Friday, April 1, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XVI: And this time he's bringing his dad


With our director returning to his most popular franchise, we arrive at what is—in many important respects—the least of Indiana Jones' original trilogy, and the one that undeniably breaks from the tone and tenor of its two predecessors.  Yet somehow The Last Crusade makes a solid claim to operating on the same rarefied level, albeit in a very different way.  It claws its way back to the pinnacle by being the most personal to its maker—not to mention the most human in its achievement.  Yes, this is the Indy film that makes everybody cry.  Or maybe it just makes me cry—but I really hope it's everybody, just so I don't feel as ashamed as I probably ought to be.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Jeffrey Boam, Menno Meyjes, Tom Stoppard, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg
With Harrison Ford and River Phoenix (Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr.), Sean Connery (Dr. Henry Jones, Sr.), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Richard Young (The Man With the Fedora), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Kevork Malikyan (Kazim), Robert Eddison (The Knight of the Grail), Michael Byrne (SS-Standartenfuhrer Ernst Vogel), Alison Doody (Dr. Elsa Schneider), and Julian Glover (Walter Donovan)

Spoiler alert: and for this one, you've seen it around sixty times, maybe seventy

Utah, 1912.  Again we find our hero in his past—in his primordial past, in fact—although we do not dally there too long, before catching back up with Indiana Jones in 1938, where his lifelong quest to recapture the Cross of Coronado has brought him aboard a doomed freighter in the middle of the Atlantic.  The ship goes down; Indy doesn't; and he returns, prize in hand, to his other life—that of the professor.

Chafing instantly under the unwanted burden of actually teaching students, our research-oriented academic flees instead to another adventure, this one brought to him by that wealthy collector, Walter Donovan.  He offers Indy the job of tracking down for him no less than the Holy Grail—that is, the cup of Christ, that collected His blood as He expired upon the cross, and (as the legend has it) offers the life everlasting.  Donovan further explains that the position has recently opened up, thanks to the disappearance of his lead investigator.  Naturally, Indiana, presently splitting his time between re-reading the Talmud and worshiping Shiva, is reluctant to go searching for a Christian artifact.  But that's when Donovan drops the bad news: the investigator who disappeared is none other than Henry Jones, Sr.—Indy's father.

And like that, Indy and Marcus Brody take off to Henry's last known location, Venice, to meet with his assistant—an Austrian archaeologist likewise in Donovan's employ, whom he refuses to describe with either pronouns, or even with a first name.  Thus it is to Indy's shock that Dr. Elsa Schneider turns out to be a woman—and one of intoxicating beauty, at that.  As their romance blossoms, the trio's rescue mission takes them through Henry's footsteps, into the catacombs beneath a Venetian church, into a confrontation with an ancient order of Grail protectors, and finally to a castle on the borders of Austria.  There, at last, is Indy reunited with his lost father—just in time for both of them to be captured by Grail-hunting Nazis, and to discover that Donovan and Elsa had been playing them all along, in order to get their hands on the diary Henry had kept, which he had sent to his son for safekeeping, and which Indy (of course) has dutifully brought with him.  Luckily, Marcus has been sent on ahead to meet with their associate Sallah in Iskanderun, and he has the actual map.  Like Indy says: with any luck, he's got the Grail already.


Now it's up to the Joneses to smash their way out of Nazi incarceration, get the diary and its other secrets back, make their way to the desert, free their blundering friend Marcus, and get to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon—and to the Grail—before Donovan and his fascist friends can find it.  They do not succeed.

...And so, in keeping with the grand tradition of the Indiana Jones trilogy, we once again have an adventure where, technically speaking, Indiana Jones himself contributes nothing to his enemies' eventual defeat.  Meanwhile, if he had not participated at all, they'd have never have gotten as close to success as they did, whereas (and this is also in the grand Indiana Jones tradition!) it is by their very attempt to meddle in the realm of the sacred that Indy's foes actually meet their doom.  (I've pointed out before that nothing Indy does in these films matters, but there's an argument to be had that nothing anybody does in these films matters.)

However—and this is where the plot breaks with tradition—the only way you can say that Indy fails to complete his real quest is if you reduce it to the capture of the Grail itself.  But in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our hero is not out to merely rob yet another grave.  This time, he's in it to rescue his dad—and, so, for the first time, Indy finally saves the day.

Yet there is another, more obvious, and much vaster break with Indiana Jones tradition in Crusade, and it is apparent from more-or-less the very first moments of the film, with that opening sequence which lays out the just-so story of our archaeologist-adventurer with more economy than you'd expect from the origin of a Golden Age superhero—and which shows us, in less than ten minutes' time, precisely how Indy got his whip, his fear of snakes, Harrison Ford's chin scar, his hat, and even his abiding petulance.

Plus he gets to say, "It belongs in a museum."

Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear: I love this opening.  I love River Phoenix as the teenaged Indy.  I love the way it's all put together (why, it's the most exciting thing in the movie for eighty more minutes).  I love the way it introduces Henry Jones, Sr., with a kind of distant, distracted haughtiness, keeping him mysterious enough to pique our interest, yet telling us everything we need to know about him in but a few shots and hardly even any lines of dialogue.  Hell, I even love the way it explains every possible detail of the grown-up Indiana Jones in just one life-changing morning—and I love it for that, even though it's silly, because it feels so ridiculously, enjoyably pulpy, and therefore so extremely correct for this particular hero.

But there's a lot not to love about it, too—if you're little too literal-minded to really enjoy Indiana Jones movies, that is.  You see, it's likewise apt that Crusade begins with the very stupidest moment in the whole damned series.  And, yes, I am including a certain sequence with a certain refrigerator.

In fact, in some ways it's easier to cleave this franchise into two pairs of films, rather than an original trilogy and their unloved distant sequel.  This isn't solely because of Crusade's surfeit of implausibilities, either: it's arguably also where the Indy films' visual effects overreach begins; and, just like the years-later follow-up, Crusade exploits our devotion to our hero with such a pronounced degree of pandering that it probably ought to outright embarrass us (even if, in this case, it so completely fails to embarrass us that we might well consider the segue from Phoenix to Ford the greatest match-cut we've ever seen).

I did not tear up.  I did not.

Naturally, overawed reverence for its legendary protagonist is approximately the last thing I'd ever criticize an Indy movie for.  Furthermore, in terms of sheer aesthetics, any hypothetical scheme that divides the Indy films into two pairs instead of an OT and the newer movie is nonsense: the aforementioned unconvincing bluescreen aside, Crusade recreates almost exactly the same creative team from Temple, from designer Elliott Scott to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe to editor Michael Kahn to sound designer Ben Burtt to composer John Williams, who—with his wonderful Grail theme, amongst others—offers yet another score that could plausibly be considered his "best."

And yet: if you hated Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—and I know you do, just like I know you have your mostly-terrible reasons—then you should perhaps, for once, try to watch Crusade with the eyes of an adult.

Or ask your dad how he felt about it when he took you to see it 27 years ago.

Or maybe you shouldn't—because there's a real chance that this would ruin it.  And that'd be terrible, because I know you love this movie as much as you hate the other one—and it really does deserve that love.  Instead, then, simply consider this: if you can watch young Indiana use the stage magician's cabinet he finds on the circus train to literally teleport himself off the train, and then, years later, go onto the Internet to complain about how your childhood was raped (again?) by a man surviving a nuclear explosion in a fridge... well, then, sir or madam (but almost certainly sir), you have a capacity for cognitive dissonance that, frankly, I envy.

No, it really is fitting that we start Crusade with an impossibility, because it never really stops being incredibly doofy until around thirty minutes before it ends, whereupon it finally begins to behave like a "proper" Indiana Jones movie (as if there is such a thing).  Crusade is the Indy film most resolutely determined to be a lighthearted romp—and so, despite the heaviness and resonance of its core themes, it edges into full-bore comedy without the slightest hesitation, often crossing the border into outright nonsensical slapstick.  Thus is each line with the word "tapestries" in it is tied for the worst in the Indy franchise; and, as for the film's most famous comic beat ("No ticket!"), please, try to work out how that makes sense, outside of an advanced-level editing class at film school.

Today's lesson is "How to hide complete bullshit in your screenplay by compressing time and eliding key details."

This is hardly any accident.  Steven Spielberg had taken heat for the subterranean miserablism of Temple; and Crusade was, in his words, an "apology."  It's easy to overestimate how sober Raiders and Temple were in the first place; perhaps I overestimate how childish Crusade is, too.  But, either way, it's undeniable that Crusade represents a retreat from the first two films' nastiness and horror.  Only in isolated moments, like when Indy gets his hand around Elsa's neck, or (obviously), when Donovan chooses the False Grail, does it track its way back into the darkness of Indy's previous adventures.

In other words, Crusade is the movie made for the parents who saw the first two movies, and enjoyed them more-or-less, but realized their children absolutely loved them, and that maybe watching people's hearts getting ripped from their chests or Nazis' faces melting into goo wasn't good for their long-term psychological development.  Crusade finds refuge instead in the series' ever-present sense of fun, and builds a whole life for itself there, with such things as the somewhat arbitrary puzzle of the catacombs, concluding in that great callback gag—X marks the spot.

It's a good thing all this oily water is highly flammable.  Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to light this torch and carry it down into this pit that's full of highly flammable oily water!

So, though degraded from Temple and Raiders, I won't argue that Spielberg fails to recapture the basic idea of Indiana Jones.  Meanwhile, even if setting up camp in the silliest aspects of the franchise gives him far too much leave to get sloppy with the details of just about everything in the movie (especially in its first hour), at least Crusade never once feels like ersatz Indy.

And that must be because, when it needs to be, Crusade remains awfully damned intense.  It is typically on a much more kid-friendly level, but it retains the skillful thrillmaking that has always marked its director out as the best at what he does.  I'll even go to bat for the demi-climactic chase scene in this film as actually superior to the one that made Raiders a sensation—maybe it hits the same level of visceral desperation, maybe it doesn't, but this one has a tank.

And it's also because Ford, making a hat trick out of it (see what I did there? I'm the literal worst), remains as committed to the character as he was in the first scene he shot in Raiders, if not more.  But to find where Crusade redeems its too-jokey tone, and overcomes all the other weaknesses accruing to a blockbuster in the era of the PG-13 rating, you need to look at its co-lead, and the changes Spielberg wrought upon the material during its development to bring it in line with a movie that he had the slightest interest in making in the first place.

By the time Spielberg had come on board, George Lucas had already seized upon the Holy Grail as the central artifact this go-round—and, on this count, he was completely inflexible.  The details, however, were negotiable.  So, while Spielberg is not a credited writer on Crusade, he honestly ought to be, for Spielberg was the one who conceived of the idea of making this adventure (which was meant to be Indy's last) the story of how he and his father met again, as men, and learned they loved each other after all.

I mean, of course he did.

And everything that is brilliant and permanent about Crusade flows directly from that one idea: it repositions the Grail as metaphor rather than maguffin, and it is shockingly cunning in how it undergirds its more direct meaning (that the hubris and evil of humankind is such that nobody who desires immortality actually deserves it), with its other, more sentimental notion, that even the True Grail is a false choice, because immortality (not to mention "illumination") had always been within Henry, Sr.'s reach—in the form of his son.  Crusade is so smart about this one fucking thing that it's almost hard to believe it was intentional; but then, Spielberg has forever been one of the most intuitive filmmakers we've ever had, sometimes finding truth without even realizing he did.  On occasion, the feelings come so fully from his heart that he can take your feet right from under you—and, by God, that's exactly what happens when Henry finally stops calling his son "Junior," which feels like a scene ripped straight from Spielberg's soul.  (Because, well, it was, wasn't it?)

Of course, none of it works without the man who would be Indy's dad.  Casting Sean Connery was, foremost, a dire metafictional joke—Indy, born figuratively of James Bond, turns out to have sprung literally from the old spy's loins.  Mercifully, that's where this connection ends.

Almost, anyway: I don't imagine it was entirely inevitable that the Indy movie with a 59 year old Connery would also be the sexiest Indy movie, but that is indeed what we got—and, even if it could only be called "sexy" in the Spielbergian context, that's certainly not a coincidence, and I suppose neither is the fact that its female lead is an antagonist who horribly dies.  But, since there is no other place to put it, I'll point out that Elsa's the best non-Marion woman in the Indy series: never completely vilified, nor deprived of agency, and always committed to her own obsessions, she's a mixture of Marion Ravenwood's competence, Rene Belloq's depraved sense of expediency, and a beguiling toxic femininity straight out of film noir, undercut ever-so-slightly by the most rudimentary kind of actual decency.  Not for nothing is it Elsa who kills Donovan in the end; and even though she dies largely to serve the relationship between the two Joneses, I can't quite find anything false about how she meets her demise, since she goes out so fully on her own terms.

So, on further consideration, Elsa is pretty much the best Bond girl, too.

In any event, Henry Jones, Sr. is one of the last roles that actually witnesses a Sean Connery performance, rather than Connery showing up on set to read lines, and hence Crusade downplays into nothing Connery's remaining Bondian aspects; and to his immense credit, Connery happily follows suit, delivering a somewhat-doddering scholar who scarcely seems like he could be related to Indy in the first place—even once you account for their unaligned accents.  (Indy's first generation, I guess.)  Outside of a grace note here or there, the only real continuity apparent in the Jones line is a love of history—and, I suppose, the fact that both of them keep ahold of their distinctive hats as if they were pieces of their body (but, then, as one of the better examples of the subtle power of costume design, this item really should not be overlooked).

Despite this, or perhaps even because of this, Ford and Connery wind up as two of the most impressive scene partners you'll ever find, which is doubly miraculous, considering that Spielberg never even thought about hiring anybody else.  So, deprived of the obvious, the pair find their father-son relationship in contention instead, alternating between brief rapprochement, Indy's deeply bruised feelings, and Henry, Sr.'s frankly cruel demeanor—which, ironically, offers the film's best comedy, especially reaction shots of Henry's annoyed and disapproving response to the violence and chaos that follow Indy everywhere he goes.  The thawing of their relationship hits so many reversals that it comes as a legitimate surprise when we discover first how much Henry cares, and then how much he's grown to not merely love, but respect his son.  The arc of Crusade, then, belongs totally to him, whereas Indy doesn't change a hair on his head for the entire feature.  So it might be wish-fulfilment of the highest order—but it's pitched at the most human level possible.  And that is how Crusade reintegrates itself fully into that other Indy tradition, this one being the grandest of them all: of treating our adventurer as a man first, and a hero second.

It is also, of course, the part where every son who has a dad cries his eyes out, something Spielberg must have anticipated, as he thoughtfully closes up shop on the story almost instantly, yet ends the film with a really, really long ride into a blazing sunset that doesn't demand you actually focus on any particular figure in the frame—a self-consciously iconic gesture of the film's intended finality, certainly, but it's a damned considerate concession to everyone in the audience who would like to hide the fact that they were deeply touched by a children's movie about wandering around in caves.  And thus it is through the strength of manly, manly tears that this surprisingly emotional journey at last earns its right to stand, towering, next to the two more perfect but not more profound films before it.

Score:  10/10

1 comment:

  1. The photograph you posted of the strict leather gloved Nazi German Schutzstaffel villain is outstanding:

    He screams brutal commands in hysterical in his high pitched, shrill, effeminate voice, and hate-filled facial expression, rigid facial expression is filled with hatred as his entire uniformed body is tense, inhibited and cramped