Cast :Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliot, Alison Doody, Julian Glover, Michael Byrne, River Phoenix, John Rhys-Davies, Kevork Malikyan, Robert Eddison, Vernon Dobtcheff, Michael Sheard.
Synopsis: Indy is sent on a mission to locate the Holy Grail, in order to find his kidnapped father. Along the way, he encounters Nazi’s, slimy backstabbing colleagues, and a group of soldiers willing to die to protect the secret of eternal life.
In 1989, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas returned to the well of popularity to bring audiences the much clamoured for third Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade. After the dismal critical drubbing of Temple Of Doom, I think Spielberg must have sensed this was his last chance to prove that Raiders wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and poured every available smidgen of creativity into Last Crusade, to create a wonderfully exciting, humorous adventure movie, that returned our favourite archaeologist to the big screen in a story worthy of his status.
Honestly, Last Crusade ranks as my favourite of all the Indiana Jones films. Yes, even more so than Raiders, most definitely more than Temple Of Doom and Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Last Crusade represents (to me) the perfect combination of adventure, music, editing, sound, and non-stop mysterious action. Anybody who feels that Last Crusade is a mediocre, or tepid, film in the franchise, can go eat a hat.
Last Crusade begins an Indy film in a way we’ve never seen before: with Indy’s childhood. After rescuing a rare artefact from the clutches of tomb raiders, a young Indy (River Phoenix) takes off across the mountain landscape, pursued all the while by people of generally ill repute. Boarding a circus train, as it speeds along, a series of mishaps cause Indy to encounter snakes (which, up this point, he’s demonstrated he’s not afraid of) and a lion, the latter of which he uses a whip (for the first time) to keep at bay before being rescued. It’s a grand sequence, all told with the marvellous sense of epic adventure instilled in Raiders, and missing from Temple of Doom.
After this lengthy flashback, we return to the current adventures of Indy in the “present day”, which is actually not that long after events in Raiders. This time, though, Indy is sent on an adventure to recover the holiest relic of all, the Holy Grail, by a wealthy philanthropist, who has uncovered a clue that makes this once impossible quest a reality. The Holy Grail, for those unaware, is the title bestowed upon the cup that was used by Christ during the last supper, and is said to hold unearthly powers to whoever drinks from it: namely, immortal life. The problem for Indy this time, is that the search for the Grail is the traditional stomping ground of his father, Henry Jones (Sean Connery). And Henry has been kidnapped by the Nazi’s.
Yes, the Nazi’s return in Last Crusade, and given their reputation in Raiders, they’ve got a lot to live up to. Michael Byrne, as the nasty German Colonel Vogel, is pretty close to Indy’s main nemesis through the film. Byrne’s turn as the Nazi thug was particularly memorable for the moment in the film where Indy surprises him on board a zeppelin, where he’s thrown out the window prior to take-off. Hilarious. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching just for the look on Byrne’s face. You’ll know it when you see it. British actor Julian Glover plays Walter Donovan, the philanthropist who sends Indy off on his mission, and he’s as slimy a piece of work as you’d want as a criminal mastermind.
In a similar way to Kate Capshaw in Temple Of Doom, Spielberg miscast his female lead in Alison Doody, playing Dr Elsa Schneider, a scientist working with Indy’s father to determine the location of the Grail. Doody has about as much acting talent as a three storey building, and every moment with her on-screen is genuinely painful to watch. Almost in the same way that Maria Pitillo was shocking in 1997’s Godzilla. Doody is attractive, sure, but she can’t act.
However, the shining light in Last Crusade, and I think a large portion of the films tone and success can be laid at his feet, is Sean Connery as Dr. Henry Jones. Connery is brilliant as the intellectual mentor of Indy, the man who moulded our hero’s inherent belief in preserving history and understanding it. Henry is a traditional scholar of the Grail, his life’s work has been spent studying it, researching it, trying to find it. Hopeless in the field, as far as Indy’s concerned, Henry comes along on Indy’s adventure when the Nazi’s inadvertently team the two up together. The dialogue between them, and around them, sparkles with wit and good humour, so much so that you almost don’t want them to stop. Henry doesn’t approve of the brutal way indy deals with the Nazi threat, and Indy doesn’t approve of his fathers dedication to the Grail at the expense of almost every relationship his father ever had. Even their own. Connery owns the part, and it’s almost possible to see a genetic link between the two men, they’re so convincing.
Mention must be made of the late River Phoenix’s role as a teenage Indiana Jones. His moment, at the film’s frenetic opening, is a real joy to watch, the young actor was a true legend in the mould of James Dean. His ability to mimic Fords’ mannerisms and speech pattern, as well as imbuing the character with his own sensibilities as an actor, is genuinely praiseworthy. Given that Phoenix normally chose more dramatic roles, it was great to see he could hold his own in a large scale action film. Such a shame.
Last Crusade also represents one of the peaks in composer John Williams’ career, with the single best movie score I’ve ever heard (save Return of the Jedi a few years earlier, which may just be even better) for it’s complexity, motifs and themes. The Raiders March, coupled with the Nazi themes and the genuinely exciting chase score, all combine in a variety of ways to develop the on-screen action in such a way you almost don’t “hear” the music as you watch. For me, the score of both Last Crusade and Return of the Jedi represent Williams at his absolute best. The music blends so seamlessly into the action on screen, it’s breathtaking.
Another of the film’s qualities I love is the foley soundtrack: the effects for a punch in this film is so overblown and gargantuan, it traverses cool, into corny, then out the other side to cool again. Gunfire is similarly added, with the generic shoot-ping-ricochet we’ve all heard in umpteen cowboy movies coming to the fore. The foley soundtrack has a genuine impact, a real pulp feel to it, that’s a joy to watch. Some have decried the sound effect track as a mediocre blasphemous travesty of all things foley, yet I think it’s a perfect match for the serialised pulp feel of the franchise. Thankfully, they kept this up for KOTCS more recently.
Last Crusade is genuinely exciting, filled with the mysterious adventure that Raiders gave audiences years earlier. The mythic quests for the Grail, more recently touched upon by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is the central reason behind the films success, after all, don’t’ we all love to see something that’s indefinable become reality? Like movies about Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, or even aliens, we just love to have our myths and mysteries brought to life by creative geniuses. Spielberg, and Lucas (at this stage) are showing just how good they are. Unlike the more recent Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, The Last Crusade tries to bring a level of entertainment to the screen in a way that’s not forced or false: the characters feel real this time around, and while the scenarios they embark upon are often unreal, the characters (and the actors, as well) behave so believably you tend to overlook the obvious cinematic formula at work.
Spielberg once again demonstrates a command of the film medium that’s rarely been equaled in modern times. his framing, his sense of timing, and his ability to capture a scene in a single master shot, minimizing his edits, is one of the great things about the director: regardless of whether you think Spielberg is a commercial hack, or a genius to be celebrated, there’s no denying his ability to convey a feeling, move an audience, and generate emotion on the screen. With The Last Crusade, he’s in fine form, and for me, it’s the best of the whole bunch. A more complete finale to a trilogy you won’t see.