About forty minutes into the larky loop the loop that is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the father of our archaeologist hero makes his entrance. He’s a helluva shock. Indy, played once more by Harrison Ford in his de rigueur brown fedora and bullwhip accessories, has just crashed manfully through the window of a German castle. That’s where the senior Jones is being held by Nazis (it’s 1938) who think he can lead them to the Holy Grail. Indy is barely through the window when his dad mistakenly beans him with a vase. That’s the shock: Pop is a blundering professor. “Junior?” he asks, staring incredulously at his dazed son. Reduced to snot-nose-kid status when faced with a parent (a common malady), the indignant Indy lamely retorts, “Don’t call me Junior.”
Director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas have devised a nifty hook for the third and (they threaten) final chapter in the Jones saga: Though Indy can’t abide his old man, he must risk his life to save him. Dr. Henry Jones is a professor of antiquity whose nose was buried in musty parchments when his young, motherless son needed a strong guiding hand. (We learn all this in the movie’s pow prologue, featuring River Phoenix as the teen Indy.) A daredevil sired by a bookworm. That’s just one of the clever notions from Lucas and Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple), who co-wrote the story with a script by Jeffrey Boam (The Lost Boys). But casting Sean Connery as the dear old wussie of a dad was better than clever. I’d call it inspiration.
Since Dr. No, in 1962, when he uttered the immortal intro — “The name is Bond, James Bond” — Connery, now fifty-eight, has been movie-star virility incarnate. Here in his scholar’s tweeds, with an undisguised horror of creepy-crawly things (of which the movie boasts legions) and armed only with an umbrella and a fountain pen, Connery plays gloriously against type. Just watch him bungle an air escape by shooting off the tail of his own plane. It’s a knockout performance, brimming over with zest and tangy humor.
Spielberg has matched him up perfectly with Ford. Both actors have the booming physicality to take the screen and hold it. But it’s their mocking approach to macho that keeps us in their comer. Indy is nonplussed to learn that he and Dad have bedded the same woman, Dr. Elsa Schneider, a leggy, blond art historian. “I’m as human as the next man,” argues Dad. “I was the next man,” snaps Indy. Irish actress Alison Doody may not possess the comic flair that Karen Allen and Kate Capshaw brought to past Indy adventures, but she invests Dr. Elsa with a steamy sexuality that leaves father and son as giddy as schoolboys.
The rapport between Ford and Connery also allows genuine feeling to cut through the razzle-dazzle. In a tight spot, the Jones boys race down a beach while an enemy plane rakes them with fire. Suddenly, Pop starts to chase a flock of sea birds with his umbrella. He’s a foolish sight. But the look in Indy’s eyes quickly changes from exasperation to admiration when the rising flock blinds the pilot and sends the plane into a crash dive.
Ford and Connery make a sensational team; their relationship charges the film. But despite their playful badinage, I had a queasy feeling that maudlin sincerity would sink the soufflé. Estranged fatherson movies usually lead to stupefyingly soppy reconciliations. Or worse. I feared a repetition of what happened in Lucas’s Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker learned that the dastardly Darth Vader was really his daddy and the sunny Star Wars trilogy ended in a Freudian funk.
Oh, me of little faith. Perhaps Lucas and Spielberg had their fill of the dark side after the second Indy picture, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in 1984. Remember the exploding heart, evil cultists and tortured children? Number 3 wisely returns to the lighthearted spirit of the original Indy adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in 1981. The culprits aren’t demons of the mind, they’re right out front. “Nazis,” says Indy, “I hate those guys.”
Indy may be carrying some residual childhood angst into his last crusade, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. Humor handily deflects the sentiment. When Henry finally begs his son to express what he’s been holding back for a lifetime, Indy can’t think of a thing. “Then what are you complaining about?” shouts Henry. Sparked by joining his son in the field, the rejuvenated old man is eager to get on with the next exploit.
Spielberg is certainly ready to oblige. He tops himself by staging enough exhilarating, eye-popping, heart-in-the-mouth stunts to stock a summer full of blockbusters. Most of his tricks are slam-bang (watch for the plane in the tunnel), a few are shopworn (enough with the snakes already), but all are executed in grand style, and the thrills are nonstop.
Before the cast rides off into the sunset, we even learn where Indiana got his name, his fedora and his distaste for being called Junior. It’s a tribute to Ford and Connery that the answers come to matter. Lord knows, the plot doesn’t. The search for the Holy Grail by power-mad Nazis and a youth-obsessed industrialist (smoothly acted by Julian Glover) is bushwa, an excuse for Spielberg to work his magic in locations as diverse as Spain, Venice, England, Jordan and the United States.
It’s Spielberg’s wide-eyed enthusiasm that turns The Last Crusade into the wildest and wittiest Indy of them all. His message is to stop searching for messages and join in the fun. In the process of restoring Indy to his father, the Holy Grail to sacred ground and all villains to perdition, Spielberg has also restored something that’s been missing from movie escapism for too long: its good name.