It is 1938 and Indiana Jones finally retrieves the Cross of Francisco De Coronado, which he had first come across in a cave in Utah in 1912 while on a boy scout expedition. When handing the cross over to Marcus Brody, Dr Jones finds out that a gentleman by the name of Walter Donovan wants to enlist his help in finding the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and in which his blood was purportedly spilled at the crucifixion.
Donovan says that his team are getting close but that their last project leader has vanished. Indy says that they have the wrong Dr Jones and would be better off recruiting his father, Henry Jones Snr, who is believed to be the world’s leading authority on Grail lore. It turns out that they did and it is he who is missing. Indy sets off to rescue his father, find the Grail and once more save the day.
To describe the prologue to Last Crusade as a bravura piece of film-making would be a gross understatement. We are introduced to Indy as a teenage boy, played by River Phoenix, catching a group of men in the act of “recovering” an ancient cross that Indy maintains belongs in a museum. He grabs the cross and makes his way onto a train, across the top of which he battles with the group of men. Along the way, he falls into a crate of snakes (fear of snakes, check), cracks a whip to ward off a lion (bullwhip, check), does it wrong and catches his chin (scar on chin, check), before making his escape with the cross and getting back to his father, whose voice we briefly hear, but whose face we do not yet see.
The mercenaries catch up with Indy and take the cross, with the leader of the group placing his fedora on Indy’s head, telling him that just because he lost doesn’t mean that he has to like it. We then leap forward to 1938, to find a grown up Indy once again retrieving the Cross, dispatching a whole boat full of rogues in the process, as well as blowing the boat sky high. It is, as is so often the case with films in this series, scintillating, joyous stuff. It is just so much fun finding out how Indy came to be the man we have known him to be over the previous two films. The swift pacing, light-hearted tone, but nonetheless the sense of genuine peril all conspire to grab our attention and the film doesn’t let go until everyone rides off into the sunset and the curtain falls.
After the dark turn of Temple of Doom, this was a deliberate and welcome return to a lighter tone. The MacGuffin was again a strong one, with the Grail grabbing the attention of all those seeking eternal youth. As with both previous films, the set pieces are very strong and much more in the vein of Raiders, a more organic element of a fleet-footed and smooth-running story. Aside from the prologue, we have the search for the knight’s tomb in Venice and the ensuing boat chase. There is the rescue of Henry Jones Snr and the motorcycle chase, as well as a later aerial dogfight with Nazi aeroplanes. After all of that we have a tank/jeep/horseback battle in the desert, before finally finding ourselves within grasping distance of the Grail, separated only by three booby traps every bit as fiendish as those found in the prologue of Raiders.
If anything, Last Crusade is even more incident packed than Raiders and for most fans of the series, all that really helps to separate them in terms of quality is which one you happen to have seen more recently. The script is excellent this time round, dropping in more of the pithy one liners so fondly remembered from Raiders (“I didn’t know you could fly a plane”, “Fly, yes. Land, no”) and giving us a belter of a character in Indy’s dad. Played perfectly by Sean Connery, there was clearly more of Spielberg’s James Bond wish-fulfillment at work in the casting. The tension between Indy and his father is palpable and convincingly explained and resolved. Despite Connery’s considerable experience of globe-trotting plots, combative henchmen and insouciant cool as Bond, he superbly plays a wry, intelligent academic, seemingly out of his depth but possessing great inventiveness in a tight spot. Though initially seeming to disapprove of Indy and even disappointed in him, by the climax we find Indy reaching for the Grail before it tumbles into an abyss, saying he can reach it, but needing to give his father his hand. Henry Snr simply says, “Indiana, let it go”. It is a moment of great tenderness, affection and emotional impact.
Harrison Ford is of course immaculate again as Indy, throwing himself again into the adventure and coming up with ever more industrious ways of negotiating peril, including a literal leap of faith. Spielberg’s direction is assured and light, letting the momentum of the narrative and script move the film along in a busy, but never hurried or cluttered way. Denholm Elliott gets involved a bit more this time around as Marcus Brody and although she is not as memorable as either Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood or Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott, Alison Doody is convincing and effective (though duplicitous) as Dr Elsa Schneider.
As alluded to above, though relatively few argue for the supremacy of Temple of Doom among the series, votes are much more evenly matched between Raiders and Crusade. Raiders of course earns marks for originality, whilst Crusade has the twin benefits of that icon-building prologue and the master-stroke of casting Sean Connery.
The good news is that this is a win-win for us. It doesn’t matter which is the better film, as they are both fantastic, hugely enjoyable films. The difficulty is that Last Crusade ends on such an obviously series-closing note (father and son reunited, heroes ride off into the sunset) that a further visit to Indy and co, nearly 20 years later, was always in danger of feeling like an unnecessary add-on rather, than a natural progression of the series.
But more on the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tomorrow. For now, find a copy of Last Crusade and watch it, remembering and enjoying once again all that it has to offer.