Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – Directed by Steven Spielberg – Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody, Julian Glover, River Phoenix, John Rhys-Davies, and Denholm Elliott.
When I was a kid and THE LAST CRUSADE came out, I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie. I liked it well enough, but I disliked the whole Indy and His Dad angle. I wanted to see Indy running through a jungle and cracking his whip, not working through daddy issues and getting Hitler’s autograph. The whole movie was just a tad too comedic for my snobby teenaged self, and while I don’t remember doing it, it would have been just like that dick of a kid that I was to spend loads of time telling anyone who would listen how much more awesome that year’s Tim Burton-directed Batman flick was in comparison. (I wonder if I still feel the same way, which I guess we’ll find out when I review the Batman films in the near future.) I did, after all, buy a Batman movie poster and t-shirt that same summer, so there was no question where my loyalties lie. (I have no idea what happened to the poster, but the t-shirt still gets worn thanks to not wearing it for like 15 years because … I don’t know, it would be worth money some day? Sometimes, I’m stupid.)
I also wasn’t a big fan of seeing Indy as a kid – I was in the Boy Scouts and the Boy Scouts mostly sucked. We never went horseback riding through the Utah desert – or whatever the Massachusetts equivalent to that would have been. We’d go camping but I never rode a horse. We’d go walking through the woods but I never saw a cave, and I sure heck never came across any treasure hunters who would both try to kill me and provide me the fashion template I would use for the rest of my life. (The closest I came to that was when the older kids tied us to a tree and … I’m gonna stop there.) Boy Scouts was mostly just doing pointless stuff to get badges, meeting at a friend’s house every so often, and going to summer camp every year.
The most exciting thing we ever did was take our tent bed mattresses out for a row around the lake. (They floated. I know. We were shocked, too.) Of course, I never actually got to do it because the camp counselors put a stop to our “adventure” before it was my turn, so screw those guys. (Not literally, of course, because the Boy Scouts hate gay people.)
But this is the movies and in the movies when you go for a horseback ride with your Scout troop, you end up stealing a rare artifact from thieves, get chased through a circus train, almost get killed, and then have the sheriff take your stolen artifact back to the original thieves as the archaeologist thief gives you his fedora and departs a life lesson on you that daddy in the other room was too busy to deliver: “You lost today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.”
It’s entirely fitting that the movie opens with a youthful Henry Jones, Jr. adventure because THE LAST CRUSADE is very much a step back in time to attempt to recapture the magic of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. In a lot of ways it’s sad to see a director like Steven Spielberg directing scared, but there’s such a neediness in CRUSADE to apologize for the darker tones of TEMPLE OF DOOM and get back to RAIDERS that Spielberg (and Lucas, perhaps) overdoes it, giving us what amounts to an adventure comedy more than an action adventure.
It bothered me as a kid, but it doesn’t bother me now.
THE LAST CRUSADE is a thoroughly enjoyable movie from start to finish. If Lucas and Spielberg created a darker movie with TEMPLE OF DOOM, in part, because of the darker aspects of their own lives at the time, then with CRUSADE they must have been dealing with issues of lost connections in their personal lives. Whatever else CRUSADE is, it’s a movie about making peace with your loved ones, about accepting and appreciating them for who they are without completely letting go of what caused the severed connection in the first place. It’s overriding message is that you can go forward in your life by incorporating people from your past by finding something to do that you would both enjoy.
It’s not a deep message but it doesn’t need to be because CRUSADE isn’t trying to do anything by make nice with you by having its characters make nice with each other.
I don’t know if Spielberg has ever directed anything coming from such a desperate and needy place, but instead of delivering a third Indiana Jones movie that combined the best elements of the first two movies, CRUSADE goes back to the formula of RAIDERS and makes it all lighter and brighter.
Even the return of the Nazis is incredibly simplistic; there’s nary a Nazi or Nazi associate in CRUSADE to match the villainy of Rene Belloq, Arnold Toht, or even the Ark of the Covenant. Julian Glover plays a breezy, sleazy Walter Donovan, a patron of the museum that Indy treasure hunts for, but he’s just a guy who puts pieces in place, not an archaeologist like Belloq who manipulates locals into working for him. You can see that Donovan is supposed to be reminiscent of Belloq, though, with the elitist air, fancy clothes, and willingness to work with the Nazis in order to get his desired treasure.
Where RAIDERS had the over-the-top Toht, CRUSADE gives us Ernst Vogel, a Nazi colonel who’s always in uniform so you remember that he’s a Nazi and thus evil, because without that uniform to remind you of that he’s just a smirk and an empty threat. There’s nothing memorably villainous about him at all, and he never comes across as a guy who can do anyone any harm.
Then there’s Alison Doody as Elsa Schneider, a conflicted character that Spielberg tries to fashion into a sympathetic Nazi, and almost serves as a micro-example of Spielberg’s use of the Nazis as a whole. Elsa works with Indy (and his dad before him) under direct orders from Hitler, but when she’s invited to stand by the Fuhrer at a big book-burning ceremony, she leaves the stage to get all weepy about the burning, telling Indy she doesn’t want to see his father’s notebook burned. “Is that what you think of me?” she asks. “I believe in the Grail, not the Swastika!” Which I guess means she’s totally willing to overlook the Nuremberg Laws, the segregation of the Jews, and the general wave of antisemitism taking place in 1938 Germany in her quest to find a magic cup.
Indy rightly calls her on it, roughly admonishing her: “You stood up to be counted with the enemy of everything the Grail stands for – who gives a crap what you think?”
Elsa reminds him she could scream, thus ending his mission right here, but she doesn’t because … because she believes in the Grail? Or because Indy was good in the sack? There’s plenty of story to be had with a conflicted Nazi, of course, but that’s far too in-depth for CRUSADE to work through.
Similarly, the use of Nazis in general feels conflicted for Spielberg in CRUSADE; in RAIDERS they were sinister but in CRUSADE they’re basically used for their signature flags and uniforms. They’ve become exactly the kind of generic villains that are next-to-meaningless, and completely removed from who they actually were in reality. It worked in RAIDERS because their imagery was downplayed and their evilness was never in question, but in CRUSADE they’re like uncomfortably used props. I’m not saying that Nazis can’t be used as villains in an adventure film by any stretch, but I think using Hitler to execute a prop joke is a bad idea. This is one of the reasons why I think using an organization like Hydra in the Marvel movies is a much better idea that drudging up the Nazi symbols; unless you’re going to address what the Nazis were actually capable of, better to give yourself some distance so you don’t have to wonder why Indy doesn’t just put a bullet through Hitler’s skull instead of dumbly standing there and getting this f*ck’s autograph. (Maybe because it takes place in 1938 instead of 1939?)
All of this is just the stuff that surrounds and enhances the relationship of the two men named Henry Jones. It’s entirely fitting, of course, that Sean Connery plays the elder dad, since Spielberg took the directing assignment on RAIDERS because he wanted to do a James Bond movie and Lucas convinced him Indiana Jones was better than Bond. There’s been touches of Bond throughout the past two films, though he doesn’t really go in that direction with Connery. Henry Jones, Sr. isn’t an adventurer but an academic, even being surprised when he realizes there are people trying to kill them.
“This hasn’t happened before.”
“Happens to me all the time,” Indy growls back.
Because Connery is Connery, he can make Ford come off as a wounded kid. It’s fantastic acting by Ford – perhaps his best in the entire film series because he has to make Indy seem both his normally heroic self and also like a kid hurt by his dad’s lack of attention. Senior’s insistence that he was a good parent because “I didn’t ask you to eat your vegetables or do your homework” is classic justification of his absent parenting. And when Senior laughs at the Nazi’s insistence that Junior brought Senior’s diary right back to him, Ford’s embarrassed look that lets everyone see that’s exactly what he did is priceless.
It’s the interplay between Ford and Connery that makes CRUSADE a triumphant film as the two men grow together over the course of the story. The Holy Grail isn’t the Ark of the Covenant, but it’s a fitting object of desire for a film that’s about a dad and his son doing something together instead of doing something apart. Where RAIDERS introduced Indiana Jones with a booby-trapped temple that he had to navigate, CRUSADE sends him into the sunset with a series of booby traps protecting the final Knight Templar and the Grail’s resting place. That the Grail is a plain cup instead of an ornate goblet is something that always stuck with me; I dig that the Grail is something that has becomes powerful and desired because it was something ordinary in an extraordinary situation.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE might try too hard to make-up for Spielberg’s disappointment with TEMPLE OF DOOM (it’s like it’s saying, “Sorry we didn’t use Marcus last time, so we’ll let him tag along this time! We’ll even throw in Sulla, too!”) but it’s a light romp of enjoyable popcorn. The father-son material that made the teenage version of me scoff now resonates with the older me, and CRUSADE has gone from a movie that meant little to a film that means a whole lot.
THE INDIANA JONES REVIEW COLLECTION:
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: Asps. Very Dangerous. You Go First.
TEMPLE OF DOOM: Two Hours of Kate Capshaw Shrieking Like a Harpy
THE LAST CRUSADE: You Lost Today, Kid. But That Doesn’t Mean You Have to Like It.
THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: How Much of Human Life is Lost in Waiting?