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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Retro Review: Return to Form

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BY April 10, 2020
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When we last were here, in my deep dive through the Indiana Jones canon, I had just finished Temple of Doom. In case you missed it, me and noted Jones enthusiast Steven Spielberg graded it, “Hmm, not my favorite.” So what would I think of the next installment in the franchise? Read my Last Crusade retro review to find out.

Wait, Is This Another Prequel?

Last Crusade retro review You kids today, with your dungarees and your hula hoops and your Timothee Chalamets, just don’t know. (image via Paramount/Lucasfilm)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade begins in 1912. As the setting, Arches National Park, is deep in native land–everything is native land–I was immediately wary. What fresh horrors would I see after the last one? And then they showed me the face of my first love.

If you weren’t alive at the same time as River Phoenix, then you might not understand how special he was. Let me try and explain. Or let Richard Dreyfuss explain. During Variety‘s oral history of the making of Stand By Me, he said:

There are certain actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. When Philip died, what we were grieving about was not only that he died, but that he took a very well-known future away from us. We knew he had all these great performances to come. That left a big hole. The same thing is true of River Phoenix. He was, without question, the best of that group of actors that came up at that time. Movie stardom is not just acting talent. It’s not just your ability to move an audience. It’s a combination of a lot of things. And he had it. He died so young that it was a real theft. A real robbery.

Beyond his talent, he was kind and he was decent and he was preternaturally progressive for an 80s teen idol. And he was real.

So landing him as young Indiana Jones–or Henry, as he was still known then–wasn’t just a casting coup. It grounds the movie, which is necessary, because it goes full bananas after that. When we meet him, young Boy Scout Henry is out with his troop when he stumbles upon a group of thieves taking Coronado’s cross.

Okay, Son, But This Is the LAST Crusade

Last Crusade retro review image via Paramount/Lucasfilm

Before you can say, “Don’t steal that way–steal this way!” teenage Jones is stealing the cross back. And there his shenanigans began. Because besides grounding the movie, this opening introduces common Indy tropes like the fear of snakes, the belief in museums, and the reckless whip. And his Daddy issues.

After that brief sojourn into the past, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade finds us joining adult Indiana a couple of years after the events of Raiders. He’s back working as a professor when businessman Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) informs him that Indiana’s semi-estranged father, Henry, Sr. (Sean Connery), is missing. The elder Jones had been on the track of the fabled Holy Grail. So now Indiana’s on the track of the Holy Grail, along with Henry’s colleague, Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody). Adventure and excitement ensue.

I think it’s no spoiler to say that the Joneses are reunited–all the promotional material shows them together, for one thing. In addition, why would you cast Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in a movie together if not to have them play off each other? It had been over 20 years since Connery, long been an action icon by this point, made his debut as the world’s most famous secret agent man, James Bond. And like with Ford, Indiana Jones, of course, was the second massive franchise in which he starred. (Can’t remember what the other one was.) Obviously, you want them together.

The Phrase “Retro Review” Has Levels, Man

But does it work? In retrospect, and viewing with 21st century eyeballs, there are a lot of elements that don’t. They’ve calmed down on the wildly offensive details that littered Temple of Doom, but that doesn’t mean that Last Crusade is problem-free. At the time the movie’s set, for example, we’re just mere months from the beginning of the Nazi’s killing spree. (While violent acts, including the Röhm-Putsch, had occurred earlier, 1939 would see the formation of Einsatzgruppen, or mobile murder squads.) It just seems a little weird, man, to be goofing around with Nazis again.

Last Crusade retro review image via Paramount/Lucasfilm

I mean, yes, they are the villains. But if you’d only watched the movie, you’d just assume they were a little–or a lot–power-hungry. Outside of that very brief book-burning scene, you have to fill in the other blanks yourself. On the other hand, though, I guess that’s good. The last time they had to invent a villain motive, they made Temple.

And there is an argument that like its predecessors, Last Crusade is a product of its time–a real-life retro review. At its time, for instance, its director was still years away from making Schindler’s List. After that, he just didn’t feel like making another movie with Nazi “cartoon villains.” So the return to the Nazi well for Indy 4 was scrapped, and I assume that means that Crystal Skull turned out sober and respectful. Can’t wait.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Retro Review

But until then, back to crusading. While this movie isn’t a carbon copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s a closer cousin than Temple. Like Raiders and Temple, Last Crusade sees Indiana and his compatriots, including old friend Sallah, careening through various exciting set pieces and getting through only by the skin of their teeth. These action scenes can be a little jumbled and chaotic at times, especially at the beginning of the movie, but the movie wisely reins them in just enough. They become fun then and not just exhausting.

And speaking of fun, Temple was splashed with what was apparently supposed to be doses of slapstick humor, but often played as merely silly. Last Crusade doesn’t have that problem. Put simply, its jokes are just funnier. (Uh, outside of what I think is supposed to be a joke about Elsa, um, excavating both Jones men. That’s just weird and uncomfortable.)

Last Crusade Retro Review: The Takeaway

Clearly, though, the father/son reunion and reconciliation is supposed to be the heart of the movie. And it works well enough, although I didn’t find it as moving as I think I was supposed to. But overall, it was a pretty good flick. Second place for me so far.

What do you think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Let us know by yelling from a respectful 6 feet away in the comments or on social media.

featured image via Paramount/Lucasfilm

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at salome@comicyears.com.

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