Thursday, 1 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

First, a confession - which may come as a shock to the faithful, but I'll dodge the poisoned darts, evade the deadly spears, scurry away from the giant boulder, and press on just the same - I'm not a tremendous devotee of Indiana Jones. Back in 1981, my interests had largely turned away from cinema and towards sport (see The Empire Strikes Back blog), so the release of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK that year largely passed me by. When I saw the film on video some years later, I found it to be reasonably entertaining and action-packed, but also with some shocking holes in the plot and a very nasty climax.

Historically it's also a little dubious, based on the real-life efforts by Hitler's scientists - not to rule the Earth - but to find evidence of divine Aryan ancestry from the earliest dawn of time. But what the heck, it was a cheeky enough way to have a daredevil American archaeologist fighting the Nazis, five years before the Yanks properly got round to it in World War II.

Comparisons with the Star Wars saga were perhaps inevitable - as many of the same crew were also involved with Raiders - but where Star Wars is a plot driven spectacle in a galaxy far, far away, Indiana Jones is largely, I feel, an action-driven series, where the story usually serves as the means of putting the hero (and the audience) through various breathtaking adventures.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM came along three years later, and this was even more unpleasant than Raiders, with delicacies including monkey brains for dessert, and a screaming dumb blonde heroine (who later became Mrs. Steven Spielberg).

However, come 1989, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas realised they had overdone things a bit with Temple of Doom, and decided to come back on track with the old formula of Indy fighting Nazis. Having searched for no less than the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders, this time the only thing left higher to search for was - what else? - the Holy Grail. And this time, as the publicity said, the man in the hat was bringing his Dad.

And here was Spielberg's masterstroke. As the series had been conceived by George Lucas as an American answer to James Bond, Spielberg's feeling was that the natural cinematic father of 45-year old Harrison Ford, should be the 58-year old Sean Connery.

Not many people would have thought of it straight away, but Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a delight from the moment these two first appear on screen together. Connery's enthusiastic, wholehearted and slightly self-mocking performance enlivens the proceedings immeasurably, and also gives his co-star some meaty acting competition, bringing out the Harrison Ford that I remembered from the Star Wars films. The two of them were also a commendable father and son duo, who managed to defy the narrow age difference between them with great aplomb.

What precedes their pairing, is admittedly almost a carbon copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with even the opening school lecture scene re-staged), with the exception of an exhilarating prologue featuring River Phoenix as the young Indy, on his first scouting adventure. Phoenix was a suggestion of Harrison Ford's, having played his son in The Mosquito Coast with uncanny similarity. His tragic early death of a drug overdose deprived the world of a young star whose afterglow has since been of great help for the likes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio. It also led on to a spin-off Young Indiana Jones TV series with Sean Patrick Flannery.

But I digress. Back to The Last Crusade, which begins in earnest when the seemingly benevolent New York millionaire Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) invites Dr. Jones to his swanky apartment to examine an ancient tombstone giving the (partial) details of the location of the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail itself. You just know however that Donovan will turn out to be a rat, because he's being played by an English actor in an American film.

Indy tells Donovan that he's picked the wrong Jones for the task, as the Grail is more the domain of his father, Henry Jones. The trouble is, Donovan has already hired Jones Senior, who has since gone missing, at the hands of - whaddya know - the Nazis. Indy therefore follows the trail which leads to Venice, then onto Germany, and ultimately the Holy Land itself.

Not only is Indy bringing his Dad, but also his old friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) into the film, confined to just an "M"-type figure at the beginning and end of Raiders, but here fully integrated into the action, and with the amusing extra touch of being like a fish out of water once out of his natural museum environment. Brody arrives in the Holy Land, knowing (according to Indy) "a dozen different languages. He'll blend in, disappear, you'll never see him again. With any luck, he's got the Grail already."

Cut to Brody walking through the street market, wondering if anyone speaks English! Luckily another old friend, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) is on hand to help.

Once in Venice, Jones is introduced to his father's assistant, Dr. Schneider, who is, hey presto, a beautiful blonde played by Alison Doody. After a close run-in with Turkish guardians of the Grail in the sewers of Venice, Jones Junior is eventually re-united with Jones Senior, who promptly breaks a rare Ming Dynasty vase over his son's head - assuming him to be a Nazi. But there's no harm done - the vase was a fake! And we're off and running.

The obligatory female interest turns out to be a femme fatale Nazi (well, she was Austrian after all), for this is really a father and son's adventure, and Connery gleefully enjoys sitting in the side-car of his son's motorbike, stealing glances - and scenes - quietly dismissing every moment of derring-do that Indy perpetrates. Ford to his credit, relishes the opportunity to react to such put-downs, and the two make a great pair.

One touching little moment later on in the film, which exemplifies not only their relationship, but many father and son relationships in general, is when Indy is fighting on board a German tank that is just about to fall over the edge of a cliff, and seems to go down with it. Henry and the others stop for a moment in mournful reflection, until they realise Indy is standing among them looking down at the wreck. Henry joyfully embraces his son as they display a moment of emotional bonding, then just as quickly Henry lets go of Indy and encourages him to keep moving, " why are you resting when we're so near the end!"

The ending itself, with an ageing Medieval knight who is the last custodian of the Grail (straight out of the English theatre seemingly) is a little ponderous, although the shock of seeing Henry shot cold-bloodedly in the chest by the scheming Donovan is a startling moment. Donovan inevitably gets his come-uppance (in the film's one moment of genuine nastiness) after the misguided Dr Schneider has selected the wrong cup of eternal life (which gives the opposite effect) for him. The last remnant of Donovan's shrivelled body is his swastika badge. Once a Nazi, always a Nazi it seems. Well, you can just shoot Sean Connery in the chest like that and get away with it, can you?

Elsa Schneider fares little better, hungry for the Grail in spite of the fact that it cannot be taken beyond its resting place, and she tumbles (to her death?) down a mountainous chasm. Indy has similar desires for the Grail soon afterwards, but after a little paternal wisdom from Henry, he decides to let it go.

At the end, the remaining four intrepid heroes ride off from the temple entrance (in reality the ancient city of Petra) away into the sunset. It seemed a suitable conclusion to a series that had neatly come to a full stop at the end of this fun third episode. After all, once both Henry Jones Senior and Henry Jones Junior (for that is Indy's real name!) have tasted the Cup of Life, what else is there left to conquer, now that they're both immortal?

The recent INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL however, has given the series fresh impetus, with an all-star supporting cast including Cate Blanchett, John Hurt, Ray Winstone, and the welcome return of Karen Allen (from Raiders) - but crucially missing the comedic touchstone that was Sean Connery.

I first saw Last Crusade in the cinema that summer of 1989, during those wistful days when Lucasfilm fans were waiting (seemingly endlessly) for the next Star Wars film. In the absence of Episodes 1, 2 and 3 however, we had to make do with this climactic [we thought] conclusion to the adventures of Indiana Jones, and a pretty rousing one it was too. It was also, rather poignantly, the last blockbuster to be shot exclusively at Elstree Studios.

I've since seen the film several times - more than any other in the Indy series - and it's still just as much fun to watch as it was the first time, whenever Ford and Connery are on screen together.


Derek said...

Great read, Joe!
Let's get this out of the way. I ADORE "Raiders of the Lost Ark". It is a fantastic film and I love it every time I see it. I didn't see the film until early 1984 on video (at school with my classmates!) but that screening was a pivotal moment for my film fandom.
I'm sure even after seeing "KOTCS", it will still be my favourite of the series -- I guess we'll have to see. Hey, who knows, maybe you'll be writing about "KOTCS" in this blog soon!!
Anyway, to "The Last Crusade". Looking back at it now, I have some doubts about the film. This is mainly due to the fact that the production looks rather shoddy and rushed in several places, particularly the blue screen/back projection work which is *terrible* (the airship, fighter plane in the tunnel, tank going over the cliff etc) and that knocks me out of the story. What the heck was ILM doing? I guess they were to busy with "Ghostbusters II".
I was never that much a fan of Connery either (he was definitely NOT my favourite 007) so his presence in the film as Indy's dad still isn't that thrilling for me. It's ok, but that's all. Oh well.
I have to admit though, Ford and Connery do have a good on-screen chemistry and the script is pretty good. I wonder if the chitchat was true about them not getting on behind the scenes -- probably inflated egos??
Apparently, Connery was approached to be in "KOTCS", but declined due to "enjoying retirement" -- code for living in the south of France and playing golf. So, time to move on then and get somebody younger. The article I read today seems that Lucas wants to continue this set of adventures into the 'Mutt William' series, with Harrison Ford as Indy playing a sort of Connery role in future productions. Now, I like Shia LaBeouf a lot, so this sounds like it could work. I guess we'll have to see how the audience takes to his character in "KOTCS".
Let's hope "KOTCS" does well. Early box-office predictions for the five-day opening weekend are $162-$172 million in the US/Canada.

Joe said...

Good heavens, that was almost a bigger comment than my own blog! (I thought you might have something to say on the subject Derek, lol!)

If there was any creative tension between Ford and Connery, it was probably a good thing because Ford may have felt he was being upstaged, which pushed him into giving a better performance.

I suppose the whole question of bad special FX (and I don't think they're *that* bad in IJATLC) puts into a nutshell my feelings about special FX films. I'm much more interested in what's going on with the people *in front of* the camera than the CGI in the background.

I admit 'The Last Crusade' does appear a bit rushed (especially its recycled 'Raiders' plot), but I sit up eagerly whenever it's on.

Derek said...

...which I believe is tonight, BBC1!!


..and the premiere of "KOTCS" is at the Cannes film festival today. Yesterday I watched an interview with Lucas, Spielberg, Ford and Labeouf on line about it, which was quite fun.

Mark said...

Interesting post Joe and great as always to read your considered opinions. I like the Indiana Jones films although like you was never a great fan, Star Wars was more my thing! I did buy the three disc box set a couple of years ago with all the features, which I found interesting to watch. I do like The Last Crusade and in particular John Williams' music for the end credits, which I think is amongst his best.

From what I've heard of the new Indy film the story is supposed to be a bit woolly but visually it looks stunning. I heard that Spielberg refused to shoot on digital (which is what Lucas wanted) and the amount of CGI has been kept down, although I heard on Five Live earlier that some fans who had seen the film in Cannes were complaining about how awful some of the CGI was! I guess we'll see for ourselves come the end of May.

Derek said...

CGI is still *very* difficult to get right, except maybe for backgrounds, touch-ups (such as wire removal) and non-organic elements. ILM's work on "Iron Man" recently was pretty good though, so as Mark says, I guess we'll have to see how the CGI in "KOTCS" looks. Still, as I was saying in my main response, ILM's work on "KOTCS" can't be any worse than the "Last Crusade" German airship with it's nice black outline -- tip top quality blue screen work there, boys! ;)

"The Times" gave "KOTCS" a 4/5 today, and the text was very positive, so that's good I 'spose.
I wonder what Empire magazine thought?

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films