Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade part 2

Stills swiped from here.hitcounter

Yesterday we left Indy and his father midway through Act II, at the crossroads of their relationship, and the crossroads of the narrative. Indy’s got his father, but he still hasn’t achieved his goal — communication with his father. The chase to the crossroads, while light by Indiana Jones standards, has some lovely character beats as Indy grins about the bad guy’s he’s foiled and his father looks bored and winds his watch. (Indy “jousts” with one of the bad guys, underscoring the “Indy as modern-day knight” metaphor that will become important later.) And honestly, if you can’t engage with your sons during a motorcycle chase with a gaggle of Nazi stooges, it’s probably never going to happen. They argue at the crossroads, with Indy’s father going so far as to slap him for “blasphemy” when he uses the lord’s name in vain.

Speaking of using the lord’s name in vain, Indy and his father next hop over to Berlin, where Indy disguises himself and attends a Nazi book-burning rally. In one of my favorite Indiana Jones moments, he gets his father’s diary from Elsa only to run into Adolf Hitler, who obligingly autographs the diary and hands it back. (This is a moment that required a little explanation to my son, who barely even remembers that the Justice League, not too long ago, had to thaw out a frozen Adolf Hitler in order to re-jigger an altered time-line of a supervillain-influenced World War II.)

Indy and his father manage to get aboard a zeppelin out of Germany, headed I suppose for Hatay, where the grail is apparently hidden. They are pursued by third villain Vogel but Indy disposes of him without too much trouble.

Indy and his father, safe for a moment, have a moment to talk. Indy is now within striking distance of his goal, but finds, once the opportunity presents itself, he cannot speak. First he’s too angry, then he’s too intimidated — communication seems to be beyond him and he says he can’t think of anything to talk about. Dad, relieved to have the onus of communication lifted, cheerfully invites Indy to “get down to work” with him on recovering the grail.

And it’s not a very deep insight, but here in this scene is the core of the movie — Indy wants to communicate with his father, and his father, through his disinterest in communication, hits on a simple truth. Men, not just fathers and sons, communicate best through shared action. Longtime reader of this journal “The Editor” wondered yesterday if Spielberg’s fan-base is largely male because of Spielberg’s Oedipal issues, and while there is certainly truth to that, I think it’s more that Spielberg understands that men tend to show their affection most purely through action, not through words. When a father wants to show he loves his son, he plays catch with him, or builds a model with him, or goes camping with him. When men want to show they love each other, they play basketball or watch the game — or make a movie. Indy doesn’t know it at the moment, but his father’s avoidance of communication and insistence upon action will lead to a deeper, more profound communication than a simple conversation would.

Anyway, the zeppelin turns around, Indy and his father escape via handy biplane (don’t try this at home) and beat the bad guys in a comic aerial shootout, which deposits them, apparently, in the country of Hatay (which I just found out is a real place — live and learn).

ACT III (1:22:00-2:05:00)

Donovan, having collected Vogel, Elsa and Marcus, arrives in Hatay and bribes the local Grand Poobah into providing soldiers and military hardware for the journey to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon. I wonder what they have told the Grand Poobah — “hey, there is a completely uninteresting thing we’d like to go and fetch out of one of your local ancient wonders — is that okay with you?” Apparently the locals either don’t know about the Canyon of the Crescent Moon (funny that the Holy Grail would be secreted in a location with an obviously Islam-inspired name) or they don’t care to venture there — what with the decapitating-machines and whatnot inside.

Donovan ventures out into the desert with his team, and, in an inversion of a similar beat in Raiders, is besieged in a canyon by Frank Zappa and his team of grail-protecting zealots. No sooner is this shootout over than Indy swoops down with his team to get Marcus, setting into motion the biggest action set-piece of Last Crusade, the typically fluid, typically rousing, typically expert tank battle. This tank battle is wonderful stuff: inventive, witty, exhaustive in its exploration of possibilities. It’s as though Spielberg and his team of thinkers sat down and made a list of every possible physical gag that could occur in, on and around a moving tank — and then figured out a way to include them all, in order of escalating thrills, ending with a Duel-like plunge off a cliff, which kills Vogel.

On the other hand, the tank battle is very well done, but it’s nothing compared to, say, the last half-hour of Temple of Doom, with its triple-play fist-fight, minecar-chase, suspension-bridge climax, or Raiders‘ relentless Well-of-Souls, fight-at-the-airstrip, truck-chase roundelay. The action beats in Last Crusade, while not exactly perfunctory, are easier, breezier and less momentous than those of the other movies. Obviously a decision was made, early on in production, to make Last Crusade more of a comedy, a buddy comedy even. A buddy comedy being, of course, a variation on a romantic comedy. And so we see that Last Crusade has an almost-classic romantic comedy plot: boy finds father, boy loses father, boy gets father back. And vice versa — father also loses and finds boy — the tank battle ends with Dad thinking Indy dead and regretting not talking to him. At which point Indy is revealed to not be dead after all, at which point Dad forgets all about talking and insists on pressing on — “We’re so near the end!” he beams.

And so all the principles gather in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon (which is, of course, Petra, a place cool enough in its own right) to go after the grail. And the screenwriter says “but I thought the protagonist wants to talk to his father, not go after the grail, how is the protagonist supposed to care about getting the object that he’s spent the whole movie saying he’s not interested in?” At which point Donovan obligingly shoots Dad, pressing the issue rather expertly I thought.

And so Donovan’s action (shooting Dad) becomes more powerful than any words of threat, and Dad’s lifelong quest for the grail becomes the son’s quest, as it is the only way for Indy to achieve his larger goal of communication with his father. To accentuate this, Indy and his father, through the action of fulfilling the “tests” inside the tomb, communicate on an almost Elliott-and-E.T. level of awareness. Father and son might spend their whole lives gabbing about this or that archaeological anecdote, but through action they find their real communion. Dad has what he is good at (academic details and stern discipline), son has what he is good at (problem-solving and improvisation) and, between the two of them, they get to the Maguffin (actually the second Maguffin, the diary is the first) and, through it, achieve the protagonist’s goal. Whew! That’s a lot to load onto the last set-piece of a movie, and one of the high marks in Last Crusade‘s favor is how it wears all this lightly and with easy grace.

After all the dust has settled, Indy has what he wants — communication with his father.  One could even say that Indy hasfound communion with his father by literally following in his footsteps — including bedding the same woman.  In any case, in the end, his father has given up his quest for the grail (“Indy — let it go”) and found his son.  “Illumination” is what he says he has found, which echoes a line from the prelude, where the father is heard asking for “illumination” from the bible to help him find the grail.  The illumination he finds, I suppose, comes from the realization that the grail is nice, providing eternal life and all, but his son is the true light of his life.  Which is too corny to say that way, which is why the screenwriter shortens and encodes it in the single word.

Of course, what neither Indy, nor his father, nor Marcus, nor Elsa, nor Donovan, nor Hitler knows is that the Holy Grail isn’t “the cup of Christ,” it’s Audrey Tatou. And, if you really want to press me on it, I don’t find the grail mythology as presented in Last Crusade especially compelling or even interesting — the knights and the secret tomb and the multiple magical properties and the multiple-choice grail challenge. But that’s okay — the movie isn’t really about the Holy Grail, which is as it should be — it’s a bad idea to make a movie about an object or an idea, no matter how fascinating the object or idea might be. That goes for sharks, flying saucers, dinosaurs, Nazis, airplanes, invaders from Mars, ghosts, psychic powers, robots or the invasion of Normandy. Stories are about people — if the “personal” story isn’t there, no one’s going to care about all the “cool stuff” you present — although Spielberg knows how to present cool stuff better than just about anybody. That, in the end, is, I think, why the Indiana Jones movies just seem better than other action-adventure movies — the warmth of the character, even if he never actually “learns” anything, presents a human story each time, not just a series of set-pieces.


38 Responses to “Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade part 2”
  1. craigjclark says:

    “He chose… poorly.”

    One of the best punchlines in any Spielberg film.

    Tom Stoppard did an uncredited polish on the screenplay, so I’m not surprised that it has more of an emphasis on comedy over action.

    • monica_black says:

      Re: “He chose… poorly.”

      That’s one of the best punchlines in movie history.

      From what I’ve read, Tom Stoppard has contributed to several screenplays that he’s not credited for.

  2. travisezell says:

    I think you’re right and it’s been so long since I’ve seen this one I’d forgotten. Last Crusade plays like a comedy whereas the other Indy movies are darker action films, with more at stake.

    I can’t help but wonder about the tone of the new one now.

    (As a side note: a friend of mine for years has been pushing the idea that since Indy drank from the Grail, the story ought by rights take place in the 22nd Century or whatever, and Indy’s barely aged but ten years or so. A horrible idea for an actual movie, but an entertaining idea to run with at a bar on a boring night.)

    • Todd says:

      I’m unclear as to if Indy and Dad are immortal or not. The grail, we learn, is, conveniently, only effective so long as it doesn’t leave the cave — but they don’t say whether the effects will also wear off if you leave.

      Which would really make it suck for the knight who’s job it is to watch the thing — he can’t even go out to stretch his legs or see the sunrise. Plus now he’s got to go fetch the thing out of a crevasse. Thanks Indy, some knight you turned out to be.

      • chrispiers says:

        I think Lucas, at least, decided that they were NOT immortal. In the Young Indiana Jones show, Indy was still alive in present day but old and kind of decrepit. I have to imagine they’d at least mention whether Henry Jones, Sr. is alive or not in the upcoming movie.

        • Todd says:

          Well, the seven-hundred-year-old knight is old and kind of decrepit too, and he’s been sitting alone in a cave for seven hundred years.

          • curt_holman says:

            Some immortality! You can live forever, but you have to stay in a cave and remain pretty feeble.
            Compared to Jesus’s best-known miracles (raising Lazarus, feeding the multitude, etc.), the Grail-related immortality has an awful lot of catches.

            • Todd says:

              I’m surprised that, in addition to being frail, the knight isn’t utterly out of his mind. But I guess the grail would magically cure mental illness as well. Still, he’s been in his medieval armor for seven hundred years — the smell alone would knock over anyone who came in the door.

        • clayfoot says:

          I saw an explanation of that somewhere recently. Sean Connery turned down the opportunity; he’s enjoying retirement too much. Upon reflection, Spielberg thought audiences might have been disappointed to see Dr. Jones, Senior, but leave him behind on the adventure. Harrison Ford and Sean Connery are only 12 years apart in real life, and Ford figures he’s old enough to play his own father at this point.

      • clayfoot says:

        That, and now there’s a survivor who drank from the correct grail. Why didn’t Indy go back for it, himself? He could have opened a fabulous bottled water factory.

      • gdh says:

        I got the impression that you’re immortal so long as you keep drinking from the grail regularly, and the temple self-destructs if you try to leave with the grail. So the Old Knight Guy could leave, but then he’d age and die. What’s puzzling to me is that he doesn’t actually seem to serve much purpose as a guardian. The traps do all the work, he’s just there for exposition and pithy one-liners.

      • popebuck1 says:

        Seven hundred years I’ve been sitting here with nobody to talk to, and nothing to do – and the first time someone comes in, he loses the Grail and trashes the place. That’s the last time I have guests over.”

      • Anonymous says:

        One of those other knights from the story Indiana told lived to “extreme old age.” If Henry Sr. and Jr. can live to 22nd century- of course they can, if it’s in the script.

  3. black13 says:

    Your description of the tank sequence hits the proverbial nail on the head in regards to why I like it better than the mine chase in Temple. The tank sequence is physical comedy. The mine chase (yes, you liked it, I didn’t) seemed more like an advertisement of “the upcoming new Indiana Jones Disneyland Rollercoaster ride.”

  4. ninebelow says:

    Wait a minute, didn’t Frank Zappa and his team of grail-protecting zealots turn up in The Mummy too?

  5. jbacardi says:

    Frank Zappa as…Sheik Yerbouti!

    • Todd says:

      And his backup band, the Brothers of Prevention. (The Brothers of Prevention of Discovery of the Grail was deemed too long for concert posters.)

  6. A (partial) Spielbergtime-line:

    1839 Amistad
    1935 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
    1936 Raiders of the Lost Ark
    1938 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
    1939 Schindler’s List
    1941 1941
    1942 Empire of the Sun
    1944 Saving Private Ryan
    1957 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
    1969 Catch Me If You Can
    1972 Munich
    2054 Minority Report

    • curt_holman says:

      My new theory is that before the incidents in Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’ Capt. John H. Miller spent a night in a brothel in Krakozhia, and was the biological father of Viktor Navorski, Tom Hanks’ character from ‘The Terminal.’

  7. moroccomole says:

    I hated Last Crusade at the time and haven’t seen it since — my recollection is that the effects, particularly in the biplane-escape sequence — were really cheesy. Am I misremembering?

    • Todd says:

      Many of the effects in Last Crusade are a little obvious at this point, yes. And apparently they didn’t actually construct a zeppelin to get away in.

  8. greyaenigma says:

    The Hitler scene always bothered me for some reason — too obvious, perhaps. I wonder how Sam would have reacted if Indy had run into Vandal Savage.

    And you’ve never seen The Mummy? What a loss!

    And now I have one less reason to see the Da Vinci Code, hmm.

  9. monica_black says:

    For the longest time, Last Crusade was my favourite Indiana Jones movie and that probably has to do with the fact that I saw all three movies when I was eight. Most eight year olds would appreciate comedy more than dark action.

    But I do agree with you, the depth to the characters in the Indiana Jones movies does make them much more enjoyable than most action movies. How many action heros are afraid of snakes?

  10. ndgmtlcd says:

    This is not a comedy, it’s not even a farce, it’s one category away. How do you say “pantalonnade in English? The closest I can come to for comparison is “How to Murder Your Wife” with Jack lemmon and Virna Lisi, but it’s another kind of pantalonnade.

    The secret fireplace door in castle nazi was what gave it away for me . The neat trick was that although the premise of such a secret castle was absurd the whole thing captured perfectly the climate of the time. it was the same with the most favorite dictator autograph scene. It was comically absurd and at the same time it was so historically true, in its “mood”, that it nearly eclipsed everything else in the film for me. It was the kind of wildly improbable but not absolutely impossible thing Hitler could have done.

    • Todd says:

      When I was watching it the other night I thought “You know, Hitler probably would have gotten a chuckle out that scene.”

  11. mimitabu says:

    “it’s a bad idea to make a movie about an object or an idea, no matter how fascinating the object or idea might be.”

    i once watched a documentary on the making of the anime series gunsmith cats (it’s fluff, and i only suggest lovers of fluff seek it out). from the beginning of the documentary, the director of the series talks at length about how he wanted to make an anime about 3 things: guns, the city of chicago, and, primarily, cars. particularly, a 1967 shelby mustang GT500 (i had to look that up; all the guns have their models noted in the dialogue as well).

    in the course of developing and emphasizing the idea that the director was solely interested in these 3 things, the documentary follows him and several animators to chicago, where they wander around sketching things and spending time in gunshops and shooting ranges. they then go back to japan and furiously recreate what they saw, while the director rides around a closed track in his own shelby. talking heads repeatedly emphasize that there has never been an anime this focused on a car, and how revolutionary it is to have guns, a city, and cars be the most important “characters”/elements in an anime.

    as the documentary gets near its close, a talking head hitherto unseen, who is a rather slovenly, bespectacled, overweight guy, appears on screen with a disgruntled look. he turns out to be the screenwriter for gunsmith cats. as soon as he opens his mouth, he expresses great confusion and says, “sonoda-san and (so-and-so)-san and (so-and-so)-san were all talking about how we were going to make anime about cars, and hired me to write such an anime for them. it was ridiculous, and would have been the most boring anime ever made. so, of course, i wrote a story about human drama, like every other anime.”

    i love that documentary. the punchline never fails to deliver for me. incidentally, while the car and guns both appear and the series is set in chicago, it’s obviously about its central characters and their conflicts; obvious, since no one would have ever heard of it otherwise, i’m sure.

    (not that movies can’t be about “the spirit of new york city” or whatever, but they’re only ever, in my opinion, “about” such things insofar as such things can be expressed through humans doing things)

  12. I was watching it tonight when I noticed something I found kind of ironic. The gun Donovan shoots Indy’s dad with is a Walther PPK, the same gun Sean Connery carried as James Bond.

    • Todd says:

      Is it a Walther? I could have sworn it was a Luger — the kind that so dramatically malfunctions in Schindler’s List.