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The Last Crusade at 30: how Sean Connery saved Indiana Jones from certain doom

'Don’t call me Junior!' Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
'Don’t call me Junior!' Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Credit: alamy

There’s an oft told legend that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was made as Steven Spielberg’s apology for the darker, critically mauled Temple of Doom. Last Crusade has been seen as a retraction of sorts, an attempt to gallop back to the magical blockbuster formula of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Indiana Jones films were always meant to be a trilogy. Spielberg and George Lucas had agreed on that when Lucas first pitched the idea of archeologist-cum-adventurer “Indiana Smith” back in 1977. But it’s true that Spielberg doesn’t like Temple of Doom. He’s called it “too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific.” “I just wanted to bring back the spirit of the original Raiders and have some fun,” he said of Last Crusade.

As blockbuster formulas go, Raiders of the Lost Ark is about as high as you can aim. It’s one of the three most important pieces of blockbuster cinema ever made (alongside Jaws and Star Wars, if you’re asking) and Last Crusade worked hard to put the pieces back together. The dubious Indian stereotype villains from Temple of Doom were out, and the Nazis were back in (because who doesn’t hate a Nazi, right?).

There were also rousing punch-ups in the desert, villains’ faces melting off, and a reunion of the old Raiders crew: Harrison Ford as Indy, John Rhys-Davies as Egyptian pal Sallah, and Denholm Elliot as bumbling historian Marcus Brody, plus the actual James Bond as Indiana Jones’ dad, Henry Jones Sr.

But Last Crusade is more than a whip-crackingly good re-run of Raiders. Thirty years on from its release, it is – at least, for my money/stash of ancient tribal coins – the best of the Indiana Jones films, because it’s the best version of Indy himself. Arguably, it’s also the best “part three” of any major movie series and proof that sometimes heroes need to ride off into the sunset and never come back.

Looking back, it’s amazing that Last Crusade wasn’t a disaster of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proportions. Early drafts involved all sorts of hokum: a haunted house mystery with Indy investigating a killer ghost; the fabled “Indiana Jones and the Monkey King”, which had Dr Jones meeting a talking spider monkey; a mechanically-armed Nazi soldier; and even Indy being killed, only to be resurrected resurrected by the monkey king.

As for the Holy Grail itself, Lucas had been trying to sell Spielberg on the idea for years. But Spielberg thought the Grail was too Monty Python, or simply not exciting enough. “It was a cup,” he wrote in Empire in 2012. “What’s it going to do? Sit on a shelf while I take pictures of it?”

The concept of introducing Indiana Jones’ father eventually sold Spielberg on the Grail. “I wanted the flesh out Indy’s relationship with his father,” he said. “George said, ‘Is that going to be conducive with the Grail search?’ I said, ‘The search for the father is the search for the Holy Grail.’”

Casting Sean Connery as Henry Jones Snr brought Indy full circle. The Indiana Jones adventures were inspired by the cliffhanger matinee serials of the 1930s, but the character himself had always been Lucas and Spielberg’s version of James Bond. In fact, when Lucas first pitched the character – on a beach in Hawaii, which Lucas was sitting out the US cinema release and potential box office bomb of Star Wars – Spielberg had said he wanted to do a Bond film next. “Who else but Bond could have been worthy enough to play Indiana Jones' dad?” said Harrison Ford in 2012.

Indy meets the guardian of the Holy Grail

The eventual story – from a final script by Jeffrey Boam and mercifully short on talking monkeys – would see Indy tracking down his estranged father, who’s gone missing searching for the Grail. “Find the man and you will find the Grail,” says villain Donovan. Cue Nazis, some rip-roaring action scenes, and classic father-son bantering.

Production began in 1988, with location work in Venice, Jordan, and Spain. Julian Glover – a villain in everything from Star Wars and Doctor Who to Bond and Game of Thrones – signed on as Grail-hunting Donovan, who wants the chalice for its eternal life-giving powers.

(It should have been obvious that he was on the Nazis’ side from the start – listen closely and you’ll hear a background pianist plonking out Darth Vader’s Imperial March theme when Donavan first meets Indy).

Alison Doody took the role Dr Elsa Schneider, an Austrian art professor who bucks the trend of Indy love interests by revealing herself as Nazis co-conspirator. Though she still does her share of kissing, screaming, and getting saved by Dr Jones.

Most interesting, perhaps, was River Phoenix as the young Indiana. At just 18-years-old he was already Oscar nominated – the hottest, coolest, dreamiest rising star in Hollywood. Five years later he died from a drugs overdose.

River Phoenix as young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Phoenix had already worked with Harrison Ford on The Mosquito Coast and learned to mimic Ford’s movements and mannerisms. He played Indy as a boy scout in the traditional opening action sequence. After saving the golden Cross of Coronado from a band of grave robbers – “It belongs in a museum!” – Indy hightails across a circus train, pratfalling through carriages filled with dangerous (and animatronic) animals and conjurer’s tricks. He picks up a whip for the first time – and whips his own chin to explain away Harrison Ford’s real-life scar – gets his famous hat and develops his phobia of snakes.

That’s really what Last Crusade is about: putting together the elements that make Indy Indy. We even find out his real name – Henry (Indiana, as we later learn, was the family dog). But it’s about more than affectations; the real heart of the character lies in the relationship between Indy and his father.

After finding Henry Sr, held hostage in a sinister Nazi castle, Indy – one of the great macho action icons – looks like a boy scout again next to his dad. Henry patronises Indy endlessly by calling him “Junior” – “Don’t call me Junior!” – slaps him for blasphemy, and gives Indy a telling off for bringing his Grail diary back into the hands of the enemy. “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!” The relationship is best summed up by the image of them tied back-to-back, bickering while the castle burns down around them.

The poster for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Henry Jones Snr was originally conceived as a wizened professor. But Connery, with his reputation has a no-nonsense professional on-set, took control of the character.

“I had a lot of notes as usual about the whole piece,” said Connery. “After all, if you’re going to make a film with the father of Indy, you really have to have some kind of eccentricities. At first it didn’t bode too well because I think George had a different idea of what it was about, probably a bit more Calvin-like and conservative.”

According to Julian Glover, Connery also improvised Henry Sr’s best line. When asked how he knows Elsa is a Nazi, he quips, “She talks in her sleep.” There’s still a glint of Bond in the old dog’s eye.

“Sean had a lot of ideas for his character,” said Spielberg. “He would come over to George and me, and say, ‘Look, anything Indy does in the context of this story, I have done it better. When he talks about sleeping with Elsa, you have to write in that I slept with her too.’”

As explained by Spielberg, Indy was never a cold and indestructible hero like Bond. “One of the things that George and I and, originally, Larry Kasdan, the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, brought to the genre,” he said in 2008, “was the willingness to allow our leading man to get hurt and to express his pain… to take pratfalls and sometimes be the butt of his own jokes.”  

Stuntman Vic Armstong takes flight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Last Crusade gives him some emotional bruising too, like a kid always after his father’s approval. It’s never earnest and mostly played for laughs. Having barely spoken for 20 years, Henry Sr is more worried about a broken Ming vase than Indy’s head, which has just been walloped with, well, a Ming vase. Henry later gives disapproving looks when Indy is smug about stealing a motorcycle and killing some Nazis. “Look what you did!” he exclaims when Indy machineguns down a few foot-soldiers. When Indy confronts his dad about them not bonding when he was a kid, Henry Sr snaps, “You left just as you were getting interesting.”

Following the Raiders formula, Last Crusade comes up with some of the series’ best action sequences, with some ideas carried over from story conferences on the original film.

There’s a thrilling speedboat chase across the waterways on Venice, a daring motorcycle escape from the Nazi castle, and the film’s crowing action moment: a tank chase across the desert, as Indy rides on horseback jumps onto the tank to have a classic fistfight and save his father.

The tank was specially built for the scene and the shooting went from a planned two days to more than a week. It has one of the all-time great stunts, as Indy/Bond/Superman stuntman Vic Armstrong leaps from his horse, galloping along ridge, onto to the tank. "Technically very difficult," Armstrong said in 2008. "I had to rely on a horse, and horses have a sense of survival and they don't actually do what you tell them to do as they haven't read the script."

It would take a heart of sandstone to not be moved by the magic of the film’s climatic set-piece. Having reached the secret temple, Donovan shoots Henry and forces Indy to retrieve the Grail. Only the Grail’s healing powers can save his father. Indy faces three challenges before reaching a room of goblets, manned by a knight who’s been guarding the Grail for hundreds of years.

John Rhys-Davies, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and Denholm Elliott in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

There’s perhaps one Raiders nod too many when Donavan drinks from the wrong goblet and decomposes on the spot – an obvious re-do of the melty-faced villains in the first film. But it’s saved by a killer line. “He chose poorly,” says the dusty old knight. Indy chooses wisely, of course, by supping from the right cup and saving Henry.

The film ends with the Joneses finding the Grail they’ve really been searching for, each other’s affections – underlined by Henry Sr calling his son “Indiana” for the first time as he implores his son to leave Christ’s chalice to plummet down the cracks of an earthquake.

“The drama of Last Crusade doesn’t end with a truck chase or a climatic upheaval of special effects of ghosts and spirits,” said Spielberg. “It ends in the most personal way – more personal than any of the previous Raiders movies – where Indy and the father have a meeting of the minds and a meeting of the hearts.”

Released on May 24, 1989, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade was a major success, part of a landmark summer season that also boasted Tim Burton’s Batman and Licence to Kill. Last Crusade broke opening weekend records – the first film to ever make $10 million in a single day – and earned $450 million worldwide in its first year.

It succeeded where so many “three-quels” have been letdowns to their more popular and accomplished predecessors – Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future Part III, The Godfather Part III are all the weakest entries of their respective trilogies. Only Goldfinger could claim to have made a better third entry to a film series. But Bond has always stood on its own, rarely feeling like an ongoing chronology as other series do.

Of course, Last Crusade doesn’t refer to Indy’s last adventure; it’s the last holy crusade. As Hollywood began plundering every name property for guaranteed box office, it was inevitable that Indiana Jones would ride back out of the sunset for more adventures.

The disheartening Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released in 2008 – a film with all the effects and none of the spirit – and Indy 5, now under the control of blockbuster overlords at Disney, is scheduled for 2021, when Harrison Ford will be the grand old age of 79.

Indiana Jones is that spirit of golden era blockbusters personified – a fedora-wearing, whip-cracking embodiment of a time when blockbuster cinema was about invention, practically-made magic, and boundless Hollywood charm. Last Crusade came at the cusp of change, just before blockbuster cinema became obsessed with the spectacle of digital SFX and its own increasing sense of franchise scalability, something pioneered by Spielberg and Lucas themselves, with Jurassic Park and The Phantom Menace respectively.

When Indy rode off into the sunset, he something with him – it was perhaps also the last crusade for that era of early blockbuster cinema. Returning Indiana Jones to action could never be the same because modern blockbusters feel and look markedly different. By bringing Indy back after Last Crusade, they chose – as the old knight would say – poorly.