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MMYIF: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody
Released: May 24, 1989

In 1938, after his father Professor Henry Jones, Sr. goes missing while pursuing the Holy Grail, Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr. finds himself up against Adolf Hitler's Nazis again to stop them from obtaining its powers.

What I Thought Then

This was the only Indiana Jones movie we watched in my household. Raiders was intense, but didn't really hold my attention as a child, and I noped right out of Temple of Doom. And they never made a fourth one. And thank god, right? Because it would have been terrible if they had.

What I Think Now

1989 was a helluva summer for movies in general and movie franchises in particular. Batman would kick off an early boom in mainstreaming superhero movies, Disney would enter their animation renaissance, Weird Al's UHF would help spell the end of Orion Pictures, and Steven Spielberg would cap of his and George Lucas's trilogy about a world-traveling fedora-wearing archaeologist. About that trilogy... we can all agree that Temple of Doom was misguided, yes? It was too dark and transparently a metaphor for Lucas's recent divorce--Indy must save the children from a cult to a maternal goddess whose leader rips men's hearts from their chests. In many ways, Last Crusade feels like apologia for that film, attempting to take the character back to his roots: keeping powerful Judeo-Christian relics from the Nazis. Of the three movies in the trilogy, Last Crusade is easily the funniest and most accessible to children. The dynamic of an adventurous son and his revered-but-distant father is one that would easily resonate with young Gen-Xers, and the tone of the film verges on camp, playing the two Doctors Jones against each other like The Odd Couple, but medievalists. As a kid, I ate it up. I suppose it says something that at 41, the line I related to the most on this re-watch was Connery's: "You left just when you were starting to get interesting."

From a narrative standpoint, it's pretty tight, which is kind of amazing, given the many hands that worked on the script. Indy's search for and attempts to reconcile with his father are a decent metaphor for the Holy Grail and its promise of immortality, although there's less there there than there appears to be. You kind of don't care, in the moment. Spielberg, Ford, and Connery are all such seasoned professionals that they make the whole thing look effortless, and their collective charm lacquers the entire film with warm, bubbly goodness. The special effects are a mixed bag, but they succeed where it counts. There are a number of conspicuous matte lines, especially during the airplane sequence, and the tunnel explosion towards the end of it looks a bit slapdash. But Donovan's rapid aging effect and the invisible bridge and its reveal are still eye-popping, even if they raise some pragmatic questions. Would the bridge gimmick be obvious to, say, someone who was especially short?

It's best not to raise too many plausibility questions while watching this movie. There are a number of action beats that are completely unrealistic if you think about them for more than two seconds. Indy grabs a flag pole with his bare hand while driving by on a motorcycle so he can joust with a Nazi... and somehow doesn't get his arm ripped off. Indy makes a rubbing of a shield and then submerges it in both oil and water for an entire action sequence... but in the next scene it's not even smudged. There are myriad examples. It's almost--almost--enough for me to tone down my criticisms of that nuking-the-fridge sequence that might have been in a hypothetical fourth Indiana Jones movie which, just so we're clear, does not exist.

The final act where Indy is navigating the tests to get to the Grail starts to feel extremely cheesy as the Joneses demonstrate their father/son psychic connection by repeating the word "penitent" 80 bajillion times. The cheese factor is, over all, pretty high. Especially when it decides to have its protagonists take pot shots at Naziism--not that I am in any way defending Naziism, I'm just saying that those lines of dialogue are clunky and feel out of place!!!!! But again, the movie skates by on chutzpah and charisma. It's a Spielberg joint, so the lighting and cinematography are breathtaking and every single actor is impeccably cast and bringing their A-game. Shout out to Alison Doody (heh, heh... "doody") for managing to pull off a character who is at times terse, academic, sultry, tragic, and completely unhinged. One wonders how it would be cast if it were made today. Presumably it would have more than one lone female character. It's Spielberg, so it'd probably have Mark Rylance or Shia LeBoeuf in it. And perhaps someone not white as Sallah. I love John Rhys-Davies, you'd never mistake the man for an actual Egyptian.

I do want to grouse a little bit about the prologue. River Phoenix is fabulous, and it works well as a little action set-piece and introduction to the Indy-Henry relationship dynamic, but it gets cloyingly prequel-y. Are we truly meant to believe that every iconic aspect of Indiana Jones's character came about from a single afternoon when he was a kid? From his fear of snakes to his hat to his use of a whip to the scar he got when Harrison Ford was in a motorcycle accident... I mean, really. It's all just a little too precious.

Recommendation?

As an adult, I think Raiders is the better movie, but this installment holds up reasonably well. Just avoid Temple of Doom and thank the saints above that they never tried to make another.

Tune in next week for two movies about children dealing with absent parents.

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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