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Help Support Features Articles Last Crusade Narrative Form Case-study

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
A Narrative Form Case-study

by Joaquim Ghirotti - posted on Dec. 25, 2007

Indiana 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 eras.

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.

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Last Crusade's opening.

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?

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"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.

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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 film.

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.

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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 alive.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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 the caves.
  • 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, escape.
  • 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.
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Indy goes after the Grail to save his father.

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.

Indiana 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.


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