Indiana Jones and the Comfort Food – Revisiting The Last Crusade
Part 3 of our week-long journey through the Indiana Jones series
Ahead of the release of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny this Friday, I am going to spend the week writing about each of the first 4 films in the series, with one review going up every weekday at Noon, leading to my review of the new film on Friday. On Monday, I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark, and yesterday, I covered Temple of Doom. Today, we’re continuing with 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Enjoy…
Of all the Indiana Jones sequels, Last Crusade is undeniably the most competent, a well-made, soulful crowd-pleaser that you’d have to be a real grouch to not have at least a little bit of fun with. It is also, I would argue equally undeniably, the least ambitious of the sequels, the one that takes the smallest swings and is most committed to delivering a broadly palatable Indiana Jones unobjectionable to most audiences. It is the fast-food version of Raiders of the Lost Ark – a simplified, standardized play on the first film’s formula, visibly reverse-engineered from the gourmet original to make an easily digestible follow-up. Part of me, I will admit, resents this about Last Crusade; Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest films ever made, and Last Crusade is ‘merely’ a good, solid adventure flick. The delta between them is vast, and this one lacks not only the raw, organic passion that birthed that original film, but also the more audacious swings that led to the rousing high points (and, in all fairness, the low points too) of Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Last Crusade is Indiana Jones as comfort food, though it is, at least, very tasty comfort food.
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The opening sequence with River Phoenix as a young Indiana Jones is something of a microcosm for the entire film. It’s a tremendously fun set-piece, skillfully mounted and performed with lots of gusto; Phoenix himself is the stand-out, but you can also hear a lot of palpable enthusiasm from John Williams, and the sequence on the circus train is pretty relentlessly creative in its staging, with the long take of everyone moving over the top of the train cars having an almost animated sense of motion and timing. At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to bristle at what the film is doing here. Compressing the origin stories for all of Indy’s most recognizable traits into one brief afternoon excursion is somewhat endearingly ridiculous, but it also signifies this movie’s whole deal, which to be a more neatly packaged, easily digestible version of Indiana Jones. There’s a lot of virtuosic choreography, but also a pretty heavy reliance on slapstick and variably effective humor, and Indy’s righteous characterization – he’s been saying “It belongs in a museum” his whole life! – doesn’t really gel with his character arc in the first two films, especially Temple of Doom, which is situated as a prequel to Raiders and pretty strongly suggests Indy wasn’t always so committed to walking the straight and narrow. And yet, for whatever issues I can raise, some of which do bother me in the moment, by the time we cut to adult Indy played by Harrison Ford, I have a big smile on my face; there is a pandering quality to all of this, but if you’re going to pander, you might as well do it masterfully, and at its best, Last Crusade can be irresistible.
This film is a very intentional throwback to Raiders of the Lost Ark in a ton of ways, and a self-conscious course correction from the overwhelming darkness of Temple of Doom. It brings back Denholm Elliot as Brody and John Rhys-Davies as Sallah; it has the exact same opening title designs as Raiders, where Temple of Doom did something starkly different with its credits (in what is the best scene of that film); it steers hard away from the grim violence of Doom, arguably overcorrecting into a high degree of very broad comedy (more on that in a bit); and most notably, it returns to a more traditional adventure/quest structure, with major moments from Raiders either directly recreated or tweaked, like cutting to Indy teaching at the University after the opening action beat, with Brody waiting for him to finish, or giving us an underground tomb full of rats in place of snakes. In its structure, Last Crusade suggests an alternate version of the Indiana Jones franchise that is more akin to the James Bond films, where each sequel follows a clear formula and revisits a key set of standard scenes.
Of course, what ultimately keeps Last Crusade from being a formulaic shadow of Raiders is that it does have one new idea, and it involves the original James Bond himself. You don’t need me to tell you that Sean Connery is delightful here, or that he and Harrison Ford have such a warm, winning chemistry that what is a fairly basic ‘estranged father/son’ dynamic on the page comes alive in genuinely moving fashion here. Connery as Henry Jones Sr. is the reason for this movie to exist, and whatever complaints I can lodge at the film, it earns its existence through that central dynamic. The quest for the Holy Grail, meanwhile, is well-tread ground that clearly takes its cues from Raiders and the Ark of the Covenant to form a Christianity-tinged mythological adventure, but it’s all done with enough imagination and gusto to stand on its own, particularly in the film’s final act. If nothing else, Last Crusade certainly underlines how bland and uncreative something like The Da Vinci Code is, and how wrong stories like these can go when they fail to marry the puzzle-centric historical adventure to an actual character-driven story that makes us care about the people doing the searching.
What works less well for me is the film’s sense of humor, and just how hard it leans into slapstick and excessively obvious gags. I absolutely do not need my Indiana Jones movies to be ‘dark and gritty’ – Raiders of the Lost Ark is a frequently very funny movie, and Temple of Doom suffers from being much too grim – but there are only a few jokes here I would actually call ‘clever.’ Most of it is groan-worthy ‘dad jokes’ (e.g. Indy says ‘Rats!’, and we pan down to see a bunch of rats), and more importantly, a lot of the gags stem from characters exaggerating and contorting themselves into sometimes unrecognizable shapes. The bit with Indy pretending to be a Scottish lord to enter the castle is more bizarre than funny, and while Marcus Brody starts the film as the same warm-but-sharp academic type we saw in Raiders, he gradually gets dumber until he exists purely as comic relief. Sometimes, the film’s lightness of tone is absolutely endearing; I like the “no ticket” bit on the German blimp a lot, and Dr. Jones Sr. bringing down the Nazi fighter jet with his umbrella and a flock of seagulls is just goddamn delightful (and another brazenly ridiculous sequence to shove in the face of anyone who insists that ‘nuking the fridge’ is when this series went off the rails). But for every moment like that, there’s two or three gags like Indy accidentally giving the group’s position away with the reflection on his binoculars and then insisting they’re “well out of range” from the giant tank staring them down, which promptly drops a shell several feet away; it doesn’t feel like something Indiana Jones would do or say, and isn’t nearly funny enough (if it’s funny at all) to compensate.
The regularity with which the movie stops itself for a joke adds up over time. The third-act tank chase, for instance, is an astonishing spectacle in all sorts of ways, one that boggles my mind with how seamlessly it connects the exterior and the interior of the tank (which would of course have been shot separately), action on one side always affecting the other. It is an absolute masterclass in timing and spatial relations, full of great stunt work and creative, surprising action beats. It is also really heavy on slapstick and gags, like Brody’s “pen is mightier than the sword” joke or Indy getting slammed into the tank’s periscope, none of which are particularly objectionable on their own terms, but all of which add up to rob the scene of the sheer propulsiveness that animated the set pieces in both Raiders and Temple of Doom. The sequence is regularly interrupting itself for a laugh, as if it can’t trust the audience to sit still and engage with what is otherwise a kinetic masterclass without moments that are effectively a big blinking sign imploring us to chuckle.
There is one moment in that tank chase that landed for me differently now than it ever has before. Dr. Jones Sr. is being repeatedly slapped with a glove by one of the head Nazis demanding to see his Grail diary. “What does the diary tell you that it doesn’t tell us?” the Nazi asks. Connery grabs the man’s wrist before he can slap again, and stares him dead in the eye. “It tells me that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them!” I don’t know if I’ve ever taken particular note of this moment on past viewings, but it sent a chill down my spine this time. For one, it is now 2023, and the exact Nazi ideology behind book burnings has returned here in America, with Republican politicians taking aim at ‘degenerate’ literature to quash free speech; how I would love to give Ron DeSantis a good smack and repeat Dr. Jones’ exact words. But within the context of the film itself, this is also one of the only moments where the film pauses not for a gag, but to take itself deadly seriously, and approach its Nazi antagonists with the moral clarity and weight they deserve. In a film overrun with dad jokes, an old man staring down a Nazi and telling him to crack open a book feels a bit like water in the desert.
One big feather in this movie’s cap is the score, which sees John Williams well within his element. The main Holy Grail theme, which seamlessly shifts into the main motif for the father/son relationship, is brilliant stuff, and overall this is just a much more memorable, deeply felt score than Temple of Doom, where it sometimes felt like Williams had trouble finding a way into something so grotesque and macabre. A joke I do like in Last Crusade is when Indy and Elsa find the drawing of the Ark of the Covenant in the tomb, and it’s largely because of how seamlessly Williams weaves the Ark theme from Raiders back into the score.
And of course, the grand finale with Indy going through the traps leading to the Holy Grail is fantastic. It is the best stretch of the film by far, and not coincidentally the one most lodged in pop culture memory. It’s like a bigger version of the opening booby trap sequence in Raiders, only this time Indy is solving fun Christian riddles, and walking the path his father, who lays dying outside, set down for him, which adds an effective layer of poignancy. The ‘leap of faith’ scene on the invisible bride is particularly cool – I love the effects used when we see the optical illusion – and everything with the immortal Knight in the Grail room is, to use a very technical Film Studies term, rad as shit. I love the idea that the real Holy Grail would clearly be the humble cup of a carpenter if one stopped to think about it, but that most people, having been seduced by the mystery of the Grail legend, would inevitably seek out the most opulent chalice. Donovan’s brutal death has become one of the Internet’s all-time favorite GIFs for good reason: His rapid aging and decay is maybe the best special effects shot in the whole franchise, a truly jaw-dropping piece of stop-motion animation. The Knight’s infamous rejoinder – “he chose…poorly” is far and away the best joke in the movie, this immortal Knight being a petty bitch in the face of such gruesome schadenfreude.
It’s all great stuff, and it continues into the climax back at the cave’s entrance. The moment where Indy almost falls to his death reaching for the Grail, only for his father to bring him back to his senses by using his chosen name, Indiana, where he previously only called him Junior? That’s just good screenwriting. It’s not rocket science. It’s not groundbreaking. But it’s good, meat-and-potatoes character-driven planting and payoff, and it works, capping a final act that largely works like gangbusters. This section is the main reason this film is generally remembered fondly, I think – it truly ends with its best foot forward.
In some ways, Last Crusade feels like a precursor to our modern blockbuster landscape, where even otherwise good superhero flicks can get bogged down by excessive reliance on focus-group tested humor, or where the spark that animated a first movie can be replaced by formulaic repetition and simplification. Last Crusade is still a better movie than most of what Marvel or DC have ever put out, to be clear – it has that strong central relationship, and it has Spielberg’s singular chops when it comes to spectacle – but even as it competently gets the job done, this is the Indiana Jones film that feels the least personal and adventurous to me. It doesn’t have the lows of Temple of Doom or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I’d argue it also, for the most part, doesn’t have their highs. It’s a tasty slice of comfort food, but it’s not particularly filling, and it doesn’t offer any real surprises or revelations. Maybe that’s for the best; I absolutely understand why most viewers would call this the second-best Indiana Jones film without a second thought, and don’t get me wrong – I very much enjoy it too.
But I can’t help but want something more – maybe something like atom bombs and space aliens…
Come back tomorrow, and let’s talk about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
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