Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989)
(for action/adventure violence and some sensuality)
Released: May 24, 1989
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Julian Glover, Alison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, River Phoenix
After the content controversies surrounding Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom led to the creation of the PG-13 rating, it’s easy to understand why Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade swung so dramatically toward sentiment. Understandable, too, as the whole movie is so clearly designed to be the final chapter in a trilogy.
- The Opening “First Adventure” sequence, in which we see how teenage Boy Scout Indy garnered every one of his trademark qualities, all in the course of one afternoon.
- That “First Adventure” is a prologue to the main quest titled “The Last Crusade”.
- It all revolves around a father/son reconciliation story that works as a “tying up loose ends” thematic and narrative capper, and it ends with the ultimate reveal of all: where the name “Indiana” came from.
Even the artifact is, quite literally, the Holy Grail.
And who better to play Indiana Jones’ dad than James Bond? Despite being only 12 years his senior, Sean Connery’s bald and buttoned-up curmudgeonly persona was a perfect contrast against the aging-well Harrison Ford and his “making this up as I go” adventurer.
With the pair so adept at comedic repartee, along with an ability to bring gravitas and, yes, sentiment when the moment required, The Last Crusade’s charm is in being blockbuster comfort food, a cinematic warm blanket that gives you everything you want from popcorn escapism and then adds a lump in your throat.
That flashback prologue is absurdly ingenious, letting Temple of Doom skeptics know right off the bat that this is going to be fun and light, and offer some satisfying morsels of backstory along the way.
It’s grounded by a risk-taking young Indy (River Phoenix) who’s driven by the respect for archeological finds, not their monetary value (Phoenix was cast per Ford’s request after they bonded during The Mosquito Coast; he even employed Ford’s signature smirky smile). He’s clearly game for these origin exploits, ones that provide fan service in ways that feel clever and carefree, even inspired.
From there we flash-forward to 1938 and, with it, a more recognizable structure reminiscent of Raiders (layered with subtle callbacks) that sees Jones in his university classroom as a professor of archeology before he, with the aid of Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Brody (Denholm Elliott), is tasked to find a coveted and powerful Biblical relic of supernatural proportions – before the Nazis do! (Natch.)
Mixed up in the fray is Dr. Henry Jones, Indy’s father, whose lifelong study and obsession has been the Holy Grail. The pious elder gets in over his head, the scrappy “junior” comes to his rescue, and together – after years of estrangement – they maneuver their way in and out of various perils, dangers, and life-threatening action set pieces. All are thrillingly staged, as Spielberg continues to expand the cinematic scope of his serial throwbacks.
Through it all, the father/son dynamic (Indy hopes to impress his dad; dad’s not) incorporates laughs as well as emotion, all sincerely felt, thanks to the effortless chemistry between the two leads. Connery in particular feels absolutely invigorated, and Ford is clearly feeding off of that energy.
The peripheral characters aren’t nearly as compelling as in the original Raiders. Donovan isn’t as formidable as Belloq, Elsa’s more of a brainy Bond girl, while Sallah and Brody are largely reduced to comic relief (Brody especially, who’s unfortunately dumbed down to a dithering dolt). Even the Nazis are more bumbling than threatening this time around.
Nevertheless, each supporting actor works perfectly well within his or her assigned archetype; their collective simplicity, however, speaks to Spielberg and George Lucas’s self-conscious overcompensation toward all of the Temple of Doom blowback. That, and the fact that is this is clearly supposed to be a warm-and-fuzzy send off…right?
While it would’ve felt more substantial with less tongue-in-cheek, I’ve always appreciated – and even cherished – The Last Crusade’s lighter winking tone and, yes, its unabashed sentiment (even the film’s subtitle acronym is TLC). Not a single moment feels phoned in; it all bounces along with the sheer joy and love felt between the people who made it, and for the audience they were making it for.
Plus, you couldn’t have asked for a more ideal conclusion than to see this beloved character literally ride off into the sunset. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade truly was The Perfect Ending.
Except that it wasn’t.
Available to stream on Netflix.
- If Sean Connery had turned down the role, Spielberg planned to ask Gregory Peck and then Jon Pertwee (a.k.a. The 3rd Doctor).
- Sir Lawrence Olivier had agreed to play the Grail Knight, but he became too ill by the time shooting came around.
- Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam had a big summer in 1989 with screenplay credits for this and Lethal Weapon 2. Menno Meyjes, who wrote the screenplay for The Color Purple, helped George Lucas develop the story that Boam’s screenplay followed.
- Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe filmed all three original Indiana Jones films, but no others for Spielberg. The Last Crusade was also the last of his career.
- Julian Glover, who plays the main villain Donovan, can be seen as an Imperial Commander in The Empire Strikes Back. Among his scenes, he’s overseeing the operation of an AT-AT in the battle on Hoth.
- Just as Connery was a nod to James Bond, Alison Doody (Elsa) had also previously been a Bond Girl in A View To A Kill. Glover was also a Bond vet, seen in For Your Eyes Only.