After the darkness of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, levity came forth with Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade: some thoughts.
Spoilers for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade lie ahead.
While it is accepted in film culture that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best Indiana Jones picture on a level of craft, there must surely be an argument that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the most elegant outing for cinema’s greatest archaeologist.
It is remarkable just how it emulates Raiders in many respects. It begins with an origin story, albeit a different one from the iconic South American temple raid introducing the adult Jones. It brings back the Nazi threat, even closer now to the outbreak of the Second World War. It gives Indy another urbane, albeit American rather than European, educated villain in Walter Donovan (the great Julian Glover). It brings back favourites such as Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), both absent from Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom. And it heavily features the Middle East in exploring Judeo-Christian mythology.
Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade is nonetheless without doubt a much softer picture than Raiders or Temple was, as Indy – more acutely here revealed to be Henry Jones. Jr – begins edging toward middle age and Steven Spielberg cements himself, at the end of the 1980s, as the greatest purveyor of family entertainment in Hollywood. Within the next few years, he will give us Hook and Jurassic Park as he leaves Indy behind, not to mention indulging the serious, dramatic side of his directorial character in films such as Schindler’s List or Amistad.
His direction of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade might be the intended end for Indiana Jones, but it feels like at the very least a consolidation, if not quite a beginning, of a certain type of American action-adventure blockbuster which multiple generations can enjoy. Which is fitting given Last Crusade is an inter-generational story, with Indy having moved from rugged, morally questionable tomb raider, through to a conventionally sexy, Bond-style hero, into a youthful image of the father figure he had long grown detached from. “It belongs in a museum” becomes his credo rather than “fortune and glory”.
The relationship between Indiana Jones and his father, Henry Jones. Sr. must be one of the greatest put to film. In no small part thanks to celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard (best known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) sprinkling absolute magic in his rewrite, but equally the combination of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery as Henry Sr. I recently wrote a book on Connery and his career, and while he might have won his only Oscar for Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables two years earlier, I would cite his turn in Last Crusade as a possible career best. Though Gregory Peck was in the running (and in his own way would have worked well), Connery is unexpectedly perfect casting for Indy’s father.
Our own audience reading of the text in recognising Connery as the archetypal James Bond is partly why. Connery’s portrayal of Ian Fleming’s spy significantly defined popular culture as it emerged in the 1960s, and while Ford’s portrayal of Jones didn’t quite have that impact, his iconic look across these three pictures certainly made a dent in 1980s pop culture. Where Connery excels though is in defying expectations; he doesn’t swagger through the film as a middle-aged 007, circa Never Say Never Again; rather he spends most of it as the sidekick, bumbling around, falling over, shirking at the bullets flying around and showing exasperation for what Indy gets them into. “You call this archaeology?!”. It’s an amazing inversion of what we expect from Connery and Henry as a character.
Thanks to the cleverness of the script, both characters begin to incorporate aspects of their natures as the film progresses. As Indy becomes more studios of the Holy Grail and his father’s diaries teachings, Henry steadily becomes more adventurous and dashing: “Why are you sitting here resting when we’re so close to the end?!” he exclaims (another meta in-joke as to the series concluding) to Indy, having just survived the tank plummeting off a cliff. It’s a moment where Connery really shows what he can do and Henry realises what he almost lost. “I’ve lost him… and I never told him anything.” His joy at Indy being alive is so palpable. It’s wonderful and by the time Henry has morphed into Connery come the final shot, you buy it.
A quick sidebar: I think one of the reasons Last Crusade is sometimes, when I’m asked the question, my favourite film of all time, is because of this relationship. I spent many years estranged from my father and while I’m not comparing myself to Dr Jones, I know the pain and sadness of losing that figure in your life. So, whenever I see Indy and Henry reconnect, it hits me on an emotional level deeper than it would others. Though I still firmly believe it’s brilliantly executed, well-observed character work and drama, outside of what I draw from it in a personal way.
This entire dynamic essentially explains the duality in Indy that has existed from the beginning. Though he became a teacher like Henry, he eschewed a belief in myth and legend, especially Christian myth, and legend, writing off the Ark of the Covenant or the Grail as “bedtime stories”. He never let himself become obsessed by these Biblical mysteries, as Henry did the Grail.
At the same time, he forged himself not in Henry’s image, but that of Garth (played by Richard Young), a 1910’s American tomb raider who sees in the youthful Boy Scout Indy a version of himself and passes on the iconic hat Indy later wears for his entire life. ‘Indiana’ is born at this moment. It makes sense that the family dog is there, given how Henry – in perhaps a fit of pique against his negligent father – names his new, roguish identity after. He considers himself in Henry Sr’s eyes on that level, that of a mutt. Hmmm… ‘Mutt’…
In Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, however, Indy moves closer to incorporating those aspects of his father by embracing Henry’s belief in Christian myth, that which we saw him largely reject in Raiders. He closes his eyes as Belloq opens the Ark but that’s as far as he gets. He’s equally willing to blow it up.
Here, Indy needs to have faith to reach the Grail and save his father. “You must believe, boy, you must believe” Henry says. Indy must literally leap into the unknown, in perhaps the series’ most mystical scene, to reach the Grail Knight. He then must know the Bible, understand Christ, to pick the correct cup, and trust the Knight about the rules of immortality. Come the end of Last Crusade, Indy and Henry have become one, as both generations of Jones finally understand each other.
This level of characterisation isn’t there in previous Indiana Jones pictures. Last Crusade has an array of majestic set pieces – the Venice speedboat chase, the motorbike chase in Austria, the tank sequence – yet again a peerless score from John Williams, and a script which crackles with witticisms (take the ad-libbed “she talks in her sleep” Connery delivers as the best example), but the reason it stands as my favourite of the entire series is that it lands emotionally. It’s the Indy film with the biggest heart and served, for a long time, as the perfect conclusion to a beloved series.
However, it turned out there was more than one bedtime story for Dr. Jones still to come…
Also on Film Stories
Celebrating the music of the Indiana Jones films
Indiana Jones: spoiler-filled thoughts on Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny
Indiana Jones revisited: reconsidering Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones revisited: 1984’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom
Indiana Jones revisited: heading back to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Podcast: In conversation with James Mangold: Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, Girl Interrupted and more
Podcast: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) and The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)
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