This past weekend I was thrilled to have gotten to see the Complete Indiana Jones Adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — I left before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) back on the big screen! On Monday I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark, and on Wednesday I discussed The Temple of Doom, now it’s time to dive into Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
I think the success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was critical to the enduring life of the Indiana Jones film series. Raiders of the Lost Ark was an extraordinary achievement and a huge critical and commercial success back in 1981, and it still stands as one of the very best movies ever made. But The Temple of Doom, while undeniably a great movie, felt to many (at the time, and still today) as something of a mis-step for the series. Many of the characters and stylistic trappings of Raiders were dropped in favor of a story that was very dark and horrifying.
The genius of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the way it course-corrects the series back to a path that seems more in line with the first film, bringing back many of the characters and elements that fans loved in Raiders while also telling a new and different story. I think for those reasons, Last Crusade is one of the very best movie sequels that I can think of.
I adore the way that, after the opening sequence (which I’ll get to in a moment), the beginning of Last Crusade is structured to echo Raiders. We again see Indy teaching an archaeology class, we again see all of his female students dreamily looking up at him, and we again see Marcus Brody walking into the class with news for Indy. It gives the trilogy a nicely bookended feel, helping the saga to feel like a complete, unified story. It also puts the viewer on nicely comfortable, familiar ground as we begin the third installment.
There are two key creative choices that really help The Last Crusade succeed as well as it does. The first is the choice of macguffin. After having Indy pursue a sacred ancient artifact from Judaism in Raiders, it feels right that now in Last Crusade he should pursue a sacred ancient artifact from Christianity. The Holy Grail is a suitably important and suitably mysterious object to serve as a worthy goal for Indy. One of many reasons why Raiders and Last Crusade are by far the two strongest Indy films is in the choice of the object Indy is hunting for. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are a little more compelling and significant than some mystical stones and a crystal alien skull, don’t you think? (Don’t get me wrong, by the way — I’m poking fun at the Sankara stones from The Temple of Doom because they are made up, not because they don’t have a Judeo-Christian connection.)
The second creative choice key to the success of Last Crusade is the decision to focus more on Indy’s background and family, specifically the introduction of his father, magnificently portrayed by Sean Connery. Bringing in Indy’s dad was an incredibly risky move for Spielberg and Lucas to have taken. It’s hard to appreciate now, because we know the film works so well, but this could very easily have been very painful, hobbling a once-iconic action hero by saddling him with an oxygenarian side-kick and forcing him into a stupid buddy-comedy. But, of course, introducing Henry Jones Sr. DOES work, and work incredibly well. Sean Connery is magnificent, frolicking through the movie with a wonderful twinkle in his eye, while still grounding the character in a certain semblance of realism without falling into one-dimensional crotchety-old-man silliness.
Incorporating Henry Jones Sr. gives The Last Crusade an unexpected richness and sweetness, as the repairing of the long-broken bond between father and son becomes the central storyline of the film, far more important to audiences than the search for the Cup of Christ. Sometimes those moments are played for gentle comedy, like the scene on the blimp in which Indy laments that the last time he and his father sat down for a quiet drink he ordered a milkshake, to which his father replies “well, what do you want to talk about?” leaving Indy flabbergasted, with nothing to say. Other times those moments are played for potent drama, like one of my favorite scenes in the film, in which Indy and his dad are stopped at the crossroads and Indy angrily confronts his father saying “it’s an obsession, dad! I never understood it, never! And neither did mom.” It’s a raw moment, made all the richer by the tantalizing mention of Indy’s never-seen (I am not counting The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles!) mother.
But most of all, adding Indy’s dad turns the movie into a really GOOD buddy-comedy! Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a very, very funny film, and Henry Jones Sr. gets most of the best lines. (“I should have mailed it to the Marx brothers!”) Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s chemistry is magnificent to behold, particularly in the early going when there’s a whole separate movie to be found just watching Jones Sr.’s disapproval of Indy’s butt-kicking ways. (Just watch Indy’s huge grin after flipping one of the motorcycle-riding Nazi pursuers, a grin which falls when he glances over to see his dad’s disapproving stare. Such a funny, tiny little moment!) I also love their exchange while being shot-at by the Nazi planes. (Jones Sr.: “Those people are trying to kill us!” Indy: “I KNOW, DAD!” Jones Sr.: “This is a new experience for me.” Indy: “Happens to me all the time…”)
Speaking of Indy’s family and back-story, of course, we must also discuss the opening sequence. (I still remember seeing this film in theatres for the first time, back when it was released in 1989. I was pretty young, but I remember totally being fooled and thinking that the thief in the cave was Indy when we first saw him in silhouette.) OK, so maybe it’s a little silly that Indy obtained ALL of his classic personality traits (fear of snakes, skill with a whip) and physical characteristics (scar on his chin, fedora hat) in one single afternoon. Nevertheless, I still sort of love that opening sequence. Plot-wise, it doesn’t have anything to do with the story of the film. But emotionally, it totally works. It helps that River Phoenix is so good as Young Indy. I also love that the opening is completed by a second sequence, set years later but before the events of the rest of the film, in which Indy finally confronts the man in the “panama hat” years later. I love the transition from River Phoenix’s face to Harrison Ford’s, and there’s something so great and pulpy about that fist-fight on board the ship at sea in the middle of a huge storm.
I love seeing Sallah again in the film, and he gets some great moments (“Papers? Got it here. Just finished reading it myself.” ”Compensation, Indy, for my brother-in-law’s car…”). It’s also a delight to see Marcus Brody again, in an expanded role. I know some die-hard fans of Indy object to Marcus’ becoming a figure of slapstick comedy (as opposed to the way the character seemed to have been set up in Raiders, as a very competent peer of Indy, just slightly older and past his adventuring days). The Marcus in Last Crusade is pretty much a doddering old fool. I am sympathetic to those Raiders fans who hate this version of the character, but I find him entertaining enough that I really don’t mind. (OK, maybe his slightly stoned reading of the “pen is mightier than the stone” line is a bit much, but you’ve gotta love his response when Donovan offers him a drink of water: “I’d rather spit in your face. But since I haven’t got any spit…”)
John Williams contributes another absolutely classic score. I’d have loved to have heard a little more of the Indy theme in the film, but boy does Mr. Williams contribute some spectacular new music to this installment. The score of the tank battle is particularly magnificent, really highlighting Mr. Williams’ new Nazi “bad-guy” theme. His theme for the Holy Grail is beautiful and haunting, and I love the way that theme is woven throughout the film, climaxing at the end when the Knight is revealed. I also adore Mr. Williams’ playful music for the opening sequence. That almost 10-minute uninterrupted piece of music that opens the film is wonderful, a playfully adventurous musical romp that sets a great tone for the film. Mr. Williams’ three scores for these three Indiana Jones certainly rank amongst the three greatest film scores ever written.
There are so many other wonderful moments in Last Crusade. I love the boat-chase (“Don’t go between them!” ”Go between them, are you crazy?!”) in Venice (“Ahh, Venice!”), particularly the ending: a wonderful fist-fight on the stalled boat that is swirling perilously closer to being chopped up by a much larger boat’s rotor. The whole “X marks the spot” bit is a particular piece of screenwriting genius that I admire every single time I watch the film. ”No ticket.” Indy’s horseback battle against the Nazi tank (what Sallah so memorably refers to as a “steel beast”) which eventually turns into a pretty brutal fist and knife-fight atop the tank is a spectacular action set-piece, gritty and intense. And, of course, the whole sequence at the end with the elderly Knight guarding the grail, and his memorable delivery of the line: “He chose… poorly.” As with Raiders, any one of those moments would be the highlight of a great film — here, they’re each just one great moment followed soon after by another in a film overstuffed with glorious goodness.
I’m well aware that a fourth Indiana Jones film was made and released, but to me the saga comes to a glorious end when the origin of Indy’s name is finally revealed (“You were named after the dog?!”) (a nice parallel, by the way, with the fact that the character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’ dog, who really was named Indiana) and the characters gallop off into the sunset. To me it’s a note-perfect ending to one of the most magnificent film trilogies of all time.
These are big-screen movies in every sense, and I’m delighted to have been able to have seen them all on the big screen, the way they were meant to be seen. Watching them back-to-back-to-back was the icing on the cake!! I couldn’t believe how fast the hours flew by. I’m hoping to have this opportunity again some day.