A Study in Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

12 Apr


I am of two minds with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and both are battling for space in my brain.  In one corner, the battling critic who roots around for all the flaws.  And in the other corner his opponent, a more benign film fan who admits that this movie is just plain fun.  Let us deal with both, beginning with the positive.

After the dread and darkness of Raiders and then Temple of Doom Spielberg, now a married man with kids of his own decided to reel things in bit.  Last Crusade has a lot of violent moments but the reigns of the violence have been pulled back.  There are gross-out moments, but for the most part this is the kinder, gentler Indiana Jones.  I’ll admit that I’m a little ambivalent about that.

What works best is the new approach.  Every good Spielberg movie works on two levels and this one has a personal story that I found refreshing.  We meet his father, played by Sean Connery, and we see the strained relationship that has given Indy some of his deeper insecurities.  This movie isn’t all about the adventure.  It’s about discovering new things about Indy.  The movie begins with and adventure he had back in 1912 when he was a boy scout.   It takes us back to the turn of the century and introduces us to young Indy when he was just a good-natured boy scout (played in a wonderful performance by River Phoenix) with a nose for adventure and a nasty habit of getting himself into trouble.  When he steals a golden cross from some fortune hunters, we are led on an adventure that helps us understand how he gained his trademarks such as his fear of snakes, his affinity for whips and even the scar on his chin.  We also understand his isolation.  He was the son of a celebrated archaeologist, Henry Jones (Sean Connery) who was happy to leave him to his own devices, and it’s a wound that he carries into adulthood.  The strained relationship between father and son lies at the heart of the movie.  It completes the character of Indiana Jones because we understand his vulnerability.

Which brings me to the negative . . .

The movie has been accused for years of too closely resembling Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s true.  Indy’s mission is to recover a supernatural religious artifact that will allow Hitler and his Nazi thugs to rule the world is a reasonable motivation.  But somehow here it doesn’t seem to have the urgency that it did in the earlier film.  Maybe that’s because the Holy Grail itself doesn’t seem to have the wow factor that The Ark of the Covenant did.  There was a tone to Raiders that gave us the sense that the ark was an object made of death; Spielberg surrounded it at all times with motifs of death – rats, snakes, Nazis.  Here the cup of Christ just isn’t as urgent.  We know what it can do, but it doesn’t seem to have the same punch.

Watching the film again the other night I was forced to deal with the two halves of the movie.  I love the relationship but the outer story feels kind of pedestrian.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t well told.  There are some brilliant set pieces here, like a stop at a German castle the that pair end up setting on fire; and a trip right into the heart of Berlin where Indy comes face to face with der fuhrer himself.  And, of course, I love the ending of the film which questions the value of artifacts over family.

So, here I am, at a loss over which side to choose.  I sat back and enjoyed the movie as I revisited it the other night, but I find my critical waves washing through.  Is Last Crusade a perfect movie?  No.  Is it a fun movie?  You bet.


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