I had the great pleasure of watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on the big screen last night. My local cinema put on a screening of an old film every Monday evening, and in recent months I’ve caught Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom at these screenings. Both were wonderful experiences, but it was Last Crusade - my favourite Indy film - that I was most anxious to see.
Seeing a film on the big screen is a dramatically different experience to the one you have at home. Everything is bigger, bolder and frequently better. I was bowled over by how damn exciting Raiders was when I saw it projected earlier in March (the same goes for Jaws, which I saw on the big screen during the summer) and while I still have reservations about Temple of Doom, it too improved on the big screen. Both films are rollicking adventures that simply demand to be viewed at the cinema.
Last Crusade was slightly different. While I was blown away by the action (how can you not be thrilled by the tank chase?!), what struck me most was the film’s thematic and emotional depth. I’ve always thought of Last Crusade as one of Spielberg’s most cerebral blockbusters and seeing it projected simply enhanced that.
Of course, we all know about the benefits of casting Sean Connery as Indy’s dad, but what I’d like to discuss in this post is how Spielberg uses the film to explore fantasy and cinema.
The film opens with Young Indy stealing the Cross of Coronado in a bid to take it to its rightful place - a museum. Spielberg orchestrates a magnificent action scene in this opening section which takes place on a circus train. An exciting location for such a chase to take place, you might think. And you’d be right. But there’s more to Spielberg’s use of the train than simple thrills.
The first film Spielberg ever saw at the cinema was Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic The Greatest Show On Earth. The director was disappointed with the experience, explaining later that he thought he was going to see a real circus and felt let down that all he witnessed was a representation of a circus projected onto a blank canvas. The only memorable things he took from the film were the lions, James Stewart’s performance as a clown and a train crash.
The use of a circus train in Last Crusade’s opening sequence is by no means arbitrary then; it is deeply linked to Spielberg’s experience of cinema. By using a circus train as the backdrop against which Henry Jones Jnr to all intents and purposes ‘becomes’ Indiana Jones (developing a fear of snakes, inflicting upon himself Harrison Ford’s chin scar and learning to use a whip), Spielberg is playing with the idea of cinema, punching holes in the idea of cinema as a representation of reality.
This continues throughout the film. In an early classroom scene, Indy is shown telling his students that there are “no maps to buried treasure and X never marks the spot”. Of course, the whole film is based around Indy using his father’s map to locate the Holy Grail and in the course of doing so he visits a library in which a giant X marks the Tomb of Sir Richard and the first crucial clue on the road to the Grail.
When Indy meets up with his father in Austria, Spielberg derives the film’s humour not just from their fractured relationship, but also from Indy’s place as the hero. At Sean Connery’s suggestion, Henry Snr constantly undercuts his son, sleeping with Elsa before Indy does and “remembering his Charlemagne” to save he and his son from an attacking German place. “Bookworm” Henry often does a better job of being a matinee hero than the matinee hero does.
He also repeatedly disapproves of his son’s actions. Henry cries ‘What did you do!? Look at what you did!’ when Indy guns down German soldiers in the Austrian castle and judgementally glances towards his son when he kills more Nazis in the film’s motorcycle chase.
Henry is a symbol of reality encroaching upon cinematic fantasy and he acts as a mouthpiece for a Spielberg who had by this point already started on his path to Schindler’s List by making The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, a Spielberg who was starting to put blockbusters behind him.
The film memorably ends with Indy, Henry, Sallah and Marcus Brody riding off into the sunset in a glorious scene John Ford would have been proud of. It’s a triumphant and yet melancholic ending that trades on cinematic imagery to bid goodbye to it.
Indy, the matinee hero whose first adventure teems with cinematic references and was born out of Spielberg’s desire to make a Bond film, has finally found a treasure more significant than treasure and gold, and his creator a treasure more significant than cinema.
In Last Crusade, Indy and Spielberg find their Holy Grail not in the fantasy offered by historic mythology and cinema, but in the here and now, in reality and in their fathers.