Sunday, January 30, 2022

Sunday Best: STEVEN SPIELBERG MOVIES RANKED - #3 - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade



Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is not just the greatest Indiana Jones movie.

It is the greatest adventure movie of all time.

Back when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out, I did a marathon of the first three Indiana Jones movies.  I skipped through the highlights of Raiders and Temple of Doom.  But I found that I couldn't skip through Last Crusade.  Every single moment kept me glued.

When it comes to doing an action/adventure film, there is a tightrope when it comes to tone.  If you get too violent it can be off-putting.  If you go too light, the stakes no longer feel real.  I know a lot of people love the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies.  But this is a good example of what I am talking about.  I never cared for the movies because they were too violent and too silly at the same time.  

But Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade finds the balance perfectly.  Spielberg is able to find just the right tone.  The movie is innocent without being corny.  It is dangerous without being dark.  It is fun without being silly.  It is profound without being pretentious.  

The opening sequence with River Phoenix as the young Indiana is a delight to watch.  The chase through the circus train is a wonderful throwback to old serial adventures.  Spielberg's use of the camera is so inventive and dynamic.  Watch where Indiana swings around on the water pipe only to find himself face-to-face with his antagonist.  This all leads to the beautiful single shot that ends with the frame of Indy running away to freedom.  

This scene also sets up the relationship of Indy to his father.  In just a few seconds, the emotional distance is established.  Once again, we see Spielberg do the same thing he did in ET where the adult's face is not shown.  This may have been done so they could save Sean Connery's first reveal, but it works so well to show the lack of connection between Henry and Indy.  That's why Indy turns to strange antagonist as his role model.

And I love the thing that the stranger says, "You lost today kid, but that doesn't mean you have to like it."  There is so much here to understand Indy's character.  Throughout the series of films, Indy loses.  

A lot.

He is not a Mary Sue who is perfectly able to meet any situation.  He loses over and over again.  But what makes him such a great adventuring hero is that he hates losing so much that he doesn't give up.  He keeps moving forward.  

The action set pieces are superb.  Every danger has with it a little thrill of fun.  In the original script, Indy and his father simply take off from the Nazis castle and then decide to go to Berlin.  But Spielberg understood the pacing of action films and that there needed to be an exciting chase in between.  I am one of the few people who really enjoyed Wonder Woman 1984, but one of my big critiques was that there was about an hour of the movie where there was no action.  Spielberg understands how the action set pieces create the connective tissue that holds whole movie together.

One of the things that sets this apart from the other Indiana Jones films is how shocking the movie is.  After multiple viewings, I sometimes forget all of the twists I did not see coming.  After Marion and Willie, Elsa seemed to be another side kick/love interest.  I honestly did not see coming how she was a double agent the entire time.  This puts you deeply into Indy's perspective of betrayal and disappointment.  I love the fact that just as they get out danger from the castle, they have to travel all the way to Berlin to get the diary.  But I do remember so distinctly the moment that Henry gets shot by Donovan.  If you see the way the shot is set up, it perfectly alludes to what is going to happen with both Henry and Indy framing Donovan.  But by drawing all of your focus on Donavan and Indy, Spielberg does a slight of hand so that the sound of the single shot causes a jolt up your spine.  

The shocks also have the funniest moments of all the Indiana Jones movies.  The set up and punchline to the Marcus Brody joke is so genius because of the way Ford commits in his performance and the way Spielberg used the camera with that intense push in to the absolutely jarring cut to the Iskendren marketplace.  There is also the wonderful wordless interplay that happens after Henry says "She talks in her sleep."  This was a place where Spielberg knew how to hold the moment just a little too long for comfort in order to maximize the laughs.

But my favorite surprise is like the best surprises because they are the ones that you should have seen coming but never do.  After Donovan chooses poorly, Indy has to find the grail.  He looks and says seven words that my young mind had never considered: "That is the cup of a carpenter."  And then Spielberg pans across and through all of the shiny golden goblets to find a humble non-metalic chalice sitting there.  Not only is this historically on-the-nose, but it is incredibly Christological.  Jesus lived a life of humble simplicity and so many people never realized that He truly is the Son of God.  

The McGuffin at the center of the story is the Holy Grail.  Here we once again see Spielberg's amazing respect for Christianity.  Never once does he take a cheap shot at Christ or the faith.  Everything is treated with reverence.  This culminates in one of my favorite scenes in any movie where Indy has to make the leap of faith.  Harrison Ford's performance is outstanding, where he has to take his life into his hands and trust that he will not fall.  I think of that moment often when God is calling me to put my trust into His hands.  Spielberg resists the common Hollywood urge to turn faith into gullibility and the story involves the hero helping others out of the darkness of belief.  Instead, Indy is brought into the light of faith.

But one of the things that makes this movie work is that it has more depth than it appears.  Spielberg often stated that the real McGuffin is not the Grail, but the relationship between the father and the son.  On a meta level, Indiana Jones was Spielberg's way of doing his own version of James Bond.  So both on screen and in real life James Bond "fathered" Indiana Jones.  But on a deeper level, it is about all fathers and sons.  If you look at Spielberg's earlier movies, you see a lot of un-idealized fathers.  You have ones who are criminals (Sugarland Express), those who abandon their families (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and even horribly abusive ones (The Color Purple).  In Spielberg's own life, his parents had divorced when he was a child and growing up he put the blame on his own father for the failure of the marriage (not knowing that it was his mother who cheated).

In this movie, you can see Spielberg the man coming to terms with his own father.  Perhaps this was partly a reflection on his own fatherhood.  But the relationship between Indy and Henry feels so real because of all of the distance and closeness at the same time.  There is so much left unsaid between fathers and sons, but there is also a lot of room for adventure.  The quiet moment on the blimp where the two share a drink is so well executed and captures all of the little spaces that exist between fathers and sons.  

The story is about how the son has to continue the work of the father.  Indy literally has to finish his father's quest in order to save him.  But the true goal of the quest is not the "prize" as Ilsa thought.  Henry says that he received "illumination," something he prays for at the beginning of the movie.  But the Grail gave him the illumination to see that his real treasure was his son.  But it is deeper than this: he sees who his son really is.

The problem with parents and children is that children grow up.  But in the parents' eyes, you are still their child.  While the bond of love that this gives is wonderful and holy, it does cause an impediment for most fathers and sons.  Fathers can see their sons as their children, but they have a hard time seeing them as men, as equals.  Henry loves Indy in his own way and even as his affection grows, he still calls him "Junior."  

But then we have one of the best moments Spielberg ever filmed.

Indy tries to save Elsa, but her greed for the Grail pulls her away.  Ford does an amazing job as you hear the utter desperation in his voice for her to turn to him and give him her hand.  But her obsession takes her over and she falls to her doom.  As a kid seeing this movie in the theater, it was a shock that Indy would not save the girl.  

But then Indy falls over and Henry has his hand.  Immediately Indy reaches for the Grail.  I remember people in the theater back in 1989 started to laugh as he begins to ape Elsa's words all over again.  But Indy's obsession is different.  In that moment he isn't seeking personal glory.  He is trying to fulfill his father's dream.  And then comes the moment:

The music and sound fade out and very calmly, Henry calls his son "Indiana" for the first time.  This is a complete shock that pulls Indy out of his obsession.  For the first time in his life, his father looks at him and really sees him as the man he has become.  And then finally, Henry says, "Let it go."  Henry has in his hands the only prize he really needs: the man who is also his son.  Indy has to turn away from simply being a dutiful son and must embrace his father also as a man.  Spielberg films these few seconds with perfect framing, sound, music, and performance.  They have saved each other and their relationship.

This movie also has one of the few truly perfect endings.  With our heroes triumphant, they literally ride off into the sunset.  With the perfect use of John Williams iconic score, I can still see the silhouettes of Indy, Henry, Marcus and Sallah as they ride off west with the sun shining back at us.  If there as ever a more fitting final shot to a film, I'm not sure I've seen it.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of the reasons Spielberg really is the best filmmakers of all time.  He understands that art has the purpose to entertain and the elevate.  He is able to make the most profound mysteries of human relationships and present them in a bold and grand adventure.  

Chesterton says that "The Iliad is only great because all life is a battle,  The Odyssey because all life is a journey, The Book of Job because all life is a riddle."

Indiana Jones is great because it reminds us that all life is an adventure.

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