On May 24th, 1989, the third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released in theaters. For many, it was the third time they’d heard that iconic John Williams score through movie theater sound systems. The third time they’d followed a giant red line across a map as Dr. Henry Jones traveled the world. But for a huge swath of ‘80s babies like myself, who had grown up in the early days of home video and had aged into film-going during the five-year gap between after Temple of Doom, it was our first. We had grown up with Indy living in our VCRs or perhaps the rare glimpse on cable, but this was our grand introduction to seeing him on the big screen.
River Phoenix’s role as the teenage version of Indy felt like a nod to us. We had spent our childhoods with Henry Jones Jr.; now, here was his own younger self leading us into his next adventure. And what an adventure it was. In addition to Phoenix, we met Indy’s father, played by James Bond himself Sean Connery. And there were familiar faces! Sallah and Brody were back! The Nazis were the villains again!
I often go back and forth on what I consider the best Indiana Jones movie. My preference fluctuates between Crusade and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Usually depending on whichever I’ve most recently watched. But when it comes to being the third movie in an iconic trilogy, I maintain you almost can’t do better than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
(Personal note: I will begrudgingly admit that there is a fourth Indiana Jones movie. Given the nearly two full decades between them, I will still always consider Crusade the end of an era. Raiders, Doom, and Crusade are the Original Trilogy of Indy and anything else that comes along is extra. I don’t make the rules. Wait, I do, and them’s the rules.)
The trilogy format perhaps could take a bit of a break. We’ve seen with the success of the MCU that franchises can work well in a looser, more interconnected structure, albeit with a lot of planning. And with the, let’s say… mixed? response to The Rise of Skywalker, it’s also fair to say that the very concept of trilogies often leads filmmakers and studios into feeling like the last film has to pull off some epic moves to cap it all off. This can sometimes work, especially in the case of a trilogy like the Lord of the Rings, which like its source material is really just one long work split into three.
What works so well about The Last Crusade is that it doesn’t try to be anything of the sort. The Nazis aren’t digging through that government warehouse from the end of Raiders looking for the Ark of the Covenant. Belloq hasn’t returned from the dead in some mystical revenge plot. Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. takes yet another leave from his job as a college professor and must travel the world to recover a dangerous artifact so the Nazis don’t get it. The one major addition is the introduction of a double chase, with Indy on the trail of his father while also trying to avoid the Nazis across Europe.
Rather than raise the stakes of the plot itself, the movie instead raises the stakes on the adventure. Instead of simply facing Nazis in North Africa, Indy spends time in Berlin, meeting them at the seat of their power. The car chase sequence in Raiders becomes boat and airplane action scenes in Crusade. The simple task of swapping a bag of sand for an idol turns into an entire Dungeons and Dragons puzzle dungeon towards the climax of the film.
The movie ups the stakes emotionally as well. Once they jettison the love story after Elsa’s jackbooted heel turn, the relationship taking center stage is between Indy and his father. The two gruff slightly estranged men have to work together, they have to mend fences with each other. And Henry Sr. even ends up being basically the damsel in distress, with Indy driven to recover the Holy Grail specifically to save his father’s life.
And it’s funny! One of the most memorable moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark is when Indy chooses to shoot the swordsman instead of fighting him with his whip. This famously impromptu joke wasn’t in the script but it’s a perfect example of the kind of humor that works so well in an Indy film. Moments like Henry Sr. shooting the tail off of their own plane while they dogfight the Nazis. Moments like Indy breaking through the floor of the library while the librarian stamps books. Crusade expertly weaves these types of bits throughout the movie without feeling like a farce or parody.
The genius of Crusade as a trilogy capper is in that it isn’t really made to be one at all. Yes, the Nazis are back. Yes, the plot follows a similar structure to Ark. And yes, there’s a very real indication that God exists and gets really, really pissed, and melty, when you cross Him. Crusade plays homage to Raiders. It dances with the audience’s familiarity with it. It even subverts expectations via the reveal of Elsa as a villain instead of a love interest. While all of this happens, the film still stands on its own two feet. It is not the epic culmination of Indy’s story. It’s just another fun adventure. And that’s what Indy deserves. It’s what we can hope his future holds.
Cover Image: LucasFilm