At the time of its release, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was exactly the film that the franchise needed, heavily relying on the past successes of era’s two most prolific creators — Steven Spielberg and George Lucas — in a triumphant return to the lighthearted excitement and adventure that were the hallmarks of the series. In classic Indiana Jones fashion, its two-hour runtime is chock full of shootouts, shlocky dialogue, chase scenes, cheap laughs, and practical effects that all work seamlessly together to create a roller coaster ride of fun. As for the plot, Last Crusade is classically Spielbergian in all the best ways, combining the speed of action with the emotion of family, while borrowing Lucas’ talent of worldbuilding to take things to the next level. Although some may argue that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best film in the series, there is no denying that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is an absolute joy to watch, taking punching Nazis and hunting treasure in exciting and new directions, while staying true to the classic and nostalgic formula responsible for its initial success.
In creating the story, Spielberg and Lucas sought to avoid the dark and foreboding atmosphere set by the critically mixed Temple of Doom, and instead returned to the lighthearted and accessible fun of the first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In doing so, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feels like a very familiar piece in all the right ways, taking safer and more reasonable paths to close out the series (or so we thought) instead of branching out into uncharted territory. Initially, Lucas wanted the film to be a haunted house movie with Indy fighting against undead spirits, but Spielberg balked due to his recent production, Poltergeist, and the film went through several rewrites. The duo finally decided on something more appealing for mainstream cinemagoers — a family story about a search for a religious icon — and they brought back old characters and premises to ensure that the film was a hit.
Because of its structure, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in many ways feels like a number of different movies crammed into one. Separated into three acts, its format fragments the plot into three different quests: the search for the father, the search for the diary, and the search for the grail itself. In doing so, the film gains a tremendous quickness that works as a revolving door for the same formulaic approach (look for the item, build suspense, discover item, action/chase sequence, and resolution) while maintaining the freshness of subject matter and scenery. To achieve this goal and keep the story moving forward, Last Crusade takes viewers all over the Indiana Jones universe, traveling between Utah, Venice, Berlin, and the Middle East with ease. This allows Lucas’ worldbuilding ability to shine, as he and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam craft new lore in these locales, while including subtle nods to past films to keep the narrative both nostalgic and novel.
In many ways, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the most Star Wars-esque and Lucas-inspired of any in the trilogy. Marcus Brody, Indy’s university sidekick, feels very much like a 1930s C3P0 as he bumbles his way through dangerous encounters and finds himself wholly unprepared for the challenge. Williams’ theme also feels very Return of the Jedi, borrowing notes from the sci-fi soundtrack in an apparent homage. This soundtrack also backs some of the best chase scenes in the trilogy, with the airplane dogfight and motorcycle chase being very reminiscent of X-wing battles and Speeder Bike races on Endor.
In many ways, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the most Star Wars-esque and Lukas-inspired of any in the trilogy
That being said, it’s very apparent that Lucas had a large influence over the final script, and it could be argued that the film suffers from the classic Lucas blunder of heavily explaining backstories, thereby ruining the mystique of a character. It’s a common complaint of Lucas’ later Star Wars prequel films, and Last Crusade does suffer from a less-than-stellar introductory sequence of Indiana as a kid that is used to explain the hat, the whip, the mannerisms, and the fear of snakes all within a ten-minute period of time. Like many critics noted, this does cheapen the mystery behind Indiana as a character, and deflates any possibility of a deeper and more creative story. While the quick and fast explanation does create more of a campy feeling commonly seen in ’80s era films, it is a slight misstep, and an unnecessary scene.
Despite this blunder, the introduction of Indy’s father and the exploration into their relationship is perhaps the greatest strength of the narrative. Although initially planned to be austere and disapproving, Connery portrays Henry Jones as comedic and fun, taking an impish-yet-serious approach to most challenges. In contrast to Indy, Dr. Jones Sr. is a bit more bookish and shrewd — although he obviously doesn’t lack in experience. For most, Connery’s portrayal is the main reason to watch this film, and his onscreen chemistry with Harrison Ford is impressive and fluid.
Although it may not be universally regarded as the best in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade stands as a great film nonetheless, expanding upon the Jones mythos while sticking to a formula of action and fun that simply works. Although campy and shlocky at times, Last Crusade never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, and stays true to the classic formula that fans love. While the Indiana Jones franchise is still questionably expanding, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is unquestionably a treasure that has stood the test of time.