The Last Crusade - Why It Works

Crusade marks a significant turning point in the Indy canon. Namely, it's the last time fans didn't have to justify or apologize for the good time they were ostensibly having courtesy of Spielberg, Lucas and Ford.

 "Aw, come on, fellahs! We were just clownin'! Dis here film ain't really about aliens and Shibble LaBibble!"

"Aw, come on, fellahs! We were just clownin'! Dis here film ain't really about aliens and Shibble LaBibble!"

That said, Crusade is an odd bird. With a serious dearth of emotion and plot, it's hardly a good movie by any stretch. But that doesn't stop it from being great. Crusade works not in spite of its shortcomings, but because of them.

Plot-Wise, There Ain't Much

In the course of the film's 2-hour runtime, Indy accomplishes all of four things. Specifically:

  • Learns the name of the city
  • Reunites with his father
  • Gets the diary back (that he was responsible for losing)
  • Finds the Holy Grail and drinks from it

That's it. Everything else that happens in the film is a MacGuffin, a red herring or a gonzo action set-piece. All vestiges of thought have been thoroughly wrung from the character of Indy by this film. He is little more than catch-phrase spewing muscle, bound for adventure, who offers a running commentary to nobody in particular.

 "I yam what I yam!"

"I yam what I yam!"

The story of Crusade serves one single purpose: to propel the characters to the next chase, fight or hybrid chase/fight. In a very literal sense, the plot is missing in action. The terrific lack of story is one of the main reasons why Crusade works.

There Couldn't Be Less/More Story

Crusade defines its modus operandi as do all good films: Early and Often.

In the first ten minutes, we are treated to an origin story for Indy that explains everything: his hat, his whip, his scar, his passion for academia, his fear of snakes, his general distrust of the authority figures he respects ... Every possible iconic ingredient is tossed gleefully at the audience in a throwaway prologue that has nothing to do with the actual story.

 "Well, blow me down!"

"Well, blow me down!"

According to Crusade, heroes aren't born. They're made.

... In a single sunny Utah afternoon.

From there, the action only gains momentum, with the absurdity of it all ratcheting up to a point where Indy meeting Adolf Hitler face to face isn't played for tension or action. It's a minor gag played for a wry chuckle and a wink before we're whisked away to the next action extravaganza.

 "Ich bin vas ich bin."

"Ich bin vas ich bin."

A case could be made for Raiders of The Lost Ark, the first film in the series, being the best of the franchise as it occasionally eschews action to focus on the emotional toll the world has taken on the characters. In Raiders, Indy is reunited with a jilted ex-lover, Marion, whose raw emotions coupled with her indefatigable independence both expose the worst and bring out the best in Indy.

Crusade is not interested in such complexities.

 Pictured above: Robust character development.

Pictured above: Robust character development.

If the humanity of the characters is the cake and the action is the icing, Raiders strikes a perfect balance. Crusade, on the other hand, is ice cream covered in icing with whipped cream and a dollop of icing on top.

Strangely, the sugar headache never sets in. There are plenty of action/adventure movies with less time devoted to action that feel endlessly more exhausting.

 "I Sam what I Sam and that's all that I Sam."

"I Sam what I Sam and that's all that I Sam."

So, how does Crusade pull this feat off?

It's All So Effortless

Harrison Ford is a master of casually smirking his way through the so-absurd-they-border-on-abstract situations that Spielberg and Lucas were tossing at him with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.

 "Ack ack ack ack!"

"Ack ack ack ack!"

But, Ford had it easy. He just had to sit on the mountain of "huge" they were building and knowingly wink at the audience.

Spielberg and Lucas were the ones with the monumental task of orchestrating the 'huge'. Eleven theatrical features into Spielberg's career (with nearly half being effects-driven spectacles) and he had the experience necessary to deliver on the promises of the screenplay.

Almost any other director would choke to death on the sheer volume of complex set-pieces Crusade contains. With almost one of everything (a chase on a train, a boat chase, a motorcycle chase, a dogfight that includes a blimp, a biplane and a squadron of fighter jets, a journey into the exploding catacombs of Venice and so on and so on), the burden placed on the director is monumental. Moreover, each chase isn't just a race. It's a fist fight, a gun fight and a verbal spar all rolled into one. The comedy must run as smoothly as the action.

Oh. And, it's a period piece.

Spielberg doesn't choke. He never even breaks a sweat. Every scenario is expertly choreographed and executed with clear narrative and physical weight attached to each of the myriad elements in play.

 Left to Right: Spielberg, Ford, Bond

Left to Right: Spielberg, Ford, Bond

But, it's not just that the set pieces are huge.

What's On Screen (Mostly) Happened

Crusade benefits from the fact that it was released before the CGI revolution in cinema. Aside from the blimp/dog-fight sequence (which has not aged well), the stunts and effects are largely being done by real people in the real world.

The film, a thrill ride when it was released, has even more impact now when stacked against the nearly 25 years of cinema that followed it. It stands the test of time BECAUSE they didn't have the digital technology to augment the action. Compare, for example, the train chase that served as the climax to The Lone Ranger. It's bigger and has more moving parts than the train chase that opens Crusade. But, it's all CGI.

 Despite the high budget and huge talent that went into composing this shot, something about it feels slightly off.

Despite the high budget and huge talent that went into composing this shot, something about it feels slightly off.

Which means that absolutely none of the excitement is real.

Which means that absolutely none of the excitement can feel real to the audience.

The recent shoehorning of 3D into cinema is a nice little sugar-pill that can delay the inevitable doldrums of CGI, but it's nothing more than a parlor trick used to stave off the inevitable - a very real feeling that we've seen behind the curtain.

This isn't something that can be solved by better CGI, better 3D technology or even better actors. This is a simple truth of how humans experience the world. CGI cannot pull actual human emotion any more than a scratch-and-sniff sticker can taste like a real strawberry.

This is not to say that films heavily (or even entirely) reliant on CGI MUST be sterile and vacuous. There are CGI spectacles that can elicit profound emotions from audiences. Gravity and most Pixar movies come readily to mind. But, in those cases, it isn't the CGI that moves us. It's the metaphors that the CGI is servicing that have an impact.

 I'd like to use "CGI" to "service" her "metaphors", if ya know whaddamean.  (Note: if ya know whaddamean, please tell me. I have no idea.)

I'd like to use "CGI" to "service" her "metaphors", if ya know whaddamean.

(Note: if ya know whaddamean, please tell me. I have no idea.)

Watching a stuntman fall one story will always make us cringe more than watching a CGI body fall twenty. When we're talking about CGI in the service of action, it doesn't hold a candle to the real thing. 

Crusade is the real thing. The boats weaving through the rivers of Venice are real boats really weaving. The thugs on motorcycles are skidding and scraping around on the dirt road. For realsies. When Indy looks like he is truly fed up with getting pummelled by waves on the boat in the tempest, it's largely because Ford was truly fed up with getting pummelled by waves.

All this actual actor/filmmaker/environment interaction adds up to greater emotional engagement from the audience, even when the script is eschewing emotional focus for action.

What Doesn't Work

Crusade is not a perfect film. Indy and his dad breeze past emotions so they can get back to their Nazi-snot-beatings. All we get are hints at the deeply resonant story that could have unfolded had Spielberg traded a chase or two for actually meaningful dialog between the two Joneses. This feeling is amplified when Crusade is put in contrast with the incredible emotional impact Marion brought to the first film.

That Indy wasn't suspicious that the blue-eyed, blond-haired Austrian woman working in Germany during the Second World War might have some connection to the Nazi party compromises audience faith in his intelligence.

 Nothing suspicious here.

Nothing suspicious here.

That is to say nothing of the series' progressive moronification of Brody.

Despite its shortcomings, Last Crusade is a love letter to the adventure serials of yore. And who doesn't want to read a 48-million dollar love letter?

The iconic combination of fedora and bull whip is emblematic of everything the series stands for - style and action. Indy, with his limitless swagger and smirk, represents some of the best of what American cinema can be - exciting, adventurous, and endlessly silly (and always ready to kick some Nazi ass).

While the series has had its ups and downs, at the end of the day, it's an indelible record of one of cinema's greatest directors working with one of cinema's most ambitious producers, with Harrison Ford acting as the master of ceremonies.

That type of pedigree deserves to be studied and admired.

In short, it belongs in a museum.