Celebrating 40 years of John Williams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark themes

It’ll soon be time to keep up with the Joneses again, because Indiana Jones 5 is on its way. Harrison Ford has been spotted on location at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, filming the latest instalment of the classic adventure series that was initiated by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Spielberg has stepped aside for this instalment, giving way to Le Mans ’66 filmmaker James Mangold. It’s the first time any director other than Spielberg has tackled an Indy movie, and there are some big shoes to fill. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) are considered among the greatest action movies ever made.

One important creative who is returning is composer John Williams. He’s been with the series since Raiders, and has fashioned a dazzling myriad of musical themes and motifs, centrally held together by the rollicking ‘Raiders March’. Given that Raiders recently turned 40 years old, here’s our deep dive into Williams’ engrossing, thrilling and often frightening musical canvas.


1. ‘The Raider’s March’

Williams originally came up with two separate pieces for Indiana Jones. When he confessed to Steven Spielberg that he didn’t know which ones to use, the director suggested Williams stitch them together. Hence, there is a clear A and B section to the progression of Jones’ iconic March, spanning the symphonic section from the brass to the strings and staying resolutely in the major key to honour the winning spirit of matiness adventures from years gone by. One can hear the clear echoes of Star Wars and Superman resonating in this timeless Williams piece.

2. ‘Marion’s Theme’

If the ‘Raider’s March’ is coded with the heroic signifiers of trumpets, trombones and French horns, the theme for Indy’s old flame (played by Karen Allen) is a riposte and a melodic tonic. Graceful flute and strings speak of their history and offer a much-needed interlude of delicacy amidst an adventure full of snakes, Nazis (some of whom are mangled by planes) and priceless artifacts. The concert arrangement of the ‘Raider’s March’ (i.e. its full presentation, not the fragments heard throughout the film) sandwiches Marion’s theme in-between Jones’ more rambunctious material.

3. ‘The Ark of the Covenant’s Theme’

What does it take to conjure a sinister, sorcerous theme for “the power of God or something”? Williams’ versatility knows no bounds as he pivots the material for the mysterious Ark towards horror territory. This is how good the Raiders score is: even the secondary musical ideas are as strong as the principal melodic themes. Diminished intervals and minor chords carry a decidedly more brooding tone, alluding to the arcane, ancient mystery of the ark, musical tension that is brilliantly kept in play until the terrifying finale where it is unleashed with a host of jabbing strings, guttural horns and shrieking piccolo effects. It’s enough to make one’s head melt.

4. ‘The Medallion theme’

A minor piece but an important one, signalled by the moody use of oboe and bassoon. The medallion theme is, cleverly, derived from the main ark theme, signalling that the former is intrinsically connected to the discovery of the latter. Listen carefully to the climactic ‘Miracle of the Ark’ theme and you can hear the medallion track interpolated amidst all the orchestral chaos.

5. ‘The Nazi March’

Jones’ goose-stepping foes don’t really get a clearly identifiable theme, more a militaristic impression of intent based on horn patterns and snare drums. (The Last Crusade has, arguably, the best Nazi theme of any of the movies.) Nevertheless, the pulsating Teutonic rhythms are cannily exploited by Williams during some of the key action sequences, including ‘Airplane Fight’ and ‘Truck Chase’ where the musical material for the Nazis contends with Jones’ theme in a riveting battle for supremacy.

Indiana Jones 5 is scheduled for release on the 29th of July 2022. What treats will John Williams compose this time? Send us your thoughts @Cineworld.