Friday, May 16, 2008

"You have chosen wisely": Or Why 'Last Crusade' is the Best Indy Picture

There is a certain style of illustration that appeared in the boys' adventure magazines of the 1940s - in those innocent publications that have been replaced by magazines on punk lifestyles and movie monsters. The illustrations were always about the same. They showed a small group of swarthy men hovering over a treasure trove with greedy grins on their bearded faces, while in the foreground, two teenage boys peered out from behind a rock in wonder and astonishment. The point of view was always over the boys' shoulders; the reader was invited to share this forbidden glimpse of the secret world of men.
The following excerpt is from Roger Ebert's 1989 review of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, my favorite Indy film. What strikes me about the opening to Ebert's review is that I was like those 'greedy grins' and as the treasure trove of my first Summer blockbuster unraveled in front of me I soaked up every pulp-tastic moment the film offered. Of course I didn't know what pulp was in 1989 (except of course that icky stuff I didn't like in my OJ), and the grin didn't appear on my bearded face (although it does now just thinking about the film), but rather, I was as young and green as Young Indiana sitting in the only good theater Salem, OR had to offer in 1989, I became mesmerized by the action and the comedy and the rats and snaked and skeletons and tanks and Nazi's and Holy Grail's. Yup, that was a lot for a seven year old kid to remember...but I do. I remember it all. And it was at that moment that I became obsessed with film.

I would return with my brothers at least four more times to see the film, sometimes waiting in a line that wrapped around the building. There was really only one good theater in Salem and 'back then' (I swear I'm not that old) a film would play for months, because there wasn't another equally huge blockbuster waiting to open the next weekend. You were allowed to let the film linger in your imagination and on lazy Summer afternoons when you were tired of replaying the scenes in your head (my favorite at the time being the one from the library where they search the catacombs of Venice to find a missing tablet) you could take a bus down to the movie theater and not worry about the film being bumped because they need to use five of their ten screens on the latest Narnia movie. But I digress, why is it that I love Last Crusade so much more than the other Indy films? I think most of it has to do with what I explained above, the nostalgia factor plays a large role, but also now being older (and bearded) and wiser about film I can see a film that seemed like a lost art -- the last of its kind as the cynical cinema of the 90's was about to take over the movie theaters -- where fedoras and whips didn't seem goofy and Nazi's chasing after the Holy Grail didn't seem silly. It was big time movie making in its purest form.

What makes Last Crusade stand head and shoulders above the other films is not just the set pieces and exciting action sequences (especially the tank scene, which, allow me to be seven again, is totally bitchin'), but also the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, who plays Indian's father. The way Spielberg treats this relationship is something right out of those mystery books I used to read as a kid: "Encyclopedia Brown" or "The Hardy Boys." In these novels kids go out and meddle in the business of thieves and con artists eventually bringing them to justice, all the while the parents, usually, sit at home and wish their kids the best of luck. It was the perfect form of escapism for a seven year old boy as through these characters there weren't any adults getting in the way of your business. You, as a kid, were allowed to do adult detective type work. Watching the film now (and perhaps when I was younger) I noticed this distanced, yet still loving, relationship between father and son.

In addition to this great familial relationship, there are some familiar faces from Raiders that return here. The machine-gun-like dialogue and back and forth between Indy and his father also exists between the hilarious Denholm Elliott as the aloof Dr. Marcus Brody and the jovial Sallah is back, played wonderfully by John Rhys-Davies. The supporting cast is important and gives the film that 1940's feel, where there was as much emphasis on the supporting characters -- and usually the most memorable characters sprang from these groups of misfits -- and their interaction with the stars of the film. Spielberg wisely gives Elliott and Rhys-Davies equal laughs while sharing the screen with Ford and Connery. This too had an impression on me as I was able to see the importance of an entire cast. It wasn't just Indy that I was glad to be (re)visiting at the theater that Summer, but also the entire supporting characters.

Surely chemistry between actors isn't enough to elevate a film, many of whom think is a lesser retread of Raiders, as the best of the series? Ah, but you would be wrong. Where Raiders and Temple of Doom seem most memorable to me for specific scenes -- whether it be melting faces or monkey brains -- Last Crusade's story remains vividly ingrained in my memory, and admit it, the drinking-from-the-wrong-cup scene (and the crazy skeleton Julian Glover turns into) is a lot cooler than a melting face, especially when the knight guarding the grail (played by Robbert Eddison) quips: "He chose poorly." Everything from the opening with young Indiana to the placement of the fedora on his head as we transition to an older Dr. Jones. From the library in Venice and the underground filled with rats, to the exciting boat chase and the zeppelin ride where Indy and his father escape via a plane connected to the zeppelin or when they are shot down by 'enemy fire' in one of the more comically inspired scenes of the series. How about the book burning where Indian comes face to face with Hitler? What about the hilarious scene where Indy and his father are tied together in a chair in a burning room, revealing one of the more inspired moments of the film (Connery's naivety is perfect and gets one of the bigger laughs as they make their escape from the Nazi castle). Or the rousing and unmatched ending with the last guardian of the holy grail (and the awesome series of tests Indy has to take to get there). All of these are wonderful scenes, moments that outshine anything from Raiders or Temple of Doom, and they are all connected and given more weight because of the connecting storyline involving Indiana and his father.

All of these moments and images have stayed with me over the years, because as I states earlier, this was the first Summer blockbuster I had ever seen. It would lead to a life of becoming obsessed with film as I subscribed to Premiere magazine and Entertainment Weekly, in hopes that I could learn more about what went on behind the camera, not to mention when the next big movie would be released. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was the catalyst for my intense interest in movies (which lead to my intense interest in, if I may be pretentious for a moment, film) and shaped what kind of movie-goer I would become. It has moments that remain exhilarating and hilarious. Even after five viewings in the theater I remember buying the video right away and watching it every other week. I was crossing a threshold and growing up. The Hardy Boys were being replaced by the more grizzled Indian Jones, and for the first time it wasn't just the action that was keeping me entertained. I started to remember the film for the scenes of dialogue and interaction between characters. Now instead of reliving moments of action in my head, I was memorizing pieces of dialogue. Looking at the film today, Last Crusade still seems to be the one Indy film where it is evident that everyone is really savoring the banter and enjoying every moment on screen together.

When I see the trailers for the new film I am not disheartened or worried they will ruin something they should have let die with Last Crusade; rather I am antsy and anxious. I can hardly wait. I feel seven years old again. For me, the film has already succeeded. There's not a moment in Prince Caspian or Lord of the Rings or any Summer blockbuster to have come out since that can match the escapist spectacle that is the end of Last Crusade (I mean come on, when he throws the dirt on the invisible bridge and he has to take the leap of faith...that rules!), and neither of those films can match the wit or pacing of a scene like where the tank rolls through the desert. Harrison Ford's facial expressions (not to mention Connery's premature eulogy when they think Indy has gone over the cliff with the tank) are pitch perfect in their comedic timing and the use of pantomime works better than most action pictures cheesy one-liners.

Last Crusade is filmed in a traditional style that would be construed as 'boring' by todays standards, and leads me to wonder what people will think of the newest installment. In a time where facts and realism are so important for many movie goers, you have to wonder if the days of Indy are long dead. This is one of the main reasons I am so looking forward to the new film. It will remind me of (and please forgive me) a more simpler time, where one movie played on one screen and stayed in theaters for half a year. Where a film didn't have to be labeled as camp if it decided to reference 1940's mystery magazines and pulp novels. Today every kind of escapist film gets labeled as postmodern or camp or is said to be making a statement about some kind of bygone era of Hollywood. In 1989, as a 7 year old, that meant nothing to me. I am looking forward to Crystal Skull because it will make me feel that innocence again. It will remind me of a time before I had seen the uber-referential Pulp Fiction, and a time before I knew who Frederic Jameson was and what his essays on nostalgia and postmodernism meant.

In this post 9/11 world where cynicism and nihilism (elements I like in certain films, don't get me wrong) seem to seep into every weekend movie releases, isn't there a need for someone like Indy more than ever? I cannot wait for the wry humor, the exhilarating action sequences, seeing the fedora again, the iconic whip, Cate Blanchett in that black wig, and more than anything I am looking forward to the escapism, to the nostalgic joy ride I anticipate the newest film will take me on, where I will plop down in my seat and grin greedily with my bearded face as I remember all of the memories of my last experience with Indy in the theater.

*This entry is part of the Indiana Jones Blog-a-Thon created by Ali Arikan over at his blog Cerebral Mastication. Check out the rest of the Blog-a-Thon entries here.


  1. Great blog, Kevin, loved your insight and nostalgia. It does feel like 1989 again with a new Indy movie AND a new Batman movie in theatres!

  2. A joyous appreciation. Thanks, Kevin. I still regard Raiders' set pieces as more deftly executed icons of action film-making, but I think Last Crusade discovered an emotional richness that was absent from Raiders, and personalizing and specifying the humanitarianism of Temple. The father-son elements are the centerpiece of this.

    I have to note something because you made me remember it: Henry's lines to Indy in the screencap above, where they are sitting on a motorcycle at a crossroads, is a beautiful piece of go-for-broke pulp writing. Connery sells it so effortlessly: (I'm quoting from memory) "The search for the Grail is not archeology. It's a race against evil. If the Nazis obtain the Grail, the armies of darkness will march all over the face of the Earth. Do you understand?" They're such goofy lines, but it so perfectly encapsulates a simmering theme of the series, and it's appropriate that Indy's father delivers it (the wisdom of experience and all that.)

  3. Michael:

    Thanks. I enjoyed your entry as well. And yes, it does feel like 1989 again. I cannot wait for Batman.


    I love that scene at the crossroads. The dialogue is indeed pulpy and wonderful. I may dedicate another piece solely to the father-son dynamic, because it is such a huge part of why the movie works. But I wanted to get more into the personal nostalgia and the reasons behind that nostalgia as a key into understanding why 'Last Crusade' resonates with me in a different way than the other Indy pictures.

  4. Yeah, I'll never forget those summer days at Movieland. We really did love Last Crusade.

    It is odd to note that it ran without any major competition opposite it for about 4 weeks, when Ghostbusters 2 came out, and then one week later Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out. A different time, indeed.

    Also -- Weekend at Bernie's outgrossed Road House...

  5. I forgot to point out just how much I agree with you about Last Crusade being the best of the three so far (and I'll just assume the best of the four).

    The father/son dynamic is what really seals it for me, as you've already explained in your post. Plus, they seemed to take more advantage of Ford's comic timing in Crusade, while only hinting at it here and there in the last two.

    Everything else you bring up I agree with entirely -- the supporting cast is great, the villains' comeuppance is done well, and even the scene with Indy and his dad "at the crossroads" comes off good, when usually you'd just roll your eyes at something like that.

    A truly fun, great film.