“It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”
Such are the words spoken to Indy by Walter Donavon (Julian Glover) the antagonist in Spielberg’s third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. It’s a fitting question for a series that has much to do with curses, myths, and the power of the supernatural. While not as gory as it’s predecessor and certainly not as well crafted as the original Indiana Jones, The Last Crusade is still classic Spielberg. Well, Spielberg by way of George Lucas technically. The franchise supposedly came into existence from a meeting in Maui between George Lucas and Spielberg where they developed an idea for “…a James Bond without the hardware.” Of course the hardware in James Bond is half of the fun, but what Indy lacks in weaponry he makes up for with sheer determination and a mean right cross.
The film opens in a canyon where a teen-aged trouble making Indy (River Phoenix) sneaks away from a trip with his fellow Boy Scouts. Spielberg himself was an Eagle Scout (shocker, I know) and the first part of the film gives us a window on our hero-to-be as a young man. Ever wonder where Indy got that fedora? Or why he’s so terrified of snakes? These questions are answered with a healthy dose of slapstick as the young Jones evades the thieves and earns his infamous bullwhip. We’re also given a glimpse of the tweed clad Dr. Jones Senior (Sean Connery), a man who is more interested in his pursuit of the Holy Grail than doing any bonding with his headstrong son. This idea of a teen aged Indy is perhaps more interesting than a middle aged one. George Lucas would explore this material years later in the underrated and short lived TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles which won ten Emmys. We all know Mr. Lucas loves a prequel.
At the start of The Last Crusade the young Indiana stumbles upon a rag tag group of robbers stealing a priceless artifact. Already imbued with a keen sense of justice Indy shouts, “That belongs in a museum!” The boy warrior snatches the treasure and flees with the thieves bumbling after him. Thus begins one of countless chase scenes that take up much of this film’s run time. Once the adventure is underway, the adult Indy (Harrison Ford), is constantly escaping on boats, motorcycles, horses, tanks and yes, even a zeppelin. The majority of these pursuits are nothing if not trivial. The motorcycle sequence, for example, was shot and added in after Spielberg viewed a rough cut and thought the film “lacked energy.”
The narrative gets going as Indy discovers his father has been kidnapped by a gaggle of Nazis while researching that holiest of holies, the Grail of Jesus Christ. Before being abducted, Dr. Jones Sr. manages to send Indy a diary containing over forty years of research, including clues to the grail’s location. Thus, our hero sets off to find his father which is all part of Donavon’s master plan. He’s hoping Indy will lead him to the grail and ultimately eternal life. Before Indy can obtain the cup of Christ, he must first get past a Secret Society called The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, a beguiling female double agent (Alison Doddy), a geriatric knight and even a brief encounter with Hitler himself. Care for a book burning anyone? Indy’s underlying internal goal during this journey is ostensibly to repair the relationship with his estranged father. This is a common theme of Spielberg’s (see ET or War of the Worlds). However, the film never really goes deeper than a superficial exploration of the father/son dynamic. Granted it’s hard to have a moment when you’re being shot at, but the agenda in this flick is all action and cheese…not real emotion.
When we’re not gallivanting through crevices and castles, the audience is forced to endure a myriad of cliches. The characters jump across the tops of moving trains, dangle precariously by their fingertips in several literal cliffhangers and ride off into the sunset at the films reprise like cowboys in a Spaghetti Western. All of this is done with Spielberg’s trademark schmaltziness and cornball humor, which can only be expected in a film that was meant to bring families back to the franchise after they’d seen hearts being ripped out of people’s chests in The Temple of Doom.
In some ways, the Indiana Jones trilogy works as a less sophisticated precursor to The Da Vinci Code. Indy is a makeshift detective and the film is at its best when he’s unraveling the mysteries of antiquity. There’s a boyish fun in watching him stomp through a stone engraved with the Roman Numeral for ten to reveal the lost tomb of the famous knight. “X marks the spot,” he jeers. One of the best scenes involves Indy taking a step out onto a bottomless chasm only to find a camouflaged but very solid bridge beneath. Indeed, faith sometimes requires us to step from the logical world into the void of the unknown. Even though Indiana is a pragmatic character, he is constantly confronted by situations that challenge his perception of what’s possible. This contradiction is one of the elements that makes The Last Crusade enjoyable.
Unlike Dan Brown, however, the screenwriter, Jeffrey Boam (of The Phantom and Lethal Weapon 2&3 fame), prefers chase scenes, constant exposition and dull humor to historical trivia or any type of character catharsis. The final and most effective arc comes in the third act where Indy must solve several mysteries in a hidden temple located in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon. Yet the entire film leading up to this point is a glorified, over budgeted game of cat and mouse. For as many countries as the film was actually shot in, it rarely feels much farther than the back lot of a Hollywood Studio.
Spielberg and Lucas made a five picture deal with Paramount for the Indiana Jones franchise. At the time of this writing, they are four deep with rumors of Shia Lebeouf taking over the coveted fedora after the last resurrection of the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Given the profits of that film, around $786 million, it’s fairly likely the fifth will emerge in the coming years. In one of the final scenes of The Last Crusade, Harrison Ford dips the Holy Grail into the Well of Immortality and drinks until the water spills down his chin. Time will tell if that film becomes a treasure to be unearthed and enjoyed by future generations or if it ends up gathering dust like a decaying relic that belongs in a museum.