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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

| May 24, 1989 | 0 Comments

Indiana Jones, much like James Bond, is a character that we’ve come to know so well that he seems like an old friend.  Yet, while you follow his adventures you realize that you don’t know that much about him.  We have followed every step of his perilous journeys for The Lost Ark and into The Temple of Doom, but what of his personal life?  We know that he is a professor and occasionally has rotating girlfriends but what of his past?  Who is his family?  One of the joys of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is that while we’re following him on his latest adventure, some of his background comes to light and it helps us to understand some of the insecurities, the vulnerability and the self-preservation of a man that we’ve come to know like family.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade begins with a masterstroke.  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 larger story, which takes place in 1938, greatly resembles Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indiana being tasked with finding a lost artifact before Hitler and his Nazi thugs claim it for their own.  That artifact is The Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus supposedly drank from at the last supper and also caught his blood as he hung on the cross.  Supposedly, whomever drinks from the cup can live forever.  Indy’s motivation isn’t the cup itself, but in the fact that the Nazis have capture his father in order to get it.  His father worked all his life to find the sacred relic and even sidelined his role as a father to keep the search going.

The father-son subplot is wise because the narrative here is your standard Indiana Jones adventure.  We have chases, shoot-outs, rescues, escapes, fights, double-crosses, questionable allegiances, mystic artifacts, booby traps, and the series’ trademark vermin.  For “Raiders” it was snakes.  “Temple of Doom” had bugs.  Here it is plague of rats, lots and lots of rats.  And there’s a gorgeous dam, this time a hard-nosed Austrian named Elsa (Alison Doody) whose accent makes us question her alliance.

All of these elements come together in a film that is a great deal of fun.  Spielberg and collaborator George Lucas have become experts at this kind of adventure at a time when most action filmmakers are satisfied to go by the numbers.  If there is a complaint that can be filed about this film, it is that at this point it is starting to feel a bit familiar.  You could argue that if you ran it alongside “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the narrative structure is basically the same (that wasn’t true of “Temple of Doom”).  The story is less compelling and the leading lady is forgettable.

That’s why the familial element is so important.  Indy’s relationship with his father is strained by distance.  His father is a spirited man whose eyes dance when he speaks about his craft but darken when he must discuss anything personal.  Sean Connery has always been an expert at this – maintaining a safe emotional distance in his characters, a wall that protects his rugged exterior.  The end of the film, in which Indy must traverse a bizarre cavern strewn with coded puzzles, brings the story back around to the family element, to what is more important than fortune and glory than the human element.

Yet, all the family stuff does not deter from the fact that this is a fun movie.  All of the Indiana Jones movies flow with a quick-snap pace and never get too bogged down in personalities.  Yet, it’s nice that finally Indiana Jones has been revealed as a person and not just a pawn in an action setting.  By understanding his past, we better understand a person that we’ve come to know like an old friend.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.