One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Cult-Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
I hope my previous reviews of the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg franchise make abundantly
plain, I am a resolute admirer of the Indiana Jones film series from start to
finish. Raiders of the Lost Ark
is an absolutely perfect movie in my opinion, and Temple of Doom casts a
long shadow as a work of dark genius and perhaps even madness.
like and enjoy the third film, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,
but harbor some misgivings about the film on a few simple grounds, which I
shall enumerate below.
and foremost, the third Indy film literally removes “shadow” from the world of
Indiana Jones, and the film-noir-type photography of both Raiders and Temple
is wholly missing here. Instead, every
frame looks bright and well-lit, and subsequently some sense of visual layering
or depth is absent from the proceedings.
The film feels Disney-fied, or at least visually sanitized in comparison
with the previous two entries.
speaking, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also subtracts “shadow” from
its creative equation in other significant ways.
particular, it removes the shadow or blot over Indiana Jones’ very humanity -- his soul itself -- by sweeping under the
carpet his morally questionable nature,
To wit, the movie ret-cons this great hero -- literally -- as a boy scout.
This very square incarnation of Indiana Jones doesn’t jibe with the
hard-drinking, dissolute, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, womanizing man we
met in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981; the man “fallen from faith” who could have been a mirror image for Rene Belloq.
Jones and the Last Crusade dramatically hedges its bets by attempting
to appeal to nostalgia and sentimentality instead of by pushing the franchise
into new terrain the way that Temple ofDoom so relentlessly pushed
it. The film unnecessarily plays like
old home week. It resurrects beloved supporting
characters from Raiders of the Lost Ark such as Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and
Brody (Denholm Elliott), but then puts them to use that makes them appear
silly, even ridiculous. Specifically, these
characters are shoe-horned into shallow comic-relief roles that, again, make
mincemeat out of series history. Brody
has gone from being a wise elder and mentor to Indy to a living Looney Tunes
character, in particular.
suspect Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s s strong accent on gimmicky
comedy -- as well as the attempt to
transform Indiana Jones from Fred Dobbs-like dissolution to Boy Scout-styled
righteousness -- is a direct response to the darkness some critics and
audiences apparently perceived (and disliked…) in Temple of Doom.
it is a calculated over-response, and
so something about the film’s sense of balance is wrong. Steven Spielberg once noted that he had “consciously regressed” in order to
create this film and that he did so as an apology for the quality of the second
film. Accordingly, there is a weird diffidence
to aspects of this movie that aren’t apparent in any of the other Indiana Jones
films. It’s as though Spielberg is
unsure of himself here, and constantly lightening the mood with shticky comedy,
thus questioning: is this too dark?
I must stress, however, that I feel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is
a worthwhile film in spite of these faults. It is absolutely entertaining, and
the action scenes, for the most part, are nail-biters. But the primary value I pinpoint and would
note in this sequel arises from the overall metaphor of the Holy Grail.
search for the Grail is not the search for the divine in all of us, as Brody
might declare, but rather, the search for the “father” figure that so many
people seek in life. The search for Jesus, or God, is thus mirrored in the film
by Indiana’s search to really, truly know his own father, Henry (Sean Connery).
the Nazi characters such as Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) are contextualized in
terms of a relationship with questionable or unavailable father figures, and so
the film boasts a nice artistic cohesion, with an emotional pay-off.
I enjoy and appreciate most about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
is that it suggests Indy’s hunt for “fortune and glory” originates from his
desire to please a father who, in essence, can never be pleased. This helps us to understand the man in a way
that the continuity-heavy but pat Moab Desert scene does not.
movie sees father and son Jones reconcile, and the hero move, at last, past his
life-long quest to fill the emptiness inside through the acquisition of relics. The Last Crusade thus moves the Indy
character forward and helps to explain the more at-peace man he we meet again
of the Crystal Skull.
only wish that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had told the same meaningful
story without rewriting elements of the character’s history, and without removing
so much of the “shadow” hanging over a great cinematic hero.
“If it is captured by the Nazis the armies of darkness will
march all over the face of the earth.”
1912, boy-scout youngster, Indiana Jones (River Phoenix), attempts to recover
the Cross of Coronado from a group of mercenaries. He fails, but the failure sets the course for
his life, and in 1938, an adult Indy (Harrison Ford) finally recovers the
artifact that so impacted him as a youngster.
Soon, however, Indiana Jones becomes involved with a
wealthy American industrialist, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) who is hunting
the Holy Grail with the help of the world’s greatest Grail scholar: Henry Jones…Indy’s
remote and emotionally-unavailable father.
Unfortunately, Henry (Sean Connery) disappeared in Venice
while working with Dr. Elsa Schneider (Doody), and now Indy must keep the grail
out of Nazi hands and rescue his own father, a man he has never been able to relate
to, or even talk to…
The quest for the grail takes the Jones family, plus
Marcus Brody (Elliott) and Sallah (Rhys-Davies) to a cave in the canyon of the
Crescent Moon, where an ancient knight guards the treasure, and hides it among
several false grails.
The one who chooses the right grail will become
immortal, at least within the confines of the cave. The one who chooses unwisely…will die a
“You're meddling with powers you
can't possibly comprehend.”
The first sequence in Indiana
Jones and the Last Crusade is quite memorable, mainly because of the
late River Phoenix’s persuasive and confident turn as a young Indiana
Jones. The young actor virtually
channels Harrison Ford in his mannerisms, expressions, and even sense of
body/motion. The performance not only
passes muster, it looks stronger on every re-watch. It’s a tour-de-force, for
The problem with the splendidly
paced and exciting sequence is two-fold, however.
The first is that -- in what is essentially a half-hour of his
life -- Indiana Jones picks up every formative experience that makes him “who
he is.” He finds a style of clothing and
hat to wear; he gets his first (bloody…) experience with a bull-whip, and he
battles enemies for possession of a treasured relic.
One of the great joys of the Indiana
Jones movies, in my opinion, however, is the fact that the films don’t reveal
too much biographical information. The
1930s-1940s serials didn’t, either.
Their business was getting to the cliffhangers and fisticuffs. This sequence -- introducing the leather jacket, the hat, the whip, the scar, and the
obsession with relics/archaeology -- feels a little too pat because we
recognize it as unrealistic. In life, we
don’t pick up all our important influences in one day, let alone in a half-hour.
How many people do you know who
cemented their identity at age 13…and it never changed? This Indy has college, his first love affair,
his first job, his friendship with Abner, and other landmark life experiences
ahead of him, but everything we need to “understand” him comes from this
afternoon in the Moab Desert. It’s just
a bit lacking in nuance and verisimilitude, despite the impressively-mounted
stunts and Phoenix’s praise-worthy efforts.
More significantly, however, this
sequence is book-ended by a specific and troublesome quotation. Young Indy and Adult Indy both utter the
words, vis-à-vis The Cross of Coronado: “it
belongs in a museum!”
This is an intentional and
wrong-headed ret-conning of the character as a kind of square,
fuddy-duddy. The ret-conning is assumed
because Indy’s opinion doesn’t change at
all, apparently, in the intervening years between thirteen and thirty-something.
He has the same opinion through all
those years, thus encompassing, even, his time in Temple of Doom and Raiders.
Again, this is taking a bit too much
of the edge off of Indiana Jones for my taste, and part and parcel of the
over-response to Temple of Doom that impairs much of The Last Crusade.
Let’s be blunt about this. Our own lying eyes tell us Indy doesn’t
collect gold idols and relics because “they
belong in a museum.” He does it, at least partially, for the money. Jones collects the relics, and then sells them to Brody’s museum, or,
presumably, to his clients, like Lao Che. He doesn’t just give over the relics because
they should be on display in museums.
The “it belongs in a museum” dialogue suggests a high-minded altruism
that doesn’t seem a legitimate part of this man’s character; at least this man’s
character as we saw it and knew it in
of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
For example, in the latter film, he
was depicted trading a relic for a diamond -- from a gangster -- in the opening sequence, and he considered
keeping the Sankara Stone for reasons of “fortune
Does this sound like a guy who sees
a relic and knee-jerks “It belongs in a
The whole “it belongs in a museum” ret-con seems not only two-dimensional and
inaccurate given the history of the character as we’ve witnessed it with our own eyes…it seems
developmentally arrested, psychologically-speaking.
In terms of its characters, I also find
Jones and the Last Crusades boasts highs and lows. Sallah was used as comic relief in Raiders,
no doubt, but he was also a serious-minded fellow who felt “real.” We got to know his family, at least a little,
and his sense of commitment to Indy. Here,
Sallah obsessively collects camels for his brother-in law. But okay, it’s nice to see him.
Marcus Brody shifts roles more
dramatically, however, from the first movie’s “old-timer” to over-the-top comic
relief. In Raiders, he was a man who
declared that if he were a few years younger, he would have gone after the Ark
of the Covenant himself. Those are his
own words! Here, here is a ninny who once
“got lost” in his own museum, and sticks out in the field like a sore
Again, much of the sense of nuance
or maturity is drained out of the proceedings for the purpose of easy laughs. Brody has gone from being an interesting,
layered guy to being a convenient joke, and I don’t feel it reflects well on
The film’s villain, however, is one
that I can and do appreciate. Donovan
(Julian Glover) is a perfect example of the “brains heavy”-type of villainous character
featured frequently in serials of the 1930s and 1940s. He doesn’t play a big role in the story, but
shows up at the end, essentially, to reveal his nasty machinations. Of all the main characters in the film,
Donovan is also the only one for whom human connection like family, friendship,
and patriotism mean absolutely nothing. He desires immortality, but is loyal to
no man and no country in his quest to attain it. If the Cup of Christ is about the glory of
God, Donovan is about the enrichment and glory of himself, and that’s not a bad message for the Yuppified, conspicuous
In my opinion, Indiana Jones and the Last
Crusade reaches its zenith, however, when it adheres to the theme about
father and sons. Indiana Jones has felt
alienated from his father his whole life. Indeed, that is the informing issue
of Indy’s existence. He has been forced
to seek out external validation -- “fortune
and glory” in pursuit of relics -- because he has never had the
approbation, or even attention, of Henry Jones.
Indy has attempted to outdo his own father by acquiring those relics but
has never been able to live up to him in his own mind.
This leitmotif is excavated and
illustrated perfectly in the quest for the Holy Grail. The film thus asks: what is immortality? Is it
fortune and glory, as Donovan and Elsa believe, or is it something else? Does real illumination come, finally, from understanding
your connection to those you love? To humbling yourself before someone you love
because that emotional connection is more important than ego?
Certainly, the tests Indy faces are
all about being humbled in the presence of a “father.” Only a penitent man can pass the first
test. The second tests requires
following in the foot-steps of God, as a pious man (like Henry) would. And the last test is the most important of
all. It involves taking a grand leap of
faith, and here one might contextualize that leap as not believing only in God,
but believing in your father’s love…despite his foibles and flaws.
This conceit reaches its apex in the
Grail cavern at the end of the film, when Elsa dies to acquire the Cup of
Christ rather than safeguard her own life.
All she cares about is what she can acquire, and the status she gains from
But delightfully, Spielberg repeats
Elsa’s death scene, virtually shot-for-shot,
this time with Indy playing her role. He
reaches out to grab the Grail, and won’t give it up, just as Elsa refused to
give it up. But then Indy hears the
soothing words and voice of his father, and is literally pulled back from the
And, it is not only his body perched
on that cliff, but his soul too.
As a father (and as a son too…), I
love this leitmotif, but submit that it would have carried even more resonance,
without the “it belongs in a museum”
refrain. If we legitimately believed
Indiana Jones might choose wrongly at the end of the film, Last Crusade would
generate much more tension and suspense.
Instead, this moment -- despite the great staging -- is not all it could
be. It should carry even more emotional
power than it does.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s
leitmotif of children seeking and finding a father recurs throughout the film…even
in terms of Elsa. Her symbolic father,
it is clear, is Adolf Hitler. Indiana
Jones bumps into this frightening historical figure at one point in the film,
and his visage is terrifying; monstrous even.
Germany of the Nazis was also known, incidentally, as “The Fatherland” and is referred to as
such in the film. So while Indiana Jones
passes his test in the Grail Cavern, Elsa -- lacking a suitable father figure -- fails hers.
There’s a great deal to love about Indiana
Jones and the Last Crusade.
River Phoenix gives the performance of his career, and Sean Connery is
impressive as Henry Jones. If George
Lucas and Steven Spielberg planned Indiana Jones to be a “new” James Bond
figure for the 1980s, then it is appropriate and wonderful to cast the original
action star and 007, Connery, as Indy’s Dad.
The action is as harrowing as ever, too, and it’s also a refreshing
twist that Indy’s romantic interest is not a girl with a heart of gold this
time, but rather a girl with an eye for it.
Yet as I’ve noted above, some
elements of the film simply don’t cohere.
The entire story about Indy’s choice between “fortune and glory” and his
soul would be stronger without the “it
belongs in a museum” preamble, which is blatant revisionism, and paints him
as true blue to the core, not someone whose soul is in question.
And the film could use some of the
shadowy, noir visuals that made the other films such remarkable visual treats.
As it stands, there’s something sanitized
and a little cartoonish about this entry in the franchise, and so while I like
and enjoy Last Crusade just fine, I can’t bring myself to love it as passionately
as I do Raiders, or Temple of Doom. I know others disagree with this assessment,
and I look forward to reading their more affirmative case for the third entry
in the cycle.
Next Tuesday: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of
the Crystal Skull (2008).