Revisiting Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade

Feature Simon Brew 30 Jan 2014 - 06:53

The lightest, funniest Indiana Jones movie generally ranks second, behind Raiders of the Lost Ark. Simon takes a look back...

This article contains spoilers for Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade and The Untouchables.

Go by the general law of Indiana Jones movies, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark is regarded as the best, Last Crusade is second, then there's a gap to Temple Of Doom in third, and the other one is fourth. I looked at Temple Of Doom earlier in the week, here, after I watched the movie with my ten-year old son. After that, we popped The Last Crusade on. And it left me wondering: is Last Crusade's stranglehold on second place fair?

Certainly by the time my ten-year old sat through it he'd have said so. He guffawed, was excited, and enjoyed the hell out of it. I don't blame him, either, and certainly he was less terrified than he was come the end of Temple Of Doom. Yet I still wonder if Temple Of Doom will stay him with a little stronger as time progresses.

Still, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's take a look back to the third adventure of Indy, back in 1989...

"Who's Gonna Come To Save You, Junior?"

In more than one sense, there's a feeling that there was unfinished business when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg embarked on Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. George Lucas had wanted a trilogy of these films almost from the start, whilst neither he nor Steven Spielberg were particularly happy with how Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom turned out. And as we discussed when we covered that film, there was a feeling that it was way too dark, not very Indy, and quite harrowing for the younger members of the audience. Steven Spielberg would eventually say that he made The Last Crusade to apologise to Lucas for how Temple Of Doom ended up.

One sidenote: I do feel that Spielberg did some excellent work in Temple Of Doom, and it's shame he feels so badly towards it (although he seems to feel worse towards Hook). I certainly think it's a much better film that its reputation may suggest (and many who commented on the last article herald it as their favourite Indy film). But it was very clear nonetheless that come the next film, a very different approach would be taken.

Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade is therefore, almost inevitably, a much lighter film. Some cite it was their favourite of the trilogy, and it's certainly the funniest. And whilst I'm one of those who really likes the film an awful lot - and I really do - I do wonder if it makes not-dissimilar mistakes to Temple Of Doom in one or two ways. That in trying to not be like Temple Of Doom, it veers a little too far the other way. There's an earnestness in that certainly, and there's an argument that it barely hurts the ultimate enjoyment of the film. I just think it's something that becomes a little more pronounced on repeat viewings.

Still, this isn't an article about grumbles. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade gets an awful lot of things right. For sometimes, you just need a father figure to throw a fresh perspective on things.

"That Belongs In A Museum"

It takes 48 minutes before we first see Sean Connery as Henry Jones Sr, but from the moment he appears (we hear him right at the start of the movie, but we're not allowed to see him at that point), The Last Crusade shifts as a film. To that point, it's been enjoyable, but not exceptional. The opening with the late River Phoenix as young Indy racing along a circus train has its moments, and any time we get to spend with Denholm Elliott's Marcus Brody is always very, very welcome. Furthermore, it has a lot of fun: the library stamp, some rats, and how X never, ever marks the spot. But for me, the opening never really feels like vintage Indy. Until Connery turns up.

Whereas Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Temple Of Doom both see Indy's primary companion being a love interest - Karen Allen's Marion and Kate Capshaw's screaming Willie - for the second half of Indy 3, it's his father. We've had the duplicitous Elsa, played by Alison Doody, to keep things ticking over, but her role isn't a great one. That said, it is in part responsible for arguably the best, most understated line in the whole film, when Senior reveals to Junior that "she talks in her sleep". But the relationship beween Indy and Elsa, in spite of the twist, feels like ground trodden before.

His dad? That was fresh territory for the series. It was the idea of screenwriter Jeffrey Boam to hold back the introduction of Henry Jones Sr for so long (although it'd be Tom Stoppard who would go in and effectively write his dialogue), and when he does, the two particularly memorable facets of The Last Crusade are ignited.

"You Left Just As You Were Becoming Interesting"

Firstly, the combination of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery is, was, and always will be comedy gold. Notwithstanding the fact that they're just 12 years apart in Earth years, in screen time, they're arguably the most memorable father and son team in modern day blockbuster cinema.

What's particularly impressive too is that they both know when to shut up and allow the other to step forward - Connery in particular. His face when Ford is racing away from Nazis on his motorbike is a picture for instance (that being a scene added once principal photography was done, to inject more action into the picture), and the non-verbal ticks that both actors bring in are priceless. They bounce off each generously and successfully, with the simmering, distant father/son relationship brought majestically to life. Heck, Indy even gets a catchphrase of sorts, not least when he bellows out "don't call me Junior". Every time he says it - or even part says it - it raises a smile. A big one, in fact.

What's interesting is that the power in their relationship keeps shifting slightly. In the early stages, Senior's disapproval of Junior bringing the Grail diary to the castle is there to be seen. Then, when Senior manages to shoot down the plane that they happen to be in at the time, it's very much Junior who's in control. But then that's how they work: both are clever, but it's Junior who does the action, Senior who gets the bulk of the quips and the dialogue. Full credit to Harrison Ford for stepping back and allowing that to be so, too. It's hard to find too many leading performances in big films that are quite as generous.

"Our Situation Has Not Improved"

Perhaps even more importantly than the humour though, the second thing that the introduction of Jones Sr facilitates is a deepening of the film. It's an obvious conclusion, demonstrated by when Henry Jones Sr is willing to let the Holy Grail go at the end of the film, but what the pair are actually hunting for changes as the film progresses. Lucas and Spielberg realised that another quest for another object would be potentially retreading the same ground, and they chose wisely when trying something different here.

For by the end, Henry Jones Sr is willing, without questioning it for a second, to let his life's quest go, because of something more relatable and important: his son. More to the point, he's connected with his son, and vice versa, a feat that neither would have expected come the start of the film. Bringing this back to my own son, it was particularly joyful to see how engrossed he was in this part of the film. That as much as he enjoyed the action sequences (which I think, on the whole, are decent but not great), they didn't seem to be his favourite part (although the fireplace sequence, a quite outstanding marriage of comedy, a bit of slapstick, understatement and fire, had him in cahoots).

You can't help but root for the two Joneses as their bond quietly (in the metaphorical sense) gets stronger, but what really makes this work are the one or two less busy moments that they share.

"Dad, I Was The Next Man"

That's why MacGuffins are crucial to Indiana Jones movies. As demonstrated here, they allow the film to be about one thing, but then reveal themselves to be partly about another. In this case, the quest as it turns out wasn't for the cup of Christ. It was for a father and son to get back together. For me, the absolute proof that it was all working - and this gets me every time - is when Henry Jones Sr is suddenly shot. Even though I know there's a happy ending, it still upsets me. My ten-year old looked crestfallen, on the verge of tears. It'll be some years until I show him The Untouchables, that's for sure.

Not to double bag the point, but to quickly touch on those final three challenges that Indy must face: had the film been about the headline quest, the film would have been entertaining. But in the end, those three tests became about one man trying to save his dad. And that instantly feels far more relatable (interestingly, the 'magical' leap of faith works, because of everything leading up to it. It proves again that these films can do something that stretches credibility, and get away with it).

One of the disappointments of Crystal Skull, appreciating that some people are far fonder of it than I, is that it tried to shoehorn some deeper family ties into the Indiana Jones series, but fails miserably. It missed what made the third film work so well. The reunion with Marion was welcome, but ultimately never felt like it meant that much. And now's not the time to get into the issue of Mutt. We'll come to him another day.

Back to Last Crusade, though, and how intelligently it puts the brakes on. That it remembers to slow things down, and spend some time with its characters. For starters, I always like the moments in the Indiana Jones films when we see Indy back teaching - it somehow grounds him a little more than if he were another action hero.

Yet the crucial scene for me - going back to the point about the growing bond between father and son - is when the two Joneses are flying away from Berlin on the zeppelin (following the rather excellent 'no ticket' gag), and they have a moment to have a drink with each other (for a change), and to stop and talk. I'm grateful to IMDB for informing me that the pair wore no trousers whilst filming that scene due to the oppressive heat, but more to the point, there's a tenderness to their conversation. It's where they discuss their strained relationship as they grew older, and you see them connecting by choice, rather than as a consequence of lots of Nazis chasing after them. Then, once it's made its point, it doesn't over egg it, the zeppelin turns, and the adventure kicks back in.

"You Should Have Listened To Your Father"

If you're looking then for where Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade particularly scores over Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom then, it's in character as well as the humour. Indy himself feels like the version from Raiders Of The Lost Ark (within ten minutes of Temple Of Doom, he felt like a different version of the man). Bringing back Marcus Brody and Sallah broadens Indy's background, and proves Elliott's excellence as a supporting character actor, capable of generating very big laughs. And then there's Sean Connery of course. Temple Of Doom had the mighty Short Round, it had Indy, and it had Willie screaming a lot, but not too much besides. The Last Crusade does a much better job in this regard. Heck, it even has Mr Bronson as Hitler, in a particularly chilling moment.

But to come back to the point I made earlier, where The Last Crusade does suffer very slightly is in trying just a little too hard to compensate for Temple Of Doom. I'm not the first to make this criticism, but it increasingly strikes me as the one where Spielberg lets his actors go a little. He knows he's struck gold with the pairing of Connery and Ford, and once or twice, it feels as though his foot comes off the gas to spend time with them, instead of progressing or fleshing out the adventure. That he's somehow just a little less in control.

Ford and Connery's relationship has very significant benefits to the film, but it does also mean that - narratively at least - it's still some distance behind Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Raiders was always going to be a tough act to follow, but every time I rewatch it, I'm struck by how tight, how flowing and how constantly exciting it is. I'm loathed to use the word 'perfect', but I genuinely still can't think of a way it could be made better. I love The Last Crusade and appreciate why some like it the most. It's so wonderfully entertaining for most of its running time (particularly the second hour) it's pretty much impossible to resist.

"I've Got A Lot Of Fond Memories Of That Dog"

However, the skill of Raiders Of The Lost Ark is that it had the disparate ingredients of both of its successors in one. Temple Of Doom went for darkness, a little bit of horror, and at-times non-stop action. The Last Crusade went more for comedy, for character and for a deeper quest. Raiders proved that these didn't have to be mutually exclusive (the opening of the ark at the end is as chilling a sequence as the whole series has delivered to date), and it's for that reason - as well as one or two others - it stands tall above the rest. For me anyway.

It's also why I think that comparing Temple Of Doom and The Last Crusade isn't quite fair: they're trying to do, tonally, different things. The Last Crusade is certainly the easiest one to like, but Temple Of Doom takes more risks. Fortunately, the bylaw insisting you have to pick one over the other has long since been abolished, so I'll happily like them both if it's all the same.

As for my son? Well, in common with Steven Spielberg, this is his favourite of the Indy movies. He flat-out loved it, and is thirsty for more. Inevitably, he's asked about watching the next one, which is one of the most testing moments for any parent. In terms of difficult questions, 'can we watch Crystal Skull?' is up there with 'where do babies come from?' We will come to the film shortly on the site. For now, both he and I really enjoyed watching this one together. 1989 didn't produce many better comedies, and certainly no better double act (Turner & Hooch included).

One last bit of trivia to leave you on: if Sean Connery had turned the role down, Jon Pertwee was one of the back-up choices for Henry Jones Sr. You're welcome...

See also: revisiting Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

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