4 out of 5 stars

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) has just returned from another thrilling adventure. After battling an old nemesis off the coast of Portugal, he managed to escape the scuffle with a priceless artefact: the crucifix carried by the infamous conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado as he traversed America in the early-16th-century.

This treasure from the past, however, will pale in comparison to his next mission: the Holy Grail, the cup that will bestow eternal life upon all who drink from it, is thought to have been uncovered. Ancient texts seem to have revealed previously hidden truths about its location, with numerous parties mobilising to find the supernatural artefact. However, there’s an added layer of intrigue to this story: Indy’s father, Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery), was also searching for the sacred chalice… and has recently gone missing.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is easily my favourite entry in the franchise. Director Steven Spielberg shares this sentiment, considering it his finest effort in the series. In my opinion, the reason why Last Crusade is the best of the 1980s trilogy is because it feels the most mature of the bunch. The plot, pacing, tone, and humour all feel as though they’ve finally reached the zenith of the series.

What’s more, Last Crusade is arguably the only entry that features a subplot, where we see Indy rekindle his fractured relationship with his estranged father. All these aspects combined ensure that Spielberg’s third instalment in the now-classic franchise reaches the pinnacle of the adventure genre, laying down a blueprint for how to make thrilling and heartfelt cinema.

The plot kicks off back in 1912 with young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) as a righteous Boy Scout, keen to do good. When he spots a grave robber claiming an artefact for personal glory, he exclaims in indignation: “It should be in a museum!” These are the principles that’ll govern his entire life; a hero driven to protect relics of the past and to uphold traditional ideals of virtue. And, of course, to punch bad guys in the face.

This flashback to his earlier experiences as a frustrated teenager, neglected by his father, lays the foundation for a film that will delve deeper into Indy as a character—what shaped him into the man he is today? Previous instalments, while fun, offered little more than the relentless thrills of daring adventures gone awry. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was relentlessly fast-paced, with the constant location hopping providing unstoppable momentum, but lacked character development for our central protagonist.

In the same vein, its much-maligned sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) displayed a similar disregard for well-rounded character development. While it embraced a darker tone (which I appreciated), its attempts at humour (which I found wanting) haven’t aged well. In short, although the first two films excelled in crafting thrilling escapades in exotic locations, they lacked a personal narrative to imbue them with any emotional heft.

This is where Last Crusade rises above the rest. With a little insight into his backstory, scenes that might have been filled with rather inane chit-chat or sexually charged arguments become noticeably more solemn. Indy and his father have much to discuss. They’ve never truly gotten to know each other, and their proximity to death makes their conversations earnest and sincere. In this respect, we feel as though we’re witnessing growth in Indy’s character—this is a much more mature version of the man we saw bickering with Willie Scott in Temple of Doom.

Of course, amidst their bonding, the adventurous father-son duo still find time for near-death experiences, precarious dalliances, and making awesome discoveries. There’s plenty of light-hearted adventure in Last Crusade for those who just want to have a bit of fun. Spielberg himself has admitted that the main reason he returned to the franchise was to expunge the stain that Temple of Doom had left on the public’s subconscious, determined to make the series a cheerful, fun romp once more.

Impressively, Spielberg achieved both feats: a film brimming with both silly, exciting adventure and emotional, heartfelt characterisation. However, Spielberg would be the first to admit he didn’t do it alone; he’s frequently commended the work of playwright Tom Stoppard, who undertook uncredited rewrites on the script. Indeed, Stoppard’s work elevated the film’s material so much that Spielberg has claimed much of the dialogue—especially the more poignant moments—can be directly attributed to the British writer.

But it’s not just here that the script has improved. The writing is better in all respects, particularly concerning humour. The slapstick seems more intelligent—with the periscope swinging around and cracking a self-satisfied Nazi on the skull—and the one-liners more memorable: “No ticket,” Indy informs terrified passengers after he’s just ejected an SS officer from their airship. Not to mention Adolf Hitler giving Indy a mystified look, right before signing his priceless diary in a childish scrawl.

The plot also feels significantly better structured than in its predecessors. This could also be a result of the terrific pacing in Last Crusade. Editor Michael Kahn gives the story a brisk flow in the less serious scenes while allowing the weightier sequences a slowness that never hinders the overall tone of the narrative.

Spielberg has said he never wanted the film to become sentimental—a trait the director has been criticised for throughout his career—but Stoppard’s dialogue and Kahn’s editing ensure the production never gets bogged down in sombre melodrama. After all, if there’s a central principle this film can be sure to espouse, it’s fun adventure first, emotional backstory later. While the latter element is entirely omitted from previous instalments, it’s the component that elevates the concluding chapter of the trilogy to lofty heights.

Stoppard’s keen dialogue would be nothing without an introspective performance, that Connery faithfully delivers. The Scotsman doesn’t attempt to conceal his native brogue, and it lends a wizened air to the patriarch. Fatherly best describes the former James Bond star’s showing. Connery is occasionally stern and often phlegmatic, but it’s in his quieter, understanding gazes at his son that we find the real heart of the film. When Indy desperately reaches out for the chalice in a cavern, Connery’s resonant plea pulls at heartstrings: “Indiana… let it go.” It’s the first time we’ve heard him refer to his son by his adopted moniker; their journey has finally brought the pair together.

Perhaps it’s subjective, but I also think this film features the best action-adventure scenes in the entire franchise. Nothing beats Indy and Dr Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) wading through catacombs crawling with thousands of rats. Nor is there a better final challenge in the series than Indy narrowly avoiding death as he runs the gauntlet, completing the trials so that he may lay his hands on the Holy Grail.

It also helps that the final challenge feels as though it has been lifted straight from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: which chalice is the right choice? Of course, while the Prince of Morocco only had to walk away empty-handed, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) doesn’t get to walk away at all. Having picked the wrong chalice, he ages a thousand years in a mere second, demonstrating the entertaining visual effects that partly defined the films produced by Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment during the 1980s. Although Lucasfilm produced this film, Spielberg and Lucas worked so closely together during this era that it’s easy to see similarities in their work.

The position the original Indiana Jones trilogy holds in popular culture is hard to ignore. It’s easy to see how it inspired the likes of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code—along with its film adaptation and sequels—as Indy was the first to combine adventure and academia. At the same time, it’s worth identifying what inspirations Spielberg may have had when he first approached the franchise. The giants of cinema before Spielberg undoubtedly influenced his groundbreaking adventure series. Alfred Hitchcock, for one, seems particularly apparent in Last Crusade. Both directors had a flair for adventure.

Whilst the ‘Master of Suspense’ had more of a fondness for thrilling mysteries, several of his films also displayed a similar dedication to exciting explorations of the unknown. In a pivotal scene, Indy races away from a fighter plane strafing them down, which bears a striking resemblance to a sequence in North by Northwest (1959). Perhaps Spielberg is hinting to us that his love of cinematic adventure first stemmed from watching Hitchcock’s gripping plots?

Despite the similarities, nothing quite epitomizes adventure like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Our eponymous hero is called on a quest to find a historical artefact, a mythical connection between religion and legend. Embedding supernatural themes into a terrifying chapter of the 20th-century lends the film an evergreen appeal: there’s something for everyone to love here.

More than anything else, the reason this entry stands out above the rest is that while Indiana is lured on an adventure to find a forgotten treasure from the past, what he discovers is far more meaningful: family. The characterisation on display in the trilogy’s concluding chapter is what makes it special and infinitely rewatchable. As our heroes ride off into the sunset, we’re left with a feeling of success and a thirst for adventure. What more could you ask for?


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Steven Spielberg.
writer: Jeffrey Boam (story by George Lucas & Menno Meyjes; based on characters created by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman).
starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody, John Rhys-Davies & Julian Glover.