When it comes to sci-fi nerds, movie geeks, and Speilberg buffs, there is one name that we all salute: composer John Williams.
In 1981, Williams was given the task of composing yet another soundtrack for his buddy Steven: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back before it, it needed identifiable themes to accompany our characters: the heroic school teacher (!) Indiana Jones, his one true love Marion, and a whole slew of evil Nazis. This time Williams needed to come up with appropriate music not for epic space battles, but to inspire awe in the wrath of God and the Ark of the Covenant.
To go with the 2008 theatrical release of (the atrocious) Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Lucasfilm remixed and reissued the original Raiders soundtrack with 30 minutes of bonus tracks. (Unfortunately, both the LP and box set have music not on this CD, but we don’t get this stuff for free, so a review of this CD is all you get.) Virtually every note will be familiar to fans both casual and die-hard.
Indy begins his adventure “In the Jungle” and immediately you can picture the spiders and creepy-crawlies that Indy had to step through. “The Idol Temple” has even more creepy-crawlies, and Williams expertly finds the musical effects to go with the eight-legged chills. Just like the movie, be ready to jump startled at certain cues. Serious action begins on “Escape from the Temple”, the kind of track that is a benchmark for such scenes. The “Flight From Peru” is the very first appearance of the famous Indiana Jones theme, as he escapes death…barely!
In America, Indy is paid a visit at the school by two “Washington Men” who want him to find something. This is the eerie, understated debut of the Ark’s theme, though Indy’s own theme plays around with it, indicating the two will eventually collide. “A Thought for Marion” introduces her theme, and then back to the Ark’s music once again. The ominous overtones indicate that Indy’s mission to find the Ark will not be easy. He is then off to Nepal with music that hints at the dangers ahead. In Nepal he finds both Marion and the medallion, which has its own dark music. The military drums foreshadow the involvement of the Nazi forces also searching for the Ark.
The score takes a slight middle eastern turn with “Flight to Cairo”, also augmented with Indy and Marion’s themes. The two must find the Ark before the Nazis do with the help of Indy’s old Egyptian friend Sallah. Marion finds herself in trouble almost immediately. “The Basket Game” is one of the most memorable cues from the movie, though it ended badly for Marion and Indy. Williams uses articulate melodies in a cartoon-like style to hint at the motion happening on screen. With Marion gone, Indy must continue his quest with Sallah. Together they visit a wise man, and discover that someone is trying to poison them with “Bad Dates”.
“The Map Room” is the setting for the next piece, building tension back with the Ark theme. This incredible cue ends with Indy discovering the location of the Well of the Souls. What I always assumed were sound effects in the scene is actually music (chimes). Soon he finds Marion alive and well. Her theme and that of the Ark return for another go-round as the heroes finally find the treasure. The music when the Ark is found is similar to that in the Star Wars scene where the first Death Star explodes. More creepy-crawlies (“Snakes…why’d it have to be snakes?”) infest “The Well of the Souls”, surely the creepiest scene in the movie.
Another great Indy action cue is “Indy Rides the Statue”, a piece of music that recurs when our hero is in great danger. Escaping the Well of the Souls, Indy must battle a massive German henchman in “The Fist Fight”. The tension is turned up again, and fans will recall this piece from one of the most punishing action scenes in the film. “The Desert Chase” is the longest piece on the album, to suit a roller-coaster scene of thrills and chills. The music delivers the same thrills, as you can picture Indy on that horse chasing down those Nazis. It’s among Williams’ finest music.
A tender moment (“Marion’s Theme”) is short lived as the Nazis return. The action-packed music takes Indy to a secret Nazi island in the Mediterranean (“The German Sub” and “Ride to the Nazi Hideout”). The horrifying finale reveals “The Miracle of the Ark”, and again some of Williams’ best music. The end credits music “Raiders March” is some of most memorable music in film history. It revisits the most exciting music from the score. It is similar in style and equal in quality to what John Williams did with the Star Wars saga end credits. This single track should be in any serious music lover’s collection.
For a more knowledgeable take on the Raiders soundtrack, we spoke to Rob Daniels from the Visions In Sound radio programme. He had this to add:
When I first heard John Williams’ score to Raiders I immediately fell in love with the theme. In fact it has been my ring tone on my phone for several years over at least three phones. That being said the score to Raiders is much more than its theme. By the way, the theme is actually two separate pieces that Williams had written to be the title theme for the film. Speilberg loved them both and asked them to be combined.
John Williams is the master of memorable themes and Raiders is no exception. There are several wonderful themes such as the aforementioned “Raiders March” but also to be commended is “Marion’s Theme” and the “Ark Theme”. Though I have to admit that my favourite comes in the cue “Desert Chase” as Indy is going after the Ark as it is on its way to Cairo. As the cues play you can see the Nazi soldiers being thrown from the truck and Indy’s fight in the cab with one of them as he eventually gets dragged behind the truck to his final victory and escape. It’s an amazing piece of audio gymnastics in an 8:18 cue.
Williams is known for his broad themes (See Star Wars & Superman) but he also plays the smaller moments just as well. (See “The Medallion” & “To Cairo” cue). In the hands of another composer this could have been just another score but Williams elevated the film to a fun and epic adventure that can be playful, sad and triumphant, sometimes all in the same cue.
The remixing renders an awesome sounding CD with the depth and clarity you expect. A nice looking booklet has the images to go with it. Remember listening to a soundtrack while leafing through the photos in the LP? Relive that with the reissued Raiders of the Lost Ark.