When INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM came out two years after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK it was off-putting to many, and its PG-rated monkey brain and human heart munching outraged enough parents to inspire the more hardcore PG-13 rating. So five more years passed before director Steven Spielberg and producer/story-provider George Lucas came up with the next one, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, for summer of ’89.
To pull it off they had to back away from everything new they’d tried in TEMPLE OF DOOM and walk right up to everything old we all loved in RAIDERS. So it’s less mean, less weird, less gross, and more directly built onto the template of RAIDERS. Not that it was a total rehash. Nazis are involved, but not necessarily in charge. Marion isn’t there, and the new love interest follows a very different arc. There’s less desert and more water. There’s a wacky old man sidekick played by Sean Connery (ENTRAPMENT). And a whole sequence from Indy’s childhood. But he steals an artifact and brings it to school and then finds out about a quest for another artifact and offers his expertise and travels to different countries and looks at ancient texts that lead him to a series of riddles that he solves while pursued by Nazis, murderers and betrayers and teamed with Brody and Sallah and ultimately when they find the thing it kills the bad guys in cool face-melting special effects sequences and etc. So it’s kind of the same thing. But they did a good job of hiding it.
I already reviewed this one in 2016 for my award-dodging review series Lucas Minus Star Wars. I think it was a good piece in that it described LAST CRUSADE as “the one that deals with that Holy Grail of elusive treasures, the Holy Grail.” But it is a bad one in that it contains controversial opinions about the Indiana Jones series that make people from all walks of life think I’m an idiot. This review here will avoid that peril by setting aside all baggage about LAST CRUSADE as a sequel and focusing on it primarily as an action-packed movie that came out in the summer of ’89. And by watching it with that in mind, I enjoyed it much more than usual.
Because Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, “Mr. Harrison” on the Kung Fu season 2 episode “Crossties”) is traveling around on planes, zeppelins and camels trying to find treasure, and he’s not trying to solve a case or get revenge for his brother dying in an underground fighting tournament, this can be classified as adventure rather than action. But it has more and better action sequences than most straight action. You’ve got the prologue with the chase and battle on top of and through the various cars of a circus train. And then a fist fight on a boat rocking back and forth and being violently pummeled by waves, that includes Indy swinging on a hook and leaping off before the boat explodes. There’s an excellent speed boat chase that involves shooting and jumping from boat to boat, fighting on top of the boat, narrowly avoiding collision, one boat exploding, another getting shredded by the giant propeller of a larger boat. There’s a motorcycle chase with an excellent gag where Indy jams a rod into another bike’s spokes, causing it to flip and explode like it’s a podrace. There’s another sequence where Indy and his dad steal a bi-plane, get in a dogfight, shoot off their own tail, crash land, steal a car, get chased and shot at by a plane, and defeat it by going into a tunnel that knocks its wings off and causes a fiery skid-out crash. Then there’s the very long and complicated sequence that includes tank vs. horse, tank vs. car, people fighting on tank, trying not to get ground up by its moving treads, hanging off the gun.
Let me give you some action movie bonafides here. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam also did summer of ’89’s LETHAL WEAPON 2 and later LETHAL WEAPON 3. Co-story-credited (from writing an earlier draft) Menno Meyjes also has a story credit on RICOCHET. Editor Michael Kahn cut BLACK BELT JONES, TRUCK TURNER and GOLDEN NEEDLES. Stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong directed ARMY OF ONE a.k.a. JOSHUA TREE starring Dolph Lundgren.
Armstrong, who was also Ford’s stunt double in these first three Indiana Joneses, is rightfully given much credit for the execution of these action sequences. But it’s clear from Spielberg’s filmography that he doesn’t leave it up to the second unit, he is very involved in planning and crafting these scenes not only to visually communicate the geography and the momentum, but to load them with story and gags and gimmicks. LAST CRUSADE in particular has the feeling of creative people spending years building on each other’s ideas and carefully planning every moment, the way they do in animation. So young Indy doesn’t just run across the top of a train – he falls into a car fall of snakes, has to get rescued from a lion, scares off a foe with a residual snake in his clothes, goes into a magician’s car and uses a trick box to “disappear,” etc. It kept reminding me of Jackie Chan how much it keeps riffing on what can happen in a location and with the props within it (rotating tank periscope, skeleton arm, etc.)
Also there are these great side-scrolling type shots that really look like young adult River Phoenix is running across the top of the train, dropping down ladders, climbing through different things. I thought it looked way too dangerous to not be some kind of composite, but if it is it’s a really convincing one.
The inventiveness also extends to gimmicks like the part where Indy and his dad are tied up and keep accidentally flipping a secret compartment into a Nazi headquarters, and of course the ancient puzzles and booby traps. I know the first time I saw it I was most impressed by the idea of the stone bridge that looks invisible because it uses forced perspective to blend into the other side of the chasm.
Honestly all that’s enough to make this one of the better summer popcorn type pictures, but it’s also the character of Indy and Ford’s performance as him that makes us love these movies. In this one they give him more emotional baggage to deal with, having to rescue and then work with his father who he’s “barely spoken to in twenty years” after never being able to impress or connect with him in childhood. We’ve seen this guy evade a rolling boulder, climb underneath a moving truck and survive a face-melting encounter with an instrument of God, but he sees his dad and he turns into a scared little boy, immediately calling him “sir.”
And you can definitely see what a pain in the ass it must be to have that guy as your dad. First he seems like he’s expressing affection to you, but it turns out to be a misunderstanding. Then he tells you he had sex with that beautiful blonde 22-year-old doctor before you did. Then he turns around and acts like a helpless buffoon most of the time during Bring Your Dad On Your Adventure Day. And when he finally does something cool like scare a flock of seagulls so they fly into the propeller of an attacking plane and cause it to crash, he feels the need to start quoting Charlemagne. I just imagine how much Indy rolled his eyes when they went on family vacations and stuff.
So it’s nice when he finally shows Indy the respect of calling him by his chosen name, and at that same moment they share in a lesson/realization about letting go of unobtainable obsessions.
There’s another theme in this one that I like about true believers vs. mercenaries, knowledge vs. profit. The Joneses are obviously all about knowledge. As a kid and then as an adult, Indy insists to a rich asshole (Paul Maxwell, who also played the dick who lectures Ripley about destroying expensive Company equipment at the beginning of ALIENS) that the Cross of Coronado “belongs in a museum.” He’s a professor, and seems to be good at it when he’s not distracted by being fuckin Indiana Jones.
One of those distractions is an adventure that happens literally inside (and below) a library! The Nazis, on the other hand, are literally burning books in giant piles. That’s their idea of a fun get-together – they combine it with a parade. Senior underlines this contrast when he tells a Nazi that “goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them.”
I always found it a bummer that Indy got such a hot, cool-seeming girlfriend and then she turned out to be working for the Nazis. Dealbreaker, in my opinion. It’s interesting though because it’s more complicated than her just being a secret Nazi. She and her rich boss Walter Donovan (Julian Glover, KING RALPH) think they’re just using the Nazis for their own purposes of getting the Grail. “I believe in the Grail, not the swastika,” Elsa says. I find this particularly meaningful today – the folly of believing you can align with malevolent forces while distancing yourself from their crimes. Indy has the right idea: “You stood up to be counted with the enemies of everything the Grail stands for. Who gives a damn what you believe?”
Indy and the movie do seem to have some sympathy for Elsa in the end. He doesn’t want her to die, at least, and she seems to think he’ll forgive her. I think she deliberately tricks Donovan into drinking from the wrong cup. That he falls for it shows just how much he didn’t get it. “It’s more beautiful than I ever imagined. It certainly is the cup of the King of Kings.” Indy knows that’s all wrong and that it’s the shitty little one, “the cup of a carpenter.” Whoever devised these protections for the Grail was all about weeding out assholes (or “the unrighteous” as the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword guy calls them). The three riddles are also little symbolic religious lessons that somebody like Donovan could never have comprehended. You think he could ever guess how to be “the penitent man”?
My favorite touch here is that when Donovan fails and his flesh ages and rots (into Christopher Lloyd!?) and his skeleton slams against the cave and crumbles to dust, the one thing that remains solid is his little swastika lapel pin. You thought you could associate yourself with that shit and not be defined by it. Now it’s all that’s left of you.
Ironically he was the one who told Indy, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.” You believe in nothing, asshole. Just power and money.
And it’s kind of darkly humorous after all that happens to remember back to the scene that introduced him pretending to be some benevolent industrialist spreading his fortune to philanthropic causes. He was throwing a party and his wife (Isla Blair, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) came to remind him he had guests, and she seemed like a nice lady. I bet she doesn’t know her honeybuns is now just a pile of Nazi ashes trapped in an ancient temple 5,000 miles away. She probly just thinks he’s on a boring business trip. She’s just gonna have to figure that out, like Indy’s students had to figure out he climbed out the fucking window while they were all waiting for their meetings with him. What the fuck? Did he get fired for that? So unprofessional.
You know who’s the most tragic character in this though? That fucking knight (Robert Eddison, THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW)! His two brothers died on this quest for the Grail, he had to sit there alone and guard it until the next worthy person came along, and that turned out to take 700 years! He’s so happy to see Indy because it’s like he’s working as the night watchman and thank God the next guy finally showed up for his shift. But it’s a false alarm, he’s not relieved of his duty, and he gives Indy that sad wave as he leaves.
So harsh. Poor guy.
So, despite whatever hangups some hypothetical person might have of this episode as it relates to others in the series, it definitely stands above your standard summer release as a thrilling action movie. It’s put together with immense care and skill, it has fun characters who do a ridiculous amount of thrilling things, it gives you some laughs and leaves you with some things to ponder. It’s a good one.
Many of the interiors were filmed at Elstree Studios, Shenley Rd, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, where movies had been filmed since 1925. The place almost closed down in the ’70s, but was saved by the filming of STAR WARS, which led to EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE DARK CRYSTAL, LABYRINTH, RETURN TO OZ, WILLOW, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (among others) all filming there. But the land development company Brent Walker had bought it in 1988 and as soon as LAST CRUSADE vacated they demolished a bunch of the facilities to build a Tesco superstore. Assholes. Unrighteous assholes.
That terrible story really fits my “times were changing in ’89” narrative, but I want you to know that it had kind of a drinking from the wrong chalice effect. Two years later Brent Walker was in debt, the founder was ousted and the board sold off the company’s assets. The Hertsmere Borough Council bought the site in 1996 and it was up and running as a studio again by 2000, in time for STAR WARS EPISODEs II and III to be filmed there.
Of course, by that time filmmaking, largely spurred on by Lucas, had become much more reliant on digital effects and green screens, which seems to be one of the primary reasons many people hate the more artificial looking fourth Indiana Jones movie KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I remember some time in the ’90s reading an article about George Lucas talking up the future of digital FX and everything he was pioneering on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. One of the things that seemed mind-blowing back then was the idea that he could put a beautiful sunset behind his actors without having to actually have them wait around to get the shot at the exact right moment. It was such a new concept then and he was right that it was coming and that it changed everything.
So it’s accidentally fitting that much of LAST CRUSADE’s end credits play over a long, mesmerizing shot of Indy and friends literally riding off into the sunset. And god damn is it an amazing sunset, because it’s clearly a real one.
The prologue scene with young Indy inspired Lucas to create the aforementioned Young Indiana Jones Chronicles series that aired on ABC in 1992 and 1993. It was an interesting and ambitious experiment and Harrison Ford appeared in character as Indy in the wraparound to an episode called “The Mystery of the Blues.” It’s important that I mention that because it means I can include this screengrab of Indiana Jones playing saxophone.
Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who also shot the previous two in the series, as well as KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, THE ITALIAN JOB and many others) retired after LAST CRUSADE. A good movie to go out on.
Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam went on to change the arts forever by writing and producing THE PHANTOM.
I didn’t see his name in the credits, but for part of the shoot a young Jesse V. Johnson had one of his first movie jobs assisting his uncle Vic Armstrong. A year later he’d be doing stunts on TOTAL RECALL, a decade later he’d direct his first feature, and today he’s the director of several classics of modern low budget action.