I agree with most that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best Indiana Jones movie, but The Last Crusade is my favorite. I previously attributed this because it moves so quickly, Indy is always on the run with his pop, no time for eating poison dates or chilling on submarines with Marion Ravenwood. A looming threat always just inches away from the brim of his hat. It’s thrilling!
But after watching The Last Crusade for maybe the 12th or 13th time now, I figured out another reason why I love it so much. It makes us not take Indiana Jones that seriously. Raiders of the Lost Ark established Indiana as the ultimate explorer hero, a composite of all the quick shooters and chiseled-jaw heroes Lucas grew up admiring. The Indiana Jones we met in Raiders could win over any girl, escape from any elusive trap or underground dungeon, and while Raiders certainly puts Indiana in precarious positions, he summons incredible ingenuity to topple them.
The Last Crusade Indiana Jones is far from this. Yeah, he’s cool and dapper and knows his way around a whip or an ancient Venetian dungeon. But we feel there’s more at stake here, that Indiana is still smart and brave but is a guy really in over his head. Very few times, if ever, is Indiana actually ever ahead of the Nazis, perennially playing swastika catchup as they make it to the sight of the Holy Grail before him. And he doesn’t succeed based of his own wit, him receiving the grail is solely based off the inability of Donovan to recognize which was the true cup of Christ.
Raiders of the Lost Ark depicts the legend of Indiana Jones while The Last Crusade portrayed the reality of the adventuring archaeologist. Raiders is what a friend tells you before setting you up on a blind date with their coworker and The Last Crusade is actually meeting that coworker in person. This revised version of Indiana is due to the fact that The Last Crusade doesn’t take itself as seriously, and because Indiana is really trying to impress his dad. He’s like a pinch hitter who has no problem hitting a home run anytime he walks up to the plate, but when he notices his dad’s in the audience, he gets flustered and fouls out. It adds a new level of relatability to Indiana, making him and this movie all the more accessible.
The Last Crusade isn’t without its flaws though. It’s conflicts are sometimes nonsensical, the “you weren’t a good dad” tug-of-war gets stretched too thin, and it lacks an interesting villain (the only Indiana movie with a good villain was Temple of Doom, which was also the worst). But one thing this movie does successfully is its portrayal of Elsa, an Austrian Ph.D. who betrays Jones to the Nazis but ends up coming around to his side near the end of the film. We see Elsa struggle with the moral dilemma of whether it’s better to serve on the winning side of a war, or belong to the more righteous but less powerful losing faction. She’s in a position of power but feels like a prisoner. She wants to run but there’s nowhere for her to run to. No one can top Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, but Alison Doody comes pretty damn close as Elsa.
Spielberg previously has sadi that The Last Crusade is his apology for the Temple of Doom. But I think one thing he didn’t count on was how Raiders and Crusade ended up representing two differing schools of action filmmaking. Raiders is beautifully shot and a special effects marvel, everything from the big ball to the actual ghosts from the Ark of the Covenant, clearly incorporating much of George Lucas’ technical genius. Crusade though is just good ole adventure storytelling, very few gimmicks or sleights of hand, save for Donovan’s body disintegrating at the end. It’s less of a marvel than Raiders,
but that makes it no less entertaining.