Five Musically Important Scenes In “Raiders Of the Lost Ark”

Here we are…

One of John Williams’s best-known works is 1981’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was the first time George Lucas’s iconic character was seen by the public, and as anyone who has watched the film can attest, it’s something special. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it hits all the right points with story, acting, humor, scene composition, and of course, music.

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Original Vintage Movie Posters

For those who might not be familiar with Raiders’ plot, it’s simply this: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an archaologist, college professor, and all around adventurer. When he finds out his longtime rival, Belloq (Paul Freeman) is working with the Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant, naturally he has to go stop him, because, duh, Nazis getting hold of the Ark would be very, very bad.

Indy isn’t alone in his quest. His longtime friend, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) is on hand to provide assistance and motivation, especially when Indy encounters snakes, which he famously hates. He’s also joined by Marian (Karen Allen) a bar owner and longtime sparring partner who invites herself along after her bar burns down.

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I could say more, but it’s chock-full of the breath-stealing twists and turns that Spielberg is famous for, so it should be seen to be appreciated.

Indiana Jones is an homage to action serials of the nineteen-thirties, and the score punctuates that. Williams’ theme is instantly recognizable, using his trademark six-note motif. Themes are often the most labor-intensive for Williams, who has said that he wants these motifs to sound completely natural despite their simple appearance.

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What’s interesting is that Williams wrote two themes for Raiders. One is the fanfare that we all recognize, and the other became the bridge of the fanfare. How did that happen? Williams ran both themes by Spielberg, who liked them equally, so Williams combined them, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Working with Lucas and Spielberg was a pleasure for Williams, who appreciated both men’s enjoyment of music and their understanding of music portraying character. Not only that, but Williams compared Indiana Jones to Star Wars in that each movie in the series built on themes and characters established over the course of time.

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Williams’s music isn’t played over every scene of Raiders; there are quite a few instances when there’s only dialogue or ambient noise. When it counts, though, the score makes a big impression. Here are some of the scored scenes that always jump out at me:

Indy vs. the Idol

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This is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly constructed scenes in film history. Not only does Harrison Ford play things to the hilt and not break once, but Williams’ music tells what he’s thinking and what we, the audience, should be feeling. As Indy reaches for the idol, the music travels up the scale, the notes getting more discordant as the stakes get higher. When he finally grabs the idol, there’s a quick glissando to the top of the scale and a very brief pause before the score’s tempo jumps to allegro. Williams was reminding all of us to breathe, and then signaling that Indy ought to run. The scene is only a few seconds long, but it’s effective as all get out.

Marian and Indy go shopping

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Williams’s score gets very busy here with lots of light staccato notes because there is a ton of activity happening from different people all over the scene all at the same time. Then as Indy and Marian run into the bad guys, the notes get heavier and busier, because it’s not just our two main characters reacting but everyone around them enjoying the show. There’s a lot to keep track of and a lot of payoff.

Indy in the Map Room

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The score in this scene is very flowy and again, slightly discordant because Indy doesn’t know what to expect. As he uncovers more clues we hear major chords, and the music goes back and forth between discordance and resolve. Once everything becomes clear we see light breaking onto Indy’s face while the music crescendos. It’s a great moment and beautifully constructed.

Indy and Sallah find the Ark of the Covenant

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Things are all over the place in the temple scenes. While Indy has a face-off with a cobra the string section notes bend upwards, because, well, there are a lot of other snakes around as well (Shudder. I don’t like snakes, either). When Indy and Sallah pull the Ark from its hiding place, the score’s notes breathe up and down with just a touch of discord because it’s cool that they’ve found the Ark, but there’s also the question of, “Yikes, what have we done?”

Indy and Marian’s almost-love scene

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Williams’ music here is, again, very flowing with lots of romantic strings, and as things seem to get going it all builds, but then it drops off when Indy falls asleep. It’s one of the few scenes without discord, because things are relatively certain. There are also slight twinges of melancholy to the initial notes, as if the characters know they are on borrowed time before the next stage in their adventure. Still, it’s a scene that nicely plays into Indy and Marian’s combative dynamic.


There’s another terrific bit I could talk about, but I don’t want to give away too much in case someone hasn’t seen Raiders. Suffice it to say that it’s a musical bait-and-switch and the comeuppance factor is glorious.

In a 2003 interview, Williams said this about working on the Indiana Jones franchise:

For me, the experience of doing the trilogy…has been an important one, and the overall stretch of what I’ve done in film. It was a joyous experience doing this always with George and Steven, and the fact that the music that I can still play in concerts and that other people will still do that from time to time is enormously gratifying to me, that people remember them on its musical legs, so to speak, which is, I have to say, the result of a happy coincidence that people remember these films so well.

For more of the great John Williams, please click here. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’re enjoying our lovely bloggers’ posts, too. See you soon…


Raiders of the Lost Ark is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.

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Bibliography

“The Music of Indiana Jones.” Dir. Laurent Bouzereau. Performance by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and John Williams. Lucasfilm, 2003. (documentary)

9 thoughts on “Five Musically Important Scenes In “Raiders Of the Lost Ark”

  1. I love, LOVE the music in this film. I find it inspiring and uplifting, not to mention timeless. Time to see this series again!

    P.S. Thanks for hosting this blogathon. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for John Williams as a composer, conductor, and an individual.

    Liked by 1 person

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