Indiana Jones and the Return to Form

I’ll be honest: after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I was wary about watching the third outing, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I wasn’t sure how this seemly final chapter of the legend of Dr. Jones would end, nor did I think I would care. Imagine my surprise to learn that the third outing makes up for the misteps and mistakes that were made in the first sequel. Gone are the gross-outs scenes of hearts being cut out, humans sacrifice and chilled monkey brains. And thank Christ there’s no equivalent of Short Round or Kate Capshaw’s constant bickering and shrieking. Instead Steven Spielberg wisely went back to the film’s roots and went one step further by exploring how our favorite archaeologist became who he was, as well as give the film a surprising poignancy as only Spielberg can deliver.

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It’s been two years since Dr. Henry Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) uncovered the secrets of the Ark, and now his next assignment becomes his biggest challenge yet – locate the resting place of the Holy Grail, the cup that Christ drank from during the Last Supper – before the Nazis find it first. The only clue that points him on the hunt for the Grail is Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery), the famous Grail historian – and his father. Together, the pair will have to stay one step ahead of the Third Reich’s allies in the form of Dr. Elsa Schneider (Allison Doody), and her employer, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) – the man responsible for betraying both Senior and Junior, evade even more deadly traps and something even more challenging than the quest to find the Grail – surviving each other.

I know – sounds like I’m describing a road movie, complete with two opposite individuals who are budding up due to circumstances beyond their control. In a sense, Last Crusade does play like a road movie because we do have two characters who are on the road, as well as on the run. But this is where it deviates: at it’s core, it is a film that examines the struggle of father and son to reconcile their differences and rebuild what has been lost. We’ve seen this character come off as cool, confident and clever under pressure in both installments, but we’ve never seen Ford’s character flustered, feeling foolish and intimidated by anyone. It makes sense that the one person that could make our Indiana Jones feel like a little boy trying to prove himself worthy would be his old man.

And speaking of Senior, Sean Connery strikes just the right tone as Jones’s father. His relationship with his own son is more of a strict college professor / authoritarian who can’t wait to whip his student into shape rather than a father. He constantly patronizes his son, referring to him as “Junior” several times, much to younger Indy’s dismay. He constantly places his obsession to Grail lore above everything else, including seeing the man his son has become and what he has accomplished for himself.

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It isn’t until the film’s climax, where Junior is willing to sacrifice himself to claim the Grail, and thus, win his father’s admiration, that he finally understands the error of his ways. “Indiana….let it go” he urges his son, referring to the nickname that he’s earned thought his travels, and recognizing him as his equal, and as a father who has seen his boy grow into a man. Spielberg has gone back to the well of parents and their children trying to bridge the divide between their respective barriers. And here, it gives the film a surprising poignancy and an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Whereas the father-son conflict drives and enhances the story, it’s still an Indiana Jones picture, and as I stated earlier, this movie does go back to what made the the first installment so enjoyable, which both works in its favor and it’s own detriment. The film brings back a familiar face in John Rhys-Davies Sallah, and he’s as fun to watch as ever. There’s even a really clever scene where Sallah tries to hide Indy’s colleague from the Nazis, only to have that plan backfire when the Nazis play the same trick which playfully subverts what the audience thinks is going to happen. There’s a fun areal dogfight where Indy and Henry are trying to escape from German fighter pilots, and a fun sequence where both men are tied to a chair and get caught between a secret lever with Nazis on one side, and a burning building on the other.

Yet, despite my own personal enjoyment of Last Crusade, in some ways, this is bit of a rehash of what we’ve seen before in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The use of Nazis as the main antagonists, the plot revolving around an item of religious significance, the warnings that this is a power that man should not / cannot possess. They all take on the feeling that, despite this being a much improved outing than Temple of Doom, there is this sense that perhaps the series is reaching a creative rut and that the well of ideas is drying up. Yet, those nitpicks don’t negate just how much better and satisfying Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ends up being. The father-son dynamic is perhaps the strongest element in this feature, and the rapport between Ford and Connery is well-worth watching. Seeing these two bicker and ultimately find common ground, and the action scenes are just as exciting and as fun as ever.

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Ultimately, this is a rewarding and emotionally satisfying second sequel that goes off into the sunset as solid capper to a series that, ups and downs aside, has cemented Steven Spielberg as one of cinema’s biggest kids and one of it’s finest mainstream directors. Well, most people thought that was the end of the series, until nineteen years later…..

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