There is a whole generation of people, 10 or so years younger than me, who saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on the big screen as their first experience with Indy, and it is mostly these people who count this entry in the series as their favorite. I get that. If Last Crusade were the first one I saw and then retroactively went back and watched the first two on VHS, I would probably hold it in higher regard, too.
Last Crusade is certainly the biggest of all the Indy movies. It location-hops from Utah to Spain to Italy to Austria to Germany, with a conclusion in the Republic of Hatay. It is probably the lightest, funniest entry, too. Spielberg brought in a ringer with Sean Connery, and his interactions with Harrison Ford are funny, and remain the primary reason for this movie to exist. But the best of the series? Better than Raiders? That is tough to buy (although I will concede that Last Crusade does fall in the top 3 of the series).
The biggest problem is that the movie is guilty of shamelessly recreating the original as a response to the “problems” with Temple of Doom. This is fine, I suppose, if you haven’t seen Raiders. If you have, the feeling of “been there, done that” has to intrude on your enjoyment, right? The “Indiana Jones as a Professor” scene at the beginning is almost a shot-for-shot recreation of the original. The originality of this movie lies in the father-son relationship between Indy and Henry Jones, Sr., but Connery doesn’t make his first appearance until the 45 mark of the movie.
Until then, we must make due with the fantastic locations, the admittedly rousing action scenes, and Ford’s performance as Indy (which he understands on a molecular level by this movie). Don’t get me wrong; I like Last Crusade, and I it played even better on this recent viewing. It is a good Indiana Jones movie, but it can’t compete with the first two, which are legitimately great Indiana Jones movies.
A dividing line, at least for me, is something that most people seem to especially love about Last Crusade: the insight into Indy’s past. The discovery of how Indy developed his fear of snakes, received the scar on his chin, and got his hat are something that I never really needed to see, and I think knowing that information takes away from the mystique of the character. Indiana Jones is like James Bond- he arrived on the scene fully formed and ready for action.
That said, River Phoenix does a pretty good job of playing young Indy (aside from his Tony Hawk hair). His facial tics and body language are spot-on Harrison Ford, as his delivery of a line like, “That belongs in a museum!” But watching him develop all the Indy quirks that we know and love over the course of one afternoon is a little too cutesy. For me, anyway.
The whole movie is a little too cutesy. Last Crusade was the movie where Spielberg and Lucas felt they needed to bring back all the players from Raiders. So we get a whole lot of Marcus Brody and Sallah, both diminished from what they did the first time out. Brody especially suffers here; where in the original movie, he came across dignified and knowledgeable, in Last Crusade he is essentially a buffoon who has never stepped outside of a classroom and “once got lost in his own museum.” When in Raiders, he said, “If I was five years younger I would go after it myself”, to me that indicated that a younger Brody would have been an archeologist to be reckoned with. Last Crusade pretty much destroys that image.
Sallah comes off a bit better, although he is forced to wear a fez throughout the whole movie. Come to think of it, there is a whole lot of fez wearing throughout this movie. I maintain that it is difficult to look good while wearing a fez, unless your name is Howard Cunningham or Fred Flintstone.
So what is good? Yes, the action scenes hold up pretty well, although they too are a bit diminished here, at least when compared to Raiders and Temple of Doom. In the first two movies, the action set pieces were established logically in the context of the plot. No matter how ridiculous the action became, we as the audience were able to shake our heads in disbelief, right along with Indy, because it made sense as to why he was in a given predicament.
In Last Crusade, the set-ups for the action scenes were pretty lazy, as if no one could be bothered to think of good reasons for a given sequence. I’m thinking of when Indy and his dad escape from the burning chateau, they surprise the Nazis by bursting out from a sealed crate on a motorcycle. The first time you see this, the reaction may be one of surprise or delight, but every subsequent viewing has to have one asking, “How the fuck did they seal themselves in the crate?”
I know, you aren’t supposed to ask these questions in an Indiana Jones movie. But why not? Even in the most ludicrous of sequences from this series, like the mine cart chase in Temple of Doom, the circumstances that lead to the three heroes being in that mine cart make perfect sense based on the preceding events. You can’t say the same for Last Crusade, and it suffers as a result.
Also, that scene when Indy poses as a Scottish lord interested in tapestries? To me, that scene is more embarrassing than any nuked fridge.
It probably sounds like I don’t like this movie at all, which is not the case. I just loved the first two so much that when this one came out, it was a bit of a let down. I think that may be why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while certainly not a good movie, didn’t offend me in the way it seemed to with others. I think that the seeds were planted in Last Crusade for all the criticisms that befell #4.
My takeaways from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and what will keep me coming back to it from time to time, are the individual moments. The look Sean Connery gives a gleeful Harrison Ford on the motorcycle. The look a Nazi pilot gives the Jones boys while careening past them in a tunnel. The tank chase. Henry Jones finally calling his son, “Indiana”. It is a fun movie, but all things being equal, they could have stopped at the sequel.