I often wonder if Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade might not have been as warmly received if it had directly followed Raiders of the Lost Ark as opposed to coming eight years and one sequel later. It so closely follows Raiders‘ structure — prologue adventure, classroom, meeting explaining the item in question, off we go — that people may have grumbled that Spielberg was simply treading the same ground if this had come along in 1984. But after the darkness of Temple of Doom and a five-year wait, Last Crusade‘s adherence to the Raiders formula feels more like the welcome return of an old friend than a stale repeat.
Throwing in Sean Connery as Indy’s dad helps things from feeling too much like a retread. Now they could have easily just had Henry Sr. along for the ride as a comic foil for Indy, and on the strength of Connery’s considerable charm it would have worked. But they take the time to develop the relationship, and the film is just as much about Indy and his dad finally coming to know each other as it is about the last crusade to find the Holy Grail. I know some people don’t want to see their heroes humanized like that; they’d rather have them as these unchanging archetypes that never vary from film to film. But Indiana Jones never felt like that kind of hero. He was never some invincible, infallible block of granite like so many pulp heroes were. So I don’t mind getting a glimpse beneath the fedora here.
Speaking of the fedora, there’s also plenty of grumbling about the opening sequence with young Indy, how it’s a little too on-the-nose with the origins of Indy’s hat and whip and such. Me, I just think it’s a fun prologue that not only shows us a little of what informs the character of the adult Indy, but efficiently sketches out his relationship with his dad. Which, outside of a distant disciplinarian, seems pretty non-existent; no wonder Indy would go on to pattern his life after some random rogue archeologist. But as the film goes on, we see there’s more of his dad in Indy than perhaps he realizes, or would even like to admit. Once Henry Sr. saves them from the fighter plane with his own bit of inspired improvisation, you can see Indy start to wonder if maybe he’s been misjudging the guy all these years.
Having the Holy Grail — and by extension the quest for eternal life — as the McGuffin here feels like a smart move too. He had a pretty good demonstration of the power of God in Raiders, but that was more a case of simply staying out of its way. Here, he’s up to his neck in it. But they go about it in a clever way — the three tests play out like merely tricky interpretations of religious beliefs. Indy’s not literally kneeling before God, he’s kneeling to keep from getting beheaded. He’s not following God’s name in the devotional sense, he’s literally spelling out Jehovah with your footsteps. And his leap of faith is more a show of trust in ancient architecture than the Lord Almighty. So we’re sort of being led along the path to a metaphorical Holy Grail, and yet there’s the old knight, there’s the Grail, and there’s Indy using it to save his father. After all his physical and rational feats, it comes down to him simply believing. He’s got faith in the father upstairs, and renewed faith in the father right down here on Earth. Both of whom dispense wisdom via old books, by the way.
So we have move on to that perfect, glorious ending that even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can’t tarnish. There was a real air of finality to the character when the filmmakers talked about this movie, and you really get the sense that ride off into the sunset was meant to make it sort of impractical to do another movie; how do you possibly follow-up a finish like that? While it’s a film that has some story issues — the Brothers of the Cruciform Sword feel like victims of the editing room, and Sallah and Marcus feel a little off from the Raiders incarnations — it manages to channel so much of the fun and charm from the first film that I don’t mind if it following in those footsteps nearly beat for beat. It’s a winning formula.
Tomorrow: In living color.