Music in film: Indiana Jones and the perfect fifth

With Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures out today on Blu-ray, Ivan salutes John Williams’ outstanding theme…

Raiders Of The Lost Ark is re-released on Blu-ray in the UK today as part of Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures. It’s a move that’s got fedora fans around the world excited, giving them the chance to see one of the best movies of all time – plus Harrison Ford’s sexy young face – in high definition. But it’s more than that. As you’d expect from one of history’s few flawless films, Raiders Of The Lost Ark has a cracking soundtrack to match.

Of course, everyone knows Indiana Jones. They could sing his signature theme off by heart in the shower any day, along with most of John Williams’ other scores. And there are a lot to choose from; Williams is one of the most prolific (and greatest) composers ever to grace a cinema’s speakers, never more so than when working with Steven Spielberg. But among the umpteen Williams-Spielberg scores, Indiana Jones stands out. Why? Because it’s not the same as all the others.

Ah, yes, the good old Interchangeable John Williams Soundtrack Game. The basic premise, that almost any of Williams’ famous scores could be swapped wholesale for another without anyone realising, has kept families entertained at Christmas for decades. But what is it that defines that John Williams sound?

For the most part, the answer can be found in five notes – that’s the number he likes to jump up or down on a piano. The perfect fifth, an elemental interval of seven semitones that’s instantly recognisable from The Last Post, pops up in almost all of Williams’ work. It’s the driving energy of Star Wars, the iconic call of Superman – a fanfare that evokes images of the common man exploring the universe. Thanks to its use in Star Wars and other science fiction scores, it has come to epitomise the genre. (It’s no coincidence that the same interval began the score for Prometheus this year.)

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But it’s not just sci-fi that John Williams works the perfect fifth into. The interval is powerful enough to be turned upside down for the theme to Schindler’s List, inverting man’s sense of reach to convey the lowest point of human history. The result is a string of soundtracks that are astoundingly similar – not just in terms of quality.

That’s perhaps one of the reasons why Indiana Jones is so ear-catching: it’s one of the few iconic John Williams themes that aren’t based around that perfect fifth. But boy, does he keep us waiting for it. You’d expect to hear the Raiders March as soon as we clap eyes on our hero, but nope, that’s for later. Instead, Harrison Ford’s first appearance, walking out of the jungle shadows, is accompanied by sinister brass chords, a move that leaves us not knowing if he’s a good guy or a baddie for at least 10 minutes.

Luckily, Williams has a lot of other things to play with. What’s great about Raiders Of The Lost Ark is how interwoven the music is into the film; there are tons of audio cues in the introductory sequence alone. Uneven strings waver in the background, continuing that air of mystery, interrupted by stabs of strings when Forrestal’s dead body jumps out of the wall. There’s even a flurry of flutes to go with Indy’s leap over a chasm, followed by warm, reassuring chords as he and his partner make it safely across.

Then, silence, as Belloq pops out from behind a tree stump and steals the golden statue.

This is Williams at the peak of his powers, as unafraid of quiet as he is excited by the tiny details on screen. The pizzicato strings, for example, like spiders scurrying around the stave, are just the beginning of a series of subtle animal cues, culminating in an inspired use of rattles in The Well of the Souls. “Snakes!” hisses Indy, echoed by a whole band. Not a note is out of place, while the orchestration resists the temptation to become overcrowded. As a result, you can almost tell exactly what’s happening on screen throughout the movie without looking at all – testament to how carefully soundtracked it is.

There are, of course, the big numbers too. Marion’s love theme sounds like a cross between Princess Leia and Lois Lane, but it swoons with the best of them, perfectly suited to Williams’ witty geographical shifts; it translates gorgeously into Egyptian-style harmonies at the end of Flight to Cairo, only to be shot through with perilous blasts of brass during The Basket Game.

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The Ark’s aria is equally versatile. It pops up all over the place, starting in To Nepal, but erupts into life in The Map Room: Dawn, a daunting piece performed by a majestic choir and blaring trumpets. That haunting sense of menace gets even stronger as the film progresses – right up to the final frame. It’s incredible that after the Marion and Ark themes combine in A Thought for Marion/Journey to Nepal, they do so again for The Miracle of the Ark, full of careening strings and wobbly woodwind, and Washington Ending. Together, they close the film on a cheeky note, still refusing to give us what we want: that iconic main theme.

The second movement from the Raiders March gets a far fairer go at it, most notably in the ripping eight-minute accompaniment for the Desert Chase (with its rising tempo and frenetic lower half of the orchestra, it’s arguably one of the finest action pieces Williams has ever composed). Over the movie’s runtime, we get a good taste of the secondary theme’s range of moods, from slow and lush (Flight from Peru) to agitated and fun. It’s so catchy it’s no surprise that the theme started off as a rival contender for the role of Indy’s main tune, only for Spielberg to like both candidates so much that they became two parts of the same tune. (There’s even a perfect fifth thrown in to link the sections for good measure.)

Once all that brilliance has bounced off our eardrums, only then do we get our first taste of the full Raiders March over the end credits. After 100 minutes of waiting, the arrival of the whole symphonic piece is electrifying.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark may have the odd similarity to other Williams’ scores (the Nazis sound strikingly like The Empire from Star Wars) but its voice is unique. Not just because it doesn’t rely on that five-note interval, but because its other themes are all strong in their own right. Shot through with the period bombast of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1940s romps (Korngold’s Kings Row also influenced Star Wars), it’s hard to think of a more rounded soundtrack than Indy’s debut outing. And thanks to years of incomplete album releases – the superb Indiana Jones Soundtrack Collection released in 2008 is as close to the full package as it gets – the film itself remains the best place to hear it.

It’s just one more reason to re-watch Raiders at any given opportunity. Accompanied by Harrison Ford’s hi-def face, the music is energetic, fully formed and for a composer who’d already been round the block a few times, it nails the thrill of a brand new adventure.

You can read Ivan’s previous Music in film column here.

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