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“Let It Go, Indiana”: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, and the Necessity of Growing Up…

This August, the podcast that I co-host, The 250, is doing a season looking at all four Indiana Jones films as part of our “Indiana Summer.” This week, we’re looking at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I had some thoughts on the film.

The clue is in the title. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was clearly intended to be the last movie in the Indiana Jones series, the title character’s last adventure.

By the time it came to release Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, both Lucas and Spielberg were clearly drawing down the shutters on the franchise. “Three is a nice number,” Lucas remarked. Contemporary reviews noted that the film was positioned as the “last romp” with the daring adventurer. Shortly after the film’s release, Harrison Ford donated the character’s iconic bullwhip to the Institute of Archeology at University College London. Spielberg would later reflect, “I thought the curtain was lowering on the series, which is why I had all the characters literally ride off into the sunset at the end.”

Hang in there.

There is a sense that the reaction to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom might have been a key factor here. After all, the basic premise of Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t something that demanded a neat three-movies-and-done structure, particularly when the second movie had actually be a prequel rather than a sequel and adopted a completely different style than its predecessor. As much as it drew from the same kinds of adventure serials that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had loved as children, this franchise was not Star Wars. It didn’t set out to adopt the mythic triptych structure.

Indeed, contemporary critics made a point to read Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as something of an apology for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Opening his review, Randy Lewis joked that Pauline Kael was “probably the only person on the planet” who preferred Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Early reports talked about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as something of a rebound after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had “turned off many critics.”

Bring Your Dad to Work Day was going great.

Certainly, it’s notable that the five year gap between Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was appreciably longer than the three year gap between Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It seems that there was enthusiasm to make the movie. More than that, while Spielberg had made Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom following the critical and commercial success of E.T., he only returned to the franchise with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade after the critical and commercial disappointment of Empire of the Sun.

This perhaps explains the conservative nature of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If there is a criticism to be leveled at the film, it is that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feels like a retreat back to the comforts of Raiders of the Lost Ark as much as it feels like anything new. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was bold and novel, but Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is safe and familiar. Once again, there are Nazis. Once again, there is Sallah and there is Brody. Once again, there’s an erudite man selling out to work with the Nazis. Once again, there is a Judeo-Christian artifact with unlimited power.

Everybody eventually finds themselves at a crossroads in their lives.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a very conventional and very straightforward sequel, at times even feeling like something of a remake of the first installment. In that way, it recalls Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, which was similarly predicated on reacting against a darker and weirder middle entry in a trilogy by instead serving the audience nostalgia for an original film that they loved. It’s vaguely disheartening, and it perhaps explains the sense of closure at work here. It often feels like Lucas and Spielberg are trying to end the series with a reminder of a widely-accepted past triumph.

It’s notable that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade arrived in a summer dominated by the sorts of blockbusters and sequels that movies like Jaws and Star Wars had enabled, and which Raiders of the Lost Ark had helped to codify. It seemed somewhat appropriate that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade arrived the same summer as movies like Lethal Weapon IIGhostbusters II, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, License to Kill, Karate Kid III and Batman. In many ways, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was positioned as a victory lap for Spielberg and Lucas, a standard-bearer in a blockbuster era that they both helped create.

Eternal life or not, you should probably thoroughly disinfect any cup you find here before drinking from it.

Still, what distinguishes Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade from those other films is its not of finality. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is not a movie that begs for a sequel. In fact, with due respect to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the movies seems structurally designed to all but rule out any substantial subsequent adventures. This is probably one reason, along with casting concerns, why the franchise’s next major film or television project was The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Allowing for occasionally appearances from an older Indiana Jones, the only way forwards was backwards.

There’s an endearing and surprising grace to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a sense of the franchise making peace with itself and deciding to call it a day. There’s an interesting maturity in this, which feels arguably of a piece with where Steven Spielberg was at this point in his career.

The original Getting Even With Dad

It is no secret that Steven Spielberg longed to be taken seriously as a director, even beyond the commercial and critical raves that his earlier projects had received. There’s famous footage of Spielberg reacting to the Oscar nominations for Jaws, only to realise that he did not secure a Best Director nomination for his work on the film. Spielberg would receive a Best Director nomination for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He would also receive a nomination for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A lot of Spielberg’s work in the first half of the eighties seemed to be about demonstrating that the director could survive – and even thrive – in the paradigm shift following the collapse of the New Hollywood movement. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. proved that Spielberg could navigate the new status quo with considerably greater ease than seventies contemporaries like Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma or even Francis Ford Coppola. However, once Spielberg has cemented his status, he seemed eager to push away from his perceived brand as a blockbuster filmmaker.

Talk about a heated argument.

Following Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg made a point to choose more mature subject matter, films that were less likely to be seen as blockbusters and more likely to be seen as respectable fare from a director using his fame and power to make more off-kilter projects. Spielberg directed The Colour Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, featuring a soundtrack from Quincy Jones. Spielberg’s influence and skill was enough to turn this study of African American life at the turn of the twentieth century into a breakout hit, becoming the fourth-highest grossing movie of 1985 behind Rocky IV.

The Colour Purple was also a strong awards contender, picking up eleven nominations including three acting nominations. It tied with Out of Africa as the most nominated movie of the year. However, Spielberg did not receive a Best Director nomination for his work on the film. The film’s distributor, Warner Bros., was so surprised by the snub that it issued a statement to the press that “the company is shocked and dismayed that the movie’s primary creative force, Steven Spielberg, was not recognised.”

Still sharp, after all these years.

Spielberg would follow The Colour Purple with what was arguably an even more audacious play for awards recognition and credibility, adapting J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. This was a film that was arguably designed to appeal to Spielberg’s interests and his strengths. It was a story set during the Second World War, an era that obviously fascinated the director. It was also a story told through the eyes of a child, the young abandoned son of a British diplomat left to fend for himself when the Japanese attack Shanghai. However, the material was also weighty and dramatic. It was proof that Spielberg could be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, Empire of the Sun floundered. The contemporary reviews were mixed, with Roger Ebert suggesting that “having little clear idea of where he was going, Spielberg isn’t sure if he has arrived there” and Sheila Benson mused that “one of the many mysteries of Empire of the Sun is why Steven Spielberg chose it for his return to directing.” The film did “respectably, but not spectacularly, at the box office.” While Empire of the Sun received six Oscar nominations, it won none. It was “shut out” by the success of the other big Asian-themed awards film of the year, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.

Tomb Raiders.

So this was the paradox of Spielberg in the second half of the eighties. This was a director who had changed the way that Hollywood did business, and who clearly wanted to be taken seriously as an artist rather than just a blockbuster film director, but who found his attempts at more mature and considered film-making rejected by the establishment. The Colour Purple had been a reasonable success, but the reaction to Empire of the Sun suggested that critics, audiences and the industry had little patience for Spielberg’s push towards a more adult sensibility.

It’s notable that Spielberg was a driving creative force on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The director had shrugged off a lot of the criticisms of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom by claiming that he was a “director for hire” for George Lucas. However, from the outset, Spielberg was much more interested in setting the tone and mood for the third and final installment in the trilogy. After all, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade went through a variety of forms before the production team settled on the story that it would tell: gorilla armies, steampunk Nazis, haunted houses, villainous ghosts.

“I’m putting in a chase sequence. So the killer flees on horseback with the girl, the cop’s after them on a motorcycle and it’s like a battle between motors and horses, like technology versus horse.”

It was Lucas who settled on the idea of the Holy Grail as the artifact that would motivate the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. However, it was Spielberg who insisted on grounding that story in more recognisable emotional stakes. Spielberg told the press, “The dad thing was my idea. The Grail doesn’t offer a lot of special effects and doesn’t promise a huge physical climax. I just thought that the Grail that everybody seeks could be a metaphor for a son seeking reconciliation with a father and a father seeking reconciliation with a son.”

This was a remarkably clever idea, in that it renders a lot of the subtext of Raiders of the Lost Ark as explicit text. Raiders of the Lost Ark presented the Judeo-Christian God as the ultimate absent Spielbergian father, and the entire movie is about Indiana Jones’ reconnection with a force that he never really understood as shaping the larger world. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ties that metaphor back to Indiana Jones’ literal father, with father and son embarking on an epic journey to recover the cup from which Christ drank on the night before his Father sacrificed him for the good of all mankind.

A wing and a prayer.

To be fair, this was a theme that was percolating in contemporary pop culture, probably revitalised by the success of Star Wars. The cinema of the year was dominated by stories that conflated absent fathers with more divine sources of power, most notably in Field of Dreams. It was also perhaps part of a broader cultural reckoning, as a generation of Baby Boomers tried to reconcile with their own parents as those parents aged out and passed away. This effort to reconcile with his parents’ generation would inform Spielberg’s work into the next decade, notably with films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

It was also Spielberg who pushed to cast Sean Connery in the role of Henry Jones. “He was supposed to be a much older, completely out-of-his-element kind of guy, a scholar – like Joe Campbell,” Lucas recalled of his original conception of the character. Kathleen Kennedy suggested that the production team had been considering Gregory Peck. However, casting Sean Connery was something that appealed very specifically to Spielberg. Spielberg was a fan of the classic James Bond movies, and had been rejected as a potential by EON. Lucas had sold Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark by comparing it to a James Bond movie.

Violence is Nazi Answer.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade stands apart from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom because it feels consciously “writerly.” Lawrence Kasdan had done excellent work on Raiders of the Lost Ark building connective tissue between set-pieces, but Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the film in the series that feels most like a conventional modern cinematic narrative. It exists in particular contrast to the pulpy and disjointed throwback aesthetic of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which often feels like random episodes of a classic adventure serial just thrown together.

Spielberg drafted in Tom Stoppard to polish and smooth out Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, having worked with the British writer on Empire of the Sun. As a result, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feels more deliberately structured and paced than the other movies in the franchise. This is obvious in ways both large and small. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is full of clever set-ups and pay-offs. Early on, Indiana Jones tells his assembled students that “X never, ever marks the spot”, setting up a moment less than half an hour later where a giant X marks the spot.

A momentary blimp.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is consciously structured to feel like an ending. Part of this is down to the movie’s decision to open as a prequel. Both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had opened in what were effectively the final acts of some unseen adventure, creating the sense that the audience had walked into the movie late and with minimal context for what was going on. In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens by taking the audience back to the character’s first adventure, revealing how Indiana Jones became Indiana Jones.

In hindsight, there is something more than a little cheesy in this. The opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade pathologises so much about Indiana Jones as a character in its effort to explain him, reducing all of his personality and quirks to a simple set of inputs. Why does Indiana Jones wear a hat? Because a cool archeologist gave it to him. Why is Indiana Jones afraid of snakes? Because he fell in a snake tank. Why does Indiana Jones have a bullwhip? He snuck on to a circus train one time. It seems like Indiana Jones developed his entire persona over the course of an afternoon.

Indiana Jones Babies.

It’s easy to look back on the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as something very similar to the modern fixation on overly-simplistic origin stories that essentially boil down to lists of answers to questions that nobody was asking, from Solo: A Star Wars Story to Cruella to Dabangg 3. The opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feels very much like a speed run of this, mercifully confined to about ten minutes of screen time and executed with considerable skill by all involved.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade goes back to the beginning in order to suggest an ending. The opening sequence finds Indiana Jones embarking on his first adventure to recover the Cross of Coronado, and failing in the attempt. However, the film then jumps forward in time to the late thirties, allowing an adult and mature Indiana Jones to complete that first adventure by bringing the Cross of Coronado back to a museum. From its opening moments, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade suggests that the film is closing the book on Indiana Jones. The character has closed the case that inspired him, what else is left to do?

Kidding around.

Mortality weighs heavily on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s notable that the artifact that the characters are chasing is not a weapon of mass destruction. It is instead the Holy Grail. As Walter Donovan summarises, “Eternal life, Doctor Jones! The gift of youth to whoever drinks from the Grail. Now, that’s a bedtime story I’d like to wake up to.” For his part, Jones dismisses the fantasy of eternal life as “an old man’s dream.” Everything ends, and that’s natural.

Again, this is arguably a theme carried over from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but developed more aggressively in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Belloq appeals to his professional rival by insisting that archeology is the study of objects that exist in eternity and immortality. “Indiana, we are simply passing through history,” he explains of the Ark of the Covenant. “This? This is history.” It’s notable that Belloq argues his case strongly enough to convince Jones not to destroy the Ark of the Covenant. In some sense, Jones understands that somethings are meant to last forever.

Talk about a cliffhanger.

These movies are all period pieces. Part of that is simply down to the old adventure serials that Lucas and Spielberg loved, but situating them in a particular historical moment underscores this tension between transience and immortality. The audience already knows that the Second World War is coming. The audience understands that Hitler’s dream of a “thousand-year reich” will crumble to ash and dust. The status quo of these movies – Nazi Germany as a global power in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, British rule in India in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – will not last.

It’s crucial that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ends with the characters rejecting immortality. Donovan dies because he assumes that the cup of eternal life would be studded with jewels and riches, rather than simply made of wood. The knight guarding the Holy Grail warns that its power is a trap that does not extend beyond the boundaries of the temple. Immortality doesn’t look fun in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It just seems tiring.

Just deserts.

While Indiana Jones ultimately finds the Grail and uses it to heal his father’s wound, the movie ends with Jone rejecting immortality. As the temple falls apart around him, Indiana reaches for the cup of life. His balance is precarious. He is almost certainly going to fall into a bottomless canyon. In that moment, Henry appeals to his son directly. “Indiana, let it go,” Henry urges. There are more important things of higher value than immortality. Some things have value precisely because they are not eternal or immortal.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out at a time when the success of movies like Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark had changed the way that Hollywood made movies. Sequels had always been a fact of life, but they weren’t seen as a perpetual golden goose. Many of the biggest movies of that year were franchise installments rather than original films, movies like Ghostbusters II or The Karate Kid III or even the reimagining of Batman. It is too much to trace the modern explosion of perpetually recycled intellectual property back to the summer of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but the outline is there.

A captive audience.

As such, there is something reflective in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It seems like Spielberg taking stock of the way in which he has fundamentally changed the Hollywood landscape, and not always for the better. Spielberg would spend a lot of his career grappling with that reality, to the point that A.I. Artificial Intelligence would seem like a passive-aggressive indictment of Spielberg as a film-maker if it came from literally anybody else. At a time when the movie business seemed to be settling into the idea that franchises and sequels could run forever, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade understood the value of an ending.

In contemporary interviews, Spielberg seemed to suggest that he saw making Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a step backwards in his development as an artist, memorably describing his work on it as “consciously regressing.” However, there is a surprising maturity at play in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At its core, it is almost the direct antithesis of something like Hook, in that it is a movie that is explicitly about the importance of growing up and moving on.

Shore thing.

Tellingly, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade presents it’s hero’s journey as a journey towards adulthood. The opening scene makes it clear that his entire adventuring career to that point has been the extension of a teenage fantasy. Much is made of how Indiana regresses to something close to a child in the presence of his father, desperate for his approach and juvenile in his rebellion – and liable to receive a slap across the face for “blasphemy.”

As the two men try to reconcile, Henry laments that he could not relate to Indiana as child. “You left just as you were becoming interesting,” Henry curtly explains. The heart of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is about Indiana Jones trying to reconnect with his stern and distant father as an adult. He can no longer afford to be a child, he has to become a grown-up and must convince Henry that he is worth taking seriously as a grown man.

Gripping stuff.

Spielberg would reconcile with his own father years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and it’s possible to see some of his later movies as shaped by that dynamic. Arnold Spielberg worked with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which was founded by his son after directing and producing Schindler’s List. Reporters have read Saving Private Ryan as “a movie dedicated to the director’s father”, obviously inspired by Arnold Spielberg’s service.

As such, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feels like an interesting statement of intent from Spielberg. It is a movie about drawing a line under a life of adventure and excitement, and settling down to face old age with grace and wisdom. It is undoubtedly a blockbuster in the classic Spielberg mould. It’s arguably the film in the series that feels most explicitly connected with Spielberg’s thematic preoccupations and interests. However, it is also a story about about the need to grow up.

3 Responses

  1. It really should have been the last film. It worked as such. The fourth movie was one too much and now they are making a fifth! I’ll probably see it anyway. Sigh!

    I taught this film to my Year 8 English class as a film text, and it’s amazing how much discussion material there is. The whole father-son thing, yes, but other things. I even got them into discussion about the meaning of “What is your Holy Grail?” and how it fitted into the Hero’s Journey, which we’d discussed before, in a writing activity. They really enjoyed it.

    • Yeah. I was thirteen when I watched the trilogy, they were already talking about a fourth one someday, but even then it looked to me like TLC was such a solid ending it was going to be really hard to top. What artifact are you going to find that’s more iconic than the Holy Grail? What are you going to do for Indy’s character that’s more meaningful than saving and reconciling with a father he’s been estranged from his whole life? What actor are you going to find that’s as good a better match for Harrison Ford as Sean Connery was? And what better closing shot are you going to find than the characters riding off into the sunset?

      I manage to enjoy a lot of the fourth one anyways, and against all reason I’m hopeful for the fifth one. But they really should have stopped at three.

  2. “Tellingly, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade presents it’s hero’s journey as a journey towards adulthood. The opening scene makes it clear that his entire adventuring career to that point has been the extension of a teenage fantasy. Much is made of how Indiana regresses to something close to a child in the presence of his father, desperate for his approach and juvenile in his rebellion – and liable to receive a slap across the face for “blasphemy.””

    That’s funny, because despite scenes like that, a lot of the humor in Henry Jones’ character (and his interactions with Indy) stem from the fact that he’s basically a child sidekick going along on an adventure with the action hero who, all through the movie, is anxiously trying to make sure he doesn’t get killed.

    The child sidekick just happens to be the main character’s father.

    But I mean, fundamentally, Henry is a gigantic nerd/geek with a head full of romantic fiction (the medieval literature he’s studied and taught his whole life), who’s getting the chance of his life to go on the kind of adventure he’s always dreaming about. His statements throughout the movie show that he never really stops thinking of it as his own medieval saga. And of course like any good child sidekick, he’s dismissed at first as not fit for this kind of thing, but gets to not only meaningfully contribute but to contribute in a way that vindicates his nerdiness (the “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne!” moment especially is something you can imagine in any movie with a child sidekick, who after unexpectedly doing something cool, tells the shocked hero “oh yeah, I just thought of this thing I saw in a video game once!”)

    It isn’t the entirety of their dynamic, but it’s a good part of it throughout the movie.

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