1989 had seen five whole years pass since Indiana Jones had last graced our screens in Temple Of Doom (itself three years after Raiders Of The Lost Ark). That’s a fairly lengthy gap between tentpole franchise instalments, particularly for an age which wasn’t packed to the rafters with yearly competing titles. But director Steven Spielberg had never been particularly happy with Temple, and so reverted to feelgood derring-do for Indy’s third outing, teaming up once again with George Lucas for Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.
Their third chapter features a firmer macguffin in the shape of The Holy Grail, back to the series’ more biblical roots. There is also less ambiguity surrounding the antagonists this time, with the bad guys helpfully wearing Nazi uniforms once again. If the mixed-to-lukewarm reception of Temple had taught Spielberg and Lucas anything, it’s that the legacy of British Colonialism was perhaps less well understood by US audiences, and hardly the gung-ho go-to for viewers in the UK.
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We open with a flashback in 1912, the 13yr old eponymous hero played by River Phoenix on a scouting trip in Utah. As horses’ hooves spray up the grit it’s a satisfying confirmation that we’re back in the desert sands, this archaeologist’s natural home. The snippet from the past gives us the origin of Indy’s fear of snakes, his chin-scar and the famous fedora hat, making it an eventful jaunt if nothing else. Phoenix may not look like the older Indy we know, but his precursory mannerisms are note-perfect.
Then we’re transported to 1938 for the conclusion of the Bond-esque pre-adventure, as Harrison Ford takes the reins and concludes the events of that day in 1912. Shortly afterward, collector of antiquities Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) summons Dr. Jones away from Marshall College to help him recover the Grail, thought lost during the First Crusade 800 years earlier. But the full trail isn’t yet mapped out, and the first part of Indy’s tasking will be to locate the missing scholar who’s brought Donovan to this point – none other than Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery), Indy’s father.
Ford slips straight into gear of course, making the whole thing look effortless, as does Connery (whose reveal is masterfully teased out). Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies return as Raiders‘ Sallah and Marcus Brody respectively, whereas Jones’ love-interest for the tale is Dr Elsa Schneider, played to perfection by Alison Doody. Importantly though, Schneider is much more than arm-candy for our hero. She carries the feistiness of Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood and has more narrative agency than either her or Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott. Although Doody gets her fair share of screaming alongside Ford, she’s more than just the female sidekick and rescue-fodder which troubled previous chapters, instead a fully fleshed out character.
Glover enjoys himself as the slippery villain of the piece, precisely what the film needs and not switching into pantomime-mode until the time is absolutely right, enjoying one of cinema’s most iconic exits. His performance is only upstaged at one point by a scene-stealing cameo from Alexei Sayle as the Sultan of Hatay.
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But ultimately it’s Connery who brings heart to the movie through fractious yet endearing interplay with Ford as the largely estranged father-and-son combo. They bicker throughout the film but the audience never doubts the bond between them. By the closing of the third act, our heroes have found the treasures they came looking for, and also something of far greater value which they needed more.
The film’s action setpieces are outstandingly executed as we trot around the globe, whether it’s a speedboat chase through the waterways of Venice, a prison-break through an inferno in a Nazi-occupied Austrian castle, or just racing in a German tank toward a cliff-edge on the Turkish coast. A level of gravitas comes from the Grail itself, with neither of the Jones boys taking for granted its historical, cultural and theological significance. Neither set out to exploit the item’s power, only to prevent others from doing so.
The lasting impression is one of solid fun. Actors having a great time on-set isn’t enough for an audience’s enjoyment, the real thrill-ride takes patience, perseverance and skill. The film was well received during its initial theatrical run and that love hasn’t waned over the years, making it comfortably into Empire Magazine’s 2018 list of the 100 greatest movies of all time.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade is a perfectly engineered adventure movie, arguably greatest in its trilogy, and holds up well. Indy has been aped many times over the intervening three decades, but never bettered. Not even by Indy, to be fair.
Rarely before has a ride off into the sunset been so richly deserved, and potentially never since…