But isn’t Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the best of the bunch?
Welcome to a new series in which controversial views are given a chance to make themselves known. Of course we’re all friends here but feel free to disagree (healthily) in the comments below.
A number of weeks ago I found myself quarantined after my fiancée came down with Coronavirus symptoms, it was a scary and unpredictable time, a feeling no doubt shared by a lot of you recently. However as the illness waned and light could be seen again I found myself in need of something warm and calming. The sort of feeling found in a bloody good piece of filmic entertainment, and nothing comes closer to bloody good than the Indiana Jones trilogy. (Yes I’m aware there are four, and whilst I like parts of Crystal Skull-the first half is a lot of fun-it lacks the innate watchability of its forebears) Watching the trilogy back to back over consecutive days a dangerous thought entered my head. Is the Last Crusade the best of the bunch? I’m going to argue, hopefully successfully, that it is.
Now many out there will shudder at the idea of Raiders of the Lost Ark being anything less than peak Indy. And yes it is not only one of Steven Spielberg’s best, it is also one of the best action films ever made. Yet watching it back I realised there are elements of it that just don’t stack up as well alongside Last Crusade. Many chalk Raiders up as a film with a relentless pace, and though stretches of it do bare that description (notably the wonderful extended set piece in the desert culminating in that oh so marvellously staged truck chase), it has a sometimes slow stilted feel that may engage you more with the beautifully sketched characters but occasionally leaves you willing it to move on. Repeated watches only solidify that fact when character beats are all but rehearsed in your head verbatim. Whereas Last Crusade has an actual urgent pace, driven by the desperate need to find Indy’s father (a magnificent Sean Connery) and the ensuing desire to stop those pesky Nazis. The subsequent action set pieces are also much larger in Crusade and better spread out assisting that feeling of movement.
“Last Crusade has been honed and beaten into peak Spielberg entertainment”
Comparing action scenes between the two is perhaps not the fairest thing, as clearly Raiders is the small scrappy underdog to its second and third brothers. Crusade, especially, having the biggest budget meaning we get action throughout its entirety, culminating in that extended tank battle (albeit one that is notably the Raiders truck chase ramped tenfold). In some ways I think Raiders is held to a loftier level owing to the aforementioned scrappiness. At it heart it feels like it comes from the minds of two men (Spielberg and George Lucas famously came up with it whilst on holiday together) just having fun without the need for excess. Spielberg was determined to keep Raiders under budget and on time after the torturously expensive shoots for Jaws and 1941. This kept him tight, focused and content not to overthink things. However Last Crusade came at the end of the 80s, his skills continuing to grow, meaning his filmmaking had risen to an elevated level to maximise things into peak entertainment. Oftentimes Raiders showcases that scrappy nature, particularly in some strange editing choices. Take the action in the Egyptian market. Indy and Marian ending up in a chase that has a number of comedic beats (the baskets and that infamous non-sword fight) but feels oddly inert. This is largely down to an edit that cuts in order to foster pace but leaves the emotional connection adrift. Marian supposedly dies in the explosion at its end and yet it doesn’t really land as a shock. Take a look below:
Last Crusade, on the other hand, has been honed and beaten into peak Spielberg entertainment. It just lands beat to beat to beat with such clarity and momentum. Everything that happens feeds into the next scene with Spielberg pulling all the craft from each department to deliver their very best. John Williams delivers his best Indy score; jaunty, action packed and loaded with emotive cues. Douglas Slocombe photographs it all with a warming beauty, coupled with Michael Kahn’s sharp as a tack editing. In fact one of my favourite ever movie cuts appears here, when Young Indy (a wonderful River Phoenix) is given that legendary fedora and lifts his head to reveal older Indy, that spine-tingling score reaching its peak.
All this is well and good, yet there is one thing I love most about Last Crusade and the one element that allows it to rise above Raiders (as I’m sure film scholars will disagree in my argument that the craft is better) is the emotional connection it makes. I’ve spoken before on this site that for a film to really work for me I have to have feel it in my heart, no matter how smart or well made it may be if there lacks an emotive tissue then its null and void. Raiders gets me from a sense of loving nostalgia and its utterly charming personality, Temple of Doom (largely unmentioned here yet I love its dark heart) is an unpredictable rollercoaster ride particularly in its final act, but Crusade has both of those alongside a touching story of father and son. The other films gave us a reason to love Indy, a glimpse at who he was through his dogged determination to keep going and his passion for justice in history, but we never really knew him. Crusade changes all that. Right from that whirlwind opening sequence we see the young boy who yearned for adventure, taking the best of his father (that love of history) but driven to seek it out for himself. His father trapped in his books, and we later learn in grief for his lost wife, whilst Indiana had to find his own way. The introduction of Connery is a blessed scene of comedy timing and performance, the two Joneses sparring off each other with such affection that it becomes infectious.
It builds throughout before rising to the fore in an emotionally charged finale, the elder Jones fighting for his life as Indy tackles three traps before that wonderful melancholy confrontation with the lost Knight. In Raiders I always felt that people forget the finale is a bit of a damp squib. Sure those gooey effects scared children the world over (this series has always thrived in the world of mildly disturbing imagery), but Indy is completely superfluous to what happens. We get no cathartic final confrontation, just a lesson learned that you should never mess with history if you don’t understand it. A great lesson but one with little dramatic value. Crusade has elements of Raiders’ ending in the monstrous villain death and grappling with supernatural elements yet connects us to it through Indy’s active participation. My eyes always well up when Connery’s Henry whispers Indiana in an effort to pull Indy away from the archaeology that has always consumed them both. A moment so beautifully set up by writer Jeffrey Boam, by having Henry refuse to say the younger Jones’ name throughout. Before subverting again when it’s revealed the family dog was named Indiana. The humour constantly at work in this film never fails to make me smile.
You could argue that Raiders is perhaps the better film, whereas Last Crusade is perhaps the most fun film. A reason why I revisit it more frequently than its earlier instalments. But to elevate something into maximum fun, takes a level of craft few have. Spielberg has it here in spades. Firing on all those cylinders that have made him America’s foremost director. Or perhaps it’s just the drink talking…..