In my recent piece on Raiders of the Lost Ark, I touched briefly on the nuance that Harrison Ford infuses into what could have been another ordinary hero. In both that film and its sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ford embeds a range of detail into the character of Jones that the screenplays do not. He is at once a serious professor and a boyish adventurer. Some would say he womanizes, but Ford makes Jones more as the kind of person who really might have wanted to settle down if he wasn’t so impulsive and defensive. He verbally spars with women as if he was in the schoolyard and exhibits a similar immaturity in his physical fights with enemies. The point is that Indiana Jones is vulnerable, and Harrison Ford taps into that both hilarious and subdued ways throughout both films. While the stylistic splendor of the movies also plays an important role in their success, Ford’s layered portrayal of a character whose heroic persona is offset by his own arrested development is the anchor of the films.
The third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, represents a significant shift for the series. The previous two films kept the storytelling focus on the adventure and left Ford to inject humanity into the character with his performances. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the emphasis is taken off of the adventure and placed on the character of Jones himself. It does this through the prism of Indy’s rocky relationship with his father, Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery). Although the plot concerns the search for the Holy Grail, the real focus of the film is on Ford and Connery, whose undeniable chemistry results in wonderfully awkward interplay.
Many retrospective accounts of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade credit Sean Connery for his portrait of a traditionally stern father, but it’s Ford that shines in every exchange between the two. Indy’s plight for his father’s love and acceptance comes through in quiet moments that likely carry subatomic weight for anyone who’s every struggled to connect with a parent. Certainly, there are a few over-the-top moments of speechifying (and a rather contrived finale that converges the Grail and Papa Jones), but the film largely carries out this thread through well-observed humor. Notice the dismissing tone in Ford’s voice in the scene when he and Connery are tied back-to-back and flames are quickly engulfing the room. When Jones Sr. has “something to tell” him, Jones casually retorts: “Don’t get sentimental now, Dad. Save it ‘till we get outta here.” Another favorite exchange of mine comes after a narrow encounter with a plane in a tunnel. As the plane flies away to turn around, Indy races to get away from the scene before stopping and remembering that his father is still with him. After belting out a disapproving “Dad!”, he calms his voice, adjusts his hat, and keeping the same condescending tone, says: “He’s coming back.”
As in moments like these, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade often beautifully expresses the challenges of father-son relationships. In fact, so affecting is the character focus that it also articulates the triviality of the actual Grail-quest and illustrates the central problem of the film. Aside from a handful of exuberant sequences—most notably the train-chase opener with a young Indy (River Phoenix) escaping from bandits in the Southwest desert—Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade lacks the color and energy of the previous episodes. One of the main missteps with the story is its self-conscious attempt to return to the sensibilities of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is likely a response to the negative feedback Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom received. Nevertheless, this entry lacks the lore and the colorful characters that marked Raiders and falls short in generating much tension or interest in the main conflict. The desert tank chase represents a rare moment that coheres the film’s disparate sensibilities into a big set piece with a real sense of stakes, but otherwise Indiana and the Last Crusade struggles to make the combination of its elements work.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a problematic film. Though despite taking on water in various places, it remains afloat on the unstated benevolence of its observations. In a way, the film can be seen as an allegory for many parent/child relationships. There are certainly rough patches, but sometimes—even when you expect a big moment—a simple brush of the shoulders and a “Well done,” says everything. (Steven Spielberg, 1989) ***