After two movies, one might ordinarily say “my cup runneth over,” but when it comes to Indiana Jones, you can never have enough. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re looking at the third film dedicated to the only character Steven cared enough about to make several sequels for, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. With Indy’s dad, rats, and more Nazis, it’s not the best of the Indy sequels, but The Last Crusade is definitely the most generally agreed-upon as being a worthy Indy follow-up.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
As we discussed in the review for The Temple of Doom, George Lucas initially told Spielberg he had three stories in mind when he persuaded him to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark, saying Steven had to direct all three. However, that turned out to just be a fib to get Steven to commit to a full trilogy. So when time came to start pre-production on the third film, just as with Temple of Doom, Steven was in need of a story. But this time around, due to the divided public response to the darker content in The Temple of Doom, the pair was much more careful with their thought process.
Lucas and Spielberg went through several story ideas and writers before they settled on the ultimate concept for The Last Crusade. The final product is a script by Jeffrey Boam that includes several elements from earlier drafts, including Lucas’s ideas for a castle and a hunt for the Holy Grail, and Steven’s suggestion to introduce Jones’s father. As Jones was originally inspired by James Bond, Spielberg thought it logical to cast Sean Connery as Indiana’s father. Connery not only portrayed Jones Sr. on screen, but helped flesh out his character in the script as well.
The film opens with a fun little prologue that takes us back in time to Indiana’s early days as a boy scout. River Phoenix plays a young Indy, cast after he also portrayed a younger version of Harrison Ford’s character in 1986’s The Mosquito Coast. While on a horseback riding trip in Utah, Henry (as he was known at this time) steals a golden crucifix from some grave robbers so it can be donated to a museum. Here we learn where Jones got several of his signature traits: his taste for adventure, his fear of snakes, his whip, his fedora, and of course, his nickname Indiana.
The film then cuts to 1938, where Henry is on a ship recovering the same crucifix from the same mysterious villain. When Indiana returns to his university, he is introduced to a man named Donovan (Julian Glover) who enlists him in the search for the famed Holy Grail, which Indiana’s father was looking for when he went missing. Indiana eventually locates his father, who he hasn’t seen in 20 years, and realizes Donavan is in league with the Nazis. At the end of the film, the group locates the Holy Grail, but it is ultimately lost as the temple they find it in collapses.
After the mixed reactions to the darker shift in tone in The Temple of Doom, Spielberg made a conscious effort to recapture the mood and spirit of Raiders in The Last Crusade. This included not only toning down the violence and reducing the horror elements, but in having some familiar characters return such as Indy’s academic colleague Marcus Brody (Denhold Elliott), as well as Indy’s digger friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davis); and having some old villains come back in the form of the Nazis, and styling the adventure after the recovery of another Christian artifact.
It follows that The Last Crusade is not nearly as bold a change in direction as The Temple of Doom was, but it does offer a familiar enough style of adventure to please more fans of the original. But this doesn’t mean it’s just a retread of Raiders either, as it gives us a deeper look at Indiana by introducing his father into the mix, allowing us to see a different side of Indy has he interacts and collides with his father. By taking this route, the film offers a higher level of sophistication in one regard by its prioritization of its characters over the chase of yet another MacGuffin.
This is best illustrated in the climax, in which Indy rejects the Grail to take his father’s hand. While the first two films could roughly be described as pursuits of magical objects suspended by strings of set pieces, The Last Crusade revolves primarily around the reuniting and reconciliation of its father and son. Jones Sr., eccentrically portrayed here by Connery, drifted apart from his son over the years due to his dedication to academia and his wife’s death, but The Last Crusade brings them back together in an adventure where the two can move past their differences.
It’s another example in Spielberg’s filmography in which he examines the subject of broken families, as Steven comes from one himself. Steven’s father left the home when he was a teenager, and it wouldn’t be until the years following The Last Crusade that they would fully reconcile. Just as E.T. can be read as Spielberg’s expression of wishing he had someone to comfort him when his parents split up, The Last Crusade can be read as Spielberg’s desire to reconnect with his father and hash out what went wrong. It’s not the last time we’ll see this theme either.
And while all this philosophizing on fathers and sons is all fine and good, the main selling point of an Indiana Jones film is its action, and The Last Crusade delivers, though perhaps not as powerfully as its two predecessors on this front. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a fast-paced thrill ride, and Temple of Doom also had plenty of excitement, but The Last Crusade is noticeably more casual in its pacing. So much so that when Spielberg viewed a rough cut of the film in post-production, he felt the film didn’t have enough action, so he added the motorcycle chase scene.
This most likely happened due to the filmmakers putting so much stress on the film’s story to avoid some of the reactions The Temple of Doom had, but The Last Crusade certainly offers delights of its own. Perhaps the most memorable is the exploration of the tomb under the library. Indy and his new romantic interest Elsa (Alison Doody) find themselves literally up to their waists in petroleum-soaked water and rats. After the snakes in Raiders, and the bugs in Temple of Doom, well, Steven had to have a follow-up, and the rats are a suitably disgusting progression.
The film also offers some solid thrills with a boat chase in Venice, a face-off with Nazis in Austria, a plane dogfight, a tank battle, and some frightening trials leading up to the Holy Grail. Also, with the scrutiny of the leading lady in Temple of Doom, the right choice was made here to scale back the romantic importance of Alison Doody’s character, though she does make for an appealing love interest. Overall, The Last Crusade offers more sophistication in terms of its story and characters, but it never quite reaches as high an energy level as its two predecessors.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at Steven’s rarely-discussed experiment with the romantic genre in 1989’s Always. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Hulu and Starz, as well as for digital rental from various retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.
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