Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Indiana Jones & The Last Great Heroic Anthem
Standing on the deck of a wave-washed ship, Indiana Jones looks at the coveted Cross of Coronado and screams at the thief in the hat: “This belongs in a museum!” “So do you,” the thief replies. Had Steven Spielberg known in 1989 that a fourth Indiana Jones installment would eventually be made, he would have saved that exchange for Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Instead it can be found in The Last Crusade. And though the exchange seems somewhat wasted there now, for nearly two decades that age-related dig was right where it belonged. Which means it’s only fair to ask: Is Harrison Ford too old for this stuff? Will Indy’s quest for a crystal skull leave him in need of a titanium hip? Is this fourth movie a disaster waiting to happen?
Thursday we’ll find out. Until then, despite all the reasons to be skeptical, I can’t help but have hope. Each time the trailer plays I get a little more excited. How can I not? In front of me I see Indy’s trademark fedora and whip. I see that determined glint in his eyes. I see Nazis on the run. I see gleaming idols. I see fistfights and escapades. In short, I see a hit! Though I should probably mention that I see this, all of this, with my eyes closed.
Confused? Let me explain: I’ve sat through the trailer of The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull at least a half-dozen times now, but I’ve yet to actually watch it. Any of it. The moment the Lucasfilm logo hits the screen, my eyes close and my fingers go in my ears. Like a curled armadillo, this is my position of defense, and I use it to guard against overly revelatory previews of movies I already have every intention of seeing. It’s a bit ridiculous, to be sure, but it’s effective. It’s the best way I know to preserve the juicy discovery of a film for its feature presentation. Trouble is, short of hooding and ear-muffing myself like a Guantanamo Bay detainee, there’s only so much I can block out. And so while I’ve tried my very best to avoid any and all exposure to the latest Indy adventure, in one specific area I have most definitely inhaled: the music.
It’s impossible to keep from actively listening to the Indiana Jones theme because I know it by heart. You do too. And that brings us to the purpose of this post, which is my contribution to the Indiana Jones Blog-a-thon going on over at Cerebral Mastication. It occurred to me one day, while my fingers were in my ears, that they don’t make heroic movie anthems like they used to. And, in fact, the Indiana Jones theme – as recognizable as that of James Bond or Superman – isn’t just one of the greatest heroic anthems of all time, it’s the last great one to date. Legendary composer John Williams wrote the now classic piece, “The Raiders March,” for 1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and there’s been no better original heroic anthem in the movies since.
Let’s be clear here. The Raiders Of The Lost Ark score is not the greatest movie score since 1981. Nor is it necessarily the greatest adventure film score since then. But a heroic anthem, by my definition, is something that’s rousing, evocative and easily identifiable, and “The Raiders March” is all three. Other classic heroic anthems, beyond the aforementioned James Bond and Superman themes, would include music from The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars and Mission: Impossible. But all of those – since the Mission: Impossible theme was created for TV some three decades before it was a Tom Cruise-starring movie – predate “The Raiders March.”
To the best of my memory (and I encourage readers to let me know if I’ve overlooked something obvious), nothing in the past 27 years comes close to rivaling “The Raiders March.” Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator score, to pick one, has a few segments that the average movie fan would be able to correctly identify and maybe even recite, but there’s no fully defined theme. Ditto the music from The Pirates Of The Caribbean films, which might seem more robust in memory than it is in actuality thanks to a trilogy’s worth of mega-marketing delivered in 30-second intervals. Meanwhile, to think of Batman is to recall of the music from the 1960s TV show, even though there have been five Batman movies since the summer of The Last Crusade. Same, too, for Spider-Man and his three movies. Jason Bourne? He’s a hero, but does his trilogy have an anthem? If it does I can’t think of it.
And that’s perhaps the most important component of the test. A true movie anthem isn’t just recognizable to movie buffs, and it’s not enough that the average moviegoer could put movie title to movie score in the fashion of Name That Tune. An indisputable movie anthem can be conjured out of thin air. And as a result it often is. For example: If you’re playing around with kids in a swimming pool, what movie score might you hum? Jaws theme, right? If you’re prowling cloak-and-dagger style? Probably James Bond or Mission: Impossible. If you have cause to swing on a rope? Well, unless you scream like Tarzan (perfectly acceptable), you’re breaking out “The Raiders March.” There are no other options.
Humability, that’s the key – and it’s a product not simply of a fine composer but of the marriage of music and image. Spielberg and George Lucas created Raiders in homage to the B-adventure serial, and Williams’ score reflects that intent. So if an almost 66-year-old Ford seems as heroic as ever in The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, the refrain of “The Raiders March” will have a lot to do with it. In his youth, Ford’s athletic portrayal of Indiana Jones helped define Williams’ music. Now, all these years later, the anthem might carry him. In the least, it will lift us up. Guaranteed.