WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: News of a discovery surrounding the legendary Holy Grail arouses the interest of our hero Indy, though another Dr Jones – his father – is the expert in the field and is inevitably caught up in the story somewhere. Indy’s nemeses the Nazis are also involved, and they keep up with the Joneses as they get ever closer to the life-giving cup of Christ.
Though it’s by no means set in stone, when it comes to film franchises there’s a pretty good rule of thumb: if film two is as good as film one, or maybe even better, film three will almost certainly be a bit of a dog (eg. Spider-Man 3 or Superman III). If, on the other hand, film two has already gone off the rails, you can guarantee that film three will go back to basics faster than you can say Highlander III: The Sorcerer.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is firmly of the back-to-basics school, going all the way back to young Indy’s (River Phoenix) early days as a junior treasure hunter. His initial confrontation with the wearer of a familiar hat doesn‘t go entirely well, but he does acquire the headgear, a whip, and his trademark fear of snakes. Twenty-six years later, in 1938, Indy (Harrison Ford) is still up for adventure, still returning to college to make students swoon, and still visited regularly by museum curator Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott). A steer on the Holy Grail – the cup reputedly used by Christ at the Last Supper – comes from a new acquaintance, the wealthy and acquisitive Walter Donovan (Julian Glover).
Donovan packs Indy and Marcus off to Venice on the grail trail, but Indy really wants to find his missing father Henry (Sean Connery), whose grail diary unexpectedly turned up in Indy’s office just before Donovan got in touch. Dr Jones’ contact in Venice is Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), an Aryan beauty whose charms hide her true purpose. Unsurprisingly, they all meet up with Hitler’s Nazis, seeking the immortality and, therefore, unstoppable power offered by the grail. Indy finds his father, but as they fight their perilous way across Europe to the ancient Turkish city of Alexandretta, and approach the trap-infested resting place of the grail, they are chased all the way by repulsive General Vogel (Michael Byrne) and a familiar Nazi sympathiser. They also have to come to terms with some tricky relationship issues.
It wouldn’t be right to overstate the similarities between this film and its 1981 forefather, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is by no means a scene-for-scene remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nonetheless, from the plot structure to the personnel to the make-up of individual scenes, nearly everything in Raiders has its equivalent here. If, like me, you were horrified by the song-and-dance shenanigans of Temple of Doom, this is a relief: but for all the slickness of the action in Last Crusade, you do sometimes think ‘Why don’t I just watch the first one again?’ The problem is, when retreading old ground there’s an irresistible impulse to play it for laughs the second time around, and while this can be cute (there‘s a nice joke about the Ark, complete with musical cue), more often it undermines the gravity the film tries to achieve elsewhere (Ford essaying a Scottish accent is most unwise – don’t even ask why his Dad’s got one). Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the re-appearance of Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah for comic/nostalgic purposes; yes, their antics are passingly entertaining, but neither are particularly suited to action sequences (though neither, by this time, are Ford or Connery).
Talking of Harrison and Sean, Connery displays an effortless charisma despite his advancing years, and his bumbling yet overbearing personality meshes nicely with Ford’s abrasive style. This relationship is at the very heart of the film, and whether you believe in it or not (it’s one of Hollywood’s best known trivial facts that Dr Henry Jones Sr would have been a father at 12 if the characters were the actors’ ages) will dictate how much you enjoy the film. I found the banter between them to be both natural and enjoyable, notwithstanding the mushy conflict over Indy’s mother that inevitably finds a resolution. It’s certainly more rewarding than Indy’s coupling with the statuesque Elsa, a fraulein fatale with dreadfully uncertain motivation: Doody’s a goody, then a baddy, then a bit of both, and at the last unfathomably stoopid.
It’s no great surprise that Spielberg and the writers (still including George Lucas) revisit the more successful aspects of Raiders, and though you inevitably go ‘oh, that’s really like that bit’, the Joneses’ escapades in Europe and the Turkish desert are exciting. Unfortunately, it also features the same dodgy racial stereotyping that dogged the other films – Alexei Sayle has a perfectly hideous cameo as the corrupt ruler of the Republic of Hatay. Unusually for Spielberg, some of the effects look very rough around the edges; and while the final challenges to get to the grail bring us right back to the beginning of Indy’s adventures, the audience is likely to be a little older and a little less forgiving. Wouldn’t one of the requisitioned soldiers have worked out that kneeling might be a good idea? And while the ‘Leap of Faith’ is a wonderful trompe l’oeil, I have severe doubts that it would actually work from Indy’s perspective.
It’s no classic, but Last Crusade does deliver a decent quotient of action and adventure, balanced with father-son banter which is fun so long as you don’t find it a distraction from the thrills. This film had its own influence – it must have inspired Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and computer games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted – and if nothing else, it does feature a terrific piece of understatement (‘he chose…poorly‘) and pays off with a great joke about Dr Jones Jr’s name. As a final send off to our hero, Last Crusade is a respectable way to send our hero into the sunset. Whatwhat and the Crystal what now?