A Retrospective: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”

May 18, 2008

Okay, how did this happen? How is it possible that the third (and for a long time, the presumptive final) Indiana Jones movie looks cheap? By 1989 the Indiana Jones franchise had become as enmeshed in American culture as the Star Wars trilogy had. The inevitable “final” movie would be a cash cow. One would think that Paramount would give Lucas and Spielberg enough money to buy their own pagan temple or reconstruct 1930s Istanbul in its entirety. So why, then, is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the cheapest, fakey-ist looking movie so far?

I don’t know. That question was largely rhetorical. But still, the cheapness of the movie bleeds through on a lot of levels. After watching the movie for the first time in about ten or so years, I was surprised to find that my childhood ontology of Indiana Jones was in need of some rejiggering. Temple of Doom is not the weak film of the trilogy, Last Crusade is. Sure, it has more action and larger set pieces than ToD, and in that it is much closer in spirit to Raiders. It also features the awesome pairing of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. Unfortunately, it seems as if Spielberg, Lucas, and the various screenwriters (credited and otherwise) forgot all the other stuff that made the earlier movies so enjoyable.

How is it, I wondered as I watched this movie again, that about three-quarters of this movie looked to have been filmed on over-lit soundstages? Even the exterior scenes in Venice looked to be filmed indoors. Worse, the interiors are wholly unconvincing. A library in Venice features some fairly obvious posters of bookshelves pasted on the walls. Likewise, Indy’s meeting with Donovan in the man’s penthouse keeps a picture-window with an obvious matte-painting skyline in frame for the whole extended scene. On an off-Broadway production, this is understandable. On a big-budget blockbuster world-spanning movie it’s unforgivable. There’s nothing like the gritty authenticity of Raiders or even Temple of Doom.

And then there are the blue screens. Sure, every action movie before the advent of CGI had to contend with varying levels of blue screen realism, and the Indiana Jones movies fared pretty well when compared to, say, the James Bond films (compare the blue screen sky during Raiders’s Well of Souls scene with the Golden Gate Bridge fight from A View to a Kill and you’ll see what I mean). Last Crusade, however, seems to have taken a gigantic step backward in blue screen realism. The scenes of the Zeppelin and the accompanying aerial dogfight, as well as a handful of other scenes show truly atrocious matte work, in which the characters are clearly silhouetted against the background. WTF? It’s not like this is Spielberg’s first dance with this stuff.

The locales don’t help much, either. The only place shown in any geographic detail is Venice (and most of that is a speed boat chase), which works well in James Bond movie, but no so much for a guy with a bullwhip and leather jacket. Berlin is seen for about a nanosecond. The rest of the film takes place in a series of mountains and deserts which I know were shot on location, but could easily be the Hollywood hills. Rather than the culturally-immersive experience of Raiders and ToD, Last Crusade feel like those Brosnan-era 007 films in which the exotic location is shown in an establishing shot and the rest of scenes are soundstage shots.

The script fares as poorly as the effects do. If Temple of Doom signaled the Indy franchise decline into summer-movie idiocy, Last Crusade positively wallows in it. Like Return of the Jedi, the dialogue exists primarily to push the plot toward its next action sequence, not to establish characters or relationships. This is especially perplexing for a movie that introduces Indy’s father and the contentious relationship between them. Additionally, the movie comes close to parodying itself in many of its action scenes, which, with a few exceptions, devolve into something close to slapstick. Wasn’t Indiana Jones a hardboiled adventurer in the first two movies? So why is he donning a beret and bad Scottish accent to infiltrate a Nazi stronghold in a scene like something a SNL skit. It also wastes the major action potential of a Zeppelin—the damn thing’s all girders and explosive gasses, the action sequence writes itself!—leaving it instead for (ugh) The Rocketeer to exploit in 1991.

The movie is stuffed unnecessarily with John Rhys Davies and Denholm Elliott (both of whom would have been fine in cameo appearances), forcing the story to juggle more than a half-dozen characters. No wonder the thing feels rushed and abstract in places. As the love interest/bad girl, Allison Doody is beautiful enough (though not as smokin’ as she was in those riding boots in A View to a Kill), but her character is all over the map and in the end the movie dispatches her fairly casually—almost as if the screenwriters didn’t find her any more interesting than the audience did.

The central quest for the Holy Grail is a bit listless as well. Yes, it works on a symbolic level (father and son, get it? Here, let me hit you over the head with the symbolism a little harder), but it simply never conjures the ominous wonder of the Ark of the Covenant. The finale’s immortal knights and fatal puzzles have none of the menace or majesty of Raiders’s climax in which the Ark seemed to channeling the very wrath of God. By contrast, the Grail just seems to be a cup of Alka-Seltzer. Oh, and the bad guy gets old real quick.

Last Crusade does have some pieces that make it almost worthwhile. Ford and Connery have a terrific rapport and make their scenes together much better than they have any right to be. The big action sequence involving a World War I tank is rousing enough, and continues the tradition seen in the Flying-Wing scene in Raiders of using unusual vehicles. And you gotta love the Middle Eastern bad-guys-but-really-good-guys in their double-breasted pinstripe suits and fezes–pity they didn’t serve any purpose other than cannon-fodder to serendipitously buy the Indy fraternity some time.

In the end, Last Crusade is a movie so busy patting itself on the back for its own cleverness that it never bothers to be, you know, good. Nowhere is this more evident than in the insipid opening sequence featuring young Indiana Jones. Apparently one very eventful day in Indy’s life established 1) his fear of snakes, 2) the scar on his chin, 3) his fedora, 4) his preference for using a bullwhip, and 5) his swashbuckling approach to archeology. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Young Indy is played by the 20-something River Phoenix in a Boy Scout uniform. I imagine the sequence is on popular rotation at N.A.M.B.L.A. meetings.

So, that’s my look back at the Indiana Jones movies. Will Crystal Skull be a triumphant return to form or another overstuffed, undercooked turkey? We’ll know in about a week.

Additional Links:

“A Retrospective: Raiders of the Lost Ark”

“A Retrospective: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”

“This Summer’s Movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”


  1. I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tom Stanley

  2. Actually, the only part of that movie I enjoyed was watching River Phoenix rather uncannily channeling Harrison Ford.

    Perhaps they had no money for the effects because they had to hire both Sean Connery and Harrison Ford.

  3. It wasn’t, however, as desperately offensive to brown people, or as disgustingly sexist as TOD. I don’t know if that counts, though, when you’re a bad summer blockbuster.

  4. Oh, and Phoenix is probably too old to get any NAMBLA love at that point.

  5. Phoenix did a great Ford. No doubt about that. Still he was a solid decade too old for the role, and dressing him up as a Boy Scout was just creepy. Like showing a young Lara Croft played by Shannyn Sossamon dressed up as a Girl Scout or a in a Catholic school uniform.

  6. Hey! Hey! Keep your fantasizing to yourself.

    Actually, River Phoenix was probably about 17 or 18 when those scenes were filmed. I think Boy Scouts are allowed to be up to 18 years old. The first Boy Scout to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout was 17 years old, or something like that, so Phoenix isn’t so far out of the possible age range.

  7. Great blog. I discovered it a few days ago and have been reading your reviews, wonderful material.

    I thought I was the only person out there who liked Temple of Doom more than Last Crusade. Thanks for this review!

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