Friday 1 February 2008

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

As part of the PPCC’s intermittent series on the Evil Mainstream, we will now review the third installment of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The trailer.

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.
Yet there are some aspects of the film which stale considerably. When the PPCC was 12, the plotline seemed far-fetched overall but believably executed. Now it just all seems far-fetched. And there are moments of worrying morality. That is, the Nazis are portrayed as evil zombies, more often than not just punching bags in the way of the Main Villain (which, it turns out unsurprisingly, is evil collaborator Donovan). Now, while a moral dichotomy in which Nazis Are Evil is well-established in Hollywood movies, surely mowing down a line of Nazis with a machine gun would merit at least a moment of hesitation or remorse. Consider the scene when Indy and his father are bickering while their Nazi captors look on. Eventually Indiana, annoyed to the point of homicidal rage, grabs a machine gun, bellows, “Don’t call me Junior!” and kills four of five people. This scene is played for laughs, yet it is positively disturbing. There is a similar scene later in the film when Indy grabs a Nazi soldier’s gun and shoots through a line of Nazis with a single bullet; once again, there is no hesitation or remorse, though there is a pause as Indy marvels at the gun’s efficient German manufacturing. What’s revealing is how this same scene is played out in Spielberg’s later (and obviously much more serious) film Schindler’s List, when Schindler (Liam Neeson) is watching the forced evacuation of the Warsaw ghetto, and he sees a Nazi officer shooting through a line of Jewish prisoners. In that film, the scene’s proper emotional reaction – horror – is emphasized, rather than dismissed in cartoon fashion.
The homicidal rage/"Don't call me Junior!" scene.
But, of course, Spielberg was directing to very different audiences in Indiana Jones and in Schindler’s List. Trying to fit Indiana Jones into any realm of socio-political awareness or even just plain realism inevitably leads to frustration, and the best attitude is to take it as a live action cartoon. Only in cartoons can a man jump off a ship, watch it explode and sink, and remain completely unscathed, floating in the water beside it. Only in cartoons can an airplane enter a tunnel, rip its wings off, skid through it wingless, and exit on the other side, exploding immediately into spectacular flames. And then of course there’s the whole lonely Templar Knight thing… “Oh, you’ve come! Excellent. I’ve just put the kettle on. Have a cup of tea? Wait, no, don’t use that cup – oh, damn, I gave it away, didn’t I?” * “Raj Revival” is Salman Rushdie’s term for the 1980s British films which came out depicting a colonial-era, exoticized India. See A Passage to India, Gandhi, and basically anything else with Roshan Seth from that period.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Well now I can't decide whom to spend my evening with: Shashi or Harrison Ford. Win-win, though.

Sanket Vyas said...

Although this movie did age and never held up as well as the original it was great seeing Connery & Ford exhibit genuine chemistry together. This movie was said to have been made as an apology by Spielberg for the train wreck that was 'Temple of Doom'. Would have loved to see Connery back in the 4th one this summer but he felt he was not up to the physical challenge of the role anymore...