Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.
The signs were all there that the George Lucas’ creative well was running dry in 1989. He came up with one great idea (that should, in theory, have cut the mystique from under the hero; that it didn’t is down mainly to the casting); the introduction of Indiana Jones’ father. But elsewhere there was all the evidence of picking at the carcass of former glories. Something that blighted Return of the Jedi six years earlier and would become a wholesale affliction in The Phantom Menace a decade later.
Temple of Doom was a big hit, but its festering darkness did not endear it to either critics or (retrospectively) to its producer and director. As with Return of the Jedi, the third installment required a rethink. Which meant, a re-treat. Back came the Nazis (“I hate these guys”), back came a mythic relic identifiable to western consciousness (in a Judeo-Christian sense). But Lucas went further than this. It’s debatable whether Indiana Jones should essentially be a mythical loner figure, of the sort who works best when very little is known about him. After all, we found out much concerning his dual life and history in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Temple of Doom resisted the urge to fill in all the blanks; it merely foisted a one-time only surrogate nuclear family on the good doctor. With Crusade, Lucas succumbs to picking apart the limited kernel of character that Jones possesses.
The opening action sequence, set in 1912 and featuring a young Indy played with a startling grasp of Harrison Ford’s tics and quirks by River Phoenix, is essentially a truncated version of the Star Wars prequel trilogy for Indy. It picks on every known attribute of our hero and accounts for it during a ten-minute chase sequence. Now, it’s a fairly amusing set-up for the film that establishes Henry Jones, Sr’s Grail obsession, and it is very well-performed by Phoenix. But it also plays out with a saddening introspection. I recall that on first viewing I was disappointed mainly that it ate into potential screen time for Ford (with four years between each Indy movie, how many times were we going to get to see him play the hero? 17 years later… ).
But the problem with the scene is more manifest than that. It takes the iconography of Indy and works backwards. The result is that it stands or falls on the comedy of recognition. Accordingly, the narrative of the chase isn’t all that impressive. Indy’s pursuers are a forgettable bunch (why is Fedora so bland; presumably he was supposed to give off a Ford-esque, laidback vibe, but Richard Young barely registers – wouldn’t it have been more interesting, and amusing, to get say Tom Selleck in for a cameo?) Just as well, then, that Fedora was never named as Abner Ravenwood (as the script had him). In short order, young Indy offers his standard refrain “That belongs in a museum!”, encounters snakes, gets a scar on his chin, uses a bull whip and is proffered a fedora.
It’s precisely the kind of lazy dots-joining that suddenly made the prequel universe a tiny place where everybody from the original trilogy turns out to know each other (including Chewbacca being chums with Yoda). It gets a free pass here purely because it is played for laughs, an important distinction. Last Crusade generally has far more claim than its predecessors on being a comedy-action film than an action film with elements of comedy in it. The knowingness and self-referentiality have taken over; sometimes this succeeds and sometimes it fails, but the tone is several steps beyond the double-take absent gun in Temple of Doom (that rehearses the shooting of the swordsman in Raiders).
Spielberg’s sure grip on the action is off a number of times during Last Crusade. The mid-section is as confident as anything he has done, and it’s really why the film gets the star rating it does, but there’s a tired feel to some of the early and later set pieces that suggests a director insufficiently enthused by the material. If the “prequel” opening is played for laughs and winks at the audience, John Williams arguably indulges his worst comedy instincts by playing up the hah-hah quirkiness of it on the soundtrack.
When we cut from Phoenix’s fedora to Ford’s, it’s a re-appearance by the star that is decidedly lacking in oomph. Both the previous films had dazzling opening sequences, but Ford is wheeled out for a punch line to his younger self’s tribulations, finally taking possession of the artifact 26 years later (Indy may be only two years older than he was in Raiders, but Ford is eight). And he’s aboard an ocean-swept soundstage ship that never gives the impression of being anything other than a set. The resounding feeling is, after four years, “That’s the best they could come up with?”
Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay (punched-up by Tom Stoppard) works when it is in service to the comedy elements, but flounders in pursuit of its MacGuffin. Unlike Kasdan’s presentation of the Ark of the Covenant, Boam can never find a “character” for the Holy Grail. The Ark is ominous and brooding (the tantalising moment where a picture of it is seen beneath Venice, and Williams familiar theme intrudes, suggests the edge and atmosphere lacking here), but the Grail is an object of unquestionable awe. Williams score tells you that. When a flipside to the blessing (curse) of immortality is introduced at the climax it is a half-hearted burst of special effects that overtly references the messy opening of the Ark in Raiders. Boam needed to do much more groundwork in building a sense of myth and mystery; he relies on it being generally known about as much as Monty Python did.
Additionally, it is not enough to structure your script as a wise-ass punchline to Indy’s opening lecture to his class where “X never marks the spot”. It’s basically a justification for not putting in the effort to structure the screenplay; every clichéd idea about archeology that Indy reproves his class for assuming might be true, turns out to be accurate when it comes to chasing the Grail. So, ultimately, Indy finds his Grail incredibly easily. As with Raiders, a partial clue leads to finding the full “instructions” to the location of the object; the difference here is that possession does not occur until the climax. Unfortunately, the tests the Indy must face are incredibly lacklustre, and in terms of effects decidedly underwhelming. Again, one can only conclude that inspiration deserted Spielberg, as it’s only Ford and Connery who bind the scene together in a set-bound climax that sees lots of camera shaking, debri thrown from the roof and the ground splitting open in an all-too familiar “blow it all up” finish.
Perhaps Spielberg’s comment about “consciously regressing” when he was making the film reflects that he didn’t have the same appetite for the material as before. He had, after all, been on a run of awards-bait after the previous installment.
As for the premise, the ideas prior to both Temple of Doom and Last Crusade appear to be something of a mélange. The haunted house and Monkey King concepts I noted in my Temple of Doom piece resurface in the background to Crusade. At one point the Grail featured merely as the “pre-credits” sequence, with the rest of the film set in Africa and featuring another Christian MacGuffin (the Grail was more pagan at this point). The Indiana Jones and the Monkey King treatment produced by Lucas in 1984 retained the Scottish opening (is this where Ford’s scene in the Austrian castle with the ropey accent originates, or is it just a nod to Connery?) and Africa setting of the main plot. Chris Columbus set to work on a full screenplay, changing the MacGuffin to a garden of immortal peaches (WTF??!!) and featuring a 200-year old pygmy. Nazis feature, and a tank chase, but by the time Columbus delivered a second draft the fantasy elements had become overwhelming (a chess game with real people who disintegrated on being taken), and sensitivity to accusations of racism (particularly following Temple of Doom) caused Spielberg and Lucas to abandon the idea.
Next up was Menno Meyjes, who delivered two drafts of a once-again Grail-focused screenplay. Spielberg had come up with the idea of featuring Indy’s father by this point, which Lucas wasn’t keen on. The opening would see Indy recovering Montezuma’s mask in Mexico. Then Jeffrey Boam came in; he seized on Jones Sr and his relationship with Indy as the focus of the film, but the prologue remained in Mexico until the second draft introduction of young Indy. It was Spielberg who wasn’t keen this time, as he was wary of returning to the youthful protagonist territory of Empire of the Sun. It’s understood that Boam took on board many of Connery’s suggestions for humorous content, but Stoppard is generally credited as being responsible for the lion’s share of the film’s dialogue and pretty much all of the banter between the Joneses (he received a hearty bonus after the film scored at the box office, so this is likely an accurate account).
Somewhere along the way, the Nazi love interest mooted as far back as Raiders reattached itself to the screenplay. Never one to waste an idea (whether or not it’s a good one), I suspect this was at Lucas’ behest. It’s fair to say that Alison Doody’s Dr. Elsa Schneider never really takes off as a character. She doesn’t become a love interest proper, as that relationship within the film is occupied by the father-son dynamic. To the extent that both generations of Jones have had their way with her (in a nice touch acknowledging both actors’ ages, Indy comments that Jones Sr. is old enough to be her grandfather). There’s little chemistry between Ford and Doody, certainly not compared to his previous leading ladies; where it works, it plays off his willingness to goof it up rather than sexual tension (“Leave me alone. I don’t like fast women”). In addition, her passion for the Grail and disinterest in the Nazi cause is only vaguely identified. As a result, it sometimes appears as if Doody is emoting too much for an ill-defined role (“All I have to do is squeeze!”).
Even in Raiders, great screenplay as it is, the villain roles are somewhat underwritten (Belloq seems more rounded than he probably is on page, mainly down to Paul Freeman’s intelligent performance). Temple of Doom doesn’t even pretend there’s any substance to its bad guys. Last Crusade falls somewhere between the two. If Elsa encourages no understanding of her motivations, Julian Glover’s Walter Donovan is sub-Belloq in every respect. He has no archeological skills to provide a dark reflection of Indy; rather, he is just a rich American who wants to live forever and will ally himself with the Nazis (like Belloq) to achieve that end. There’s not enough substance or wit to Donovan to really make him stand out; his best scene is his first, before he has been revealed as dastardly, as he and Indy swap Grail lore/exposition (Isla Blair briefly appears as his wife). It’s ironic that the villains in the series have rarely been well-served, almost as if the MacGuffin takes all the attention and the bad guys are defined by that instead of established distinctly. Glover’s unable to make much of the part, even though you can’t fault his performance (if only he’d been furnished with the playful wit of his role in Doctor Who’s City of Death a decade earlier).
Like Glover, Michael Sheard appeared in The Empire Strikes Back at the start of the ‘80s. Both represented the Empire there, just as they do Nazism here (although Donovan confesses to viewing them as a means to an end for obtaining the object of his desire). Sheard has an uproarious cameo as the Fuhrer himself, signing Henry Jones’ Grail Diary at a book-burning rally. It’s the kind of moment where Spielberg’s skills as a visual storyteller come fully into play, juggling the humour and tension in the scene with delicious precision.
But the villain who makes the most impression has relatively little dialogue (like Ronald Lacey in Raiders, then). Michael Byrne is delightful as Colonel Vogel; his manner is one of apoplectic disdain for the Joneses and anyone else who questions the might of the Fatherland. After Elsa has kissed Indy, commenting, “That’s how Austrians say goodbye”, Vogel hits him across the face with a gleeful, “And this is how we say goodbye in Germany, Dr. Jones!” It’s rather a shame that he exits the picture prior to the Grail climax.
Indiana Jones: That belongs in a museum.
Panama Hat: So do you.
A better line for the opening of Crystal Skull, surely? Last Crusade cements its credentials as a direct follow-on from Raiders by featuring the return of Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). Except that now these characters are defined by broad comic signifiers, rather than skills or sincere friendship. I suppose it’s merciful that Brody is given a reheated Raiders scene at the university before he’s sent off to be the silly British buffoon abroad.
Indy: Do you believe, Marcus? Do you believe the Grail actually exists?
Brody: The search for the Cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I’ve none to give you. At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.
Elliott is always good value, but he’s indulged to ham it up throughout. This isn’t the earnest, considered Marcus of Raiders. We get a silly old duffer, desperately slow to catch on to the obvious and with no common- or sense of direction. As a comic performer, Elliott has great timing, and his interactions with the rest of the cast (re-united with Henry and delivering the school motto, wishing he could spit in Donovan’s face) yield dividends. But he’s encouraged to turn his character into an ass (his pen is mightier than the sword joke, capture by Germans in the market, the closing shot as his horse bolts) and it feels like something of a betrayal for a few cheap gags.
Sallah fares better, but his role is limited; he doesn’t get to show much cunning this time, and is most memorable for a comedy obsession with camels. I don’t think this is just about Crusade being lighter in tone than previous installments. It’s also to do with a structure that has not been sufficiently mapped out; Sallah and Brody feature not because they are necessary to the story but because it’s a rousing send-off designed to get all the players back. Marcus’ abduction evokes memories of Marion’s in Raiders. Except that in Marcus’ case this is a visual gag in search of any plot logic. Why is a Nazi truck disguised as shop front? Just hoping that the very chap they’re after should stray into it at an opportune moment. The one point of capital made from Brody being a twit is the elaborate lie Indy offers to persuade Donovan that Marcus will elude capture.
Donovan: He sticks out like a sore thumb. We'll find him.
Indiana Jones: The hell you will. He's got a two day head start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody's got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he'll blend in, disappear, you'll never see him again. With any luck, he's got the grail already.
The cut to Brody wandering along a dusty Middle Eastern street, looking every inch the out-of-place foreigner, asking if anyone speaks English, is the sort of visual gag Spielberg uses numerous times throughout the film; it’s virtually a signature device to have a character state something and then show the complete opposite to be true.
But there’s no denying the stroke of genius of casting Connery as Indy’s dad. Ford and Connery have great chemistry, and their comic riffing off each other is so natural and winning that it’s a shame when we revert to the more prosaic Grail quest (in that sense, Boam was correct, but Lucas was right also; it’s an element that needed beefing up). The casting of Connery naturally works against Henry’s stuffier, more bookish qualities. But Connery relishes the chance to act the clumsy (but not as clumsy as Marcus) intellectual, with only the occasional nod to his Bondian origins (the ladies’ man). He is horrified by Indy’s capacity for violence.
And he has an amusingly reproving response to his son’s coarse language (slapping him and adding, “That’s for blasphemy!”) Ford plays the son still seeking parental approval with an appealingly wounded quality. Spielberg delights in the same set-up of verbal/visual comedy when Indy assumes his father’s relief, on hitting him with a vase, is because he didn’t hurt him. Only to realise that it’s because the broken crockery was a reproduction. It’s difficult to think of Connery having so much fun so overtly in any other role. Ford gets a similar gag as he, and the audience, knows that the all-important diary is now very close at hand.
Indiana Jones: What did the Nazis want with you, dad?
Henry Jones: They wanted my diary. I knew I had to get it as far away from me as I possibly could.
Later, on firing through the tail of their own plane, Henry blames the pursuing German planes, after a pause considering whether to come clean or not (“Son, I’m sorry… They got us!”) And Indy reassures his father that there’s no danger from the German tank in the valley below (“Dad, we’re well out of range”) seconds before a shell destroys Sallah’s brother-in-law’s car.
Because their exchanges are so engaging, little work is required to show that, despite their estrangement, they mean a huge amount to each other. If Henry’s reaction at the prospect of having lost his son is a father struggling to express the truth behind his emotional detachment (just five minutes would have been enough to tell him all he needed to), by the climax Indy will do whatever it takes to save his father. And, finally, the object of Henry’s lifelong quest is meaningless set against the value of his son’s life.
Indiana Jones: I can reach it.
Henry Jones: Indiana. Indiana. Let it go.
It’s a touching moment, but it’s telling that we don’t really feel the tug of interest that the Grail holds. So Henry’s decision is a bit of a no-brainer; we’ve been told he is obsessed with it, but that’s not the same as making us feel this is so. It just doesn’t exert the magnetic pull on us that the Ark did.
Other elements work less well; Henry’s fear of rats is an unconvincingly schematic parallel with Indy’s aversion to snakes. And the revelation that he named himself after the dog (referencing the name of Lucas’ dog that inspired the character’s monicker) is a bit of a broad laugh to end things on, particularly as it further punctures the character’s mythic status.
This seems like the last time Ford was clearly having fun at the movies until… well, period. He’s rarely had someone bringing out the best in him the way Connery does. And there’s such a willingness to look the fool that this at times feels like a different guy altogether to the gruff and uncomfortable performances we’ve seen in the last two decades. His appalling rendition of a Scotsman (“Look. I’ve gone and caught a sniffle!”) is, depending upon your disposition, one of the comic highlights in the film. Especially since he’s fooling no one.
Butler: This is a castle, and we have many tapestries. And if you are a Scottish lord, then I am Mickey Mouse.
Indiana Jones: How dare he! (knocks out the butler)
I don’t think he’s quite as relaxed and freewheeling as he was at the start of the decade. From the mid-‘80s a pained expression increasingly feeds off the diminishing cockiness that made him such an instant star as Han Solo. But he’s still a lot of fun to watch, and his action chops are undiminished.
Spielberg relishes the broader humour (he’s never gotten over failing to make a successful “straight” comedy); the book stamping in the Venice library is so delightfully silly it’s irresistible. As is Indy’s repetition of “Ah, Venice” (conjuring the style of quipping more familiar from Moore’s Bond than Connery’s). But the rest of material in this location is a bit of damp squib. The catacombs are rather dull, and the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword are just rent-a-villains (more suited to the lazy scripting of The Mummy remake a decade later). The boat chase really does feel like a sub-Bond sequence, lacking the physicality we’re used to from Indy, so the introduction of a deadly propeller comes across as little more than a desperate attempt to invoke the plane fight in Raiders. It’s not just that the scenes feel half-baked conceptually, it’s that Spielberg seems unenthused in the staging.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, since he was the chief proponent of including Indy’s father, the film comes alive when Connery is introduced. That, and Steven’s perfectly natural impulse that any amount of violence can be inflicted on Nazis without a second glance. From the rescue of his father in Austria until the arrival at the temple, Last Crusade is on a roll, essentially once “Germany has declared war on the Jones boys”. Here and there moments are a bit forced (the secret staircase that reveals itself when Henry sits on a chair) but others (the revolving panel) balance the thrills and humour perfectly. Temple’s momentum peters out in the mid-section, in contrast.
The motorbike chase, the zeppelin sequence (“No ticket!”), even the blue screen-reliant dogfight (culminating in the raucously silly passage of a wingless plane through a tunnel), Henry finding his adventurous spirit (“I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne”). The centrepiece tank chase (illustrating the Spielberg may be at his best when meticulously storyboarding his action) is vintage Spielberg, including a tank-top fight that can’t equal Raiders’ truck chase but has the same spirit of controlled escalation and momentum (Indy shooting four Germans at once, the laughing soldier seeing Indy in difficulty through his periscope). So it’s a shame that occasional intrusion of non-practical effects (the plunging tank with Vogel screaming) spoils the illusion.
But that moment of obvious fakery does set the scene for the finale in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon. This was cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s final film, and his work here isn’t as striking as on the previous two escapades. The interior set lacks atmosphere, and the challenges faced by Indy (cutting blades, crumbling flag stones, an invisible bridge) are all a bit half-baked. Even when a deduction has resonance (“The penitent man is humble before God”), the absence of splendour, beauty and terror from the finale makes it disappointing on a visceral level.
What does Indy find on the other side of the bridge? Just a 700-year old knight who can barely lift his sword. I doubt that, even if Laurence Oliver had been able to play him (as initially hoped), his presence would have been impactful. If the choice of style of Grail cup is thematically well-considered, the unquestioning acceptance of bejewelled receptacle chosen by Elsa seals Donovan as a two-dimensional bad guy. Spielberg may have made a big thing about showing his demise in one shot, but it holds none of horrific impact seen with the deaths of Belloq and Toht in Raiders. Perhaps the most damning thing you could say about the climax is that (Elsa’s exit in a puff of smoke included) it’s more akin to something you’d find in an Indy knock-off than the real deal.
Aside from the father-son theme, that is. One can only speculate over the quality of Last Crusade without the rapport between Ford and Connery, and the witty exchanges written by Stoppard. If The Monkey King script is anything to go by, and the problems encountered in Temple of Doom from the second act onwards, Last Crusade might have been woefully deficient. It’s ironic that such a strong MacGuffin should have been rendered so uninspiringly. But, with Lucas’ increasingly uncertain grasp on narrative, perhaps this should come as little surprise.
There are those who will cite each of the Indy movies as their favourite (well, maybe not the fourth one), and Spielberg claims Last Crusade as his. Unfortunately, there’s a gulf in quality between Raiders and its follow-ups, regardless of their individual merits. This is borne from a slightly ineffectual “What we can we come up with next?” approach rather than, “I’m inspired by this great idea”. Still, Last Crusade cleaned up at the box office more decisively than Temple of Doom, out-grossing the US box-office champ of 1989 (Batman) worldwide. And it received broader critical approval than its predecessor. So, before standards really slipped, it must have seemed like a good place to bow-out…