Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Although the third chapter in the Indiana Jones saga doesn't approach the highs of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it also avoids the lows of The Temple of Doom. A fitting end to the original trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade captures some of the sense of fun that infused the first movie while using the addition of Sean Connery to up the comedic ante and provide a father/son dynamic. The absence of Karen Allen's Marion is still a sore spot (one that has been rectified in the fourth film) and leaves a gap in the love interest department that Alison Doody doesn't come close to filling. There are also times when the filmmakers' infatuation with comedy detracts from The Last Crusade's capacity for suspense. All things considered, however, it provided viewers in the '80s with something more palatable than its immediate predecessor.

As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Last Crusade deals with the quest for a long-lost religious artifact and has Indy opposing the Nazis in the race to get it. In this case, the object is the Holy Grail which, for better or for worse, is most commonly associated in current popular culture with Monty Python. Reportedly, this association nearly caused director Steven Spielberg to reject the project until George Lucas convinced him to re-consider. It's worth noting, however, that the film's occasionally jokey tone is at times almost reminiscent of a Python skit.

The Last Crusade opens with a prologue set in 1912 that features River Phoenix as Young Indy. (Phoenix would not reprise the role in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles television series that aired in 1992-93. He was offered the role but turned it down and was replaced by Sean Patrick Flannery.) A mini-origin story of sorts, it shows an early adventure and explains how Indy got the scar on his chin and developed his fear of snakes. The bulk of the film transpires in 1938 and follows the adult Indy (Harrison Ford) on his search for his missing father, Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery), who is believed to have discovered vital clues to the location of the Holy Grail. Indy's globe-trotting trip is funded by a wealthy American, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), and he is accompanied to the first stop, Venice, by old friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot). It's there that he meets this film's love interest, Elsa Schneider (Alision Doody). Later in the movie, as the ragtag group gets closer to their goal, they are joined by Indy's stalwart sidekick from the first film, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).

Each of the Indiana Jones movies features both a "creature scene" and a big-time action sequence. In Raiders, it's snakes and the truck chase with the Ark. In Temple of Doom, it's bugs and the mine cart roller coaster. In The Last Crusade, it's rats and the tank chase. The former required using a combination of specially bred live rats and mechanical animals created by the special effects department. That latter required weeks of filming to bring all the elements together of what is easily The Last Crusade's most extended and exciting segment. There are, of course, other cliffhanger episodes to go along with these, including a boat chase in Venice, a footrace atop and through a moving train full of circus animals, and an escape from a German airship.

The new element introduced here is the father/son dynamic between Indy and Henry. The script, in unsubtle ways, makes it apparent that everything Indy does is designed to earn his father's attention and respect, neither of which is easily given. Father and son have a prickly relationship, but the depth of their feelings for each other is brought out late in the proceedings as each must face the prospect of losing the other. Since The Last Crusade's romantic element is so feeble, this provides the film's emotional core, and it allows us to see Indy as more than the dashing, romantic, somewhat bettered adventurer of the previous two features.

The lapse of time between The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade does nothing to blunt Ford's ability to don the fedora and grab the whip and become this generation's greatest adventurer again. Of all the characters Ford has played over the years, and with apologies to Han Solo, the actor is most strongly associated with Dr. Jones, and it's no surprise. If ever there was perfect synergy between a performer's strengths and a character, this is it. For Ford, slipping into the Indy persona in The Last Crusade is like putting on an old, comfortable costume.

Casting Sean Connery as Henry raises all sorts of James Bond associations. Spielberg is on record as having said that the Indiana Jones movies are "his" 007 films and that he always envisioned Indy as a Bond-like character. There are, in fact, nine actors in The Last Crusade who previously appeared in the 007 franchise, including a former Bond girl (Alison Doody), a former Bond villain (Julian Glover) and, of course, Connery. At the time of filming, Connery was only 57 (and a mere six years removed from his most recent outing as Bond) but, since he was playing a 75-year-old man, stunts were out of the question. So all the derring-do is left to Harrison Ford. Connery is along for the ride.

It's good to see old friends like Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies again. Their absence from The Temple of Doom is keenly felt. Their inclusion in The Last Crusade makes the production into a reunion of sorts. This would be one of Elliot's final screen performances. He was diagnosed with AIDS shortly before filming began and would die several years later. Rhys-Davies doesn't have a lot to do in this movie but it's welcome just to have him around. Both of the major newcomers are rather weak. As the movie's villain, Julian Glover is too urbane to be truly menacing. And, while Alison Doody is pretty enough is a cool blond sort of way, her character is uninteresting and her chemistry with Harrison Ford is even less combustible than what he shared with Kate Capshaw in the second film.

The Last Crusade's end game is weak. None of the Indiana Jones movies have ended on high notes but this is the least impressive of the three. It's not just that there's too much exposition and too little action but that Donovan's fate is unsatisfying, Elsa's character goes off the deep end, and there are numerous unanswered questions. The Last Crusade is one of those films where the journey is more enjoyable than what happens when the destination is reached. Viewers stick with the movie during its final fifteen minutes not because it's an example of great entertainment but because of a desire to see how everything turns out. There's redemption for the good guys, punishment for the bad guys, and a sense of closure. In a way, perhaps that's all that matters.

The Last Crusade contains enough humor that one could almost classify the movie as an action-comedy. The lightness of tone feels like an overreaction to the darkness that permeated The Temple of Doom's second half. The bickering between Indy and his father resembles that of the Odd Couple and Connery, in a departure from what might be expected from an actor who played cinema's most iconic action hero, is on hand mainly for comic relief. At least the jokes in The Last Crusade are better integrated into the whole than in The Temple of Doom, where some of them were awkward.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took five years to get off the ground, due in large part to schedule issues with Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg. Audiences greeted the return of Indiana Jones enthusiastically (one wonders if the same will be true of the fourth installment, which follows a nineteen year absence). The film was the second highest grossing picture of the year, trailing only Batman and finishing ahead of a number of other high-profile sequels, including Back to the Future II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Star Trek V. The mixture of action, comedy, and romance provided in Raiders of the Lost Ark has been imitated many times over the years, but never matched. Of all the pretenders, The Last Crusade is among the few to have come close, and a lot of that has to do with the movie's three invaluable assets: star Harrison Ford, co-star Sean Connery, and director Steven Spielberg. So, while The Last Crusade is not the second coming of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's as worthy a sequel as any is likely to be.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (United States, 1989)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 1989-05-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1