ByDavid Dunn, writer at
Writer. Critic. Coffee addict.
David Dunn

When it comes to film composers, there is almost no one more recognizable than John Williams. From the joyful, fanciful ballads of Fiddler On The Roof to the epic concertos of Star Wars, Williams has composed composition after composition that moves us to feel excitement, fear, sadness, happiness and love. His pieces aren’t just background music, they characterize stories all their own. They've grown over the years to be as important to their films, just as much as any writer, director or actor can be.

Since Williams is considered by many to be one of the greatest film composers of all time, it makes sense that his frequent collaborator would be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Steven Spielberg. They’ve worked on many films together: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Minority Report, just to name a few. With three of his five Oscars coming from Steven Spielberg projects, Williams has become a staple to Spielberg's films, and in many ways has emboldened the film's emotions just as much as Spielberg himself has.

With that in mind, here are the five best uses of John Williams' wonderful music in Steven Spielberg movies.

5. The Opening Shark Attack In Jaws

[Credit: Universal Pictures]
[Credit: Universal Pictures]

The opening sequence to Jaws is sheer cinematic genius on Spielberg's part. The setup, the acting, the cinematography – all of it lends to the ocean's isolation and the escalating tension towards an invisible predator. Yet, an integral part of this opening sequence was ' iconic theme, which clues the audience in on the scope of the underwater threat and how powerless they are to stop the incoming carnage.

Everything leading up to this scene is a typical meet-cute: Girl meets boy at a nighttime beach party. The couple ventures out to the ocean to go skinny dipping. Feeling adventurous, the girl swims out into the ocean alone while the boy passes out drunk on the beach.

But when we're underwater looking up at the girl, we hear it. The deep, ominous tone of horns switching between two different notes, like a fin swimming back and forth. As the camera motions closer towards the girl, the notes start to pick up the pace, like a fish opening it's mouth.

Then the girl's head bobbles. And we hear the screech of the strings like teeth sinking through skin.

From there, you see the girl dragged through the water, her scream piercing through the air, all while the music continues on. The buildup with the orchestra mirrors the chaos happening at sea. There's no denying Spielberg's creativity with this sequence, but Williams' score enhanced the emotions that were already there. Without it, the scene simply would not have been as scary as it was.

4. Welcome To Jurassic Park

[Credit: Universal Pictures]
[Credit: Universal Pictures]

Jurassic Park is revolutionary for many reasons – its thoughtful pacing, wonderful buildup and groundbreaking visuals make Jurassic Park one of history's most definitive blockbusters. This was the first dinosaur movie where the monsters didn't look like ragdolls or people stuffed inside costumes, and its visual scope paved the way for many other blockbusters in the years to come.

Again though, William's soundtrack is one of the most defining aspects of Jurassic Park. Upon the first time Alan (Sam Neill) and Ellie (Laura Dern) see the dinosaurs, we get the first full display of Williams' theme along with the dinosaurs, and both are equally spectacular. The slow buildup with the strings, the woodwinds matching in harmony and the horns crescendoing to a high note, Williams' theme song matches the feelings of wonder, intrigue and spectacle that Alan and Ellie were experiencing.

It is a magical moment for these characters to see real dinosaurs for the first time: same for us as well, with the help of Williams' music.

3. 'I'll Be Right Here' – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

[Credit: Universal Pictures]
[Credit: Universal Pictures]

There's no denying E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is an emotional masterpiece. The young boy Elliott (Henry Thomas) and the alien E.T. go on many adventures together: disguising themselves on Halloween, making toys levitate and outrunning government officials until E.T. eventually makes Elliott and his friends fly off the ground. It is an amazing journey, and E.T. gives Elliott some of the greatest memories of his young life.

But out of all of the emotional moments the movie takes us through, none are more moving than the moment when E.T.'s people come back to Earth and it's time for E.T. to say goodbye to his new friends. Elliot asks him to stay, but after an endearing hug, E.T. puts his finger up to Elliot's forehead, his finger lights up, and he says "I'll be right here."

This is the emotional high point for the film: the resolution to Elliot and E.T.'s extraordinary journey. Yet this is also the climax for John Williams' score as well, and he carries the music out with violins playing soft, sweet harmonics while the trumpets proudly play out the melody. And when E.T.'s ship closes, the theme builds to it's climactic finish with the timpanis beating dramatically – a proud declaration of the emotional rollercoaster that Williams and Spielberg just took us through.

2. John Miller's Grave – Saving Private Ryan

[Credit: Paramount Pictures]
[Credit: Paramount Pictures]

Before takes us through the violently-iconic Normandy battle sequence, he starts Saving Private Ryan in a much somber and quieter setting: the Normandy Memorial. As the brass plays a quiet, soft melody in the background, we see an elder James Ryan walk down a cemetery with his family following closely behind him. As he approaches one grave stone in particular, he kneels down, collapses in front of the grave and starts sobbing. As his family rushes to comfort him, the horns continue to play a patriotic, honorable melody while the snare drums repp along, paying tribute to the men who sacrificed themselves for their country years ago and for those who will continue to sacrifice in the future.

With most of his compositions, Williams has a tendency to build up his music to high volumes for the sake of escalation and climax, but here, he demonstrates an unusual restraint to let the emotions of the scene carry out naturally. Because of this, Spielberg underscores the scene with Williams's music playing quietly in the background, allowing us to absorb the full impact of the tragedy this weary veteran faced when he was younger.

This is one of the quieter moments that demonstrates Williams' music, and it allows the character's life experiences to speak louder because of it.

1. One More Person – Schindler's List

[Credit: Universal Pictures]
[Credit: Universal Pictures]

Schindler's List has been described by many as Steven Spielberg's Magnus Opus: the absolute best of all his work. Williams' score likewise has been declared as the most emotional the composer has ever created. The two in combination make some of the most memorable movie moments in cinematic history, yet there is one scene more than any other where the emotions hit the high point: the ending.

By the end of Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) has saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews from the concentration camps, but when everyone thanks him at the end, he only feels shame for not being able to save more. He could sell his car, get 10 more people. Sell his pin, get two more people. One more person. Yet, he didn't, and despite all the lives that he's saved, Oskar feels complete shame for the lives he didn't save.

Williams score on its own is beautiful, tragic and moving. The violin plays an eloquent, emotional melody while the orchestra follows in conjunction. There is no other point of the film when the scope of the soundtrack hits you harder, because this is the moment where Oskar comes full circle with all of his choices. Overcome with grief, pain and devastation, Oskar has to face everything about himself that he has learned to despise. He feels utterly ashamed for the things he didn't do, despite all the great things that he had already done.

It is the hands down the most emotional moment out of any Steven Spielberg and John Williams collaboration, and it fully demonstrates the storytelling magic that these two can accomplish together.

What was your favorite John Williams/Steven Spielberg moment? Let us know in the comments below.


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