Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)


As 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.

I 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.

First 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.

Metaphorically speaking, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also subtracts “shadow” from its creative equation in other significant ways. 

In 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.

Similarly, Indiana 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 of Doom 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.

I 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

But 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? 

Again, 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. 

The 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).

Even 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.

What 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.

The 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 in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I 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.”

In 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 horrible death.


“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 certain.

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 Raiders 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 and glory.”

Does this sound like a guy who sees a relic and knee-jerks “It belongs in a museum!”

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 that Indiana 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 thumb. 

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.

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 consumption 1980s.

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 that acquisition. 

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 precipice. 

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.

Elsa's Father.

Indy's father.
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). 

17 comments:

  1. I absolutely detest what was done to Sallah in Last Crusade, up to the point where I have trouble watching it. In Raiders, Sallah is the competent foreigner who is wiser than the hero and saves him at least once (the fig). Last Crusade turns him into the buffoon, the Jar-Jar Binks stereotype that is also a trope of the type, but more embarrassing.

    I have a deep respect for John-Rhys Davis, both as an actor and as a person. He seems to have that tendency deep in actors from the British Isles that drives them to collect a check even when they should consider passing on the role (which would explain the SyFy movies too...); I think he should have refused to play Sallah in Last Crusade.

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    1. Hi Kentucky Packrat,

      I feel that the retcon of Sallah and Brody into comic relief does the film harm, quality-speaking, because it contradicts what we know of the characters, and isn't strictly speaking, necessary. So I agree with you wholeheartedly on the issue. The balance of the film is off because there is so much "comedy" stemming from characters who, in previous films, didn't really act very comedically, or at least not overtly comedically...

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  2. Hi JKM;

    I think the departure from noir was a deliberate choice; Spielberg and Lucas said they wanted the film to be a tribute to the Bond films and the look of the film is pure From Russia with Love (even if the humor is sometimes Live and Let Die). Like many others I find Temple of Doom's secondary characters too annoying to really enjoy it (and while its true that annoying secondary characters were present in some serials, those are the bad serials - check out The Black Widow or The Spider's Web to see it done right, if you haven't already), so this is my second favorite of the series though I agree with your caveats.

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    1. Hi DLR,

      I love your comment that the look of the film is From Russia with Love, but the humor is Live and Let Die. Very good comparison, I think.

      For me, the issue is that although Willie and Short Round may be considered annoying, they are, at least, new characters, and therefore not in contradiction of previous behavior. Here, Sallah and Brody are both irritating, and out-of-character, given what we know of them. To me, that's more offensive than being irritating or annoying. There's a history with these characters, and Last Crusade rewrites that history, much as Indiana Jones is white-washed too.

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    2. Agree. Excellent comparison to Bond films.

      SGB

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  3. An interesting observation I've made is that all the women in my family absolutely love "Last Crusade". It is their favorite Indy flick. The guys seem split between "Raiders" and "Temple of Doom". Not sure if that means they like the lighter tone and visuals or if they are just Sean Connery fans. :)

    Like you, I always enjoyed the film, but found it a bit too cute. Indy does seem to be a lot tamer here, and that edge is what made him so interesting to watch in the first two films. I never thought of this change as a reaction to the reception of "Temple of Doom" but it makes perfect sense. But you make a good point that Indy's final temptation in the film would have been much more powerful without the "it belongs in a museum" mantra.

    One excuse for this character change (i don't think its a good one, but it is there), is that according the years at the beginning of the films, "Temple of Doom" happens first, then "Raiders" then "Last Crusade". It is possible that the Indy of "Doom" would have sold his treasures to a gangster, but after his encounter in India returns to his more virtuous ideal of getting these treasures to a Museum. Obviously he and Marcus have been friends for a while (as evidenced in "Raiders"), and Indy teaches so he's not completely rogue as he was in "Doom". You could say that after the events of "Raiders" Indy became even more tied to his museum mantra, and so he states it at the beginning of "Last Crusade". A bit of a stretch, but that could be the creators intent.

    For all the dopey humor and odd character ret-cons, I will say the action is top notch. I love Elsa as a love interest/foil. The tank battle is a blast. Even the wizened Grail Knight makes me smile. The film has lots of quotable dialogue. We even use "got lost in his own museum" as short hand for someone with out a sense of direction.

    And I love the father/son dynamic in this movie. Connery is pitch perfect in the part. He seems to be having a blast and his interplay with Ford really brings out that family tension. It really holds the film together for me, and makes the ending work as well as it does.

    Also have to say that John Williams musical score is again excellent. Of the four it is the most light and restrained, but it fits the film. The Grail/Henry theme is a perfect fit for the character.

    Since none of characters actively annoy me as much as Willie or Short Round, this film gets much more play time at my house. Well that and because my wife loves this one. :)

    Looking forward to your defense of the next film. This should be interesting. :)

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    1. Hi Roman,

      Your assessment that the movie is good, but a little too cute is right on the money, as far as I'm concerned. It's a strong, entertaining film for the reasons you cite -- and I love the tank battle that you note -- but there's a lot of softening of edges here that I find difficult to take.

      I'm ready for the brickbats come next Tuesday, but I prefer Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Last Crusade. I think it's a really good film, and one that makes perfect sense once the context is understood. I look forward to arguing my case, especially since so many people really seem to have turned on the film...

      Great comment, my friend.

      All my best,
      John

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  4. Its interesting to see a "family dynamic" theme between Temple of Doom and Last Crusade. I've often said that Temple of Doom is "the darkest and yet most kid appealing of the series". Reading over this review it seems that Last Crusade is the most "kid friendly". Its certainly a movie I can remember watching with my family quite frequently.

    In "Temple" Indy was part of a surrogate family with Willy, Short Round as well as the captive children. Now in "Crusade" it seems Indy is looking for a family in reunite with his father and finding some semblance of faith. It feels like perhaps "Temple" was about parenting while "Crusade" was about reconciling with your own parents.

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    1. Erik,

      That's a very interesting observation and contrast between Temple and Crusade.

      The former is about being parenting, and the latter is about reconciling with your parents. That explanation makes me want to watch both films again, and it also makes me feel more open to "Crusade" as a work art.

      Thanks for sharing that thought...

      best,
      John

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    Forgive me, John. I’m all but embarrassed by this ridiculously long, blowhard response. To anyone reading, bear with me.

    I’ll get right to it. First, the criticism regarding Sallah and Brody. I understand your argument in theory but, as it actually plays out on screen between the two films, this all comes across as a bit of a tempest in a teapot, frankly. It’s not like Raiders of the Lost Ark was at the level of The Godfather as a deathly serious, realistic character treatment, with Sallah and Brody the equivalent of Sonny and Tom. Let’s bring it down a notch or two here. From the get-go, Sallah was already a lively, animated guy with a hardy singing voice who plays waitress to a table of German troops and reacts to the Well of Souls with, "Gaah! ...Sorry, Indy," and "Asps! Very dangerous. You go first." The levity of his character was innate. In the beginning of Raiders, Brody is indeed a tender, uncle-like figure to our hero (Indy’s very own Alfred, if you will) and throughout the first two acts of Last Crusade...he’s that same guy.

    In the classroom with Indy, the ransacked house of Henry Sr., meeting Elsa Schneider and searching the Venice Library – I don’t recall Brody slipping on banana peels or getting a pie in the face during any of these scenes. In fact, as he rather poignantly sets up the significance of the Ark in Indy’s house in Raiders, so too is his role as thematic orator mirrored in Last Crusade when, early on, he tells Indy, "The search for the Cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us." Later, he even helps Indy in piecing together the map from Henry Sr.’s diary with known geography (from Alfred to Watson). That’s nearly half the film right there. Surely, said content must count for something.

    Admittedly, these two sidekicks eventually find their way into some situational hijinks that adds to them an additional layer of comic relief. No doubt about it. Yet, for lack of a more articulate defense ...so what? I just don’t see the big deal here. My investment in these two characters was never that they were deep reservoirs of stern dramatic shading not to be trifled with, but that they were simply colorful personalities inhabited by spirited actors to be used accordingly, depending on the chosen tone of the film. And the whole tone of Last Crusade is notably lighter, which I contend rains down relative and proportionately over all its characters and proceedings. From that mindset, I think Spielberg approached Sallah and Brody’s expanded, sub-plot involvement and simply decided, "Okay, let’s have some fun with these guys." To assert that this somehow fundamentally changes or negates the nature of their characters as established in Raiders is all rather extreme. In the film’s dramatic climax, the both of them are right there alongside Indy and his father, expressive, sincere and sharing in the emotional heights. That counts, too.

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    1. Cannon,

      Please don't apologize for the specificity or length of your response. I have looked forward to reading your thoughts on the film since I put up the post. I want to apologize to you because I have not yet responded. I am struggling through ACA Healthcare enrollment right now, and have been on and off the phone for HOURS! I would much rather be responding to these comments, believe me! :)

      I want to say that first off, I think your point is right when you note, explicitly that Brody is the same guy "through the first two acts" of Last Crusade.

      That gets it down to the nitty-gritty. He is the same, in those two acts. It's in the final act (and in the desert sequence, before the cavern), that he goes off the rails, and in my opinion derails the movie. After Indy re-appears -- when the others fear he has gone off the cliff with the German tank -- Brody does this ridiculous, extended double take, as if he is adding up all the factors in his head. He's just not that slow-witted. It's obvious: Indy didn't go over the hill. No need for mental calculations, especially for a learned dean of college. But you are right that Brody doesn't descend to this level in the first two acts. That is worth pointing out, I think.

      So, I do agree with you there. What I object to in the review doesn't occur until relatively late in the film. But, I think there is a significant shift in how he is presented from Raiders to that last act. In Raiders, he would have gone after the Ark himself, here he would get lost in his own museum. Those are more or less direct quotes from the films, and there is a gulf there worth noting, an inconsistency.

      Next!

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  6. 2

    Second, the criticism regarding Indy’s alleged retrofit. This one has just left me plainly scratching my head. Not even in theory do I quite get it. If Indy from Raiders and Temple of Doom was an archeologist who had, as you say, fallen from the faith, does that not then imply that he once regarded his pursuits with nobler ideals? That’s the young Indy we see in the opening of act Last Crusade. If, by the end of Temple of Doom, Indy walks away with a newfound respect for the Sankara stone, and then even more so at the end of Raiders (chronologically set a year later) upon learning the full nature of the Ark, does that not then indicate a development of his character? A return to those nobler ideals? Lucas and Spielberg spent two films arcing the hero with moral conflicts of treasure hunting vs. some greater good or deeper understanding. I think by the third installment that angle was played. How many times can you define your hero’s journey with the same theme?

    On the same token, Indy decreeing that lost treasures belong in museums does not, by default, negate his overall 'fortune and glory' attitude. He still gets paid by museums all the same. He still gets the glory of finding whatever the treasure all the same. Nor does it outweigh, even in hindsight of the previous films, greater moral or supernatural concerns. In Temple of Doom he rightly understood that the village natives needed the Sankara stone a lot more than some museum exhibit; in Raiders, the Ark was simply too dangerous by any account. In Last Crusade he’s in it to find his father first-and-foremost, but along the way still displays all the passion for discovery, for uncovering clues and for the very idea of the Grail—all of which enough to justify, dramatically speaking, his reaching for it lustfully in the final moments of the film followed by the choice to take his father’s hand instead. Furthermore, I always took it that the Grail itself was not unlike like the One Ring, in that it had an allure/luring effect on anyone who sought it or came near. No, I don’t see this as a retrofit, just a point in Indy’s life where he’s no longer quite the indifferent grave robber he once was in the prior two films, in part, because of all hear learned during those very adventures; how he grew from them. But he’s still the same Indy who yearns for secrets of the past, as continues in Crystal Skull.


    This is also why Last Crusade is not as dusky and shadowy as the previous two installments. Why incorporate visual aesthetics where they don’t thematically belong? This certainly denies the film that particular tonal quality, but such is not the only quality to be embraced by pulp adventure storytelling. Again, two films were enough. It was time they tried something a little different. And they did. And I’m happy they did. To reiterate my comments on your Temple of Doom review, variety is key. As such, Last Crusade embraces, more than any other installment of the series, the style of Westerns and WWII spy-thriller overlapped with classic James Bond.

    It’s opening sequence goes on to perfect the idea of our returning protagonist with an origin story that embodies the very essence of vintage Americana, crafting his first-time exploit from the pages (and cover) of a Boys' Life magazine. How fitting that Indy's first wonder tale resembles the humble adventures aimed towards, and enjoyed by, youth readers of the 1910s. And though the story soon shifts to a later time period, this motif remains imbedded within the character, one born from America’s turnover era when the Wild West became the Settled West, but where stretches of the frontier still harbored treasures and dangerous men; where a boy riding horseback up alongside a circus train plays like a stunt from some forgotten Tom Mix silent Western.


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    1. The problem I see here, simply, is that in a film-grammar sense the book-end repeating of a stock phrase ("it belongs in a museum") is meant to convey consistency; endurance. The take-away is thus that Indy in 1910 sets the tone for the Indy of 1938, and that the journey I believe he takes (and which your comment indicates he takes) is non-operative, or non-existent. I could have lived with the comment at the end, in the 1938 part of the Coronado sequence. But to set-it up as book-end suggests that the stuff in the middle is immaterial. At least that's how I interpret it.

      I like your idea that grail sort of draws the avarice of man, and might even buy that. :)

      But...again, I feel that Indy's journey is this: He had a cold and remote father whom he felt emotionally disconnected to. The only way Indy could validate himself was to find those relics, relics on a par with the Grail, perhaps, to show himself (and his father) of his worth. That seems to me, the theme of Indy's life here. The Last Crusade resolves this crisis (and yes, does so quite elegantly as you point out), so I don't believe the body of the film has moved "past" that debate or issue. We got pieces of it in Temple and Raiders, but this is the last piece of that struggle (which is why Henry is so important in this particular chapter).

      And if this is indeed the theme of the film, Indy's full return to faith (in his father, and more...) then it is illogical and off-message to make Indy this true-blue "It Belongs in a Museum" kind of guy.

      I very much like your comments about the Moab Scene, and fitting it into a movie context prior to the 1930s...the 1910s. Very astute, and I'm persuaded by that. I do like the film noir approach better, but you make a valid case for this approach, and that is, essentially, the same case I would make for Crystal Kingdom: it's a 1950s movie, playing up the 1950s tropes in the culture/movies.

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  7. 3

    Encapsulating the fading generation of the late 1800s is the head leader of the robbers, simply credited as 'Fedora', who passes his very namesake onto young Indy, thereby passing the cowboy-gunfighter hero torch onto a lowly youth of the new age, one chosen for his daring, audacity and adventurous spirit. It is here where team Lucasberg imbued Indiana Jones with a deeply rooted sense of American lore, so much so that while trailing the likes of Superman and Batman by some 40 years, the character nonetheless feels as old as the century itself and as traditional as baseball and apple pie. This is one-half of the reason why the film largely forgoes the darkness of its predecessors, so as to evoke both the Western feel with its Utah desert opening credits and the more innocent wholesomeness of Indy’s pre-World War origins.

    The film's mid act fuses together the Grail mythos with a European setting. Catacombs beneath a Venetian church-converted library followed by a stormy Austrian castle maintain an air of medievalry as Indy’s quest takes him deeper into Nazi territory, spying upon secret war room activities. During these scenes, and contrary to the criticism that the film is uniformly too bright and flat, we are treated to darker environs, moodier, gold-lit tones and the series’ trademark shadow casting; note the moment where Elsa first openly betrays Indy.

    Simultaneously are these locales staged for cusp-of-war espionage and as a precursor of sorts to the exotic venues from Ian Fleming's 007. A stylistic correlation with the Bond films has already been made. Allow me to advance. Last Crusade takes full advantage of its evolved relation with the James Bond series, for starters, by cleverly preceding it as a Bond movie equivalent via Indiana Jones; a meta-double play on the figurative idea of Bond being Indy's father that makes for a delightful two-step waltz between both franchises. Spielberg then moves forward with his wish fulfillment in crafting at least one thoroughly Bondesque action sequence where Indy and his damsel partake in a boat chase along the Grand Canal, and where even Indy himself is minus his usual attire in favor of a two-piece suit to fit the cinematic occasion.

    Also worth mentioning is the interrelated cast in addition to the obvious Sean Connery, all of whom previously appeared in the 007 series: John Rhys-Davies in The Living Daylights, Julian Glover (aka General Veers) as the main villain in For Your Eyes Only and Alison Doody as a secondary Bond-girl in A View to a Kill. [side note: Michael Byrne, who plays Colonel Vogel, would eventually go on to appear in Tomorrow Never Dies and, bringing things full-circle, is also featured opposite Harrison Ford in the 1978 Force 10 Form Navarone as an SS officer.]

    This marks the other half of film’s choice in cinematography. As with the other three installments, Last Crusade remains simple and punchy in its visual style where, unlike so many of today’s contemporary films, practically any one shot rings sensible with a kind of 'lobby card' clarity. Steady held deep focus lensing gives the various locations a bygone travelogue quality while sets fill up the frame with just the right degree of old Hollywood illusion. Yet Spielberg and Doug Slocombe do opt for a closer match to the Bond films of the 80s (one of which Slocombe even served as DP), emphasize high-key lighting for interiors along with sky blues, mid-day whites, tans and sandy exteriors. This film alongside The Living Daylights or Never Say Never Again bares strong similarities in palette and the look of film stock.

    I’ve argued the soundness of its aesthetic logic but, of course, I can’t argue (away) your personal preference, John. If you simply dig the gloomier look and tone of the first two films over this one, so be it. I like them all the same, but I also appreciate the transition, and how Last Crusade is unique with an altogether, vintage national monument postcard style.

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  8. 4

    Doody as Elsa Schneider blends the obligatory double-crossing Bond-girl with the Nazi femme fatale so often eroticized from the 1940s pulps onward. Yet her character is rendered surprisingly sympathetic and, with all due respect to Marion Ravenwood, ends up being the most dramatically dynamic female lead the series has to offer. At the same time, despite her sorrowful plights and doe-eyed come-hithers, or perhaps precisely because of them, Elsa comes to represent a vaguely unspoken bias against women in general, for Last Crusade is about men who (re)unite -- sons with fathers, buddies teaming together -- for an epic hoorah of guns blazing and Nazi punching, where women are creatures of pleasure and intrigue but never to be trusted as equals. Likewise to a comical degree is Elsa reduced to a sweet lay evenly scored by both Indy and Henry Sr., later sparking an awkward conversation while also alluding to the mutual sexual conquests admired amongst men ...it's ultimately a man's movie, a boy’s own adventure if there ever was one. And who better to buddy-up with for all things fortune and glory than your own dad?

    The casting coup of Sean Connery cannot be overstated here, nor can the chemistry he shares with Ford. It's practically kismet. The stuff of movie legend. Forgoing the signature cool Bond reserve to depict Henry Sr. as a tweedy geriatric allows for the ideal contrast between estranged father and son. Where one is take-action fisticuffs, the other is a fumbling academic. Where Indy runs out of pistol ammo, Henry Sr. takes down a German fighter plane with an umbrella and some literary inspiration from the King of the Franks. During action scenes the two play well off each other. A motorcycle chase through the backwoods of the Austrian border (actually, it was filmed in Marin County, but, never mind) shows Indy in his element, fending off enemy troops left and right followed by his patented victory smirk, only to then be chastened by Henry Sr., who winds his watch between looks of disapproval, saying without speaking, "I'm bored–this is nonsense." The rapport between Ford and Connery is wholly effortless, as if they’d already costarred in half a dozen Indiana Jones movies prior to 1989.

    Jeffery Boam (who worked closely with Lucas’ story input to revise the final draft) for both changing Henry Sr. from an end piece to a central character whom audiences meet a third of the way into the narrative and for polishing the dialogue in manner that flows naturally between the two leading men. Dare I say, Last Crusade has the most sophisticated screenplay of the four installments in terms of its casual back 'n' forth between father and son, to a subtle degree that reveals much about their characters, and for alchemizing all of the aforementioned genre forms into a good ol' fashioned, well lubricated and roundly satisfying, war-spy-cowboy, globetrotting mystical adventure.

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  9. 5

    Never do I tire of watching an Indiana Jones action sequence. Sturdy and reliable they are, much like the films as a whole. This is because Spielberg genuinely built them. He storyboarded profusely as blueprints for kinetic motion machines that are rhythmically timed and seemingly spontaneous. The numerous action scenes in Last Crusade are racked with advancing levels of mayhem while accumulating dramatic, if not physical, momentum. A foot chase across a circus train systematically expresses character traits-in-the-making (too pat and contrived for some, whimsical for me) before ending with a magic trick. A strafing fighter plane becomes a wingless, flaming fuselage as it blazes by our hero drivers; everyone exchanging comical dumbfound looks. The film’s main set piece is a tank chase that wisely avoids any attempt to outdo the rollercoaster speed from Temple of Doom. Rather, the tank itself is narratively designed by Spielberg as a relentless juggernaut -- and also a stagecoach equivalent -- around which our heroes engage like revolving pieces in a clock or game of Mouse Trap. It’s a great sequence that could have only been cooked up from a boy’s brain, for its dirt and grit, and for its continuing invention, as no one stunt is ever repeated: Indy evades cannon fire on horseback, lures into oncoming traffic, fights Vogel atop, dangles helplessly from the side gun; Henry Sr. and Marcus fighting Nazi stooges within.

    Lucas’ mythmaking and Spielberg’s familial sentiment not only meet each other halfway but further commune as thematic gears cranking together in tandem. You mention in your review how the search for the Grail is symbolic for the search for Indy’s father. I’d like to address just how cleverly Spielberg crescendos this theme visually during the leap from the Lion’s head. Intercut with Indy’s hand-over-heart hesitation is a close-up of Henry Sr. whispering from afar, "You must believe, boy. You must believe," for it is the belief in his own father that gives Indy the strength to step into nothingness. The following moment reveals a stone bridge obscured by a simple optical illusion, thus driving the theme home: it wasn’t divine power that carried Indy across but something real, something concrete, that was there all along–family, love, the bond between father and son.

    Where all three of the other installments end with grand spectacles, I always appreciated the more subdued premise of Indy encountering a decrepit knight; still fantastic by definition, but equally humbled and measured with even a touch of goofiness. Likewise, the Grail itself defines humility in its ordinary appearance, recognized among an assortment of glittering chalices only by a thinking man. When Indy brings it to his father the latter’s reaction is that of subtle curiosity -- a sort of, "Huh, there it is." -- instead of overwhelming awe.

    If Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is only a relatively perfect movie, or not perfect at all, I'll be damned if it doesn't close with an inarguably perfect denouement: four bestest of friends, at the end of their adventure and in good sprits, saddling up together and riding off into the sunset. Many fans have since accused the fourth installment of undermining this classic ending to a classic trilogy. I disagree. But that's for another review.

    Whew. I’m done.

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Memory Bank: Spyhunter (1983)

In the early-to-mid 1980s -- when I was in middle school and high school -- my best friends and I would sometimes walk down Benson Stre...