Raiders of the Lost Ark recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and I had the opportunity to watch the film in theaters for the first time in five years.
I had a marvelous time throughout, but I grew thoughtful when I reached my favorite scene in the film. It’s not the actual opening of the Ark of the Covenant (though that is a close second), nor is it Indy entering the Well of the Souls.
No, my favorite scene in the entire movie is the map room sequence, when Indy deduces where the Well of the Souls is actually hidden, having learned that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place.
And it’s all thanks to the music.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an excellent example of the long running collaboration between composer John Williams and director Steven Spielberg, and I maintain that the music for Raiders of the Lost Ark is some of his best work outside of Star Wars.
The music for “The Map Room” is particularly poignant, since it does the majority of the storytelling in this scene. Think about it, from the moment the scene begins, when Indy is lowered into the map room, right up until the end when he calls for his friend, Indy doesn’t say a single word. Everything we need to know about what’s happening in this scene is communicated through Indy’s actions and the music. No doubt the scene could’ve been shot with Indy talking to himself about what he needed to do, but the scene works perfectly the way it is.
The music for this entire sequence is beautiful, but my favorite part comes at the climax of the scene when Indy sets the staff in place and waits for the sun to move into position. Aside from the opening of the Ark of the Covenant, this is the most musically exciting moment in the film, not least because this is the closest John Williams comes to providing a full performance of the Ark of the Covenant’s musical theme (first heard when Marion reveals the Staff of Ra headpiece in Nepal) until the Ark itself is actually opened.
This is also a huge moment as this is where we find out once and for all if Indy is correct about where the Ark is located. So the whole time we’re watching this red dot move across the model of the city, we’re all holding our breath along with Indy, waiting to see where it stops. The music turns what could have been a very boring scene into something beautiful and to this day I get chills during this moment because of the music.
Music aside, there’s also an interesting detail in this scene that I can’t help but mention. We know going in that the Nazis are looking in the wrong place because the staff they used was too long. But if you look at where the wrong location puts them, it actually appears to be a logical place to put an important artifact like the Ark of the Covenant. The Nazis are digging in the ruins of what appears to be a large palace or temple. However, using the correct measurements, Indy discovers that the Ark is actually hiding in a nondescript mastaba on the other side of the ruined city, literally hiding in plain sight. It’s the last place anyone would think to look for something like the Ark, which makes it the perfect hiding place, and also some place the Nazis would never think to look.
If you want to look for an example of excellent film music in a Spielberg film, look no further than “The Map Room” in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a Spielberg movie and the music by John Williams makes it one of the best of all time.