Something to Believe In
Chris Wisniewski on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

With the mid-eighties one-two punch of The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg seemed to have entered a new phase in his career, one marked by artistic risk—a willingness to make movies about difficult topics for adult audiences, regardless of their commercial prospects. If this pivot failed to net Spielberg the Oscar he’d been jonesing for (ever since he foolishly invited a live television crew to his home to shoot him watching the nomination announcements when he didn’t get a nod for directing 1975’s Jaws), it did win him a hard-earned measure of critical approbation. His next move, though, was a retrenchment, in more ways than one: in 1989, Spielberg returned to blockbuster territory with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, revisiting familiar characters and a comfortable milieu with a globetrotting adventure-comedy that, though set in the same period as Empire of the Sun, couldn’t have been more different from its immediate predecessor. Taken as a diptych, however, Empire and Last Crusade (like other, more chronologically adjacent pairings that include Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List and War Horse/Tintin) are arguably reflective of a now commonly acknowledged bifurcation in Spielberg’s authorial identity—between artist and entertainer, serious filmmaker and purveyor of mass spectacle. It can be hard to reconcile Spielberg the mature master with Spielberg the Peter Pan.

These distinctions instantiate a false divide, however. Even when he aspires to “art,” Spielberg still traffics in the middlebrow: many of his most disturbing images (think of Schindler’s List or Amistad) come packaged with the promise of uplift, and his most uncompromising visions are always intended for mainstream audiences. The most exuberant and frivolous of his larks, meanwhile, nevertheless hint at the sinister—at forces and failings that threaten the domestic bubbles in which his principal characters tend to operate.

If we wanted to sketch a unified portrait of Spielberg as “author,” one that moved past the perhaps dubious assumption that those entries in his filmography self-consciously styled as “serious” and “important” are actually fundamentally different from the less self-aggrandizing of his films, we might be well advised to start with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Perhaps no other film in his oeuvre reflects so many of his preoccupations, both superficial (1940s, Nazis, boyhood, movie history, a bizarre ambivalence towards sex and sexuality) and substantive (absent fathers, fractured masculinity, the intersection between domestic strife and the threat of large-scale annihilation). Further still, this is a movie that, with regards to the question Spielberg, leads to the conclusion that drawing a line between the superficial and the substantive instantiates yet another false divide. For the cinema of Spielberg exemplified by Last Crusade conceives, constructs, interpolates, and rewrites history and identity through the language and history of cinema itself; style is always substance.

History and identity, cinematic and otherwise, are the explicit concerns of Last Crusade, which begins with an extended origin sequence following its titular hero as an adolescent (River Phoenix) on a Boy Scout expedition. In a sense, this prologue charts the emergence of Indy as cinematic icon, revealing how he acquires his signature fedora, the scar on his face, and his fear of snakes. This is how Indy becomes the rogue archaeologist-adventurer of Raiders and Temple of Doom, a figure contrasted with his self-same scholarly persona (“X never, ever marks the spot,” intones Professor Jones during a lecture; “X marks the spot,” guesses action-hero Indy in his search for the tomb of a Crusade-era knight in a catacomb hidden beneath a Venice library). Phoenix’s Indy anticipates the “vulnerable” hero described by Julien Allen in his piece on Raiders in this symposium. He is impetuous and foolish, getting himself trapped in a train car with a circus lion and nearly castrated by the horn of a rhinoceros. Indeed, his scar and ophidiophobia reflect that very vulnerability.

Spielberg was insistent, though, that Last Crusade tell a father-son story, and in this film Professor Jones (Jr.) stands in contrast to Indy the action hero as a proxy for his namesake father (Sean Connery), who when introduced at the end of the origin sequence implores young Junior, breathless after bursting into their home with a treasured artifact rescued from fortune hunters, to count in Greek. Henry Jones, Sr., preoccupies himself not with adventure but with a scholarly pursuit: his Grail diary, a book that catalogs his lifelong attempt at locating the chalice Jesus used in the Last Supper. This artifact is iconographic in a way altogether different from Indy; the object of Henry’s obsession evokes not the history of B serials but instead Arthurian legend. Henry Sr., like the Indy of 1938, is a scholar, but the son, even in adulthood, rejects his disinterested father who failed, as have many Spielbergian fathers both before and after, to be adequately present for either his wife or his child, so distracted was he by his Grail hobby. Indy spends the entire film trying to demarcate his identity in opposition to the older Jones, while his father refuses to confer legitimacy on Indy’s self-staked identity, uncompromisingly referring to him in a running gag by his given name, or more precisely as “Junior” (a nickname that absorbs his son’s identity into his own). In a final joke (and insult), we learn that Indiana’s chosen name was inspired by his childhood dog. Theirs is a droll Oedipal struggle, played out through clashes over a woman (who turns out to be a Nazi) and the search for the Grail (which for Sr. is an obsession and for Jr. is merely a mission to rescue his kidnapped father). Indy may not be a child, but in Last Crusade, he is always a son, the child to the father.

In marrying Spielberg’s insistence on a father-son story with producer George Lucas’s preference for a film focused on the search for the Holy Grail, Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay maps an Oedipal drama onto an epic religious one. By casting Connery in the role of Jones Sr., though, Spielberg’s movie transforms all of this into a metatextual and metacinematic game: Indy the B-serial action hero originally conceived, in Lucas’s words, as “better than Bond,” becomes in this film both child and rival to James Bond himself, with Connery playing a character obsessed with an artifact that holds a singular position in the history of British lore. The film’s central joke—of stodgy Henry referring to Indy as “junior” and our glib but winning hero rejecting the name—is one that is always partially filmic, pitting Spielberg’s rogue archaeologist adventurer against the one and only Bond, who here is curiously defanged, desuaved, and demystified.

The great trick of this film is the way in which it depicts Indy as a typically flawed everyman American hero—humble, instinctive, but capable of mistake and miscalculation—only then to elevate and remystify him. Unlike Bond, Indy is prone to severe blunders: entrusting the map that leads to the location of the Grail to his inept fellow teacher Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott): assuming that Elsa’s (Alison Doody) room has indeed been ransacked by an intruder rather than by the cunning Nazi herself; discounting the self-incriminating warning from the man who bankrolls the Grail expedition, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), to “not trust anybody.” Time and again, Indy makes the wrong decision, right down to nearly delivering his father’s Grail diary right into the hands of Hitler, in the movie’s most ostentatious and cartoonish moment. Yet Indy is always also figured as the American knight. While fleeing the castle Brunwald with his father, he quite literally engages in a motorcycle joust, spearing Nazis with a roadblock he grabs opportunistically. And when Indy finally makes his way to the chamber in which a 700-year-old Knight of the First Crusade keeps the Grail safe, the saintly knight ponders the man before him, his clothes and whip, “You’re strangely dressed . . . for a knight.” Religious iconography, Arthurian legend, and the American serial thus converge in a climax that finally reaffirms Indy’s worthiness; he’s the Hollywood Galahad, knight and movie hero all at once.

Indy succeeds in his quest for the Grail and his attempt to save his father, mortally wounded at the hands of Nazi betrayer Donovan, by respecting the values of ordinariness and humility. The knight who guards the Grail occupies a room filled by chalices, only one of which grants eternal life when one drinks from it. “The rest,” he intones, “will take it from you.” Donovan, at Elsa’s prompting, chooses a bejewelled golden cup, one he assumes belongs to the “King of Kings”—a statement evocative of authoritarianism—but the sip he takes ages him rapidly within seconds, causing him to decay into dust. “He chose poorly,” the knight remarks as a divine wind blows to reveal a Nazi pin as the last physical remnant of Donovan, thus casting the knight’s line as a comment on Donovan’s decision to work for the Nazis. Indy, meanwhile, immediately recognizes the modest cup that is clearly “the cup of a carpenter,” and with it earns not simply the ability to save his father’s life but also the privilege of replacing the knight and guarding the Grail for eternity (he declines). The scene aligns Indy’s Americanness—the rejection of fascism, the cult of the ordinary—with Judeo-Christian tradition, and it thus reaffirms his distinct stature as an American-style hero worthy of his own mythology.

Should it give us pause, though, that this decidedly Christian story, which reaffirms the fundamental truth of the Jesus narrative, was “authored” by a Jewish director? To reach the Grail, Indy must pass three tests. In the first, he decodes a riddle to determine that he must kneel to avoid a decapitating blade. In the second, he’s given another riddle, which provides a road map across a series of stones that will lead him over a hidden moat. The final test, though, is a leap of faith. In an early scene in the movie, Spielberg shows an artwork at Henry’s apartment depicting a knight walking over an abyss that resembles the one Indy must cross, the knight’s arms outstretched towards the Grail. Indy’s last test depends not on cleverness, but on belief: his conviction that his Christian God will not let him fall to his death. He steps forward, and lands on an invisible plank. The camera cranes right, then left, as Harrison Ford appears to stand, in a thrilling special effect, over nothing. It is the first true miracle depicted in the film.

Indy’s leap of faith could be taken as an affirmation of Christian theology, but the camera movement that immediately follows shifts the focus of the scene. With that crane, Spielberg changes the emphasis from Indy’s sense of wonder to our own, from the supernatural to the special effect. The wonder and thrill of Last Crusade finally have less to do with religion per se, than with stories and mythologies, and the way they are told. In this manner, and like all of Spielberg’s movies (and more than most), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is ultimately about the cinema itself, the only religion to which we can be certain Spielberg is wholly devoted, the one faith that he—and perhaps he alone—can make all of us share.