Sunday, December 5, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

After the garish, overly frenetic and borderline offensive Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg tried to make amends by producing what was quite possibly his best film to that point, Empire of the Sun. When that also failed to light audiences on fire, Spielberg returned to his adventure franchise to win back the crowd. Given how simple Last Crusade turned out, it's amazing to think that initial ideas, even drafts of the film involved haunted mansions and Scottish ghosts. At last, Spielberg acquiesced to George Lucas' proposal, to have Indy search for the Holy Grail. Oh, and sprinkle in some Nazis while you're at it. There's a good lad.

Of the four Indiana Jones films, Last Crusade may the most inane but also the best embodiment of the escapism the series sought to repackage. Raiders is such a masterpiece that you spend as much time breaking down each immaculate shot as reveling in the overall effect, but Last Crusade is sloppy enough to make it more relatable even as it injects Spielberg's usual themes into a franchise that previously existed to honor the serials of Spielberg and Lucas' youth.

The opening segment, a flashback to Indiana's youth, finds him as a Boy Scout riding horses in Utah. He and a friend stumble upon grave robbers uncovering the Cross of Coronado, causing Indy to swoop in and grab the artifact to place in a museum. After a lengthy chase that involves, for whatever reason, a train carrying circus animals (and some piss-poor animatronics, truth be told), Indy makes his way home, only to be shushed by his father, who wants to hear nothing of his son's adventures. The sheriff comes by and reveals himself to be bought by the thieves, and the head robber, dressed as Indy later will, expresses his admiration for the kid and even gives the boy his fedora. We never see the father, but we get plenty of looks at this man dressed the way our hero will later pattern his iconic outfit. In an instant, Spielberg moves from the silliest moment in any of the Indiana Jones films thus far -- though I am invoking the "chilled monkey brains" exemption -- to something that recalls his more serious aims as a filmmaker, and the sudden move from wide, John Ford-esque vistas and moving shots to static, cramped, uncomfortable moments inside the Jones household communicates how much freer Indy feels when anywhere away from his father.

Back in the present, Indiana, long estranged from his dad, returns to university after finally reclaiming that artifact that got the giant stone ball rolling in Indy's life. As usual, he can barely get through a class before getting the itch to go back in the field, and the verdant, tranquil grounds of the college look odder and more out of place behind Jones than the matte paintings and composite backgrounds that frame Indy's typical actions. So, when an old colleague, Donovan (Julian Glover), stops by to assign Jones a new task, he jumps at the chance. Even better, it concerns the artifact his father devoted his entire life to: the Holy Grail.

A spiritual line runs through all of the Indiana Jones movies, Last Crusade is the first to take anything seriously. Raiders of the Lost Ark only got down to the nitty-gritty of Jewish theology when it directly concerned the ark; everything else focused on the traps of ancient civilizations. Temple of Doom made a fun house roller-coaster of Eastern spirituality, recreating the racist caricature of old serials without ever commenting on it. Yet Christian imagery dominates Last Crusade, from giant stained-glass windows containing clues to specific religious instructions for avoiding booby-traps. Even the father-son dynamic, a conflict between a seemingly all-knowing father and the son who devotes his life to pleasing him, has a Christian undertone.

That Spielberg should take a more serious tack is amusing when you consider that Last Crusade is, by a long shot, the most comedic and lightweight of the four Jones movies. Even the slapstick of Temple had a veneer of dark horror to it, but Last Crusade works best as a comedy on a grand scale, effectively returning to 1941 and finally figuring out how to balance pratfalls with Spielberg's epic canvas. This is only more true when we are finally confronted with Henry Jones, none other than Sean Connery. The mismatch between Ford and Connery, only 12 years older than the actor playing his son (and, more importantly, Scottish), is inherently comedic. But Connery himself appears to have signed on for a comedy, all goofy faces and dry one-liners. The hackneyed dialogue that makes the early parts of film stilted suddenly gives way to an unlikely double act that livens up the proceedings immensely.

Compare the gallows humor of the German being sliced by an airplane propeller in Raiders to the farce of Henry shooting down the plane he and Indy are flying by tearing up the tail. The catacomb crawling with rats just isn't as terrifying as a floor covered in serpents, and the creepy-crawlie sequence here comes with its own punchline when Indy and his latest lover, Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), emerge in the middle of a Venetian café. Perhaps the funniest aspect of the film is how befuddled and clumsy Henry is; you begin to question why Indy feels the need to prove himself to this dolt, until the son makes his own slip-ups. When the two are first reunited, Henry beams that his son picked up his research and successfully hid the diary containing all his Grail research from Nazi capture, only to learn immediately that his son brought that diary all the way back to the lion's den. "I should have sent it to the Marx brothers!" Henry spits. Besides, the fact that they both slept with Elsa makes for a surprisingly complex take on Spielberg's usual father-son relationships. I mean, you don't see that in E.T.

The action sequences are not as impressive, nor as numerous, as I remember, as if Spielberg intended it to be a comedy all along. A chase involving a tank is more funny than suspenseful, and the final challenge tests Jones' intellect over his ability. And yet, the film never flags, kept alive by its silliness and genuinely engaging performances from both Ford and Connery, actors not normally known for comedic timing. The Scottish accent Ford puts on in a hilariously misguided attempt to dupe a castle servant slays me, and I love that he can beat up a blimp usher five inches shorter than him, steal his clothes and emerge with a perfectly fitted outfit. It's also nice to see Spielberg questioning just what happens to Indy's archaeology class in his absence, as students swarm his office when he returns begging for their long-overdue midterm grades. Even the young women who fawn over him would rather get their essays back than spend a lovely evening with the good doctor.

The climax is grandiose enough to appeal to everyone but takes the material serious enough to give the franchise an emotional stake for the first time. Wounding Henry gives Indy a concrete reason to go after the grail where previous films have relied solely on Indy wanting an artifact to have it -- Temple, with its subplot of enslaved children, was too murky to effectively create tension. Spielberg ingeniously shoots the immortal knight deep within the cave that holds the cup in ghostly white that clashes with the golden hues of the burning fires and light reflecting off the ostentatious adornments surrounding the true Cup of Christ as decoys, communicating the dark side of eternal life in an instant.

The most significant development in the film, however, is the introduction of a more positive side to Spielberg's usual theme of absent fathers. For the first time, the director opens the possibility to reconciliation. Roy Neary left his family behind to go to space. Elliott's dad remained removed. James finds his way back to his family, but he's too scarred by life in an internment camp to ever readjust. Here, Spielberg slowly comes around: maybe a distant father and a son can reconcile, but so far this can only happen far down the road, after a rotten childhood is set aside. It would be a few years yet before the director would let a child forgive his father.

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