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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #306: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The Indiana Jones franchise is one of those rare series where the third entry is just as good, if not better, than the previous two. It follows the same formula as the other movies, based in part on the plot of the James Bond movies: the dashing hero is given a mythical object to recover, he must get to it before an army of villains, many international borders are crossed in order to find the object, and there many chases involving cars, motorcycles, horses, and even a tank. In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) the villains are once again the Nazis, after the misfire of having Hindu cult leaders in the previous film. A wise choice, since everyone loves to see Nazis getting their butts kicked. An even wiser choice by director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas was casting Sir Sean Connery, James Bond himself, as Henry Jones Sr. Twice the Jones for the price of one.

My parents introduced me to the wild world of doctor Jones the same way they introduced me to the world of Star Wars: by recording the trilogy on VHS when it was playing on TV. My brother and I would watch those tapes until they were used and eventually we got the trilogy as a Christmas gift. Unfortunately for me, all of the Indiana Jones movies also have that one scene or sequence when things go horribly gory. In the third entry that scene is when the bad guy drinks from the wrong cup and his face melts as a result. That scene used to scare the shit out of me every time, but I got over it. I got so over it I now have the entire series on DVD (yes, even the fourth one) and enjoy it every time. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” set the bar, but “The Last Crusade” is my favorite.

This third entry has one of the best cold opens for any adventure movies and explains a few things about the character that were established in the previous two films. In 1912 Utah, young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) is horseback riding through the mountains with his Scout Troop. After separating from the group, he finds a cave filled with grave robbers who find an ancient artifact they plan to sell to the highest bidder. Already thinking like an academic, Indy believes the object belongs in a museum and so he steals it from them and rides off on his horse. The grave robbers chase him to a speeding train carrying a circus, where Indy acquires his iconic whip and his fear of snake. Because the robbers have the law on their side, they eventually get the object back but Indy earns their leader’s respect and in turn he gives Indy his even more iconic fedora. This sets up a jump cut to 1938 when a grown-up Indy finally recovers the object after a fight on a ship caught in a storm. Again, all these events are just the opening of the movie.

The real quest is for the mythical Holy Grail. Unlike the more academic “The Da Vinci Code” this quest is pure legend. An exposition scene between Indiana and rich businessman Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) describes the Grail as the cup Jesus drank from at the last supper and was later passed on from one mythical figure after another throughout history before being lost in time. It is said drinking from the cup would grant you immortality, so of course if such an object did exist many people would like a drink and achieve immortality. Donovan believes he has finally found the clues to the Grail’s location, but has lost his archeologist and wants Indy to find him. Indy tells him to talk to his father, who has spent his whole life searching for the Grail, only to be told his father is the missing archeologist.

Now it’s personal. Indy embarks on a plane to Venice where his father was last seen, but he is not going there alone. Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) joins him on his quest as he has known the Joneses for years and wants to find his old friend. Joining them in Venice is Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) the movie’s obligatory love interest. Merely an hour after landing in Venice, a clue is discovered in an underground catacomb (marked by a giant X), a boat chase ensues, and Indy is nearly chopped to pieces by a giant propeller. The chase is on.

As directed by Steven Spielberg, the action scenes are of course a lot of fun but the screenplay by Jeffrey Boam also provides a lot of humour in between. How can you not laugh at Indy’s face when he realizes he has slept with the same woman as his father? Well, he may be old but he’s still Sean Connery. Denholm Elliot is also very funny as Brody, especially when faced with danger for the first time in his life. When Indy’s ally Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) realizes they are about to be captured by the Nazis, Brody cannot understand he is being told to flee, even after Sallah tells him four times.

The film’s emotional crux is the relationship between Jones senior and junior. For one thing, Indy hates being called “Junior” and for another he never liked his father’s obsession with the Grail. He believes his father was too busy with his work during his childhood, and as a result they never had a real conversation. Yet when his father opens up during a moment of respite aboard a zeppelin flying over Germany and asks him what they should talk about, Indy is caught off guard and realizes he has no idea what to say. We’re men, we don’t talk a lot.

From a chase on a train in the Utah desert to a chase scene in the Turkish desert involving horses, trucks and a tank, this movie is pure adventure. You have a hero with the best hat in movie history, villains you love to hate, a femme fatale, a quest to save the world, and a father-son relationship that carries the movie. Enjoy the ride.


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