Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Steven Spielberg)
Some of my strongest memories of my first seven years of existence are of watching the first two Indiana Jones movies, really almost always the first of them; Temple of Doom was never such a fixture and I think I only saw it twice before I was an adult. My parents loved Raiders of the Lost Ark and rented it several times a year, at least. Mom used to cover my eyes during the really intense parts, often enough that the whole climax of the opening of the Ark attained an air of mystery about it I didn’t dare resolve until my adolescence. By the time Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released in 1989, I was conscious enough — about to start kindergarten! — to want to go see it. Mom and Dad said we couldn’t, I forget why. I accepted this and forgot about it. The film came out on video and I loved it, eventually got the VHS with the stupid Diet Coke ad at the beginning for myself and it became my a longshot my favorite of the three films, which it remained until quite recently. It was more than a decade later that Mom accidentally let it slip that she and my dad had gone to see the film without me because they believed it might be too scary for a five year-old. Perfectly reasonable, but I must admit to still feeling a little miffed about it.
Can you blame me? Indiana Jones is sort of an indulgence for me — it’s the one and only series of action films I can honestly say I enjoy, and a fair bit of that is likely due to my exposure at so young an age, but there’s more to it than that because I was exposed to Star Wars even younger and it does nothing for me. My sister has always said that her interest in archaeology was a kind of chicken-egg scenario with the Indy films, even though their cartoon adventure-serial version of archaeology has nothing much to do with real life. You can’t really say enough about how much these movies owe to Steven Spielberg and his surehanded, next-to-flawless mastery of action sequences; he’s arguably the most consistently skilled director of such wildly elaborate pieces in cinema. But I think that what struck me with all three films but this one in particular was its sweep and sense of journey, of movement. And in contrast to the James Bond films, movement with a certain logic and purpose — Last Crusade has a real sense of life, and enormity. It’s only recently that I’ve realized how much it owes to The 39 Steps and North by Northwest (thanks to Mike D’Angelo pointing out that it actually duplicates shot-for-shot an entire scene in the latter, and closely matches its rhythm for a stretch), and started to wonder excitedly about how much I might trace my entire passion about cinema in general to this one movie.
So it’s an important one to me, to be frank, and of course when you’ve known a film this well and for this long — surely in the top ten list of movies I’ve seen most frequently — you can have a hard time dissecting the reasons you respond to it the way you do. I feel as though its appeal is so immediate and obvious that it doesn’t bear much analysis or articulation, but I almost definitely wouldn’t feel the same if it were a new film coming across my desk now. Its action tropes and setpieces are extraordinary, of course — the lightning-quick tank chase sequence and the perfectly earned laugh just afterward, the truly beautiful opening flashback of a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) defying the odds for the first of many times during a split from a Scout soujourn, and the mysterious, phenomenal discovery of the tomb underneath the library. But what strikes me is that I find all of these moments to inspire a curious warmth in me, like I genuinely care about these characters, which is a strange thing to say about an unapologetic popcorn film. Of course, there again, some of it’s the film and some of it’s me.
Anyone who doesn’t think Harrison Ford is wonderful in this world is, much I hate to say it, a total dick — Ford has next to no range as an actor but Indiana Jones is his embodiment of all the smarmy arrogance and undaunted invention suggested in his portrayal of Han Solo in the Star Wars films, but even just the hint that he’s a normal guy in relatively recent history stumbling into all of these bizarro situations gives just the ideal drift of a Hitchcock everyman to the role, something Ford revels in by making Jones alternately heroic, ridiculous, comedic, befuddled. Spielberg is reluctant to place a white light behind his lead actor and crank him up as a movie god a la Bond because he’s conscious of an audience too self-aware to fall completely for such earnestness. The irony is delicious, then, of bringing in Sean Connery as Jones’ estranged father. I should maybe prepare to dodge a few bullets for this one, but: this is Connery’s best performance, ever, one of the few that matches his energetic pomposity with a character worthy of it.
He behaves exactly the way that you’d expect Indiana Jones’ father to behave, which is more of a compliment than it sounds like. In the brief history of this blog I’ve already trotted out more than once the point that Spielberg is the all-time best Hollywood director in terms of breakneck-speed character development. One of the most shining examples of this occurs early in the film when we first meet the elder Dr. Jones, during the flashback with Phoenix. Young Indy has recovered the Cross of Coronado through a series of death-defying stunts echoing not just Raiders but (delightfully) The Lady Vanishes, and in just a few seconds we know all that we need to about his relationship to his dad. He rushes in excitedly to tell him what’s happened — obviously deeply respectful of his dad and wishful of following in his footsteps — but is met with back-turned apathy by a man too involved in what he’s doing to give his son proper attention. This is played out thoroughly in the construction of Jones the younger’s passions and the discussions they later have, which are beautifully written and realized by Jeffrey Boan’s perceptive script and Ford and Connery’s unexpectedly sophisticated performances… but you know precisely who these two men are in just those brief early moments.
There is a depth and seriousness to the characterization here that was lacking in either Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, even though I now consider Raiders the superior film. It’s almost as if, after having built a franchise on memories of silly Saturday morning adventure serials, Spielberg and coproducer George Lucas suddenly realized they’d built something sustainable in this cocky, flawed hero and started to really investigate the darker parts of his heart, his past, what makes him tick. There’s plenty of whiz-bang stuff, but significantly, there isn’t the traditional Bond-girl romantic subplot; there are the beginnings of one, subverted by a narrative that means to upend audience expectations. Does a hell of a job, too. This is one of a series of ’80s sequels that were truly smart and self-reflexive about their relationships to the blockbusters they were following — Last Crusade gives you the old characters and setups and ideas but emboldens them, affixes them to a serious-minded enterprise that only makes the well-packed action and fun more enjoyable. The key is something Lucas never picked up on in his own movies: the film is serious about its characters, not its situations.
Those situations could easily be wildly over the top. There are lots of Nazis roaming around, as ever, and book-burning and you even get to meet Hitler (in a sequence that screams out with wonderfully vindictive fury and largeness that would later become typical of Spielberg in his mature years). There’s the utterly improbable comedic-scary moment of father and son, who’ve both been sleeping with the same Nazi vixen, tied to a chair in a room that they’ve accidentally set ablaze, and by the way, they’re laid up against a wall that gives way to a secret room. Of course. And did we mention this film culminates in a search for the Holy Grail that leads the gang, led by Jones, over mountains and through a demented Wheel of Fortune game and finally to an old room where Gandalf makes you choose your destiny via cup? But it all works, and the Holy Grail climax in particular arguably betters the first film thanks to a sense we get that what’s happening is truly grave and terrifying, thanks largely again to the performances. And nothing will ever top the closing scene of Raiders, but how wonderful to end this series (for now) with Ford, Connery, Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies riding off into the sunset literally.
So I forgave my parents. Back in 2004 when they both were still living, I treated myself to the Paramount DVD set of the Indiana Jones films. This among other things prompted my first viewing in years of Temple of Doom, always the film my family tended to ignore, but the most important moment came at the end of Last Crusade. Against that gorgeous orange-tinted closing shot, the heroes fleeing in the great western cliche to parts unknown, John Williams’ score — which, like all but one of his scores, is too busy but in this case quite great — hit that lovely minor-key crescendo and memories came flooding back of sitting many, many moons ago in the living room with my parents and all of us enjoying this. It was such a pure memory, and for the first time I felt that I actually missed my parents being together — which sounds like a negative but was really a big step for me. I called Mom and we talked about it. Then years later, Amber and I were watching Raiders just before I got the dreaded phone call about Dad… but seeing it again recently this new association seemed not a hindrance but a comfort. Because these are not things I visit often in my mind, but for me to be able to watch these films and feel so vividly “back there” with my family is not an insignificant thing, and I think speaks to how much we can put into the art we care about, and how ideal Spielberg’s best films are to leave room for that.