Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Illumination


Though I had the opportunity to view the entire INDIANA JONES trilogy in a beautiful theater the other week, I bowed out before the third one. This is not due to any issues I have with the quality of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and I would honestly have loved to have been able to see Sean Connery say “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers,” on a big screen one more time. But the honest truth is that I was feeling worn out from the first two and simply wanted to be outside for a while. Years ago, I would have stayed and not thought twice. Maybe I’m just getting older. So, I watched it on DVD. Hey, it’s not like I didn’t go see it plenty of times back in ’89 anyway. Some might consider LAST CRUSADE the weakest of the three but I’ve always had a true soft spot for it.


A friend recently referred to it as “The ATTACK OF THE CLONES of the Indiana Jones Series” i.e. the one that bends over backwards to give the fans what they didn’t get last time out, in this case the extreme approach that TEMPLE OF DOOM took. This is partly true and of course the film doesn’t even try to disguise how much it wants to emulate RAIDERS. The Ark of the Covenant as McGuffin is of course so perfect that the Holy Grail on its own couldn’t measure up but it manages to get around this issue by making one of its lead characters equal to that McGuffin. “Find the man and you find the Grail…” as a line of dialogue might be a little on the nose but by giving additional significance to the “find” portion of the sentence it certainly helps and gives the movie an emotional resonance it wouldn’t have otherwise. And the fact is that Sean Connery, when he enters the movie surprisingly late, elevates the movie immensely no matter how enjoyable it already is to be watching Harrison Ford play Indiana Jones again. There are things I like about LAST CRUSADE—quite a few things actually, but the fact is that if he weren’t there to bring it up to the next level it wouldn’t have much of a reason for being.


One of the things aside from Connery which I do like about the movie is the comedy—the tone of that humor is as specific to this movie as the tone was to the others but there’s something about it this time around that I find particularly enjoyable. There has always been a lot of complaining about the treatment of Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody this time around but it feels perfectly consistent with the tone of this film, which is more of a jaunty romp than the previous two. It doesn’t make me like the character any less, he doesn’t seem less intelligent and I enjoy the brief Laurel and Hardy bit that Elliott plays when he is met by John Rhys-Davies as Sallah. Much of this humor is pretty silly stuff, but it honestly works for me. And really, if you can’t get even a small laugh when the Nazi says to Indiana Jones “And this is how we say goodbye in Germany!” right before punching him then I simply don’t know what to tell you.


That stated, there are a number of problems, but I can’t bring myself to refer to the weaker sections of the film as the bad parts. Just call it the weaker stuff. After a slam-bang prologue featuring River Phoenix as Young Indy with some outstanding action, the bulk of the set pieces feel a little bit too perfunctory. As much as I may have complained about TEMPLE OF DOOM, that’s not a criticism I would make with the action there. The boat chase in Venice (though given a nice flavor in the score by John Williams) and the motorcycle chase upon escaping the castle (shot during post-production when Spielberg decided more was needed) are both fine, but uninspired. The airplane battle and subsequent car chase after fleeing the zeppelin also feels a little stilted at least partly to what I remember as some surprisingly bad bluescreen work by ILM. Naturally, this stuff looks better on DVD where it’s probably been cleaned up but my recollections of this are pretty clear. The plotting of the script also has a surprising number of leaky holes, making it clear how much of RAIDERS was pretty close to being airtight. Indy’s father convinces him to head for Berlin to recover the Grail diary. Do they have any idea where to go once they get there? How does Indy manage to corner Elsa in the middle of this giant book-burning rally? How does he know she’s going to be there? How does he know that she’s going to have the book on her? Is punching out a Nazi who shakes his fist at the departing Zeppelin really enough to make them feel like they can sit back and have a relaxing drink? And how do the two of them go from a beach in the middle of nowhere to being driven by Sallah in North Africa in what seems like the blink of an eye? And it’s not a flaw, but here’s a question that has always bugged me: When Ford and Connery are heading for the zeppelin they pass a pair of extras on either side of the screen, each reading a newspaper. They are so prominently placed in the shot I always expect them to be revealed as someone, but they aren’t. Is this a secret cameo by someone, Lucas and Spielberg maybe?


But the screenplay by the late Jeffrey Boam does manage to hold together in spite of these flaws, in part because of its enjoyable sense of fun and clear thematic goal. The rapport between Ford and Connery alone is so good that you wind up forgetting about all other issues. Likewise, the character of Elsa Schneider is erratically written to the point that it’s actually pretty impressive what Allison Doody is able to do with it. And Julian Glover might not make the sort of impression his General Veers did in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with much less screen time, but he is a good enough actor that you do remember him, more than I can say for a lot of other similar bad guys in recent years. There were a few unexpected reactions to this viewing as well--for all my complaining about the quality of the action in the film, watching it again I was pleasantly surprised to think the tank chase was much better than I remembered. It’s not the truck chase in RAIDERS—after all, what is?—but it’s enjoyable in its own right with numerous bits for the characters throughout and you can follow everything that happens in it every step of the way. That sort of clarity has become a rare thing.


It’s hard to ignore how much the movie works because of Sean Connery’s performance and how well he plays off of Harrison Ford. This feeling culminates in my favorite scene in the movie, when Henry Jones, Marcus and Sallah look over the cliff thinking Indy has just fallen to his death but is in fact peering over their shoulders right behind them. It’s obviously a bit swiped from Abbott & Costello but even Pauline Kael liked how it worked. And watching it this time when the scene moves from that humor to Connery’s emotional joy at seeing his son again, I have to admit that my eyes started to well up. In some ways, this almost serves as the true emotional climax of the film, even though everyone fondly remembers “He chose poorly”. Much of this response of mine had more to do with me than the movie. What the Indiana Jones series means to a generation like mine has to be connected with memories of seeing it with one’s father so a scene like this has to be a little bittersweet seeing it now. Just as seeing the new film will feel slightly off because of who I’m not seeing it with. The themes of fathers and sons obviously run through some very famous Lucas productions and I’m not sure there’s another scene about that very thing in any of them which means as much to me as this one does. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether LAST CRUSADE is better than TEMPLE OF DOOM, but it’s a moment like that which makes it more endearing to me. And it’s one of the reasons why I still enjoy seeing it every now and then. Maybe it’s unfortunate that I didn’t stick around for that screening but there’s a small bit of irony in how even the actual movie is saying that such a regret is a pretty minor one in life. After all, sometimes you simply need to let these things go.

9 comments:

Emily Blake said...

Oh, man but that script has some of the best punctuating lines in the series.

"No ticket."
"The pen is mightier than the sword."
"I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne."

And of course the ones you mentioned already.

That movie is so much fun I don't care about the plot holes.

Mr. Peel said...

I love "No ticket"! I can't believe that I forgot to mention that! But yeah, dialogue like that helps make the movie as enjoyable as it is. And Happy Birthday Emily!

Joe Valdez said...

Great review of a mediocre movie, Peel.

One thing I never understood about franchises is why so many start to spoof themselves as the series goes on. The Last Crusade is really a comedy-action film with the silly banter between Ford & Connery the only real redeeming feature.

There really doesn't seem to be anyone else in the movie (Alison Doody? Julian Glover? Hitler?) and there's never any threat anything bad is going to happen to anyone, which was not the case in the first two films.

Spielberg followed this up with Always and Hook, the two most unwatchable movies of his career, so maybe this was just a bad time for him.

Mr. Peel said...

I may like the movie better than you Joe, but we're in agreement on ALWAYS and HOOK, which really are sort of unwatchable and definitely his worst...well, maybe his TWILIGHT ZONE episode as well.

Kiel Bryant said...

The unrivaled series climax remains, for me, Sean's gently tendered,

"Indiana. Indiana. Let it go."

The absolute metaphoric payoff of Spielberg's career, neared perhaps by Hanks' "Earn this" in Saving Private Ryan (1998).

However, I'm supremely elated that Crystal Skull didn't go the obvious route and become Last Crusade II (as suggested by Dark Horse's Indiana Jones and the Spear of Destiny). "Is that the limit of your vision?" Skull had poignant resonance without getting mawkish. The fate of Henry Sr. fit beautifully, since his life quest was rounded out by Last Crusade. Where the metaphor there was love, Skull's metaphor is knowledge -- embodied as the obstacle-obliterating skull itself.

I think Spielberg's "bad" movies reveal much about his character. I think they show he's a generous person, enthusiastically willing to help others articulate their filmic ideas. He's far more tolerable on the set and in real life than pure egotists, who may have a better "good movie" batting average (James Cameron), but are notoriously unbefriendable.

Mr. Peel said...

That scene at the end of LAST CRUSADE really is the climax of the character and maybe is why CRYSTAL SKULL feels a little superfluous. But I still wish the new one had been better and that the metaphor of the Skull managed to resonate more. Thanks very much for the thoughtful comments.

Kiel Bryant said...

A pleasure. Thanks as much for the place to post them.

Anonymous said...

Good writeup (Yeah, I'm pretty late to the party). They know where to look for Elsa and the diary because they are sitting there listening when she is told "your presence is requested at the highest level at the aryan culture rally" something something.

Mr. Peel said...

I must have missed that line, thank you, and I'm glad you enjoyed the piece anyway. Now, if you could just explain how they get to Sallah so quickly we'll be all set!