In making Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it rather feels like Lucas and Spielberg took everything that was bad about Temple of Doom and summarily threw it all away. This movie is a pastiche of most of what is good about the Indiana Jones franchise. I’m now firmly convinced that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most pure exemplar of the character, largely because it was not really imagined as part of a franchise. There’s no “Indiana Jones” in that title, it’s just about the freakin’ lost ark.
So, while not as good as its antecedent, The Last Crusade is the fitting conclusion to a trilogy that would, of course, be renewed nineteen years later.
Contains light spoilers for the Indy franchise.
Indy reflects on his first adventure, when he was River Phoenix and he stole back “the Cross of Coronado” from some grave robbers, even as he fights them 26 years later (1938) aboard a boat. He is then contracted to find the Holy Grail and his estranged father: Sean Connery. Along for the ride are Marcus Brody, suspiciously German archaeologist Dr. Elsa Schneider and, eventually, Sallah.
The first thing that one notices about The Last Crusade is the font. As the screaming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with Kate Capshaw dancing in front attested to that film’s impending vulgarity, the fact that these opening credits replicated the text used for Raiders of the Lost Ark was a good omen. The tone of the movie is set. All of the initial three movies have a sort of ten minute test about them: Raiders, of course, features the idol swapping, boulder running, Doctor Octopus impaling scene of legend; the ten minute mark of Temple of Doom introduces Short Round; The Last Crusade establishes many parts of the Jones mythos through one day of his youth: his chin scar, his fear of snakes, and his taste for whips. In this way, The Last Crusade really does come across, strangely, as a kind of love letter to Raiders, but it’s all the more entertaining for that.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, by virtue of being released nineteen years later, is a totally different fish: all story, no detour. Everything there services the Crystal Skull or the spirit of the age; it’s a fifties Indy, while the others bask in the thirties. I may mention it again, because outside of Raiders the point of this series is to create an echo chamber that resonates with audiences, strongest in Last Crusade and weakest in Temple of Doom.
To the body of the movie: there’s just something rather dynamic about the whole thing. There are absolutely no dead spots, because Indy’s enthusiasm – something sorely lacking in Temple of Doom – is obvious. He has an interest in the welfare of his father and, this time, he has Marcus to tag along with him. His relationship with Elsa is well drawn, and she serves as an excellent femme fatale. Alison Doody pulls off every facet of the performance well, with some very subtle expression; her status as a fling fits well into the Crystal Skull establishment of women who “weren’t [Marion]”. The action scenes are consistently entertaining and, to a degree, a lot of the movie feels like a Bond film – even without Sean Connery’s involvement. A mysterious, ambiguous hot and cold woman (rendering herself and, retroactively, Willie into “Jones Girls” while allowing Marion to serve as the proper eternal flame.)
Part of why the film works is that it’s Spielberg’s “apology” for Temple of Doom, and it does run the risk of becoming something of a carbon copy of Raiders. Sallah is back, for sure, but fortunately the marketplace scene is very brief indeed. While it’s true that a certain degree of more of the same is desired, rehashing the entirety of Raiders would never have been a good idea. The macguffin is indeed weaker than the Ark of the Covenant; in fact, I found myself wondering afterwards precisely why the Nazi party cared for the Grail. Donovan, a weak substitute for Belloq, takes total precedence over any Nazi in the film and one wonders precisely why Nazis were required at all apart from for the look of the thing. They’re a necessary part of the infrastructure and militaristic requirements of the film, but they’re not entirely logical in their application.
Still, a lot of the fun derived from the film is precisely due to expectations being created in the minds of the audience: Spielberg here is a master of suggestion, with the anticipation of jousting (seriously, jousting) and fighter planes eventually being realised in fashions that don’t surprise but satisfy.
The other core of the movie, given that the relationship was never going to be strictly important beyond a roll in the hay and general fun times (Raiders having served legitimate romance, Temple of Doom sexual tension born of survival and the threat of fiery pits), and that the Grail itself isn’t that hot, is the relationship between Henry and Indiana. Sean Connery lays the Scottishness on thick, to the point that one wonders if Indiana’s father is, in fact, Scrooge McDuck. The relationship is strained but funny and warm, and is the real “heart” of the film. Henry and Indy are both firmly into their archaeology but they have distinctly different methods. The shock that Henry gets when he sees his son gun down Nazis is real, and the distaste that he has for all of the violence that Indy attracts is entirely understandable. I would say that Indy doesn’t have consuming passions as his father does, but his treatment of Marion is clearly evidence against that.
Admittedly, the movie has a pretty unforgivable line in “the pen is mightier than the sword”, but I’m going to treat that as something that will serve as an unpleasant surprise each time I watch the film, buried deep, deep into my subconscious. The other problem with the film is that it probably has the worst special effects of all four films. There’s an awful lot of detectable blue screen; for all of Temple of Doom‘s faults, it had a good design aesthetic and it always seemed that the characters were actually in the places shown on screen. There’s sometimes a disconnect between location and character that distracts from what is otherwise a good film. It’s an uneasy transition between the days when everything in films was built and tangible, and the CG clusters that we’re seeing today. While digital effects greatly improved by the time of Crystal Skull, there’s an undeniable charm about everything that you see on screen being “real”. I would have liked it more if there was that sense of authenticity about this adventure, but I probably won’t notice it at all next time.
It’s true that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a fitting ending to the series, resolving many of Indy’s issues, but I can’t pretend that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t exist, and that it doesn’t have many good things going for it. Raiders of the Lost Ark, amusingly enough, starts with Indy already in a phase where he’s beginning to consider himself “too old for this shit” – although, of course, “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage”. Indy had already had a presumably large number of adventures by such time. In the nineteen year gap between Last Crusade and Crystal Skull, Indy fought in World War II, was a double agent, and got up to all variety of hijinx. Indiana Jones closes the book on Indy’s thirties adventures, but it does not preclude him from getting on with his life – and that’s why we’re allowed to have sequels.
Having said that, I realised at the end of my Indy revival week that I really don’t want to watch years and years of adventures with Shia LeBeouf in the lead. Kid tried to have sex on top of his sentient car …