By 1989, Steven Spielberg was in need of a career pick-me-up. When he made the commitment to direct RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), he did so under the assumption that series creator/producer George Lucas would mandate that he direct an eventual trilogy. The second Indiana Jones outing, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) was a perceived disappointment, and he’d been burned by an indifferent audience reception to his attempts in making serious dramatic works. As such, Spielberg decided to finish his Indiana Jones trilogy and retreat into the blockbuster genre he knew he was good at. The story wasn’t easy to crack- several drafts saw iterations as different as Indy exploring a haunted castle, or searching for the fountain of youth in Africa. Finally, Spielberg and Lucas settled on something far more epic: the search for the Holy Grail, the legendary chalice that Jesus purportedly drank from during The Last Supper. The result? INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), generally considered to be the best film of the Indiana Jones series and a return to glory for Spielberg and Lucas.
The film begins with a prologue that shows a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) in his boy scout days. We see his early love for archaeology, while also seeing how several of his iconic character traits came about: the whip, the hat, the fear of snakes, etc. Decades later, Indiana (Harrison Ford) receives a battered diary in the mail that belonged to his father, Henry Jones Sr (Sean Connery), and which documents his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail. Not long after, Indiana discovers that his father has been abducted and decides to venture to Europe to recover him by retracing his father’s latest steps as outlined in the diary. Accompanying him on the journey are his university confidante Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and a blonde doctor named Elsa Schnieder (Allison Doody); opposing him are the Nazis, who have kidnapped Henry and are after the Grail for their own nefarious purposes. Once Indiana frees Henry and Elsa is discovered to be a Nazi spy, father and son must race to recover the Grail before the Nazis do and subsequently change the course of history.
Harrison Ford reprises his most iconic role once again, now looking noticeably older as flecks of grey are beginning to pepper into his hair. Whereas Ford’s Indy was busy establishing himself in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and more or less treading water in TEMPLE OF DOOM, THE LAST CRUSADE allows ample opportunity for Indy to grow in a nuanced way. The father/son exploration of the film (more on that later) gives us much greater insight into Indiana’s own behavior and conduct, ultimately endearing himself to us in a more intimate way than the cold, aloof archetype he was originally sketched from: James Bond.
Appropriately enough, James Bond himself makes for the perfect father figure to Indy. Sean Connery was an easy choice to play Henry Jones Sr, but thankfully they subverted his classically suave, sophisticated persona in favor of an esteemed, bookish scholar who was something of a wimp in the physical department. Connery is responsible for the film’s biggest laughs and lends a tremendous deal of heart to the film in what has become a performance whose legacy rivals even that of a certain British secret agent. Allison Doody does a fair job as Elsa Schneider, the love interest who stands out mainly because she’s a bad guy. Other than that, there’s nothing terribly interesting or groundbreaking about the character.
Having previously appeared in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody character is significantly expanded for THE LAST CRUSADE. Elliott plays Marcus as casually inept, and a secondary source of comedic relief. Jonathan Rhys-Davies also reprises his role from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the jovial ally Sallah. And then there’s River Phoenix, one of the most notable additions to the cast, who nails Ford’s mannerisms while bringing a headstrong, inquisitive, and slightly awkward physicality that’s believable as the younger form of our favorite hero. The strength of Phoenix’s section (the opening prologue) eventually led to the creation of THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES TV show—even though Phoenix didn’t reprise the role himself.
Spielberg re-enlists the talents of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who has shot both previous installments of the Indiana Jones series. THE LAST CRUSADE adheres to the established Indiana Jones template: 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, warm-exotic tones, a swashbuckling scale created by expansive crane and dolly camera movements, etc. It also has somewhat of a Medieval vibe to it, due to the nature of their quest and the locations, which are both very Europe-centric.
Naturally, John Williams also returns to score the film, with that iconic Indiana Jones theme throwing us right back into the fray like we never left. By 1989, the theme had become such a part of the American cultural fabric that audiences felt like they had been been cheering on the adventures of Indiana Jones for half a century already. Much like he did for the Ark of the Covenant in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Williams also adds a special theme for the Grail itself that is appropriately drenched in Old-World/Medieval intrigue.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE contains some of the most overt references to Spielberg’s influences and idols of any of his films. The opening train chase and Monument Valley vistas are highly reminiscent of John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939). Another early moment finds Spielberg using Indy’s signature hat as the basis for a match cut spanning a vast amount of time and space, much like Stanley Kubrick had stitched together a bone and a spaceship for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). And yet another instance finds Spielberg re-employing the VERTIGO (1958) lens zoom technique that Alfred Hitchcock invented and Spielberg himself popularized with JAWS (1974).
As to be expected with the Indiana Jones series, World War 2 imagery is highly prominent, with the setting allowing for the use of Nazis again as the main villains— a visual conceit that reaches its arguable apex when Indiana literally runs into Adolf Hitler in one of the film’s most clever moments. Planes and the phenomenon of flight are recurring staples of both Spielberg’s work and the Indiana Jones series, and THE LAST CRUSADE is no different. Interestingly enough, Spielberg is able to fuse this fascination with another—his ongoing exploration of the distant father dynamic—into a compelling character setpiece set aboard a zeppelin. One could argue that Spielberg’ s veiled exploration of his issues with his own estranged father reaches it apex during this sequence, with a literal reckoning between father and son. They sit down at a table and take a time out from the narrative at hand to address their beef with each other, with Indiana complaining how Henry was always into his work and never had time for him. In real life, it was around this time that Spielberg’s estrangement with his father began to wind down. It’s more literal than metaphor (one can imagine Spielberg’s real-life sitdown with his dad playing out exactly in this fashion), but it still offers remarkable insight into the slow paradigm shift Spielberg was undergoing in his personal life—further compounded by his own entrance into fatherhood with the birth of his first son.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE was warmly received upon its release, and is generally considered to be the superior Indiana Jones film. This is attributed to Spielberg and company placing the emphasis on character instead of action, and the exploration of deep character dynamics that shed further light on Indiana Jones and allowed him to grow instead of becoming stagnant. An Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing further reinforced the public’s embrace of the film. While most consider RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to be the quintessential Indiana Jones film, THE LAST CRUSADE arguably has it beat in almost every way. It’s really saying something about the quality of your franchise when the third film is just as valid a choice for best entry as the first one. There was also the bittersweet assumption that THE LAST CRUSADE was the last film in the series, and for the better part of twenty years it appeared it was going to stay that way. That is, until 2008’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL– but that’s a story for another day.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE is as fine as film as Spielberg has ever made. It’s definitely the best within the series, and maybe even breaks the top five of Spielberg’s overall filmography—albeit that’s an admittedly tough call to make considering so many other films in his body of work can make just as strong a case. After his brief excursion into the prestige/awards film arena, THE LAST CRUSADE marks Spielberg’s return to the spectacle genre that made his name. More importantly, the lessons he learned on THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) were applied here to great effect—in other words, his “popcorn” work suddenly became much more nourishing and substantial.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount
Produced by: George Lucas, Frank Marshall, Robert Watts
Written by: Jeffrey Boam
Director of Photography: Douglas Slocombe
Editor: Michael Kahn
Production Designer: Elliot Scott
Composer: John Williams