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SpielBLOG: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

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Along with many others, I watched Solo with a growing sense of disappointment. Here was an iconic Star Wars character, a hero, who didn’t really need an origin story. And yet here we were. And the fact was the origin story of another Harrison Ford hero had already been done and done well. It comes in the first ten minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The prologue of the movie shows us young Indy (River Phoenix) as he discovers a band of villains – straight from Tom Sawyer – robbing a historical artefact, which Indy manages to get away with. From John Ford’s Monument Valley, there’s a Keatonesque chase through a train transporting a circus – The Greatest Show on Earth? – until they end up in James Bond’s house. On one level a meta-commentary on film influences, on another we see a jokey making of a hero. We see Indy get his whip, his fear of snakes, his scar, his passion for history, a possible role model in Fedora – who was originally scripted to be Abner Ravenwood – before a match cut to adult Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) recovering the stolen item – the Cross of Coronado – and finishing off some unfinished business.

It’s a deeply satisfying piece of cinema. Fan service before there was such a thing. Phoenix is great as Indy, basing his performance on watching Harrison Ford as they filmed Mosquito Coast together. We also partially glimpse Jones Sr. who will obviously become fundamental later in the film.

I have to admit that this is the only Indiana Jones I never saw at the cinema. I’m not sure why I missed it. I have a feeling as with Star Wars figures, Dungeons and Dragons and Science Fiction novels, I had consigned Indiana Jones to the ‘childish things’ bucket that St. Paul told us to put away once we’re grown. It was one of the dumbest things he said. And St. Paul said a lot of dumb things.

Watching it now, it strikes me as Spielberg’s most successful comedy to date. Harrison Ford seems more than happy to play Indy for humour – see the Scottish accent which has to be intentionally bad surely – and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) and Salah (John Rhys Davis) are both happy to ham up the ridiculous. Some of the action is hilarious as well – the jousting motorcycles and the plane without wings in the tunnel. But the true gems come from the father and son relationship of the Joneses, with Sean Connery giving a brilliant turn as a stern but ultimately loving father. Just hearing Indy calling his father ‘sir’ and being called ‘Junior’, immediately hits the right incongruous note, if that makes sense. Gone is the tough guy, and here’s the kid being berated by his demanding and embarrassing dad. ‘I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!’ That whole sequence in the castle is genius and Spielberg knows when he has good dialogue and allows it to flow.

Spielberg felt obliged to make the third film, partly to apologize for the second film which he felt was too dark. This might go some way to explaining the decided lightness of touch. Also the return of some familiar elements from the first film. Salah and Brody as noted above make a triumphant return as well as the best villains: the Nazis. Topping this is an audacious scene with Adolf Hitler. It feels like something out of Inglourious Basterds now.

Of course, there has to also be a quest. And here we have the Arthurian Grail legend which places Indiana Jones in a pantheon of ancient heroes. It also suggests that both he and his dad are now immortal, something I didn’t really understand. And still don’t.

If the series had finished there, with Indy and his companions riding off into a literal sunset, then the trilogy could arguably go down as one of the most complete and consistent trilogies ever made. All Spielberg had to do was not make another Indiana Jones film.

Unfortunately…

Check out all the films in the SpielBLOG
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