Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

There’s a sense of insecurity in the third Indiana Jones film that undermines Indy’s timeless mystique. The brilliance of Temple of Doom was that it managed to fulfill the paradox of the prequel: to re-insert an established character into his own mythos. It was a prequel that explained nothing concrete and yet gave the character more history. The effect of Temple of Doom on Indy himself was the same as “A long time ago ...” on Star Wars. In each case the result is a story that feels always ongoing but already ended. It’s how Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg create these franchises from memorial scraps of boyhood fantasy. They feel rehearsed but also new, perhaps because we never stopped living them. We just forgot about them, till these directors that never grew up reminded us where we came from.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade attempts to be more straight-faced than that. Indy is more factually prequelized as River Phoenix, who sees a bad guy’s greedy face glow with treasure while he’s on a trip with his boy scout troop in 1912. One train chase later and we’ve got his whip and his fear of snakes locked into predestiny. All that remains is the fedora plunked onto his scraggly head. The victorious mercenary says, “I won kid, but you don’t have to like it” and plunks his fedora onto Indy’s scraggly head.

A jump cut to 1938 confirms that he doesn’t like it. Still chasing the glittery Cross of Coronado, Indy faces his childhood rival, now as the stony Harrison Ford. No one but Ford could play the scruffy academe as simultaneously deadpan and cavalier. Ford somehow plays smugness with a self-mocking twinkle, like those old serial actors who hated their parts but just acted like they lived for them. I think (or would like to) that Ford is just enjoying be Ford.

The addition of the father is what really puts The Last Crusade in the territory of a sequel movie rather than a serial instalment. In the opening prequel segment, he’s a figure at a desk, unseen, who coolly tells Indiana to count to twenty in Greek before approaching him. In the present, he’s the other Dr. Jones, stolen by Nazis during his search in Venice for a tomb that might contain a clue to the location of the Holy Grail. If he wasn’t so self-aware, so twinkling and debonair in a way only Sean Connery can manage without seeming aggrandizing, his part would be as obstructive as Kate Capshaw was in Temple (though in that case, her tonal intrusion was purposeful). But even when he shoots the rudder from their own plane, turns and says, “Son, I’m sorry. They got us,” you’re on his side.

The sense of finality brought by father drama forces Spielberg’s Amazing Stories adventures to outgrow their upbringing. You can feel that this is where the story will leave us, and going back to Raiders your mind forces new issues onto an already established character. Is this our same scrappy brigand or a doubtful Oedipus? Is this an everyman hero or a scared little boy acting tough? It’s not intrusive on the pacing of The Last Crusade that Indy has daddy issues, but it indicates an essential difference in this entry, one probably motivated by poor reception to the series’ second instalment, too gross and annoying for retrospective audiences to fully appreciate its pulpy purity. The difference is that this is the first time Indiana Jones feels like he’s compensating for something.

I didn’t idly compare Connery’s role to Capshaw’s. The father in The Last Crusade is the only relevant romance, the only drama worthy of a resolution. Alison Doody plays the lithesome Dr. Elsa Schneider but she’s really just for show. Her motivations change at the drop of a fedora and her romantic intentions are … all-encompassing (both Joneses discover this the emotionally-scarring way). Her presence is neither sensual and infantile like Capshaw’s nor gutsy like Karen Allen’s. She’s too dramatically predictable for how little skin she shows in the film, seemingly cast neither as subject nor object. She’s the plot’s mascot, certainly a better actress than Capshaw but with significantly less to do.

Similarly, Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody and John-Rhys Davies as Sallah stand to the side to let this father-son threequel transpire however it likes (and it likes to transpire how most of them do). I’ve put off discussing the film’s style and set-pieces because of this overwhelming fact (not truth): this is Indy at his most predictable. It less ably inserts us into our childhood mythology partly because the father figure makes it too real and literal. It puts our adventure mag fantasies in time. I didn’t want to know where Indy’s hat and whip came from: I wanted them to remain mysterious artifacts of unknown, and thereby infinite, adventures. If Raiders was a backyard adventure where we put on our explorer’s hat and went bucket-and-shoveling out into the woods for buried treasure, The Last Crusade is like watching a home movie of it. It’s still got the same gee-whizz endearment but in a “boy, don’t we look silly” kind of way.

The result is almost cynical, like when tax broker Peter Banning went back to Neverland as the grown-up Robin Williams and couldn’t understand why you’d do any of that silly flying nonsense, but as though Spielberg is Banning and Neverland is Indiana Jones. You can feel Spielberg’s doneness, like he’s thinking about his kids more than the plot. Gratefully, Spielberg ensures at least the appearance of that essential spirit: the action is as raucous as ever. It saves The Last Crusade from its predictable plot, which always threatens to anesthetize the old wonders, as though it was some great revelation that all this childhood nonsense has been distracting us from finding.

From the catacombs beneath Venice to a Saturday morning cartoon incursion into a Nazi haunted house, then out to the Middle East for a tank chase on horseback to save dear old dad, The Last Crusade endears itself with breathless action and comedy that works, even if in comparison to Raiders it is more exertive than droll. Connery sparkles: bodily swept away by tank treads or tied to a chair while the wall rotates him into full view of a Nazi communications office like a scruffy silent comic. He always looks like he’s about to call the manager about putting him in the wrong movie.  But unlike surly Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars, Connery always seems aware of that fact and ready with a sardonic eyebrow any son knows too well to remind the audience that this is all in fun.

And it is fun. Of any film in the trilogy it’s the most burdened by pretensions of cinematic effect and textbook drama, but it also mercifully lacks the psychopathic grossness of the second entry. It’s cool with its own predictability, and with John Williams as fully debonair on the score as Ford is on horseback, Spielberg manages to keep his awe afloat in the greying pool of conceptual ingenuity that ol’ Mr. Bond knows too well. The Last Crusade is a fitting end to boyhood wonder, seemingly taking place in that very moment when we first learned to approach our stoic father at his monolithic desk. And it’s thankfully, mercifully, long before we (and he) became one ourselves.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Steven Spielberg

Jeffrey Boam

George Lucas (story)

Menno Meyjes (story)


Indiana Jones Harrison Ford
Prof. Henry Jones Sean Connery
Young Indiana Jones River Phoenix
Dr. Elsa Schneider Alison Doody
Sallah John Rhys-Davies
Marcus Brody Denholm Elliott
Colonel Vogel Michael Byrne

Official Trailer

Sponsored Links

Leave a Comment

two × four =