RETRO REVIEW: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)

Revisiting the Indiana Jones trilogy has been like hopping into a time machine and traveling back to my youth. Yes, I know there was an awful fourth movie, but what ardent Indy lover actually embraces that train wreck? But the three original films are so deeply connected to my childhood. They led to me trying my hand at cracking a whip (a toy one, but a whip nonetheless) and desperately wanted a brown fedora. For a brief time they even had me wanting to be an archeologist because everybody knows those movies were accurate depictions of archeology, right?

The third film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, is a near perfect picture of blockbuster moviemaking done right. It’s wildly entertaining from start to finish, plump full of big action and infused with a steady stream of humor. All three Indiana Jones films have their witty and playful moments but this one has the most laughs by far. The gags are so well written and delivered through Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s seamless chemistry and the impeccable comic timing of supporting players Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies. I had forgotten how funny this movie is.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Written by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam from a story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes, “The Last Crusade” opens by introducing us to a young Indiana Jones (played by the late River Phoenix). Set in 1912, the fun high-energy prologue plays like a legend’s origin story of sorts. It reveals how Indy developed his fear of snakes; how he got his signature brown fedora, the whip, even Harrison Ford’s real-life scar on his chin. And at a young age he already has that very Indy-like conviction that every archaeological treasure belongs in a museum.

Jump ahead to 1938 and we meet Ford’s Indy, fighting off pirates near the Portuguese Coast and still teaching archaeology to starry-eyed college girls. He’s reunited with his university colleague Marcus (Elliott – hysterical throughout) who connects him with a wealthy collector named Walter Donovan (Julian Glover). Donovan has unearthed part of a sandstone tablet believed to reveal the resting place of the Holy Grail, Christ’s cup from the Last Supper. Authurian legend states that whoever drinks from the Grail is granted eternal life.

Indy agrees to help Donovan find the other half of the tablet only after hearing that his father, Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery) was part of a team that recently went missing while searching for the Grail. His adventure starts in Venice where he meets up with Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), an associate of his father’s, then it’s off to Austria, Berlin, and Hatay. Soon Nazis are hot on their heels, we meet a secret society of Holy Grail protectors, and fan-favorite Sallah (Rhys-Davies) pops up to help his friends. Toss in some great action including a boat chase, a terrific motorcycle sequence, a daring escape on a German bi-plane, and a thrilling fight in and around a moving German tank. It’s such a blast.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Following some mixed reviews for the second film “The Temple of Doom” (a really good movie but the weaker of the three) Spielberg lightened the tone of this third Indy outing and looked to recapture the spirit of the 1981 original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. While the third installment has a feel all its own, it definitely rekindles the magic that made the first film such a delight. It’s not as good as “Raiders”, but that’s an incredibly high bar.

While rewatching the Indiana Jones films I was struck by how remarkably well the three movies hold up. There are a couple of moments in “The Last Crusade” where you can see the blemishes in the early digital effects. But overall the movie looks great thanks to the fantastic cinematography, stunt work, and Spielberg’s big-budget touch. And of course it’s led by Harrison Ford whose natural charisma and hero’s charm turned Indy into a household name. And now he’s putting on his fedora for one more Indiana Jones adventure. I pray it leans into what made the original three movies great and gives us a proper send off to one of cinema’s most fun and iconic characters.


16 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)

  1. I remember watching this movie as a kid and it was a blast. I could never resist a treasure hunt and this one was genuinely funny too. In comparison, I was very disappointed with Crystal Skull.
    Your review reminded me that I need to check it again. Super!

  2. While I consider Raiders to be the better film, Last Crusade is pretty much on the same level. I have to say that The Last Crusade means a lot more to me now since my father passed away 3 years ago. In some ways, Indy’s relationship with his father mirrors my own relationship with MINE. It was rocky all the way to the end. At least Indy got to mend his relationship with his dad. I was never able to before he died. So, watching Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade now offers a bit of catharsis and wish-fulfillment. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect ending to a movie. I remember seeing this one in a local drive-in theater when it was first released back in 1989. The drive-in theater no longer exists, but the memories are still there. I love everything about this movie. The action, the chemistry between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, and I love the fact that Indy’s love interest ends up being one of the bad guys. Also, Last Crusade features some of the best work from composer John Williams.

    • Wow. That’s a moving story. I have movies with those kinds of connections for me too. I agree with everything you said about the movie from the action, chemistry, to the Williams score! Fabulous.

  3. My absolute favorite of the Indiana Jones series. Once in awhile, with some liquid courage in me and at my husband’s relentless urging, I will wow a party with my Sean Connery as Dr. Jones impersonation lol 🙂 🙂

  4. To me, there is only 3 movies in the Indiana Jones series. I refuse to acknowledge the existence of that one movie just like Harrison Ford refusing to acknowledge the existence of that Holiday Special from a galaxy far far away.

    I do like this film a lot as I just love the stuff with Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. It is also really funny as I just love the humor in that film.

  5. Really hoping Indy 5 isn’t altogether delayed for awhile. It’s looking increasingly like it’s going to be more than a month or so for Ford to recuperate. Last I read I think they’re saying at least 8 weeks. Shoulder surgery or something. Man is just a beast, we’re always praising Jackie Chan (and rightfully so!) for his heroics, but this guy at 78 is no slouch either. Hoping the movie won’t ultimately be impacted creatively by this unfortunate snag.

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