“This belongs in a museum”
How do you finish off one of the decade’s most successful franchises? How do you match the heights of what Roger Ebert called an “out-of-body experience, a movie of glorious imagination and breakneck speed” and “exhilarating, manic, wildly imaginative escapism”
David Nagle explores Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the first film in this new series.
A NEW REVIEW
I remember once having to choose a costume for a friend’s fancy dress birthday party. I was a young high school kid and this was a girl’s party – attended by actual girls – so of course, I had to pick something that would make me look cool and handsome. With a smudge of ash across my cheeks, a length of rope retrieved from the garden shed at my hip, and a brown felt hat from an old cowboy costume standing in for a fedora, I (pretty unsuccessfully, it must be said) tried to embody the coolest character I could think of – Indiana Jones. Even over ten years after the release of the last film, that’s where my young teenage mind went straight to. So let’s say just say I’ve got a bit of a bias towards Dr. Henry Jones Jr.
Looking back on The Last Crusade now, the film actually plays with the idea of Indy’s rock star-like status. While early on he’s mobbed after class by his students like he’s the archeological equivalent of Elvis, there’s less of the suave exterior he showed in Raiders and Temple. Instead, he comes across more like a fumbling, faltering, mistake-making boy who’s only ever wanted to impress his emotionally absent father. Despite the quest’s shady benefactor warning him not to trust anyone, ‘Junior’ jumps at the chance to be the one to save his Dad. The search for the grail and the search for the father are one and the same. In this way, Spielberg and Lucas manage to skillfully combine their two fixations for the film – fathers and sons, and grail mythology. It’s Spielberg’s focus on the Jones’ relationship though that raises this film higher than any of its predecessors, not least thanks to Connery’s delightfully image-subverting turn as the tweedy Henry Sr. The original 007 (only 12 years older than Ford) helps to flesh out the character that was created to out-Bond Bond, while the Boy Scout prologue with River Phoenix – who so perfectly captures Ford in just minutes of screentime – works so well as both an origin story and an encapsulation of the whole film’s themes.
What also really jumps out watching this film now is how it’s built around two things: heart and rhythm. Everything has its beat, from the flow of the action scenes to the back-and-forth between Ford and Connery and their heartening relationship, it pulses with life. It feels so brisk, flowing through its plot with barely a wasted minute thanks to Jeffrey Boam’s tight script, and helped to zip along by a comedic streak that is much more pronounced than I remember. It’s really funny, and often not afraid to be stupidly so, with action scenes that are packed with gags that make them almost Buster Keaton-esque. This is a true action comedy, with iconic set piece after iconic set piece, from the burning castle and sidecar escape to the man vs tank; each one so meticulously, logically, consequentially constructed, and all soundtracked by the wonderfully overblown sound of punches and John Williams’ score, whose movements beyond the main theme are equally recognizable and effective. There’s even maturation in the character of Indiana and in the story’s handling of women, with Dr. Schneider more than just a love interest, a complex mirror of Indy – just see their identical stretches for the grail, with Junior only saved from Elsa’s fate by the guiding words of his father.
The Last Crusade still stands as the perfect example of the fun action adventure movie. It demonstrates how to give a character more complexity, more humor, more action, an origin story, and an ending, all in one. Now let’s all pretend the fourth one doesn’t exist.
WHAT DID CRITICS THINK BACK THEN?
“Sure, like its predecessors, [it] is Boys’ Own, comic book stuff. But it’s marvelous fun and wonderful escapism.” – The Canberra Times, 12 June 1989
“More resonant than any of the previous films, [it] shows that Mr. Spielberg can inject some sentiment into his films without getting all gooey and carried away.” – New York Times, 14 Jan 1990.
“[It’s] one of those very rare big-budget, mass-market American films that matches expectations.” – New York Times, 18 June 1989.
“The bullwhip is frayed. The trademark hat is tattered and stretched out of shape. It’s been nice knowing Indiana Jones, but it would be hard to say that we’re sorry to see him go.” – The Globe and Mail, 25 May 1989.
“Indiana Jones, his friends and enemies, have just enough humanity to allow us to warm to them rather than simply admire the virtuosity of the cinematic derring-do in which their exploits are framed.” – The Guardian, 29 June 29 1989.
“The problem with the father-son stuff is that it doesn’t have conviction. It’s as devoid of real father-son impact and dynamics as the Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader exchanges in Return of the Jedi. And the film, like its central relationship, is more schematic than urgent. Not that it’s executed with anything but proficiency….If [it] doesn’t take us to Saturday-serial heaven the way Raiders did, it at least has the good sense not to pretend to be more than a vigorous rejiggering.” – The Boston Globe, 24 May 1989.
ADJUSTED BOX OFFICE
In a time of two billion dollar box offices, how well did this film do?
We’re not quite at Marvel levels, but Last Crusade went on to make $474,171,806 worldwide, which is around $977,206,908 at 2019 levels.
“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade demolished a host of box-office records in its first week in United States theatres, grossing $46,931,772.” – The Canberra Times. 3 June 1989.
WOULD IT GET MADE NOW?
Do they “not make movies like this anymore”, or would it get a ten-part series on Netflix?
The movie industry is built on nostalgia, and directors often tell stories inspired by their childhoods. Today’s audiences and directors came up on comics and video games, their nostalgia is for all things 80s and 90s. So that’s why, besides Marvel and DC movies, we have countless remakes and reboots, from every live-action Disney movie to upcoming remakes of every obscure property from over 30 years ago. The influences on Lucas, Spielberg, and Indy were “Boys Own” comics, 1940s adventure stories, Westerns and Saturday morning B-movie serials. Republic Pictures was the king of serials, and along with other studios like Universal and Colombia, they produced ‘second part of a double bill’ movies with characters like Dick Tracy, Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Batman, and Superman. You can obviously see the influence of these on the current set of blockbusters, but a movie with Indy’s other inspirations, Westerns especially, is more difficult to see being made today. The current films most closely related to Indy are in fact based on video games, and they were actually inspired by Dr. Jones’ adventures in the first place: the already rebooted Tomb Raider and the recently-out-of-ten-year-development-hell Uncharted prequel.
Twenty years after The Last Crusade, Indy returned to the screen with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and audiences and critics alike were split, like a simian cranium filled with chilled monkey brains. It looked like 2008’s outing was the end of Dr. Jones’ story on the big screen, but as part of Disney’s hoovering up of assets across the industry, its purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012 bought the rights to Indiana as well as Star Wars. Disney and their boundless coffers convinced Ford to return as Han Solo for the Star Wars sequel, and they’ve done the same for a fifth Indy film, currently slated for release in July 2021. Shia LaBoeuf’s character will not return, no shame there, but the story will apparently continue the events of Crystal Skull. Spielberg is down to direct, with Frank Marshall, George Lucas, and Kathleen Kennedy producing. The script, however, has been through the hands of David Keopp (The Mummy 2017), Jonathan Kasdan (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Dan Fogelman (Life Itself). It’ll be interesting to see who the villains are this time, Nazis and Russians aren’t exactly the uber bad guys to all of America that they once were.
Every time someone mentions archaeology, you can bet there’s an Indiana Jones reference not far behind. Jones is the touchstone for an idealized hero of the supposed American spirit – smart, courageous, witty, masculine, a man who can pull off both a white tuxedo and a fedora and bullwhip, who’s able to take knocks but always gets back up. Despite his failings, he’s someone that people want to see themselves in, that’s why every new action star who can fire off a smart line is ‘the new Indiana Jones’ (see: Chris Pratt), and he lives on in everything from (actually great) Lego video games, as the inspiration for Lara Crofts and Nathan Drakes, and still as one of Disneyland’s most popular rides.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Julian Glover (Walter Donovan):
A classically trained British actor, he’s been in everything from classic TV series like The Saint, Remmington Steele, and Doctor Who, to films like The Empire Strikes Back and For Your Eyes Only, and most recently Game of Thrones as Maester Pycelle, where he got so bored with his character that he asked them to kill him off.
Alison Doody (Elsa Schneider):
Irish actress Doody never hit the heights of success that her role in The Last Crusade might have lead to. She mainly appeared in TV series through the 90s and early 2000s and has been popping up in small budget UK and European productions over the last few years. Some might turn up on Netflix, but the chances are it’s unlikely you’ll ever come across one.
John-Rhys Davies (Sallah):
With a never-ending list of credits, film writer Scott Weinberg says Davies “will appear in literally any film that offers him a plane ticket and craft services.” When not being bigoted and patronizing to women, Davies has appeared in TV shows like Sliders and most famously as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings franchise. He’ll lend his voice to anyone that offers cash, the biggest recent film being the Brine King in Aquaman.
Michael Byrne (Vogel):
Another actor with a Last Crusade–James Bond connection, Byrne also acted in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, as well as Gangs of New York, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the recent Ben Kinsley movie Intrigo: Death of an Author, and the widely claimed ‘worst movie ever’, John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth. Aside from that, he’s been a consistent TV actor in the UK, popping up on Midsomer Murders in 2018.
Steven Spielberg (Director):
The highest grossing film director in history, Spielberg most recently took a mostly overlooked subversive, self-aware look at his own work and cultural impact with 2018’s Ready Player One. His next project is a remake of West Side Story in 2020, and he’ll continue his career-long swerve between different types of film with the Mark Rylance-starring The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a story set in 19th century Italy that pits the papacy against the coming of Italian democracy. Spielberg will once again direct Indiana in 2021.
Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones):
Ford has recently given up on his reluctance to reviving his old characters. He returned to kill off Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and gave Deckard some closure in Blade Runner 2049, his two best performances for years. Before he puts the iconic fedora back on, he has some upcoming animated voice work and a leading role in an adaptation of The Call of the Wild.
Sean Connery (Henry Jones Sr):
Eighty-eight-year-old Connery gave up acting in 2007 and currently lives in New York. His last work was the lead voice actor on the animated film Sir Billi in 2012, the first animated film to be created and produced entirely in Scotland.
The Tom Selleck screen test
Tom Selleck was originally considered for the role of Indiana, with Lucas worried that Ford would “become his Bobby De Niro” after already starring in two of his previous films, American Graffiti and Star Wars. They did a screen test with Selleck and Sean Young (who starred in Blade Runner with Ford in ’82) but Selleck couldn’t get out of his agreement with CBS over Magnum PI.
The making of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
© 2019 Sound the Sirens Magazine. All Rights Reserved.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade © 1989 Paramount Pictures / Lucasfilm.