In May 1989 Indy returned one more time; I would graduate high school that year a few weeks later. I remember we went to see it at the Wayne Loews theater, a mall hang-out infested with guidos, at least back then. It had been 5 years since the disappointment of Temple of Doom, and everyone was really psyched for the new movie.
I sort of have a love-hate relationship with the movie. It’s great compared to Temple, but it still leans more toward comic slapstick than adventure. It’s sort of what you’d expect the new movie to be, now that Harrison Ford is in his 60’s; he’s a kindler, gentler Indy, who’s more concerned with patching things up with Papa than kicking Nazi butt. The film also lacks a good villain; despite a visit to Berlin to a book-burning and a run-in with Hitler himself, the bad guy is lackluster Nazi colonel and a greedy collector who wants the Holy Grail so he can be immortal. they don’t live up to Major Toht or even Mola Ram. In the movie’s favor, it is one hell of a lot of fun, and for that all is forgiven.
The movie begins in Indy’s adolescence and gives us a great origin for our hero. He’s a boy scout on a field trip in the Moab desert, beautifully filmed- it looks more exciting than the foreign places we end up in. He encounters a group of men ravaging a cave in the site, looking for, and finding, a golden cross. In one line, they erase the shabby history of the first sequel, when young Indiana declares, “that belongs in a museum.”
The beginning of the film is one of the best intros to a character; Casino Royale’s reboot of Bond comes close, but that’s about it in recent memory. Young Indy is played by River Phoenix, who sadly died face-first on the pavement of a speedball-induced overdose, thus robbing us of seeing him play the part again. He races from the bad guys on horseback and hops a circus train, and through a rapid succession of leaps from the frying pan into the fire, we learn where the whip, the fear of snakes, and the scar on Harrison’s Ford chin came from. When he gets home and Distant Dad is there poring over a manuscript, and once again Indy loses a historical artifact to a better-connected treasure hunter.
But he doesn’t have to like it. And that’s where he gets the hat. The proto-Indy that he seems to model himself on is never named, and that’s for the better. The best stories leave us some mystery. Sometimes Indy’s family problems get a little too “TMI” in his third entry, but they wisely leave out the details so we aren’t distracted from the adventure.
Back in the present day, the plot structure resembles the first film; back at Marshall College, Professor Jones escapes from the mob of fans and is intercepted by Marcus Brody and some men in suits who have a job for him. This time instead of the government, it’s a rich industrialist named Walter Donovan, who needs help in his archaeological quest to find the holiest of Christian artifacts, the Holy Grail. Indy prattles off the facts he knows of the Grail legend, absorbed from his father’s obsession with it. He dismisses them until he finds out that his Old Man was the one they had on the job, and he’s gone missing.
From there it’s off to Venice to get his trail before it’s cold; luckily Indy finds his father’s Grail Diary in his morning mail to help them along. In the city of canals and romance we meet their guide, Elsa, an Austrian beauty with just enough fire to make her a match for Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenscroft. They have good chemistry and hit it off, soon after discovering a hidden passage in an old church, swarming with rats.
Shortly thereafter they meet the Marx Brothers of Grail Knights, the Brothers of the Cruciform Sword. They look like Frank Zappa in fez hats and are about as effective in combat as the honkered rocker might be. Indy smacks them around all over the canals of Venice and finds out where his father is hidden, and we’re off to Austria.
At a castle on the Austrian border, Elsa and Indy bluff their way in the door pretending to be a Scottish Lord and his assistant; The severe Austrian butler is having none of it, and says in a badly dubbed line, “If you are a Scottish Lord, then I am Mickey Mouse!” Back in the day, I read the comic book that was released of the movie, and in that version he says “Jesse Owens” instead; I wonder if they thought no one would remember who Jesse Owens was, and how he humiliated the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. Anyway, if you watch the film, listen to the delivery of that line and tell me it doesn’t sound dubbed.
Indy finds Dad locked up in a room and they have a comic reunion; he smashes a vase over his son’s head and is more concerned that he may have broken an antique. He also says he mailed him the diary to”get it as far away from me as possible.” Ouch, Dad. To spite his Daddy, he refuses to believe who the traitor is, and it gets them both captured. Their escape is a marvel of editing, as they hop chairs through a burning castle, stumble through secret passageways and finally have a jousting session on motorcycles vs. Nazis to break free.
This is probably Sean Connery’s funniest role, and his best in recent years. Much of the movie is comedy, but it works a hell of a lot better than Doom did, thanks to a fine cast. Marcus Brody is transformed from a dry colleague to an absent-minded professor who got lost in his own museum, and Dad is the same except with a great smirking ability to play the straight man. Indy is at his slapstick best, and there’s none of the scares from the previous films, except for the end. They keep the pace up, so we never notice. One of Marcus’s quick lines is “Water? No thank you, fish make love in it,” which is a bowdlerization of a famous W.C. Fields quote. Brody says it when he’s “blending in” at a Cairo bazaar.
The Grail Diary has been taken to Berlin, so they head there to get it; it’s really just a set-up for one of the best gags of the film. He tracks Elsa down to a Nazi bookburning, dons a Nazi officer’s uniform, and grabs the diary from her. But on the way out the crowd overwhelms him and he stumbles into Adolf Hitler himself… who signs the book. It reminded me of some of the wartime propaganda films where Mussolini and Hitler were spoofed as bumbling morons.
Getting out of Germany is some of the best fun of the film, comparable to Raiders in how they move from one set piece to another so deftly. They hop a zeppelin, only to have to flee in the emergency biplane attached to the bottom when it turns around; then it’s a dogfight in the sky, a crash landing, a car chase through tunnels dodging bombs, and Dr. Jones Sr. gets to save the day. In a movie overrun with gags, my favorite is still “I’m sorry, but they got us.”
They manage to top this chase later on in the desert, after the Three Stooges of the Cruciform Sword lead their suicide attack on the Nazis and their tank. For people with God on their side, they’re pretty bad at what they do. They’re still better than the albino wacko from the Da Vinci Code, though.
Indy goes after the tank on horseback when they capture Dad, in the movie’s most exciting sequence. They keep the comic tone throughout, so when Indy shoots people it’s always nearly bloodless and make funny somehow, like when he shoots five soldiers with one bullet. At least he didn’t have a gun stuck on his foot like Jar-Jar, but you could see where Lucas and Spielberg were going. I’m almost glad they waited 19 years before making the next Indy movie, because one made in ’95 might have had Indiana Jones using a walkie-talkie instead of a gun. Remember, Spielberg talked about changing the swordfight scene in Raiders, before they released the DVDs.
The film does have some touching moments as well, and while I may mock Spielberg for having Daddy Issues in nearly all his movies, he does a fine job here. Jones Sr. is distant, but very believable. I was serious when I said it was one of Sean Connery’s best roles. He really makes the Elder Jones a unique character, that is unlike James Bond, Officer Malone, or any other of his starring roles.
My favorite part of the movie is the end with the puzzle traps protecting the Grail. With typical brutality, Donovan is sending soldiers in to defeat them, beheaded one by one. Indiana is forced in next, with his Dad’s Grail Diary for help. There’s even jokes here, and as a nerd who took Latin, one always bothered me. One puzzle involves The Name of God, and letters are carved into blocks on the floor. “Jehovah,” easy enough… “J…” Whoops! In Latin, Jehovah would start with a I! Well, not really, see. The problem is there was no fucking letter J back then. But who cares? It’s funny, and it made us nerds who took Latin laugh until we thought about it later, as nerds are wont to do.
The best visual effect in the movie is a masterwork of set design, the final Leap of Faith that tests our hero on the Grail Quest. It amazed me then and amazes me now. With CG it would be easy. The movie is full of recognizable trick effects where white outlines gleam around Nazis falling off cliffs, but the explosions are thankfully real. This trick tops them all, with the hidden path across the chasm. It’s the best reveal of the movie, and one of the best of the series.
The final test for the Grail is at the hands of the now elderly Knight guarding it, when you must choose from a bevy of gold cups. The movie is a wellspring of memorable quotes, nearly as many as Raiders; “No ticket!” is one, but “He chose… unwisely…” is the best. And while Julian Glover wasn’t a very slimy villain, we love seeing him get his comeuppance. It’s definitely akin to the face-meltings of the first movie, and almost better.
When I saw the film in ’89 on opening weekend, the fucking film stopped when it was Indy’s turn to drink from the Grail. For at least 5 minutes. We were all shouting at the projectionist, and to this day I think he was pranking us. It’s to the movie’s credit that we didn’t ask for our money back; once it started up again and we saw the great ending, all was forgiven. Seeing Indy reconcile with his Dad in the most perfect way possible touched on the Daddy Issues in all of us (or at least me) and washed away the sin of making the best pulp hero in history into a comedy act.
I’m told the new movie is most like Last Crusade in tone, and I can live with that. Making a movie as great as Raiders of the Lost Ark is no easy trick; making a sequel that’s better than the original has only happened with The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather, Part II (off the top of my head) and one can’t expect miracles from Hollywood. I really hate Shia LeDouche (okay, LaBoeuf) on screen, but I’m going to see it open-minded. After all, Spielberg made DiCaprio tolerable in Catch Me If You Can, and he’s gone on to make The Aviator and The Departed. I somehow doubt LaBeef will undergo a similar transformation, but if he doesn’t ruin the film I’ll be happy.