After the huge popular and critical success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas cruised on their egos and made the dark, unfunny, and overall icky sequel Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, disappointing critics, and horrifying fans with its masochistic violence and its bizarre effect of setting feminism back at least half a century. Spielberg and Lucas smartly retreated from the character of Indiana Jones for a few years, then in 1989 came back with this kinder, gentler Indy movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Luckily for all involved, they listened to the fans. Gone is the annoying kid sidekick, replaced by curmudgeonly Sean Connery (playing against his inherent Bond-ness) as Indy’s pop, Professor Henry Jones… Senior! Yes, we find out that Indiana was named after the dog, and is actually Henry, Jr., which is made clear as dad puts his son in his place over and over with a stern bark. Gone is the shrieking woman-in-peril slash love-interest played by Kate Capshaw (thank god). Instead we get Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), a smart, sexy doctor herself, who just so happens to be, well, be a Nazi. She plays a fine intellectual foil to son and father, but also has a crisp German sexiness to her that keep things a bit tense. And, thankfully, back are Indy’s pals Marcus (Denholm Elliott, with a bigger role) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who dutifully hop along for the adventure.
The Last Crusade is about the quest for the mother of all religious artifacts, as the good guys (Indy & Co.) and the bad guys (the Nazis) go in search of, yes, The Holy Grail. The Nazis want it for its purported quality of offering never-ending life (if you drink from the cup), and Henry, Sr. wants it because, well, it has literally been his life’s passion to find it. Because of his life’s worth of knowledge, Henry, Sr. gets kidnapped by the Nazis, so Junior and pals have to come save him.
The Last Crusade brings back the self-effacing humor that was so missing from the second film, while also amping up the action. The film looks better as well, as Spielberg brings some of his visual style to the proceedings—for instance the “a-ha!” moment when the camera pulls back to reveal “X marks the spot” on the church floor, and (a moment that I always remember from this film) shadows moving across a tablecloth in a dirigible dining room, revealing, in a passively sinister way, that the airship has abruptly changed direction. And who can forget the lovely closing shot of the good guys literally riding off into the sunset at the end?
But by playing it safe by being so lighthearted and widely accessible, The Last Crusade (at least for me) ultimately didn’t have the “oomph” of Raiders. It is a perfectly good movie, and is certainly entertaining, but it sacrifices character consistency to offer some crowd-pleasing comedy. Indy is reduced to a push-over in the presence of his dad, and Marcus and Sallah are diminished to bumbling fools for comic effect (when they were both easily as sharp as Indy in the first film). Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. Spielberg and Lucas really needed to redeem themselves after Doom. They played it safe with Last Crusade—and luckily for them, they succeeded.
About a dozen or so new special features are included in the Adventure Collection of the Indiana Jones trilogy, spread across the three DVDs. The Last Crusade disc includes a new introduction to the film by director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas, talking about how the idea of the Holy Grail came from George, but Steven suggested adding the character of Indy’s father to the mix to make the quest more interesting. There is a featurette about the series’ sidekicks and villains (who are all, of course, praised), plus storyboards and galleries. The best extra on this disc, and perhaps this whole Adventure Collection set is “Indy’s Women Reminisce,” which features a discussion between Karen Allen (from Raiders), Kate Capshaw (from Doom), and Alison Doody (from Crusade) talking about their work in their respective films. Allen apparently brought lots of improvisation (aka kicking ass) to her role which was a bit underwritten; Capshaw is a little bothered, but kind of understanding about how poorly her character was received, especially by women; and Doody seems still a little bitter that she didn’t realize that Sean Connery was going to be the main co-star in her picture, not her. Very interesting stuff.