My dad didn’t take me to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I went with my friend Jack and his dad.
But my dad took me to see Batman a few weeks later, in that perfect summer of 1989. He took me to see Return of the Jedi, and Star Trek V, and Total Recall, even though that last one was probably a bit too much for a thirteen-year-old. When he’s in town, we still find time to see a big and frequently stupid movie.
I’m good with my dad. The same can’t necessarily be said of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. As the two major fathers of the modern blockbuster, it’s appropriate that both have father issues.
Lucas’ father was a spendthrift who opposed his son’s pursuit of filmmaking. Lucas went on to create the greatest evil dad of all time, Darth Vader. As for Spielberg…his parents were divorced when he was 19; for many years he blamed his father, and so in his movies, dads are absent (E.T.) or insane (Close Encounters).
To Lucas and Spielberg, fathers are distant, authoritarian, and yet somehow fascinating all the same. Enter Dr. Henry Jones Sr., stage right.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is ostensibly a film about the titular adventurer and the cup of Christ, but it’s really a buddy action comedy about a son coming to terms with his father. Indy’s dad looms large over the entire film, from the prologue featuring a young Indiana trying to save the Cross of Coronado to the initial steps in the quest to find the Holy Grail, which begins as a trip to find Indy’s missing father.
Watching it again twenty-five years down the road, it’s amazing how much more electric the film becomes once Sean Connery makes his first appearance. All that happens before is merely reintroduction to Indy’s universe, and prelude to the film’s real purpose. When Sean Connery barks his first “Juniah?!” the movie hits its stride and never looks back.
Last Crusade does trade on the collective goodwill of its audience to pull off some pretty ludicrous gags. None are quite as jolting as a nuked fridge, but Indy getting Adolf Hitler’s autograph is close. At the same time, the script gives Harrison Ford and Connery some terrific moments to play as disengaged father and estranged son. As always, Spielberg layers those moments into wildly ambitious action sequences; the tank rescue is still breathtaking, twenty five years and billions of gigs’ worth of CG effects later.
Spielberg also stops to develop these characters, and maybe that seems like something obvious to point out, but it’s amazing to watch in the modern blockbuster era. The audience knows Indy, for sure, but they don’t really know Indy’s dad. He’s a new entity. He’s introduced and organically developed, not just in relation to Indy but as his own character. Spielberg’s not building on thirty-plus years of comic books or an old TV show or a board game to fill in the blanks he’s not willing to touch. He puts in the work, and he has exceptional help from Ford and Connery. They sell the occasional silly, and they use these quiet moments of development to give these two men a long, rich unseen history that informs everything they do on screen.
Spielberg’s all about character. Everything is from Indy’s point of view. Think back to the moment when Indy, Dr. Schneider, and Marcus Brody are searching for the Roman numeral “X” in the library in Venice. The camera starts at ground level in a long shot, and immediately I think, “Okay, here comes a Howard Hawkes reference,” recalling the classic shot in The Thing when Hawkes used a slow upward pan of his camera to reveal the giant circular shape of a flying saucer.
Here Spielberg instead pulls his camera back to reveal a spiral staircase just as Indiana himself discovers it. The camera “climbs” the staircase alongside Indy and reaches a balcony, where we see the giant “X” marking the spot on the library floor. We discover it even as Indiana Jones does.
Beneath the rhythm, heart, and skill of a Spielberg production, there’s always a layer of internal truth. He and Lucas have created some pretty remarkable avatars on screen–Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Abraham Lincoln. With Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they worked through their daddy issues while Drs. Henry Jones pursued their own Holy Grail.