Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade isn’t about nefarious Nazis, ancient artefacts, the holy grail or greed of man. All of those things feature, of course, in Harrison Ford’s third outing as America’s favourite archaeologist adventurer, released in the UK 30 years ago this week. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a story about rejection: a daddy-issues drama that also happens to have exploding tanks and men melting into skeletons in dark, dangerous crypts woven into the plot.
“The father thing was my idea,” director Steven Spielberg recalled in 2012, explaining the genesis of its plot: Indy discovers his estranged dad, a fellow archaeologist, has gone missing on the trail of the holy grail, a fabled cup that offers eternal life. Spielberg described it as a story about “a son seeking reconciliation with a father and a father seeking reconciliation with a son” – a tension that peaks in a scene on a German blimp, between a face-to-face encounter with the Fuhrer and the best seagull-related death in cinema history.
“It was a lonely way to grow up,” Indy complains at his absentee dad, Henry (played by former James Bond, Sean Connery). Henry’s obsession with the grail while Indy was growing up came at the cost of their relationship, the conversation makes clear. “If you'd been an ordinary, average father, like the other guys' dads, you'd have understood that,” Indy levels at his father. “I was a wonderful father. Did I ever tell you to eat up? Go to bed? Wash your ears? Do your homework? No. I respected your privacy, and I taught you self-reliance,” Henry fights back.
“What you taught me was that I was less important to you than people who'd been dead for 500 years,” the treasure-hunter sighs. It’s in this moment you realise it's not just the grail Indy is chasing – it's his dad's approval.
This emotional undercurrent is what makes the Last Crusade such an action-adventure classic, the second-biggest box office hit of 1989 and the perfect end to the treasure-seeker’s story (or so we thought: Indy was brought back in a fourth film in 2008, the critically panned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and another sequel is now in production). Yes, Last Crusade had heart-pounding stunts that throbbed with adrenaline: boat chases in Venice, Turkish marketplace punch-ups, motorbike escapes and daring raids of Nazi hideouts. But it also had a father-son story that revealed a vulnerable side to our hero, one rooted in rejection, the pain of being turned away. Which is fitting when you discover how Indiana Jones came to be.
Not many people have said no to Steven Spielberg across his glittering career. James Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli is one of them, however. It was 1975 and Jaws had just taken a $470m-sized bite out of the US box office, traumatising a generation of cinemagoers and establishing Spielberg as a hot new Tinseltown talent. With his confidence riding high, he called Broccoli, offering his services for a 007 movie.
“He didn’t think I was right for the part,” the director revealed in 2016. “Then after Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] came out and was a big hit, once again, I tried to get on a Bond film.” Both times he was told thanks, but no thanks. Instead, he started devising his own iconic character with friend George Lucas: “James Bond but better”, as the latter once said.
The first two Indy films, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom, introduced the world to a handsome professor who spends his spare time hotfooting it around mystic ruins (my parents, by the way, were both teachers, but spent most of their spare time in the local garden centre rather than dodging booby traps in Burmese tombs). The character offered a thrilling vision of American masculinity – a dream of what it means to be male that ranked right up there with John Wayne’s strutting cowboy in the American consciousness, combining brains and brawn into a chiselled “bounty hunter of antiquities”, as Lucas referred to him.
On screen, he’d spitball through situations on a wing and a prayer: “I’ll think of something!” as he puts it before improvising a daring raid in Last Crusade. Ford approached the character with the same rogue, sarcastic charm that made Han Solo a hit in his earlier Lucas collaboration, the Star Wars saga. Audiences reacted with almost as much enthusiasm as for those films in a galaxy far, far away: the first two Indiana Jones movies grossed a combined $720m and won positive reviews (Raiders more so than the darker, gloomier Temple of Doom), making the character an instant icon. The whip, the hat, the catch phases: they immediately became pop-cultural shorthand for excitement and adventure.
When it came to their third instalment in the series, Spielberg and Lucas opted for a narrative that gave fans a new perspective on the character, via Indy’s father. “Who else but Bond could have been worthy enough to play Indiana Jones's dad?” Spielberg told Empire in 2012, recalling how he coaxed Connery into playing Henry. It was a casting that brought the Indiana Jones films full circle: after having his dream of directing a Bond film crushed nine years earlier, Spielberg had now roped James Bond himself into a film series that wouldn’t have existed had the director not been rebuffed by 007 producers.
The film almost looked very different to this, though. Originally titled “Indiana Jones and the Monkey King”, it would have found our hero in the Lost City of Sun Wu King with a giant ape and a gorilla army between him and the holy grail. Lucas wrote an eight-page treatment, then a 11-page one, before Gremlins writer Chris Columbus fleshed Lucas’s work out into a screenplay. In Columbus’s script, Indy is killed and resurrected, steampunk Nazis with machine gun arms follow his every move, and Indy befriends a 200-year-old pygmy. It also opened in a haunted house in Scotland that found Indy on holiday – only for his vacation to be derailed by a villainous ghost called Baron Seagrave.
Spielberg vetoed both the haunted house and the legend of the Monkey King as too fanciful. The director instead returned to an idea he’d originally been sceptical about: the holy grail. Lucas had previously pitched the idea, but Spielberg worried it didn’t pack enough spectacle and that too many people associated it with Monty Python.
This trend of returning to earlier, discarded plot ideas is typical of the Indiana Jones series, it’s worth mentioning. The airplane crash and mine cart chases sequences in Temple of Doom? Leftovers from screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s original Raiders script. The lost city Lucas planned for Last Crusade also eventually turned up in Crystal Skull. In other words, don’t be surprised if Indiana Jones 5, coming to cinemas in July 2021, opens in a haunted Scottish castle and features an oversized ape.
Last Crusade opens with a brilliant origin story, flashing back to Indy’s teenage years. Young Jones is played by River Phoenix, the tragic Stand By Me star who’d be dead five years later following a drug overdose. He’s phenomenal, instrumental in a scene that amounts to a moment of immaculate Spielbergian storytelling, achieving so much in so little time.
In 11 minutes and 50 seconds of chasing, fighting and impromptu lion-taming, it sets up how Indy acquired his hat, the scar on his chin, his whip and phobia of snakes. It establishes his testy relationship with his dad, not to mention his strong moral compass – when Indy sees a pack of grave robbers seizing a golden crucifix, he sneaks in and steals it, because, to quote an Indy catchphrase, “it belongs in a museum”.
From there, the set pieces don’t stop coming. “What we’re doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland,” Spielberg said when creating Raiders with Lucas and Kasdan. Last Crusade, with its fights on storm-battered boats, escapes from rat-infested tunnels and aerial gunfights, was a rollercoaster that made most other action-adventure movies look like a teacup ride.
After Indy picks up Henry’s tracks in Venice and ventures to rescue him from a Nazi castle, the pair gradually journey to Hatay where the grail resides – pursued every step of the way by the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword (a secret society that protects the grail) and the Nazis, who wish to harness its power for world domination. It’s revealed that one of the Nazi conspirators, Austrian Dr Elsa Schneider (played by Irish actress Alison Doody), has slept with both Indy and Henry, just in case the Oedipal drama of their relationship needed any further complicating.
Returning to the Nazi antagonists of the first movie was no accident – Spielberg longed to return to the tone and feel of Raiders after the darkness of Temple, which featured child slaves, dark magic, human sacrifice and racist tropes about indigenous tribes (the monkey brains luncheon scene hasn’t aged well).
It’d been made in the wake of painful break-ups for both Lucas and Spielberg. Lucas had recently divorced Marcia Griffin, the Oscar-winning editor of Star Wars, while Spielberg had also recently split from music exec Kathleen Carey. The result was a movie that lurched between borderline misogynistic physical comedy centred on the squeamish Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and scenes of disturbing violence. “No parent should allow a young child to see this traumatising movie; it would be a cinematic form of child abuse,” warned People magazine at the time.
Last Crusade refocused on family-friendly adventure and generous splashes of humour: after a breathless punch-up on a zeppelin leaving Berlin in which Indy throws a Nazi out of the window while dressed as a ticket inspector, he turns to shocked onlookers and explains: “No ticket!” Another comic highlight is the reveal that Indy’s real name is Junior, and Indy is the name of the family dog (in real life, Indiana really was named after Lucas’s dog).
Reviews reflected this lighter side. Rolling Stone called it “the wildest and wittiest Indy of them all”, while Variety praised the father-son duo’s “amusing sexual one-upmanship”. It went on to gross $474m at the box office, drawing to a close Indy’s story for two decades.
Now that a fifth film is imminent (Harrison Ford recently confirmed shooting begins next year), fans will hope Spielberg and Lucas employ a similar tactic to the one employed after Temple of Doom, righting the wrongs of their previous film (the dismal Crystal Skull) by reverting to the fun feel of the one before it – in this case, Last Crusade. If it can recapture the series’ subtle emotional heartbeat and pulse-racing action, Indy 5 might too become a big screen adventure worth celebrating and preserving for generations – a movie, you might say, that belongs in a museum.