Briefly, the plot: the film opens with a fun prologue of a boy scout trip in Utah, thus establishing many of Indiana Jones’ trademarks: his scarred chin, his use of the whip, his fear of snakes, and his desire to place artifacts in museums. River Phoenix plays a young Harrison Ford wonderfully, capturing all the older actor’s mannerisms and enunciation. Fast forward: shady men, headed by an equally shady American collector, Mr. Donovan (Julian Glover), approach the adult Dr. Jones (Harrison Ford) to help in finding the Holy Grail. Meanwhile, Dr. Jones’ father, Dr. Jones Sr. (Sean Connery), has mysteriously disappeared – presumably in the same quest. Dr. Jones Jr., with the help of fellow academic Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and shady blonde bombshell Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), travels first to Venice, then to Austria and finally the short-lived Republic of Hatay where the Holy Grail is still guarded by a super-old (like crazy centuries-old) Templar Knight. Along the way, we encounter the usual Nazis (including Hitler himself), Sallah the Fez-wearer (known to us from the first Indiana Jones film), and yet more shady groups of Knights and Orders. As per the first Indiana Jones film, Medieval Christian legend is mixed with Nazis and the Maghreb in a sort of out-of-time, out-of-context 1940s. (Where is the war in all this? Where is the invasion of Poland?!)
There are a number of criticisms which could be leveled against the Indiana Jones series: its ethnocentrism, its shades of Orientalism, its childish moral dichotomies. The films are chock full of ethnic and gender stereotypes – consider John Rhys-Davies’ fez-wearing (every Arab wears a fez in Indiana Jones movies) Sallah, or weak and helpless Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom. Indeed, the Government of India banned Temple of Doom – neither allowing Spielberg to film in India, or allowing the film to be released there - and for good reason. (A friend of the PPCC’s even suggested that Roshan Seth’s career suffered after his involvement in Temple of Doom, though the PPCC would disagree. Roshan Seth has always had a very Anglicized aesthetic, which never fit well in the very un-British naach-gaana of Hindi cinema. When the 1980s “Raj Revival”* ended, Roshan Seth just had nowhere to go! But, we digress.)
The Last Crusade is the third installment of what was an already incredibly successful series, and it shows. With funding by George Lucas (of Star Wars fame), directed by the uber-established Spielberg, starring the iconically-jawed Harrison Ford, the film is often self-referential and self-congratulatory. For example, it plays to its mystique in the moments when River Phoenix, as a young Indy, accidentally whips himself in the chin, giving himself the scar characteristic of Harrison Ford (who would know about Ford’s scar except the established fanbase?), or when the Wilhelm scream, so often heard in George Lucas/Spielberg films, is once again replayed (again, for the benefit of the fanbase and others in the know). The presence of Sean Connery also emphasizes that James Bond fathered Indiana Jones, culturally and aesthetically, thus further cementing the series in a tradition of Hollywood adventure classics. It was one of those films that was a hit before it reached the cinemas, that was a classic before much time had passed.
That’s not to undermine its value as a film in its own right. The PPCC enjoyed the Last Crusade, partly because its Orientalism and ethnic stereotyping is more naïve than patronizing and there is a genuine curiosity for other cultures which underscores all the adventures in Venice and Hatay and Utah. (The quirky king of the Republic of Hatay, for example, who is a car aficionado.) Furthermore, Harrison Ford is straightforward and charismatic (and good-looking, whoowee) as the Toy Action Hero, while Sean Connery obviously enjoys playing upon his mythos. And Spielberg is, as always, a talented and intelligent director. There are a number of interesting visual symmetries. For example:
- When Indy and his dad are stuck in the burning castle, thanks to Dr. Jones Senior’s mishandling of a cigarette lighter, and the immediately following scene where the evil Nazi woman, Elsa, lights her cigarette.
- The spinning door in that castle; when Dr. Jones Sr. leans against it as it spins and, on the other side, a Nazi soldier has been shot and is leaning against it in the exact same position.
- Both Elsa and Indy reaching into the chasm for the Holy Grail, with the same postures.