It’s pretty clear that by the time Steven Spielberg made Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he was becoming a different kind of director from the younger man who made Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. By 1989, Spielberg had long chafed at being a magician at kiddie parties. He’d stretched quite a bit with The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987); whatever else can be said about those films, they’re a definite demarcation line between (brilliantly done) juvenilia and (hit-or-miss) grown-up cinema. So when Spielberg reunited with George Lucas and Harrison Ford to make Last Crusade, it’s not quite accurate to say his heart wasn’t in it. It’s more that he was on his way to being the director of Schindler’s List, the movie that didn’t use Nazis and Hitler as the punchlines of gags. Spielberg was casting around for something that would render this last Indy adventure — well, clearly it was conceived as the last one at the time — relevant to who he’d become. So the movie is all about reconnecting with Dad.
Arnold Spielberg (who turned 91 a few months ago) was a computer programmer when little Steve was growing up. In the words of Bright Lights Film Journal, Arnold “buried himself in his work and drifted farther and farther from his wife and family.” Sounds a lot like Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery), who has nursed a lifelong obsession with the Holy Grail at the expense of his relationship with young Henry Jr. (River Phoenix). In the film’s prologue, the teenage Indy, off in Utah with his Boy Scout troop, stumbles upon a group of mercenaries boosting the Cross of Coronado. As is the prologue tradition in Indy films, Indy loses the prize to the thieves, one of whom wears the familiar fedora and leather jacket. We see that this mystery man (Richard Young, who’d played Davy Crockett on an episode of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories) gives Indy more validation than his old man (“It can wait. Count to twenty…In Greek”).
From there, Spielberg seamlessly cuts to the adult Indy, still chasing after that damn Cross of Coronado. (One wonders how many nearly-acquired artifacts Indy has had a hard-on for over the years.) The action unfolds aboard a ship at stormy sea, and it’s probably the first indication that Last Crusade will focus more on character than on action: it’s staged rather clumsily. This will be true of just about every other action set piece in the movie — Spielberg simply doesn’t mount the sequences with the same unholy kinetic snap that distinguished Raiders and Temple of Doom, which felt like they’d been shot out of a gun and edited with a whip. When Indy is sent by smoothie Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) to find Henry, who has apparently disappeared on the trail of the Grail (like father, like son), one action piece after another is either played as light comedy or, in the case of the boat chase, is allowed to dribble to an anti-climax. (The tank chase near the end has some fine tense moments, but it’s too little too late.) Moreover, Indy’s new love interest, Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), has almost no chemistry with him — for retrospectively obvious reasons.
So Last Crusade is a bit of a letdown as an Indy adventure. But it plays like gangbusters as a character comedy starring Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. It often plays as though Spielberg made a third Indy film simply as an excuse to get these two in the same room. Connery as Indiana Jones’ dad, of course, is one of the great casting strokes of genius in modern film, and not just because Connery-as-James-Bond was Indy’s conceptual dad (the whole shebang started with Spielberg telling Lucas he wanted to direct a 007 flick). Connery brings out a vastly appealing dorky-kid side of Ford we haven’t seen before in the Indy films, and Ford parries with Connery angrily yet lovingly. It’s a complex and real relationship — Henry’s guilt, Indy’s resentment. Whenever they’re onscreen together, Connery and Ford are on a shared wavelength of mutual disappointment and high tomfoolery (“Junior, the floor is on fire. …Aaand the chair”), an unstable mix that works beautifully.
The rest of the movie occasionally feels tired and schlocky, and not schlocky in a good way. Many have commented bitterly, and rightly so, on how the script reduces Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody and John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah to comic-relief oafs, though Rhys-Davies hits the perfect incredulous pitch with “You are named after the dog? HA HA HA HAAAA.” Yes, Indy the icon, the hero, the stud, the brilliant archaeologist and world adventurer, named himself after a dog (actually Lucas’ dog). It’s sort of apropos, given how Indy ceaselessly digs in the dirt for bones. But the whole movie, starting with the prologue that explains Indy’s facial scar, whip preference, and fear of snakes, demythologizes Indy while ultimately sending him off into the sunset, a myth reborn as a flawed son, gullible lover, and humbled archaeologist who, along with his dad, has finally learned that life is about more than the chase.
So the action scenes seem obligatory. The comedy is sometimes too broad, and the movie as a whole feels softer and lighter than what came before (an obvious break from the hysterical darkness and heaviness of Temple of Doom). But when the legends are up there together, all is forgiven. More than simply a valentine to his own dad and an acknowledgment that obsessive fathers deserve some slack (Spielberg, a father himself by that time, could probably relate), Last Crusade is a dream-team tribute to the men whose movie adventures have inspired and enthralled so many.