Considering the response to my “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” post last week, I decided I should look back at my second-favorite Indy sequel, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” The merits of the second and third films have sparked a lively debate. So let’s do a deep-dive into the third film in the series and see how it stacks up against “Temple of Doom.”
My fandom for Indiana Jones was at its peak when “Last Crusade” hit theaters in the summer of 1989. As I mentioned before, I’d seen “Temple of Doom” dozens of times on cable by that point, so I couldn’t have been more excited for the long-awaited sequel. I remember the first time I saw the movie was the same weekend that Tim Burton’s “Batman” came out. What a summer ’89 was. That’s a blog in and of itself.
“Last Crusade” begins with a prologue set in the Utah desert in 1912 with a 13-year-old Indy (River Phoenix) trying to steal the Cross of Cornado from a bandit called Fedora and his gang of grave-robbers. A thrilling chase on a circus train ensues. And just when Indy thinks he’s given the badguys the slip and can impress his distant father, Dr. Henry Jones, with his amazing find, it’s snatched away from him all over again.
The opening sequence ticks off everything that you need to know about Indiana Jones: why he’s afraid of snakes, how he got that scar on his chin, where he first picked up a whip, what his relationship with his father is like, and most importantly, who gave him his beloved hat. It was a big day for young Indiana. The sequence ends with perhaps my favorite match cut, where we transition from young Indy to adult Indy (now played by Harrison Ford), still trying to steal the Cross of Coronado aboard a doomed ship off the coast of Spain.
“Last Crusade” takes the Indiana Jones series in a new direction by pairing Indiana with his estranged father, played by Sean Connery. Steven Spielberg famously told George Lucas way back in 1977 that he wanted to make a James Bond movie and then Lucas offered him the chance to direct “Raiders of the Lost Ark” instead. Connery’s casting as Henry Jones Sr. is a not-so-subtle wink at the actor’s legendary tenure as 007 and a chance for Spielberg to work with one of his heroes. That Connery plays against type is a stroke of genius. Henry Jones Sr. and his son couldn’t be more unalike. Where the father is still a ladykiller (Henry deduces that Isla is a Nazi because she “talks in her sleep.”), he’s hardly the two-fisted treasure hunter that Indiana’s become.
The interplay between the two Joneses is the film’s greatest strength. Seeing two screen legends bickering as only a father and son can while trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis and find the Holy Grail is endlessly entertaining. Indiana always chafes at his father’s nickname for him, “Junior,” which Henry Jones is all to eager to call him at every turn.
“Last Crusade” is definitely a lighter film that “Temple of Doom,” maybe too light. Going back to the opening sequence, I would venture that it sort of demystifies Indiana to an extent. It borders on parody how Indiana Jones as we know him is essentially forged in one afternoon rather than over a lifetime of capering across the globe.
I’d also argue that “Last Crusade” short-changes its supporting cast. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) fares the worst here. Where in “Raiders,” Marcus tells Indy that he’d have gone after the Ark of the Covenant himself five years prior to when the film is set. But in “Last Crusade,” he’s described as a man who “got lost in his own museum.” It’s funny, yes, but it’s inconsistent with what we understand about the character.
Even Indiana goofs up in “Last Crusade.” Right after Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) tells Indiana not to trust anyone, Indy immediately falls for a woman named Ilsa (Allison Doody), who turns out to be a Nazi — oops! To that point, Indy’s not having a love interest in this film makes his adventure slightly less satisfying. There’s just a certain thrill that comes from seeing the hero get the girl at the end.
My biggest complaint, however, comes right at the film’s end. Shortly after Henry Jones calls his son “Indiana” for the first time, demonstrating that he sees his son as his equal rather than a child, he calls him “Junior” again before they all ride off into the sunset. So we have a character arc that lasts for all of five minutes. It’s a nitpick, I know. But I think it speaks to my general gripe about how the film sells its characters short for easy laughs.
Growing up, I think “Last Crusade” was my favorite of the two sequels for a number of years. I’m not sure at what point I went back to preferring “Temple of Doom.” It must’ve been while I was in college. Still, “Last Crusade” doesn’t lag too far behind “Temple of Doom” in my estimation. As far as trilogy cappers go, I’d say it’s unmatched.
Wait, there’s a fourth Indiana Jones movie? You don’t say…