Article By: Dan Clark
By 1989 Steven Spielberg proved he was a versatile director who was on the brink of becoming a true auteur. Some may have looked at his decision to return to the Indiana Jones franchise as a step backwards for his career. Besides being contractually obligated to make the film, Spielberg also wanted to sweeten the bitter taste Temple of Doom left in audiences’ mouths years earlier. He succeeded at doing just that with Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. It was a true return to form with a multitude of amazing acting set-pieces, fabulous adventure, and the fun throwback atmosphere we have come to expect with this franchise. While it doesn’t reach to the exact levels of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it comes as close as anyone could hope for. If this was to be Dr. Jones last adventure he would truly be leaving on top.
Temple of Doom told a story of Indie’s life prior to Raiders, and The Last Crusade starts even earlier. It begins with teenage Indie traveling on an expedition with his Boy Scout troop. River Phoenix was slated to play young Indie, and completely nails the part. (It serves as a sad reminder of the talent that was lost when Phoenix tragically passed away) Indie stumbles upon a mercenary group who has discovered an ancient Spanish artifact. As you would expect, Indie steals the artifact from them. He believes its rightful place ‘is in a museum’! This leads to an epic chase that functions as a notification to the audience that Indiana Jones is back in all his glory. The intricate choreography involved in this opening flawlessly flows from moment to moment. Each action beat directly impacts the next in this dominoes of blundering danger. There are even a number of character beats that make it more than action for action sake. We get to the derivation of Indy’s hatred for snakes, and why a whip became his weapon of choice. Even better is the fact that this is merely a starting point—things only get better from here.
There are some action moments that rival—and some that even surpass—everything that has come before. For example, Indy’s showdown with a German tank was an elaborate action sequence that melded everything that is right with this franchise. There are a ton of things occurring on screen, but the strong editing makes everything easy to follow. You understand where danger lies in relationship to the characters, and what they need to do in order to complete their goal. The action walks the tight line in-between larger-than life and over-the-top. Sure there are moments like taking down an airplane with the aid of a group of seagulls that are a bit hooky, but overall nothing is too unbelievable. Most importantly the action works because you care about the characters involved.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade biggest focus is on the relationship between Indiana Jones and his father, played impeccably by Sean Connery. Though both share a love for ancient history and archaeology, they have rarely spoken over the last decade. That changes when Jones discovers his father has gone missing on his quest to discover the Holy Grail. Indy is forced to save his father, and both of them team up on the ultimate expedition of their lifetimes. They will have to survive ancient tombs, secret organizations, Nazis, and of course each other if they are to complete a mission they have spent the majority to their lives preparing for.
This father and son relationship brought a level of humanity back to this franchise that was lacking in the previous installment. Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s great chemistry make them one heck of a tandem. They are two of the most charismatic actors ever to grace the silver screen, and watching them together brought their charm to new heights. Spielberg also refrained from being overly sentimental with their relationship. He entrusted his actors to provide quality performances. At times he can be like that nagging parent continuously trying to steer a character in one direction or another. While he certainly puts his stamp on this film, he never goes out of his way to make his presence known. There are a multitude of simple scenes where Ford and Connery are merely engaging in conversations that are endlessly enthralling. Their stubborn bickering provides plenty of laughs along the way as well. For example there is a classic revolving door gag in the midst of a Nazi base that was reminiscent of slapstick comedy of yesteryear. Tonally it worked as it increased this flood of entertainment that was embedded throughout the film.
Not that the tonal shifts are impeccably seamless. There are moments where Spielberg places comedy where it doesn’t necessarily belong, especially when it came to Sean Connery’s character. For some reason he had a knack for getting captured. It is an understandable plot device, but there gets a point where it becomes a tad bit ridiculous. Luckily, Connery does his best to make it work so it never becomes a huge detriment to the overall film. Surely if a lesser actor was given the role his character wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade showed that Indy was a great deal more than a one hit wonder. Many people even point to this as the best entry of the franchise. While I do not completely agree with that statement, I can understand where the sentiment comes from. There is no resting on past laurels here. Spielberg took what work with the past films and added an extra dimension. Seeing two titanic cinematic heavyweights, like Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, on screen together was everything one could hope for. It serves both as a satisfying conclusion to the Indiana Jones story, as well as a wetting of the appetite for more to come. Unfortunatel, the adventures would not continue until many years later, nevertheless The Last Crusade gives any fan of this franchise all they could have ever asked for.