100 Film Favorites – #6: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
(Steven Spielberg, 1989)
“I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne… ‘Let my armies be the rocks, and the trees, and the birds in the sky.'”
The third Indiana Jones film opens with the titular adventurer as a boy (played by rising teen heartthrob River Phoenix, who would die of a drug overdose less than four years later). On a Scouting trip with his troop through the canyons of Utah, Young Indy sneaks away to trail a group of treasure hunters who have purloined a golden cross which once belonged to Conquistador explorer Francisco de Coronado. Believing that “it belongs in a museum,” Indiana stealthily snatches the cross and races across the desert on his horse, with the posse of grave-robbing goons in hot pursuit. The action rises to improbable new heights when Indy climbs aboard a passing circus train. Soon, he and the thugs are dodging not just each other, but also the horns and fangs of angered lions and rhinoceri.
The entire prologue sequence offers (often humorous) insight into the origins of Jones’ various “Indyisms.” For instance, we discover he learned to fight with a bullwhip on the spur of the moment to repel a lion. Lacking the skill he would eventually hone to a science, the young Jones first cracks himself in the face, earning the chin scar sported by the older Indy (Harrison Ford actually acquired it in a car accident). We also learn the source of perhaps Indy’s oddest quirk, his ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). While at the start of the sequence he brushes off a snake as a minor annoyance without a second thought, aboard the circus train he falls into a serpent-filled tank and is traumatized.
Indy manages to elude the robbers, escape the circus train, and make it home. He tries to explain the situation to his father, but the elder Jones, deeply engaged in scholarly pursuits, shoos his son away. The goons arrive at the Jones’ house with the sheriff, who forces Indy to return the cross to its “rightful owners.” Without his father to back him up, Indy has no choice but to hand over the artifact to the robbers. One of the thieves doffs his fedora and places it on Indiana’s head, saying, “You lost today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.”
A quarter-century later, in 1938, a grown Jones squares off with the remaining goons aboard a freighter ship. Amid deck-sweeping waves and a few explosions for good measure, Indy finally reclaims the Cross of Coronado. Beaming, Indy triumphantly returns to museum curator Marcus Brody, bearing pretty much the only relic we ever see him successfully recover over the course of the series (sure, he got the Ark and the Sankara Stone, but the government took the Ark and he gave the Stone back to the Indian villagers).
At a gala party, wealthy businessman Walter Donovan charges Indy with a new mission: Donovan has come into possession of a partial tablet which claims to reveal the location of the Holy Grail. Indy is indifferent, but recommends that Donovan consult his father, Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. (Indiana’s real name is Henry, Jr.), as he is a dedicated scholar of Grail lore. Donovan explains that he already tried, but the senior Jones has gone missing. Indy realizes the dire nature of the situation when he discovers that Henry has mailed him a diary containing the results of his many years of grail research.
Indy hops a plane to Venice to meet with his father’s Austrian research assistant, the comely Elsa Schneider. Together, they discover a catacomb beneath an ancient library, wherein they find the tomb of a Crusade knight. On the knight’s shield is a complete copy of the inscription from Donovan’s broken tablet. Things get more complicated when Indy and Elsa are attacked by the Brothers of the Cruciform Sword, a secret society dedicated to protecting the Holy Grail. Indy insists he is focused only on finding his father, and does not intend to disturb the Grail. Satisfied, a Brotherhood member named Kazim reveals the location of the elder Jones (as both Kazim and Indy are dragged perilously close to a churning ship’s propeller).
Indy and Elsa head to the German castle where Henry (Sean Connery) is being kept prisoner by the Nazis (Indy hates those guys). The younger Jones successfully infiltrates his father’s cell and rescues him, only to be immediately re-captured along with his dad. Indy learns that Elsa is in cahoots with the Nazis (how he couldn’t figure this out when her name is “Elsa Schneider,” I don’t know), as is Donovan himself. The gloating Nazis take the Grail diary, which Henry is dismayed to find his son has brought to Germany with him.
Meanwhile, Marcus Brody has traveled to the Turkish city of Iskenderun, where he meets with fellow “Raiders” sidekick Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). Marcus has a map, taken from the diary, which reveals the starting place on the route to the Grail to be Alexandretta (the ancient name of Iskenderun). However, the Nazis quickly capture the bumbling Brody and claim the map as well.
Through some creative gun-play and secret-passage-finding, the squabbling Joneses are able to escape their castle prison. Father and son embark on a thrilling motorcycle chase, evading the Nazis and making it halfway out of the country before Henry, Sr. convinces “Junior” Jones that they must head into the proverbial “lion’s den” itself, Nazi Berlin, to reclaim the diary, which Henry insists still holds vital secrets to success in the Grail quest.
At a massive book-burning rally attended by the entire Nazi high-command, Indy corners Elsa and reclaims the book, nearly losing it again when he awkwardly bumps into Hitler himself (Hitler, mistaking Indy as just another Führer-fan, simply signs an autograph in the book’s frontispiece before brushing him aside).
Thinking they’re in the clear, the Senior and Junior Joneses board a passenger zeppelin out of Berlin (an anachronism – the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937 halted zeppelin travel). During a lull in the action, father and son share their first heart-to-heart talk in many years. Indy berates his father for ignoring him and spending far more time and thought on “people who have been dead for hundreds of years in other countries.” Henry asserts that he was “an excellent father,” giving his son freedom and teaching him self-reliance.
This insightful bit of character development is interrupted when the zeppelin crew receives radio commands to turn the ship around. Indy and his father are thrust back into the action, and escape by hijacking a biplane attached to the underside of the vessel. The Joneses once again find themselves fleeing Nazi pursuers in a fast-paced aerial battle which is as much slapstick comedy as white-knuckle thrill ride (Indy knows how to fly, but not land; Henry inadvertently blasts the tail off the plane with his own gun). They crash-land in a field, but continue to combat the remaining Nazi fighters from the ground. Henry takes out the final plane himself, by using his umbrella to startle thousands of seagulls into the sky, jamming the plane’s propellers and sending it spiraling out of control. A surprised Indy regards his father with new-found respect.
Elsewhere, the Nazis are plowing across the Turkish desert toward their objective, viewing the loss of the diary as a mere annoyance now that they have the map. Marcus Brody, now the Nazis’ captive, is held prisoner inside a lumbering, WWI-era tank. The Nazis are waylaid by the Brothers of the Cruciform Sword, and Indy, Henry, and Sallah are able to close in on their foes. Henry climbs aboard the tank to “rescue” Marcus (the two are apparently old friends), but only succeeds in getting captured himself. In a final extended action sequence, Indy pursues the tank on horseback, gradually causing the various Nazis to become either squashed or exploded, all without being squashed or exploded himself. It’s quite exciting. Indy climbs aboard the tank to rescue his father and Marcus, but gets involved in a tussle with the Nazi commander and is unable to extricate himself before the tank hurtles over a cliff. Everyone bids a tearful farewell to Indiana…who trudges up behind wondering what they’re looking at (he grabbed hold of a vine or something on the cliffside and climbed to safety).
Undeterred, Donovan, Elsa, and their remaining Nazi dudes have followed the map to the hidden temple housing the Grail (I’m not sure how it remained hidden so long; the location is a prominent archaeological site in Jordan…and also the “Tomb of the Primes” from Transformers 3). But they came unprepared, and the guys they keep sending in to retrieve the Grail keep tumbling out sans heads. Luckily, Henry has warned Indy of “three devices of lethal cunning” which lie between potential Grail-seekers and their prize, and his diary contains clues on how to overcome said “devices.” Upon discovering that Indy knows how to reach the Grail, Donovan shoots Henry, compelling Indy to retrieve the cup and use its healing powers to save his dad.
In the first trial, “The Breath of God,” “only the penitent man shall pass.” Noting that a penitent “kneels before God,” Indy drops to his knees, just as the colossal saw-blade which had decapitated the previous adventurers swings overhead. The next test, “The Word of God,” requires Indy to spell out JEHOVAH, the biblical name of God, on a grid of lettered floor-tiles. The trick is that he must use the Latin spelling, in which “I” is used in place of “J” – “IEHOVAH” (this is a plot hole: the Latin alphabet HAD no letter J, so temple architects couldn’t have thought to include one just to throw off future tomb-raiders). The third obstacle, “The Path of God” dictates that the pilgrim must make a leap of faith: Coming out of the letter chamber, Indy is confronted with nothing but a black, yawning crevasse. Summoning his courage, he steps out into the blackness…and discovers that a craftily painted bridge spans the chasm, though it is nearly invisible.
In the final chamber, Indy encounters an ancient knight who has served as the guardian of the Holy Grail for seven centuries, kept alive by the power of the cup. Donovan and Elsa join them in the Grail chamber, having followed Indy’s route through the traps. Along the walls of the small room stand a vast array of goblets, only one of which is the real Grail. “While the true Grail offers the drinker eternal life,” cautions the knight, “a false Grail will take it from you.” Elsa selects a resplendent golden chalice, fills it with water, and offers it to Donovan. Donovan, eager to claim immortality, gratefully drinks. Suddenly, he begins rapidly aging, quickly withering to a skeleton before crumbling into a pile of dust.
“He chose poorly,” remarks the knight.
Together, Elsa and Indy choose the proper Grail, a modest and unremarkable “cup of a carpenter.” To test it, Indy drinks from the cup…and manages not to instantaneously age to dust. Score! He returns with the Grail and heals his wounded father. Elsa then grabs the Grail and dashes towards the exit, disobeying an order from the knight that the cup was not to cross a seal near the temple entrance. The ground splits apart, and Indy just catches Elsa as she falls through a crack. But she continues to grasp for the grail, which has landed on a stone ledge nearby. Consumed by her greed, Elsa slips from Indy’s grasp and falls to her doom.
Suddenly, the tables are turned, and another rumble of the earth pitches Indy headlong over the edge. He is caught at the last moment by his father, but then proceeds to stretch and paw for the Grail himself. Henry, who throughout the movie has referred to his son only as “Junior,” addresses the younger Jones for the first time with tenderness and concern: “Indiana,” he says, “let it go.” Moved, Indy shrugs off the Grail and allows his father to lift him to safety.
Indy, Henry, Marcus, and Sallah emerge into the desert heat, the last of the antagonists having perished. Ending with a note of levity, Sallah asks why Henry is constantly referring to Indy as “Junior.” Henry explains the situation, and that “Henry, Jr.” borrowed his nickname from the family dog (a nod to the fact that Indiana Jones really was named after George Lucas’ malamute…the same breed as the Jones family’s own Indiana).
Sallah laughs heartily while the bumbling Marcus “leads the way,” and the four friends ride off into the sunset, their “last crusade” at an end.
In many ways, Last Crusade is a stylistic return to the tone of Raiders of the Lost Ark. After the dark, sinister Temple of Doom had met with a lukewarm reception, Spielberg and Lucas sought to revive the more lighthearted, slightly comic action of the series’ first film. In fact, Last Crusade is by far the most comedic of the Indiana Jones films, with the constant cross-generational bickering of the Joneses allowing plenty of opportunities for laughs. Additionally, the film marks the return of Raiders characters Marcus Brody and Sallah, used here to provide ties to the first movie as well as add additional comic elements.
The third Indiana Jones outing is also the most character-driven, and we get some really great moments of character development in the exchanges between Indy and his father (particularly the aforementioned zeppelin scene). When George Lucas first pitched the concept which would become Indiana Jones, he talked Steven Spielberg out of helming a James Bond film, saying he “had something better.” So when it came time to cast a father for Indiana Jones, Lucas and Spielberg decided the ideal candidate would be the original James Bond himself, Sean Connery. Though he comes along with his ever-present (and unexplained) Scottish accent, Connery is excellent in the part, capturing perfectly the balance between being every part the cloistered academic and yet simultaneously being unflappably confident, and even powerful, in his beliefs.
While Paramount initially had a contract with Lucas and Spielberg to produce five Indiana Jones movies, five years had elapsed since the previous entry in the series, and it seems to have been an unspoken understanding that Crusade would be the final Indy film. It even has “Last” in the title! Okay, maybe you could argue that, since the Crusades were fought (at least in the imaginings of myth) in order to take possession of the Holy Grail, then the search which ultimately found it would necessarily be the “Last Crusade.” Regardless, the film makes a fitting finale to the series: It wraps up a trilogy, and ends with our heroes riding off into the sunset, to have yet more adventures we don’t really need to see to appreciate.
But as we all know, the series didn’t end there. Nineteen years later, the Quest for More Money drove Lucas and Spielberg to make Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I could go on at length about why Crystal Skull was a disappointment, but countless people have already done that, and this post has already gotten quite long. I will say two good things for the fourth installment, and leave it at that for now. For one, it brought Indy fans out of the woodwork, and it was nice to get excited to “keep up with the Joneses” once more. Second…okay, get ready…I actually really liked the fridge scene. It seemed like one of the few scenes in the movie which was in keeping with the tradition of the previous Indy films. Improbable survival is one of Indy’s trademarks…remember that time he threw himself out of a plane in a raft, then used it to toboggan down the side of a mountain? True, even if he had survived the fridge, maybe he would’ve gotten horrible, crippling diseases upon emerging into the fallout of the mushroom cloud, but I have an explanation for that, too: Don’t forget that this guy drank from the Holy Grail. He’s got to have enough extra vitality to survive at least a few nuclear blasts.
Oh, and that’s one more thing. Why can’t the Grail cross the seal? That seems awfully, awfully limiting. “That’s the price of immortality,” says the knight. But is that really worth sitting alone in a room for 700 years? How did he spend the time? Maybe he got really good at flicking playing cards into the cups on the walls. That’s probably what I’d do.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.