1936” when Indiana Jones get introduced in the movie. A fabulous scene, and I wish that Spielberg would have created such a scene for the fourth movie when Indy appears finally on screen after such a long waiting for the fourth “Indiana Jones”.

The next track “In The Idol’s Temple” is orchestrated in an astonishing way. Listen to the way Williams underscores the scene when Jones discovers the spiders. Williams builds up perfectly the haunting atmosphere and creates musical suspense until Indy finally stands in front of the golden statue. The music then switches immediately to action when Indy must escape. A perfect piece of music!

With “Journey To Nepal”, we hear the first time the wonderful love theme (longer and better later in the track “Marion’s Theme”), but here it is immediately interrupted by the theme for the Arc. I do not want to comment on every track, so let’s mention “The Basket Game” as one of an early example of the typical funny tracks in the scherzo style that is Williams famous for. “Airplane Fight” and “Desert Chase” are good examples of Williams action writing with its dominant focus on the brass section to underscore the military aspects of the movie.

Before we have the music for the showdown, the track “Art Trek” gives us another strong performance of the haunting Ark theme. “The Miracle Of The Ark” is underscoring the shocking finale with its amazing special effects. Williams transforms the whole magical atmosphere into music and underscores the shocking effects with rude and nearly brutal orchestra attacks. This kind of violent music is typical for the early soundtracks of Williams, and therefore, I like these scores much better than his later score which are more easy listening. The music for the death of the Nazis is so close to temporary classical music as Williams has never been before. The last minute brings this piece to a majestic ending, again with the Ark theme. “The Warehouse” and the “End Credits” bring the soundtrack to an end.

You can argue if “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is Steven Spielberg’s best action movie, but for sure, this score is the most astonishing score in Williams’ whole career. He was never better, and for me, this score tops even his “Star Wars” soundtracks because of the perfect balance of romance and action, but especially because of the rudeness of the orchestral approach.

Find here the famous Riders March:

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2014, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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