Jones and the Last Crusade is a swashbuckling
adventure film, deeply rooted in the genre of
action adventure, and devoted with nostalgic fervor
to the adventure serials made in the USA during
the 30s and 40s.
Actually the movie is so much rooted in being
the perfect action adventure film, that it follows
presets and clear points that have made it a paradigm
of the genre. Although made in the late 80s, the
movie has a certain innocence and faith in goodness
and the human spirit that clearly belongs to earlier
The third part of a franchise, but
working as a stand-alone piece in itself, the
opening of The Last Crusade
already sets the narrative and stylistic tone
of the film. It is a high adventure with epic
overtones and proportions. The movie seems out
of time, belonging to a dream of sorts. The heroic
charm and a certain sense of naivety brought in
by the stereotyped, almost cartoon-like Nazi villains,
and Harrison Ford’s mythical portrayal of
a character that is not unlike the ones played
by Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney
make this film an apparent lost work made in a
decade more often associated with the “teenage”
films of John Hughes. The fact it takes place
in the 30s, the epic score and distant and exotic
locations in deserts show this as a fable, a tale
to be told around the fire. It is not supposed
to be, at all, real life. Escapism as only Spielberg
and Lucas can deliver.
A structural resource commonly used
in 30s adventure serials, and used in all Indiana
Jones films, is to begin the narrative in the
middle of another adventure and then take the
protagonist to the main story, thus giving the
audience an electric rush of adrenalin, making
it associate and care for the character, and then
presenting us with the main drama. In the first
film, Indiana is in a South American Jungle, getting
an ancient statue from a cave. After an exciting
chase sequence, the proper search for the lost
Ark of Covenant begins. In the second film,
The Temple of Doom, Indiana begins his
adventure in Shanghai, negotiating the sale of
an ancient idol in a restaurant and having to
deal with evil gangsters. In The
Last Crusade the opening adventure has
two functions: to prepare the audience for action
adventure sequences, establish their mindset and
expectations accordingly, and to shed some light
on Indiana’s past. The film begins with
young Indiana, played by the late River Phoenix,
in a trip with his scout team to caves. There,
he finds out that a group of men is taking an
important object from the site to sell it.
This approach to story telling
was born out of 1930’s film serial convention
where cliffhanging scenes were created, in which
the dramatic conclusion of a situation wouldn’t
be available at the end of the film. One would
have to wait until the next weekend to go back
to the theater and find out how the serial ended.
It creates great expectation and gives the audience
questions that demand answering. Will the hero
survive? Will he save the girl in peril on time?
"Belongs in a museum!" scene
on the train.
The movie begins in mysterious silence,
as we are presented with a strange and inhospitable
desert. It could be anywhere. A group of men riding
horses appears. They are boy scouts and their
leader. A very young Indiana Jones, with his comic
relief chubby sidekick friend, finds that a group
of mischievous thieves are stealing an important
artifact from local caves, a golden cross. Indiana
proceeds to try and stop the site robbers, in
true heroic fashion. From the moment he lays his
hands on the cross, the movie’s narrative
goes into fast cutting action mode. Appropriately,
a train appears in the middle of the desert, so
as to shift the scenario, and Indiana uses it
as a tool to escape. Within five minutes we have
something at stake (an ancient valuable artifact,
that, according to Jones “Belongs in a museum”)
something horrible that can happen (Jones CAN
be caught by the robbers) and something really
good that can happen (he might ESCAPE! With the
cross). The moral balance of the character is
also very clear: Indiana says at the beginning
of the chase: “This belongs in a museum”.
We have a clearly good guy here, risking his life
for the good of an archeological artifact. He’s
doing it all for the good of the world.
Indy hostage on a ship.
As soon as that chase ends, we are
taken to current day Indiana Jones, as a hostage
on a ship near the Portuguese coast. A heavy storm
hits the boat he is in, and we soon learn that
he is again after the cross, many years later,
still facing the man who stole it from him when
he was a teenager. After an exciting fight sequence,
Indiana escapes and the boat is sunk by a loud
explosion. This is the second adventure sequence
in the movie, all in less than ten minutes of
The movie has abounding moments
of comedy, gags in almost every scene. This again
brings a light freshness to what could be an otherwise
darker feature. For instance, while standing on
a Panzer tank, Indiana shoots at three Nazi officers
with a single shot. The bullet penetrates the
men, which are lined up, killing them all instantly.
This scene is here in comedic terms, but what
we are witnessing is actually an horrific event,
the slaughtering of men. Actually, in Schindler’s
List, made not too long after The
Last Crusade, during the sequence of the
destruction of the Krakow ghetto, there is a very
similar scene, with, this time, German soldiers
lining up Jewish men to execute them with fewer
bullets. In this context the scene is very horrific
and disturbing. So much so that Schindler’s
girlfriend, who is watching the scene with him,
from a distance, asks them to leave immediately.
Indy approached by suspicious men.
As we are presented to adult Indiana,
he is a professor at Barnett college, but as soon
as he is on screen, giving a class on how “90%
of archeology is studied in a library, reading”
he is called by a rich art collector. The way
in which he is summoned by this collector is particular
ingenious: as Jones leaves college, he is followed
by a sinister looking dark car. This immediately
creates suspicion on the viewer. We don’t
know if this men following the main character
are friends or villains? A small moment of tension
that wouldn’t even be necessary, since the
screenplay could simply have Jones being approached
in friendly fashion by the collector’s men.
However, by having it in, the film has got and
added “beat”, a mini-crisis, that
keeps the interest of the viewer sparking and
Indy examining Donovan's stone tablet.
The collector, as we learn, is Walter
Donovan. He is after Indiana for he wants the
premiere treasure hunter and archeologist in the
world to go after the mythical Holy Grail, for
him. And thus, at 17 minutes into the film, we
are introduced to the Quest at hand. Donovan had
found an ancient stone vaguely pointing the location
of the Grail. At first the idea doesn’t
interest Indiana very much, which might sound
unusual for an adventurer and treasure hunter,
but motivation to is given to the character when
he is told by Donovan that his father was the
first Jones he contacted to go after the Grail,
and he has mysteriously disappeared in Europe.
This immediately brings emotional link to the
situation and makes us understand and accept that
he should by any means go after his father. Everything
is set: the character has got a strong emotional
reason to risk himself and we are convinced. The
meeting happens when the movie is 17 minutes into
the story, and we have a little over five minutes
of exposition. In this five minutes Donovan:
- Situates the Grail historically,
giving it context and meaning, making it the
MacGuffin of this episode in the series.
- Explains the magical powers
the Grail has, of bringing eternal life to those
who drink of it.
- Creates historical interest
on the viewer.
- Exposes Indiana to the fact
his father has disappeared, and engages audience
with his need to save his father.
Indy understands his father's need to
go after the Holy Grail.
As soon as Indiana meets his father,
he will also have to bend to Henry Jones’s
need to find the Grail. Personally, Indiana is
above the cheap, selfish will to poses the powerful
object. His only interest is to save his father.
However, the script needed for the character to
stay interested for longer than that. So another
element to drive the main character is given,
as explained by Henry Jones: if the Grail falls
into the hands of the Nazis “The Legions
of Darkness will walk the earth”. Jones
is not only going in a crazy quest, he is actually
saving the world, in true hero fashion. It’s
important to note that the character then decides
to risk his life for something that has no scientific
explanation at all, completely believing in the
power of the Grail as a magical object without
ever questioning it. Its taken for sure, and for
granted, that the Grail is a magical device which
will give superhuman powers to anyone who possesses
it, it’s not an old cup, a fascinating relic,
maybe very valuable for being something physically
unique, but by no means associated with the supernatural.
No, in the world of Indiana Jones the supernatural
exists, and apparently everyone knows about it.
It’s impressive how still
stereotyped some of the characters are. The ancient
Christian sect that tries to stop Jones –
and the Nazis – of reaching the Grail are
moustache using, dark skinned strange men whose
deaths mean nothing to us or to Jones, seen as
exotic and violent, almost primitive. The same
happens with the character of John Rhys-Davies,
Sallah, when talking with Indiana at a certain
point, tells him that “Your father and Brody
are in the belly of that steel beast” as
if he was some sort of primitive savage that sees
modern technology in terms of basic metaphors
made with animal physiology he can only identify
similarities of what he see in nature. The same
is true for the negotiations of the Nazis with
the Sultan of Hatay. When presented with valuables,
he ignores them, but falls in love with the Nazi’s
Rolls Royce Phantom II. He gives them permission
to take away what would be the most important
artifact ever from his land, a magic tool that
gives eternal life, in exchange for a car, like
an Indian trading land for a mirror.
Christian sect member informing Indy
after the Venice boat chase.
Spielberg and Lucas bring back the
innocence of the 30s not only with grandiose action
sequences and a few prejudices, but also with
great suspension of disbelief, as in the scene
in which Indiana flies through a glass window
without a scratch (when rescuing his father in
the castle, in Austria) or when falling and fighting
and violently falling over a tank in the desert.
He is always barely hurt, if it all. Other logistical
problems that don’t deal with reality would
come up when we notice that Indiana steals a boat
when in Venice, whilst trying to escape from persecution
by a sinister group of traditional Christians
who want to prevent him from finding the Grail,
since it is a sacred object and it should be left
in peace. In this sequence, Indiana is shot by
machine guns, crashes with other boats, boats
persecuting him are destroyed and the occupants
die. However, when the chase is finished, they
return to their hotel rooms with no problems.
In spite of the great turmoil and violence of
this happenings, authorities never show up, neither
the owners of the stolen boats. The movie demands
great suspension of disbelief, but its narrative
and characters are not concerned with “realism”
and that is not the point of this type of storytelling.
Larger-than-life characters and situations are
what is interesting and what will keep the viewer
satisfied. Indiana Jones has got such a clear
goal, the audience will understand his desire
almost immediately. The mythical characters and
a clear sense of good against absolute evil goes
over any need to stand near common reality.
The movie gives the viewer small
clues. In this way, we all work as detectives.
The violent persecution in Venice ends with Indiana
having to go to Austria, to Castle Brunwald, where
in grandiose adventure scenes he will finally
find his kidnapped father. However, in an interesting
narrative twist, we find out that Henry Jones
was not kidnapped at all, it was all a set up
by the Nazis, aided by Femme Fatale Elsa Schneider
(with whom both Joneses had a brief romance) and
Donovan, who actually are in league with the Nazis,
an unexpected turn of events.
Henry calling his son "Indiana"
for the very first time.
This is one of the most comical
episodes of the series, without a doubt, and in
a series of father-and-son errors, the Jones start
their escape. This sequence is filled with comic
gags and clumsy actions by Henry Jones, a character
who really doesn’t seem to take it very
serious at all. When Indiana asks his father to
get his lighter from his pocket to burn the ropes
that tie them, Henry drops the lighter in the
carpet and a fire initiates. However, he neglects
to give this information to Indiana, creating
a comic and urgent situation. Henry Jones will
be Indiana’s comic sidekick from the moment
they first meet in the castle on. They have presented
him as a man of theories and concepts, not of
action, and whenever he has to take part in Indiana’s
adventures, he creates moments of slapstick comedy.
Henry Jones is a selfish man, completely devoted
to his own interests, that being the study of
the Grail. Through his conversations with Indiana
we gather that he has neglected his family through
this obsession with the Grail, which is a strong
display of his character. This will pay off later,
when Henry saves Indiana in the final adventure
sequence of the film. Schneider takes the Grail
beyond a sacred seal which is in the floor of
the cave where the artifact had been kept for
ages immemorial, causing metaphysical wrath to
unleash upon them and making the entire building
crumble. She falls to her death, and Indiana is
following the same way when Henry saves him, holding
his hand. However, the Grail is within his reach,
and he tries to get it. Henry then says “Indiana,
let it go” calling the character “Indiana”
and not “Junior” for the first time
in the movie. This makes clear that the character
now understands his son is someone with a individual
identity that must be respected and acknowledged.
This is the scene in which he cares. This is also
the first time Henry Jones acts in complete selflessness,
out of pure love for his son, in a scene which
finally rounds up the character and doesn’t
portrait him as either a comic relief or a clumsy
sidekick to Indiana. Their relationship is therefore
complete, and they can proceed to escape the crumbling
temple and ride off into the setting sun, another
traditional scene of westerns and classic adventure
stories. It’s the final knot, untied just
as the film is ending.
Spielberg and Lucas present us
with a nostalgic world view that looks for simple
answers and simple truths. With few exceptions,
such as the somewhat complicated father-son relationship
between Henry and Indiana, most characters are
cardboard cut and very one dimensional,simplistic.
This is made so as to enable the movie to move
on from action sequence to action sequence. There
is very little character development or change
here. What we have is a number of adventure set
pieces and the main goal is to prevent the Nazis
from getting the Grail. This is a strategic aim,
not an internal one. The internal journey the
characters go through is to finally settle their
relationship as father and son, but this is background
to the high adventure. This is not a meditation
of the differences between two generations or
the fact that Indiana had to grow up alone and
face his own demons without
the aid of parental help, a study in early maturity.
This movie is about action. The action set pieces
can easily be seen schematically:
- Intro/Young Indiana Jones in
- Second Intro/ recovering the
stolen cross on the Portuguese Coast.
- Exposition: Donovan tells Jones
about the Grail.
- Indiana goes to Venice with
Marcus Brody, meets Elsa Schneider (soon to
be traitor) and lives a short adventure in the
sewers of Venice, followed by a persecution
scene in the sea.
- Short romantic interlude with
the sexy Elsa.
- Trip to Austria/Germany with
exciting sequences of investigation, betrayal
(Elsa is revealed to be a Nazi) and finally,
- Trip to Berlin to recover the
Grail diary (which is not an action piece but
almost an historical interlude, featuring a
cameo from Hitler himself).
- Flight out of Germany through
a Zeppelin, ending with an exciting chase sequence
of a spare airplane being chased by Nazi fighters.
- Showdown at the desert: early
Christian group and the Joneses x Nazis. Jones
goes there to save Brody, who has been taken
by the Nazis. He is the sort of hero that leaves
no man behind. Climax of this sequence happens
in an enormous action set piece with Indiana
following a German Panzer Tank, finalizing when
Indiana and a Nazi officer have a fight on top
of the tank, which is approaching an abyss.
- Final sequence in the ancient
temple where the Grail is. The sequence is set
up of four dangerous booby traps and interesting,
ancient looking caves. Plus, the climax of the
film: The Grail is found.
Indy goes after the Grail to save his
To add for the
tension and need of Indiana to actually get the
Grail himself, the writers, Lucas, Phillip
Kaufmann and Menno Meyjes have developed something
to give him extra incentive: Donovan shoots Henry
in the stomach, and explains Indiana that only
the miraculous healing power of the Grail will
be able to save his father. This makes us root
and understand the scene completely, and it definitely
gives the quest more weight and meaning. He is
not only getting the Grail because Donovan, and
the Nazis, have their guns pointed to him, Brody
and Sallah. He is getting the grail because his
father is bleeding in the floor of the place,
and with each passing minute, possible death approaches.
The small moments of pause in the
film, with no adventure, are either small historical
and archeological exposition or small moments
of comedy between the Joneses. No time or moment
is lost, and clocking at just over two hours,
the movie wastes no time in no other type of information.
The main structure is firmly set to enable the
action sequences to exist with a purpose.
Jones and the Last Crusade is a homage
to a simple life, fixed, recognizable and elementary
values such as friendship, trust, generosity,
care for others and the world are the tonic forces.
It’s a simpler, safer world than the one
we live in, that the filmmakers presents us with.
It’s an idealized world, where the death
of “villains” doesn’t bring
real questioning, falls do not hurt and evil is
a cardboard like emotion, one sided, simple, and
simply put to rest. It’s a larger and brighter
than life world. It’s a world with simpler
truths and more clear responses. A world in which
life is funnier, less dangerous, more adventurous,
less complicated and much more magical than the
world we live in. A world in which we would LIKE
to live. Even if for only 127 minutes.