‘Last Crusade’ Is Either the Best or Worst Film in the Original Indiana Jones Trilogy

‘Last Crusade’ Is Either the Best or Worst Film in the Original Indiana Jones Trilogy

On Friday, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny hits theaters, the first film in the franchise in 15 years — and 34 years since the last good one. Way back in 1989, the original trilogy signed off with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which after all this time still holds an odd place in the series. It’s one of the great action-comedies, which is why some people love the movie. But it’s also why others consider it a real step-down from the first two installments. 

No matter where you land on Last Crusade, though, the film is both a fitting end to the original trilogy and a preview of where the series would go afterwards. For better or worse, Last Crusade was a conscious pivot away from the previous sequel/prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Steven Spielberg wanted to make something more lighthearted. The film he delivered is easily his best comedy. 

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Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out in the summer of 1981, was a commercial smash, winning five Oscars and nominated for Best Picture. Dreamed up by Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas, and written by Lawrence Kasdan, the film introduced the world to Indiana Jones, a cocky archaeologist and professor who goes around the world retrieving priceless artifacts so that they can be put into museums. Harrison Ford brought Indy to life, combining rakish charm with enormous sex appeal and a self-deprecating sense of humor — remember, he screws up a lot — to essay an appealingly old-fashioned hero. 

Full of romance, thrills and action, Raiders was a fun, and very funny, blockbuster, and three years later Spielberg followed it up with Temple of Doom, a far more disturbing roller-coaster ride. Putting aside the sequel’s racist tendencies for a moment, it’s a more uneven film than Raiders, but it’s also incredibly gripping — in part because of how merciless and nerve-racking its action sequences are. But while Temple of Doom was also a big hit, the movie freaked out some parents, who weren’t pleased about accidentally exposing their impressionable young children to scenes of, say, beating hearts getting pulled out of chests. Legend has it that Spielberg and Lucas were trying to make an Empire Strikes Back-esque darker second chapter to their Indy saga. But the inspirations may have also hit closer to home: Lucas was going through a divorce, and as Temple of Doom producer Frank Marshall later put it, “As I think you can see in the movie, there’s a lot of darkness being worked out.”

The film’s grislier moments helped pave the way for a new rating, PG-13, which became the standard for intense action movies that weren’t overly bloody. (Those films previously would get an R, which kept younger viewers from attending screenings without adult supervision — and therefore cut into ticket sales.) So when discussions started about making a third installment, one of the big questions was which direction to pursue: Even darker than Temple of Doom? Or back toward the more fun-filled Raiders?

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get different answers. When Marshall talked to Empire in 2008, he insisted, “(Last) Crusade wasn’t a reaction to the darkness of Temple of Doom, it was just the third part of the trilogy. Everybody signed on to do three movies.” But Spielberg was reportedly quoted at the time of Last Crusade’s release that it would be an “apology” for Temple of Doom. (Another late-1980s quote from Spielberg, widely circulated on the web, was “Temple of Doom contains not an ounce of my personal feeling.”) For Last Crusade, the idea was to focus on heart — and not by yanking it out of a character’s chest while he’s still alive.

To be sure, the first two Indy movies were funny. In fact, as harrowing as Temple of Doom was, it was also more slapstick than the original, giving our hero a wacky sidekick in Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) and a zany love interest in Willie (Spielberg’s future spouse Kate Capshaw). As Indiana Jones fights bad guys and risks his life, he’s busy trading quips with those characters. But for Last Crusade, the creative team decided to give the character a different kind of sparring partner. 

Enter Sean Connery, who was getting close to 60, had recently won an Oscar for The Untouchables, and hadn’t played James Bond since returning to the franchise in the early 1980s for Never Say Never Again. He was cast to play Henry Jones, Indiana’s bookish father, who’s gone missing while hunting his white whale: the Holy Grail, the Cup of Christ, the chalice that supposedly can give mere mortals eternal life. While Last Crusade had a love interest (Alison Doody), the emotional through-line didn’t involve her. As Michael Byrne, who plays one of the main Nazis in Last Crusade, observed, “It’s like a pantomime, really, with Sean Connery playing the dame and Harrison being the principle (sic) boy.” The love story is really between Indy and his estranged dad.

Most people know Last Crusade’s plot, so it’s not necessary to rehash it in detail. But after the breakneck pace of Temple of Doom, the follow-up spent as much time developing the father-son relationship as it did the action sequences. (In fact, I’d argue that one of Last Crusade’s deficiencies is that the set pieces aren’t nearly as amazing as those in the previous movies.) Bickering banter was always integral to the Indy films — think about how much he argues with Karen Allen’s Marion in Raiders — but the back and forth between Indiana Jones and his dad had more of a comedy-duo polish to it. There was a poignant underpinning to their feud — Indy never felt like his dad gave him enough attention, Henry thought his boy was too reckless — but it played out mostly through jokes before, later in the film, when both men take turns nearly dying. 

“Sean was in a great mood most of the movie because he was able to be funny,” Spielberg told Empire. “He was able to use his comedic skills, and Harrison was in a fantastic mood because he was able to be the foil for the father.” Connery is unquestionably Last Crusade’s MVP, providing a droll, real-world counterpart to Indy’s stupendous derring-do. The film’s central joke is a great one — Indiana Jones is this ass-kicking, globe-trotting action hero, but around his dad, he still just feels like an insecure kid — and while Ford is superb as the shamed son, Connery is perfection as the prototypical emotionally withdrawn father who’s never going to give his boy the pat on the head he so desperately craves. At the same time, Henry is so unaccustomed to being involved in action scenes that he’s constantly in peril, forcing Indy to save him and save the day simultaneously. 

This, clearly, was markedly different tonal terrain than Temple of Doom, where the villains were terrifying and the characters barely paused to take a breath. But Last Crusade wasn’t exactly like Raiders, either, tweaking its already-mythic protagonist and riffing on his trademark qualities. In a flashback, we discover how Indy — really, Harrison Ford — got that scar on his chin. Near the end, we learn that Indiana Jones’ real name isn’t Indiana Jones: “I named the dog, Indiana,” Henry grumbles. There was a cheeky in-joke quality to Last Crusade that was the late-1980s version of fan service, especially when Indy comments that he’s “pretty sure” that a catacomb painting is of the Ark of the Covenant — the object everyone’s fighting to obtain in Raiders. If Temple of Doom had been super-unnerving, Last Crusade was meant to be a joyful lark, a film that acknowledged the giddy movie-movie escapism of this swashbuckling franchise. 

Last Crusade wasn’t alone in terms of popular film series poking fun at themselves at the time. Superman III brought on Richard Pryor to make the Man of Steel saga funnier and hipper. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had the nutty idea of sending the Enterprise crew back in time to what was then the present day, letting Kirk and Spock be clueless fish out of water in contemporary San Francisco. Likewise, Last Crusade lightened up, offering goofy sight gags and dopey pratfalls, not to mention sexual innuendo and tongue-in-cheek Hitler cameos. Perhaps appropriate for a movie about the quest to find immortality, Last Crusade amped up the series’ boyish energy.

Released in May 1989, the film actually performed better at the U.S. box office than its predecessor, although not nearly as well as Raiders. The reviews were positive, with most critics judging it to be a nice finale to the trilogy. Most assumed that would be it, with Spielberg moving on to Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List and Ford turning his attention to The Fugitive and Jack Ryan. After all, how much more was there for Indiana Jones to do? Last Crusade saw the character literally and metaphorically riding off into the sunset at the end. Best to leave well enough alone.

In the ensuing years, before we were assaulted with 2008’s unfortunate Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the opinions of the films from the original trilogy have shifted somewhat. Most consider Raiders to be the best because of the novelty of its construction, the charisma of its iconic main character, and the brilliance of its set pieces. Temple of Doom, although criticized for its portrayal of people of color, is a favorite of those who just want a white-knuckled adventure, whereas Last Crusade is celebrated for being more of a crowd-pleasing romp. Last Crusade is the film that humanizes Indy by having him be scolded by his hard-to-impress dad, who just so happens to be played by one of the most charming Hollywood stars ever. As great as Marion is, Henry may be the most popular supporting character in an Indy movie. 

For those reasons, and others, Last Crusade is beloved. It’s the only film of the three that laughs at itself. It’s also the one time that Spielberg, never known for making laugh-riots, succeeded at comedy. But the film’s joking-around quality — its decision to place the mighty Indy in a buddy comedy — makes other fans of the series judge it as the weakest of the trilogy, a watered-down Indiana Jones blockbuster that goes for laughs over spectacle. Quite frankly, your feelings about Last Crusade probably correspond to your feelings about Indy: If you prefer to think of him as a swaggering adventurer, you likely don’t take too kindly to him often being the butt of the joke in the third movie. If, however, you enjoy how Last Crusade deconstructs that facade, showing you how Indy became the way he did and why his estranged father means so much to him, then this may be the highlight of the franchise for you.

For me, I’ll say that all three of the films are great — in completely different ways. I appreciate each of them for what they are, while acknowledging that Last Crusade does seem to be a little less inspired than the first two films. (Raiders of the Lost Ark remains my favorite because, c’mon, it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.) 

But even if I rank Last Crusade third, I still think it’s way better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and this weekend’s Dial of Destiny, both of which try in vain to recapture the effortless magic of the original trilogy. One way that the new films especially fail is comedically — specifically, in their futile attempt to give Indy a foil who could possibly compare to Henry. (My apologies to Shia LaBeouf and Phoebe Waller-Bridge — well, maybe not that many apologies to LaBeouf.) Fittingly, in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull we learn that Indy’s dear old dad has passed away. Sadly, this franchise’s endearing sense of humor died along with Connery, whose great performance this franchise never again got close to matching.

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