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 controversies about graphic content that surrounded Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — all which led to the creation of the PG-13 rating — it’s easy to understand why Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade swung so dramatically in the other direction toward sentiment.
That shift was understandable for another reason as well: The Last Crusade was clearly designed to be the final chapter in a trilogy.
- The Opening “First Adventure,” a sequence in which we see how, as a teenage Boy Scout, Indy garnered every single one of his trademark qualities (all in the course of one afternoon, as would be natural).
- A “First Adventure” serves as a perfect prologue to a main quest titled “The Last Crusade”.
- At its center, this last crusade has a father/son reconciliation story, one that works to “tie up loose ends”. It’s a well-conceived capper, both narratively and thematically, that 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’ father than James Bond himself? Despite being only 12 years the senior of Harrison Ford (a fit actor who was aging rather well), Sean Connery’s bald, buttoned-up, curmudgeonly persona was a perfect contrast against Ford’s “making this up as I go” adventurer.
As a pair, Ford and Connery were adept at comedic repartee, but they also brought gravitas as well (sometimes shifting from humor to urgency on a dime) and, yes, sincerely expressing 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 puts 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, daring young Indy (River Phoenix) who’s driven by a respect for archaeological finds rather than their monetary value. (Phoenix was cast per Ford’s request after the two bonded in their own father/son movie, The Mosquito Coast; Phoenix even employed Ford’s signature smirky smile.) The whole prologue is one big slab of winking fan service, to be sure, but in ways that feel genuinely clever and carefree, even inspired.
From there, the story flash-forwards to 1938 and, with it, a more recognizable structure reminiscent of Raiders (layered with subtle callbacks). After Indy secures a sacred cross (itself a clever bit of foreshadowing), we revisit Professor Jones in his university classroom setting. Then, with the aid of Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Brody (Denholm Elliott), he’s 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 dad, whose lifelong study and obsession has been the Holy Grail. It’s a perfect foundation for a fun-packed thrill-ride where 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.
Not one feels perfunctory or by-the-numbers. Each impressively staged, Spielberg continues to expand the cinematic scope of his serial throwbacks.
Through it all, the father/son dynamic incorporates laughs as Indy strives to impress his dad (but his dad never is). Connery looks absolutely invigorated, and Ford is clearly feeding off of that energy. There are emotions, too, all sincerely felt yet never pushed to excess thanks to the effortless chemistry between the two leads.
The peripheral characters, however, aren’t nearly as compelling as they were 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 how self-conscious Spielberg and producer/creator George Lucas were in overcompensating for the negative blow-back that Temple of Doom had received. The two-dimensional ensemble also suggests just to how much The Last Crusade was intended to be a warm-and-fuzzy send-off.
While this intended finale 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.
For a movie built on so much calculation, not a single moment feels phoned in. It all bounces along with the sheer joy and palpable love that was felt between the people who made it, and for the fans they were making it for.
Plus, you couldn’t have asked for a more ideal ending than to see this beloved, iconic character literally ride off into the sunset. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade truly was The Perfect Ending.
Until it wasn’t.
- If Sean Connery had turned down the role of Henry Jones, Sr., Spielberg had planned to ask Gregory Peck. That’s an interesting “What If?” to consider, especially given that Peck’s The Guns of Navarone was a clear influence on the Indiana Jones series. If Peck also turned it down, Spielberg’s third options was 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. What a wonderful gasp that would’ve provoked from audiences (if it had been done and kept secret, of course).
- Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam had a big summer in 1989. Along with The Last Crusade, his screenplay credits included Lethal Weapon 2. Menno Meyjes, who wrote the screenplay for The Color Purple, helped George Lucas develop the story which served as the guide for Boam’s script.
- Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe filmed all three original Indiana Jones films, but those were the only movies that he and Spielberg ever collaborated on. The Last Crusade was also the last film of Slocombe’s 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 oversees the operation of an AT-AT during The Battle of Hoth.
- The Last Crusade made two casting nods to the James Bond franchise. The first, obviously, was Connery, but there was also Alison Doody (Elsa). The striking platinum blonde had previously been a Bond Girl in A View To A Kill. Julian Glover was a Bond vet, too, seen in For Your Eyes Only.