July 2024

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg


Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Allison Doody, Denholm Elliott, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, Michael Byrne, River Phoenix


After the general disappointment over Temple of Doom —and the film’s occasional weirdness — Last Crusade, as if deciding to play it safe, takes us back into familiar territory: Indy revisits the deserts of the Middle East in search of an ancient legendary religious artifact, the Nazis are once again the bad guys, Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody and John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah return, and the most exciting and extended action sequence is a duel between Indy and the Nazis in the desert. To help avoid making Last Crusade seem like too much of a retread of Raiders of the Lost Ark , we have Sean Connery thrown into the mix as Indy’s never-before-seen father. To this end, while it’s neither as original nor as fresh as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Last Crusade is a marked improvement over Temple of Doom with a higher energy level, and the father-son relationship opens the door to some fresh material that adds a welcome spark.

The prologue also sets itself apart from others in the series in that it takes us all the way back to 1912 Utah, with a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) showing his already-developed knack for getting into trouble and making daring escapes from it, as he tries to get the Cross of Coronado away from a gang of robbers. He loses the cross, but in grudging respect for the boy’s daring and tenaciousness, his opponent gives him his trademark fedora. After that, the rest of the movie takes place in 1938, with Dr. Jones once again drawn away from his teaching duties, this time for something more personal than priceless artifacts: his estranged father, Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery), has gone missing while researching the location of the Holy Grail. Funded by a wealthy American, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), with his own interests in the Grail—and a little too much interest in the supposed eternal life it grants to anyone who drinks from it—Indy, with his friend and colleague Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) tagging along, heads to Venice, Italy, where he meets an Austrian colleague of his father’s, the comely Dr. Elsa Schneider (Allison Doody). As the search goes on, Indy finds that the Nazis are again involved and that some of those around him cannot be trusted, but meets back up with an old friend from Raiders, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).

While Temple of Doom ventured into dark and creepy territory, Last Crusade stays more lightweight. Out of the three Indiana Jones films, it’s probably the one that comes closest to being an outright action-comedy, but that’s not a bad thing. The action and humor is spread around more evenly and better integrated than in Temple of Doom, where the tone veered from slapstick comedy to human sacrificing rituals including hearts being pulled out and victims lowered into pits of fire. Overall, if Last Crusade isn’t quite as deft as Raiders, it’s much more in the same vein, which is a welcome development. The prologue has a degree of wit to it, particularly in the way it acknowledges Ford’s chin scar and shows the origins of his fedora and his phobia of snakes, and starts us off with an entertaining action sequence involving a chase on top of a train filled with circus animals. Other action sequences involve a boat chase through the canals of Venice, and an escape from a German Zeppelin involving a dogfight between Indy and his dad and German fighters. The standout and most extended action sequence the film has to offer is the desert showdown between Indy on horseback and a tank commanded by Nazi Colonel Vogel (an enjoyably teeth-gnashing Michael Byrne). This sequence took weeks to film and arrange, and hearkens back to the truck chase in Raiders.

The six-year gap between Temple of Doom and Last Crusade does nothing to diminish Harrison Ford’s ability to don the fedora and whip and go off on another adventure as Indiana Jones. Ford is in as fine form as Indy as ever, and enjoys great comedic rapport with Sean Connery (Connery was actually only twelve years older than his onscreen son Ford). Ford slips back into his character like an old, comfortable shoe, and Indy’s relationship with his father adds another dimension to the character and lets us see Indy as a little more than the famed adventurer. The former 007 Connery, cheerfully content to ride in the passenger seat and surrender the action hero reins to a younger man, provides the majority of the movie’s comic relief, and is much more successful at it than Kate Capshaw was in the previous film. In fact, Connery is so delightful that it’s almost a shame he’s only in one installment. Allison Doody is more dubious than Indy’s other female entanglements, with a touch of the femme fatale.  As the lead villain, Julian Glover is a bit flat; his Donovan is adequate but not especially memorable.  Michael Byrne, by contrast, seems to be enjoying sinking his teeth with relish into a cartoonishly evil Nazi; his tank showdown with Indy is the best and most exciting action sequence not least because Byrne comes across as the most formidable and nasty of the villains Last Crusade has to offer.  Denholm Elliott, whose role is much expanded from Raiders of the Lost Ark, provides some additional comic relief as the doddering Brody, and John Rhys-Davies is another welcome returning veteran as Sallah, ensuring a sense of continuity and coming full circle with Raiders. 

While the father-son bickering between Indy and his father (who has the embarrassing habit of referring to him as “Junior”) forms the crux of the movie’s humor, probably the film’s most clever tongue-in-cheek bit involves Indy having a fleeting face-to-face encounter with none other than Adolf Hitler (in a bit of trivia, the actor who briefly appears as Hitler is Michael Sheard, best-remembered as the ill-fated Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back, the first of several subordinates to be “Force-choked” by Darth Vader). There’s also the requisite creature scene no Indy movie is complete without. This time it’s rats. There’s a “be careful what you wish for” climax that recalls that of Raiders, and a ride into the sunset that seems about as fitting a close to the adventures of Indiana Jones as can be expected from a film titled The Last Crusade.  At the time, after scheduling conflicts with Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg delayed its release for five years, Indiana Jones was welcomed back enthusiastically by audiences, making The Last Crusade the second highest-grossing movie of the year, second only to Tim Burton’s Batman and surpassing other such high-profile titles as Back to the Future Part II, Lethal Weapon 2 , and Star Trek V. Overall, while The Last Crusade doesn’t quite equal Raiders of the Lost Ark, it comes close, and does a worthy job of recapturing the breezy sense of fun and adventure that makes the series so popular.

* * * 1/2