Indiana Jones - A Retrospective: Part Two
As Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny swings (or shuffles) into theatres, join us for a look back at the incredibly popular adventure franchise so far. Last week, we covered Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom. Now it’s time for The Last Crusade and the Indiana Jones movie that should remain nameless… but is the fourth one all that bad?
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - “The man with the hat is back. And this time, he’s bringing his Dad.”
Although they signed a deal with Paramount for five pictures, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg always intended the Indiana Jones movies to form a trilogy. After the mixed reaction to the horrors of Temple of Doom, it was time for a little course correction. They wanted to recapture the freewheeling spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but first they needed a suitable MacGuffin to set Indy’s latest adventure in motion.
A haunted mansion movie was Lucas’s original idea, but Spielberg wasn’t enthused because of his recent involvement with Poltergeist. Other early drafts included the Fountain of Youth and the Garden of Immortal Peaches, not to mention a villain called the Monkey King in Africa. This last aspect clearly had the potential to be even more culturally insensitive than Temple of Doom, and Lucas and Spielberg wisely dropped it.
So the Holy Grail it was and the ever-reliable Nazis returned as the bad guys, with Spielberg pushing to introduce Indy’s dad to the series. It made sense; while the intrepid archaeologist was almost universally loved, he was a bit of a blank. The previous two films revealed very little about his past, other than he had a very inappropriate fling with Marion Ravenwood. With Jones Sr. involved, it was a great way to explore more of the Jones family history, including some of Indy’s famous characteristics and props.
Drew Struzan's advance movie poster for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
Spielberg wasn’t totally convinced about a prologue involving Indy as a teenager after the underwhelming response to Empire of the Sun, but it worked out pretty nicely. The sequence gave the series a new dynamic as well as explaining all those questions you didn’t know you needed answers for: Why is Indy afraid of snakes? How come he uses a bullwhip? And where did he get that hat?
Casting was important, and luckily Harrison Ford knew just the right lad to play his character’s younger self. A few years earlier, he worked with a talented up-and-comer called River Phoenix on The Mosquito Coast and recommended him for the role. Phoenix was ideal; not only did he have a passing resemblance to Ford when he was in his teens, he also matched the older actor’s screen presence. Phoenix was obviously a star in the making, but he sadly passed away four years after the film was released aged just 23.
Finding the right actor to play Indy’s father was even more critical. Gregory Peck was considered at one point, but it was fitting that the part went to Sean Connery. The Indiana Jones character was originally inspired by James Bond, and Spielberg felt he was the obvious choice.
Connery is in fine form in the movie, giving it an extra superstar twinkle and showing how good he is at comic moments. He had great chemistry with Harrison Ford, and the relationship between father and son is as important to the story as the search for the Grail itself.
Drew Struzan's release movie poster for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
But I will say this: While it’s a delight watching Connery and Ford play off each other, I think that Spielberg took the tone of the film too far in the opposite direction after the darkness of Temple of Doom. The Last Crusade is usually listed as an action adventure, but they leaned so far into the gags that it’s more of a comedy adventure.
Overall, the movie has the air of a victory lap about it, putting the band back together with Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davis returning as Brody and Sallah respectively. It’s a jokey, sentimental, and indulgent caper this time around, but why shouldn’t everyone be in a celebratory mood? The first two movies already made great box office and between them Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford had created an iconic character who was as instantly recognisable as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Mickey Mouse.
Cast-wise, the only weak spot is Alison Doody as the Jones’s treacherous love interest Elsa, who is a bland character compared to Marion and Willie in Raiders and Temple. While the movie doesn’t really have a villain to rival Belloq, Toht, or the Thuggee cult leader, it makes up for it with Michael Sheard playing the Fuhrer himself. The character actor was best known to UK viewers at the time for playing Mr. Bronson in Grange Hill, and had appeared in a small uncredited role in Raiders as a U-boat captain. Sheard spoke German and also played Hitler on four other occasions on television.
A UK Quad movie poster for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
Could the third movie keep pace with its predecessors in terms of action? If anything, The Last Crusade is even more breathless than the previous two, but the big thing that irks me is how the comedy constantly undermines any suspense. Granted, Raiders and Temple aren’t exactly Bourne levels of grittiness, but things get very, very silly in The Last Crusade. The goofiness is summed up by one moment in particular: A fighter plane pursues the Joneses into a tunnel, shearing off its wings in the process. Instead of blowing up, the aircraft overtakes the Joneses in their jalopy, the bewildered pilot looking at them as he passes. That takes the biscuit!
The final trials that Indy needs to navigate to collect the Holy Grail aren’t terribly exciting, obviously trying to emulate the temple scene at the beginning of Raiders. With its focus on puzzles and deciphering clues in Henry’s Grail diary, it’s more reminiscent of Knightmare, the kids’ adventure show that was big on British TV at the time. Despite its weaknesses, the finale still plays out well emotionally with Jones Senior desperately needing the cup’s restorative powers at the end of his lifelong grail quest.
With the bad guys dead and the Grail staying in its resting place, all there is left to do is literally ride off into the sunset. And that seemed to be that, the natural place to end a terrific trilogy. I don’t recall ever wishing for another instalment, and I never bothered watching The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on TV. But then, 19 years later…
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - “The adventure continues…”
You’ve probably been in this situation before. Someone tells you that the trailer has dropped for a movie you think is a really rubbish idea. Reluctantly, you say: “Go on then, let’s see how bad it looks” and press play.
When I first saw the trailer for Crystal Skull, it really whetted my appetite for a new Indy movie. It’s a well cut preview, giving you the familiar beats and just enough of a glimpse at new characters and adventures. Sadly, it turned out to be one of those trailers that is miles better than the film.
The idea of a fourth Indiana Jones film involving aliens goes back as far as the early ‘90s. Although the deal with Paramount was originally for five movies, the series had apparently reached its natural conclusion and both Spielberg and Ford showed little interest in doing another one. Lucas thought the idea had legs, however, and was intrigued by the possibility of having an older Indy in a ‘50s-set adventure. It would draw from atom era sci-fi in the same way the original trilogy had paid homage to the cliff-hanger serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s. And who would replace the Nazis in the new post-war setting? Ex-Nazis, of course.
Drew Struzan's advance movie poster for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Spielberg eventually caved in and agreed to direct in the early 2000s. He saw it as an opportunity to do something a bit more light-hearted after a string of darker films including Minority Report and Munich. Plus his kids wouldn’t stop asking when he was going to make another Indiana Jones movie. The villains needed changing, though: After directing Schindler’s List, he didn’t feel like poking fun at the Nazis anymore.
Ford also thought that had been done to death so the ex-Nazis were replaced by Soviet KGB agents, which made more sense anyway for a sequel set during the Cold War. The central MacGuffin would be based on the mysterious crystal skulls in the hope of giving the extraterrestrial plot some basis in the real world.
Now, is it all that bad? As I mentioned in part one of this retrospective, I decided to forget all about Crystal Skull after the disappointment of watching it in the cinema back in 2008. I wasn’t mad, I just didn’t want to see or think about it again. But, in preparation for this article, I decided to give it another look.
The movie starts pretty strongly, apart from those stupid gophers. Has there ever been a more unnecessary use of CGI? What’s wrong with borrowing a few real gophers? I would have even taken a hand puppet gopher like the one in Caddyshack over what we got.
But deep breaths… The Cold War setting is actually pretty great, with rock ‘n’ roll music and kids drag racing in the opening sequence. Although series regular cinematographer Douglas Slocombe had departed, Spielberg resisted the temptation to shoot in digital and Slocombe’s replacement, Janusz Kaminski, does a great job of making the film look consistent with the trilogy. For a while, anyway.
Harrison Ford was 64-years-old at the time and he’s in great shape. He reasoned that an older Indy could still do most of the things the younger one could, but would just be blowing a little harder at the end of it. I’m not sure that’s true, but Ford certainly doesn’t show himself up at all, especially in the rousing opening sequence set in a hangar in Area 51. Once that whip gets cracking and that theme tune kicks in, it’s hard not to get involved.
The weird thing about Ford’s age in Crystal Skull is that it only becomes really apparent when with other actors who are also getting on a bit. Ray Winstone was 50, Karen Allen (returning as Marion) was 55, and John Hurt was 67. When you get that gang together, it starts to feel like an old person’s movie all of a sudden. At times, it made me feel old just watching it. No wonder they cast whippersnapper Shia LeBeouf, then 20, to freshen things up a bit and appeal to the younger audience as Indy’s rebellious son Mutt.
Drew Struzan's release movie poster for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
There is one more decent action sequence in the film, a motorbike chase through a college campus, but it gets increasingly ridiculous after a certain point. Yes, you know the point I’m talking about. It’s the moment when the Indiana Jones series totally jumps the shark, or, to use the modern parlance spawned from the scene, nukes the fridge.
The infamous scene is actually really well set up. After escaping Area 51, Indy spots a small town in the distance. When he gets there, it is calm and perfect. To his surprise, all the inhabitants are mannequins. Then a siren wails and he realises that the town has been built for an atomic bomb test, and there are only a few seconds to go. To save himself from the blast, he does a Boris Johnson and hides in a refrigerator.
Apparently, Lucas did his research and discovered that a person’s chance of surviving a nuclear detonation in a lead-lined fridge was around 50-50. The scene might have been reasonably plausible if his hiding place wasn’t also thrown hundreds of feet through the air, bouncing about sixty times before dumping him next to one of those dreadful CGI gophers.
For myself and many others, this was the moment when the series departed from the boundaries of reality altogether and crossed into the realm of the absurd. There was no return after that, and the later set pieces just kept making things worse: Sword-fighting while standing astride two Jeeps crashing through the jungle; Mutt swinging through the trees with a bunch of monkeys; the chief henchman getting carried away by killer ants; and those very unconvincing aliens at the end.
Arguably, these moments are made worse by the awful CGI. Steven Spielberg’s original intention was to use as few digital effects as possible, which is reflected in that terrific opening sequence in the hangar. Unfortunately, he found himself resorting to it more as the shoot progressed to help solve practical issues, and around 30% of the finished film contains CG matte paintings. That’s harmful to the movie, especially in the jungle scenes, which look like something out of Crash Bandicoot.
So the movie ends with Indy and Marion getting married and almost passing the hat to Mutt, which is okay because even at the time I don’t think anyone seriously thought we’d see that character again. LeBeouf isn’t bad at all but his chemistry with Ford is a far cry from that of Connery and Ford in The Last Crusade.
All in all, I’m glad that I finally returned to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull after 15 years. It isn’t a patch on any of the original trilogy, but you know what? Although I’ve moaned about it with my critic’s hat on above, I actively enjoyed it this time around. It made me realise that I’d probably gone into that theatre back in 2008 with unreasonably high expectations and taking the whole thing a little bit too seriously. The Indiana Jones movies were only ever intended as escapist entertainment, and they never took themselves seriously from the beginning. You can tell that from the R2-D2 and C3PO hieroglyphs in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
That’s the trouble sometimes when fans get a little too wrapped up in films they love, then get bitterly disappointed when sequels don’t make them feel exactly how the first movie made them feel. They forget to relax and have fun with it, because they’ve made the stakes too high for themselves. Crystal Skull definitely isn’t a great movie, it is a fun one. And it’s totally okay, because that’s all it was ever supposed to be.
So there you have it, the conclusion of our Indiana Jones retrospective. What is your favourite film of the bunch, and how do you feel about Crystal Skull? Have you seen the new movie yet? If so, where would you rank it with the others? Let us know!