Easily the most wholesome and earnest of the Indiana Jones series, The Last Crusade avoids the violence, darkness and supernatural carnage of its predecessors in favor of a character-driven reconciliation story between Indy (Harrison Ford) and his distant professorial dad (Sean Connery). The McGuffin is the Holy Grail, the Nazis are once again in hot pursuit, and Indy’s globetrotting takes him from Venice to Berlin to the Holy Land. Action sequences involving tanks, boats and narrow escapes from firestorms and booby traps play out as if Spielberg is simply going through the motions. Brisk, efficient, beautifully composed and choreographed, The Last Crusade is a solid endeavor, yet it’s curiously devoid of the energy and compulsive, even manic dynamism of the previous films.
Gaining in maturity, Spielberg clearly was yearning to shift gears in his career, and one can feel the growing pains inherent in this transitional film. On top of that, the love interest (Alison Doody) seems awkwardly uncomfortable in her skin, and the conniving villain (Julian Glover) is a lightweight war opportunist who never poses any serious threat. This one honestly feels like the kind of throwaway B movie that inspired the series in the first place, and Spielberg embraces the conventions as he allows multiple scenes to pan out in roving master shots on sets that clearly look and feel like they were created and lit on the studio back lot. (Maybe the film would have improved from being shot in black and white?)
The strongest element is close to Spielberg’s heart: the love-hate rhythm between Indy and his father and their games of one-upmanship as the only means of showing affection. Connery plays against type, going for dowdy comic relief instead of coasting on his man’s-man persona, and yet Ford wisely gives a deferential, little-boy-lost performance that shifts between an unspoken desire to please and a simmering, hotheaded rage. Both actors get a chance to reveal aspects of themselves they rarely show, and Connery in particular exudes a surprisingly paternal tenderness in the lynchpin moment of the drama (in the middle of a cataclysmic event involving explosions and ancient monuments toppling into the abyss, father knows best when he tells his son to just “let it go”—referring in the narrative to a prize, but in fact speaking to their deep familial resentments).
There’s considerable pleasure in watching these two lions spar, but sometimes Last Crusade mistakes dotting every I and crossing every T for detailed character development. The prologue is a classic example of Spielberg overkill, where we discover how Young Indy (River Phoenix) discovered a flair for the bullwhip and his fear of snakes and inherited his trademark fedora hat all on the same whirlwind afternoon of adventure. It makes one long for the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones was intense, cagey and mysterious. In Last Crusade, he’s a cottage industry for Lucasfilm, Ltd.