WARNING: Long. Self-indulgent. It can be a bit tricky when attempting to assess the quality ratio of this series; paradoxical, even. These are B-movies with A-movie budgets. B-movies elevated to an art form …but still "poverty row" on some basic, stylistic level. The original Raiders of the Lost Ark was never any kind of attempted masterpiece. It was shot fast and loose, under budget and ahead of schedule. It was Lucas once again harkening Republic serial chapters that inspired Star Wars, only this time sans the underlying abstract experimentalism. It was Spielberg sidestepping the mega-scaled production and portentous cinematic heights of Jaws and Close Encounters (and the proven unrealistic ambition of 1941) by going back to his directorial roots in episodic television. The resulting film was narratively crude and dramatically simple, barely anything more than a series of action set pieces strung together in an abrupt fashion and clocking in at a cool 115 minutes. Again, this was intentional. The subsequent entries followed suit. Sure, they moved pieces around, played with genre forms, upped certain dramatic antes while dropping others, but always maintained the same general sensibility. There’s a lot of technical craft that goes into these films, albeit with the aforementioned low rent style, coupled with thematic wit. And yet the whole concept of making an Indiana Jones movie is a very unassuming one–a nonchalant enterprise that resembles the workmanlike approach to the action-adventure type of Hollywood’s golden age. Raiders stands as the original template whereas Temple of Doom spun the proceedings down an infamously darker path, resulting in a macabre, Gunga Din-like house of horrors equally matched with gross-out humor and show tune absurdity; along with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, these two remain the more bizarre and fetishistic installments of the franchise. While the third installment reissues some aspects familiar to Raiders, calling it a lesser 'been there, done that' retread is wildly inaccurate to the point of just plain half-assed film criticism. The same general antagonist formula is there along with a vaguely similar three-act structure (at least when compared to Temple of Doom) but that's about it. Everything else -- the tone, themes, mythology, setting, set-pieces, character dynamics -- charts its own course. Consider the central MacGuffins in both films. The Ark of the Covenant derives from Old Testament scripture, dealing with ancient Hebrew and Egyptian folklore and depicting God’s power (the presence of the supernatural in general) in its most primal form as a cataclysmic wrath to be feared and respected above all else. Expressing this in terms of historical cinema, Spielberg in many ways fashioned Raiders as his very own sequel-spinoff to DeMille’s FX heavy, spectacle driven The Ten Commandments; both films feature photo-optically processed scenes of lightning storms over the deserts of Egypt and cel animated effects. The Holy Grail, however, is a Christ oriented myth associated with the New Testament that was born from Arthurian Romance, evoking medieval images of knights and chivalry, and omitting biblical forces of destruction in favor of a more personal internalization of faith. Therefore, Last Crusade shapes numerous aspects of its story in accordance. Yet, again, these films are focused primarily with both cinema and the printed/illustrated mediums of fanciful pop-genre fiction from the early-to-mid 20th century. As such, Last Crusade embraces, more than any other installment of the series, the style of Westerns and WWII spy-thriller overlapped with classic James Bond. Firstly, it’s opening sequence goes on to perfect the idea of our returning protagonist with an origin story that embodies the very essence of vintage Americana, crafting his first-time exploit from the pages (and cover) of a Boys' Life magazine. How fitting that Indy's first wonder tale resembles the humble adventures aimed towards, and enjoyed by, youth readers of the 1910s. And though the story soon shifts to a later time period, this motif remains imbedded within the character, one born from America’s turnover era when the Wild West became the Settled West, but where stretches of the frontier still harbored treasures and dangerous men; where a boy riding horseback up alongside a circus train plays like a stunt from some forgotten Tom Mix silent Western. Encapsulating the fading generation of the late 1800s is the head leader of the robbers, simply credited as 'Fedora', who passes his very namesake onto young Indy, thereby passing the cowboy-gunfighter hero torch onto a lowly youth of the new age, one chosen for his daring, audacity and adventurous spirit. It is here where team Lucasberg imbued Indiana Jones with a deeply rooted sense of American lore, so much so that while trailing the likes of Superman and Batman by some 40 years, the character nonetheless feels as old as the century itself and as traditional as baseball and apple pie. The film's mid act fuses together the Grail mythos with a European setting. Catacombs beneath a Venetian church-converted library followed by a stormy Austrian castle maintain an air of medievalry as Indy’s quest takes him deeper into Nazi territory, spying upon secret war room activities, then later into the "lion’s den" of a Third Reich book burning rally, where Henry Sr. references the film’s titular 'crusade' aspect with, "My boy, we’re pilgrims in an unholy land." Simultaneously are these locales staged for cusp-of-war espionage and as a precursor of sorts to the exotic venues from Ian Fleming's 007. No doubt, Last Crusade takes full advantage of its evolved relation with the James Bond series, for starters, by cleverly preceding it as a Bond movie equivalent via Indiana Jones; a meta-double play on the figurative idea of Bond being Indy's father that makes for a delightful two-step waltz between both franchises. Spielberg then moves forward with his wish fulfillment in crafting at least one thoroughly Bondesque action sequence where Indy and his damsel partake in a boat chase along the Grand Canal, and where even Indy himself is minus his usual attire in favor of a two-piece suit to fit the cinematic occasion. Also worth mentioning is the interrelated cast in addition to the obvious Sean Connery, all of whom previously appeared in the 007 series: John Rhys-Davies in The Living Daylights, Julian Glover (aka General Veers) as the main villain in For Your Eyes Only and Alison Doody as a secondary Bond-girl in A View to a Kill. [side note: Michael Byrne, who plays Colonel Vogel, would eventually go on to appear in Tomorrow Never Dies and, bringing things full-circle, is also featured opposite Harrison Ford in the 1978 Force 10 Form Navarone as an SS officer.] Doody as Elsa Schneider blends the obligatory double-crossing Bond-girl with the Nazi femme fatale so often eroticized from the 1940s pulps onward. Yet her character is rendered surprisingly sympathetic and, with all due respect to Marion Ravenwood, ends up being the most dramatically dynamic female lead the series has to offer. At the same time, despite her sorrowful plights and doe-eyed come-hithers, or perhaps precisely because of them, Elsa comes to represent a vaguely unspoken bias against women in general, for Last Crusade is about men who (re)unite -- sons with fathers, buddies teaming together -- for an epic hoorah of guns blazing and Nazi punching, where women are creatures of pleasure and intrigue but never to be trusted as equals. Likewise to a comical degree is Elsa reduced to a sweet lay evenly scored by both Indy and Henry Sr., later sparking an awkward conversation while also alluding to the mutual sexual conquests admired amongst men ...it's ultimately a man's movie, a boy’s own adventure if there ever was one. And who better to buddy-up with for all things fortune and glory than your own dad? The casting coup of Sean Connery cannot be overstated here, nor can the chemistry he shares with Ford. It's practically kismet. The stuff of movie legend. Forgoing the signature cool Bond reserve to depict Henry Sr. as a tweedy geriatric allows for the ideal contrast between estranged father and son. Where one is take-action fisticuffs, the other is a fumbling academic. Where Indy runs out of pistol ammo, Henry Sr. takes down a German fighter plane with an umbrella and some literary inspiration from the King of the Franks. During action scenes the two play well off each other. A motorcycle chase through the backwoods of the Austrian border (actually, it was filmed in Marin County, but, never mind) shows Indy in his element, fending off enemy troops left and right followed by his patented victory smirk, only to then be chastened by Henry Sr., who winds his watch between looks of disapproval, saying without speaking, "I'm bored–this is nonsense." The rapport between Ford and Connery is wholly effortless, as if they’d already costarred in half a dozen Indiana Jones movies prior to 1989. In the acting and dialogue department a certain distinction should be made between this B-serial and its cousin Star Wars. Lucas’ space opera, being just that, is generally more stilted with its performances. There’s a kind of manufactured quality (and I do see it as a quality) in the way actors deliver their lines, largely with the formalism of the prequels, yes, but even the screwy banter in the original trilogy feels slightly exaggerated for an effect. Star Wars is full blown fantasy, so this makes sense; Lucas embracing the proportionately pulpy artifice as a vehicle for his more recondite, avant-garde ways. The Indiana Jones films, however, exists within an earthbound period setting where fantasy is mostly limited to the supernatural and, consequently, where Spielberg manages a more leisurely and comfortable acting style across the board. By no means does this make it method or contemporary, as the series is a committed Hawksian throwback along with heightened comedic tones and caricatured villains of the Saturday matinee variety. Still, it’s with Ford and Connery that the drama is most grounded and much of the credit belongs to screenwriter Jeffery Boam (who worked closely with Lucas’ story input to revise the final draft) for both changing Henry Sr. from an end piece to a central character whom audiences meet a third of the way into the narrative and for polishing the dialogue in manner that flows naturally between the two leading men. Dare I say, Last Crusade has the most sophisticated screenplay of the four installments in terms of its casual back 'n' forth between father and son, to a subtle degree that reveals much about their characters, and for alchemizing all of the aforementioned genre forms into a good ol' fashioned, well lubricated and roundly satisfying, war-spy-cowboy, globetrotting mystical adventure. And then there’s Spielberg the technical director. The apprehension and understanding of art that is fun and easy requires not special learning but special sensitivity to complicated essences that have been translated into perfectly elegant, graceful, brilliant surfaces, and special care not to be fooled by those simple surfaces into believing the art is simple. They also require a certain immunity to the puritanical suspicion that something fun cannot be good for you. Gerald Mast – 'Howard Hawks, Storyteller' Words for any cinephile to live by, if you ask me. In the same chapter Mast exemplifies Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire as individuals who, like Hawks, produced entertaining sequences solely for entertainment’s sake but also with immense technical precision and transparent artistry. He describes them as filmmakers who, in their time, exalted nothing in the way of artistic profoundness yet achieved the same level of masterful expression as many who did, if not more so. I myself share the same view of such earnest and often shameless genre filmmakers as Michael Curtiz, King Vidor, Douglas Sirk and, in my time, John Carpenter, Walter Hill and Paul Verhoeven …to name a few. And then, again, there’s Steven Spielberg. Here’s my opinion of Spielberg: he’s a mechanism. He’s a technically adroit filmmaker of the highest order. He just might be the best cameraman-director, like, ever. He’s also subject to certain dramatic impulses and choices in storytelling that, quite frankly, have proven rather lame. Whenever Spielberg ventures into more personal, serious or ambitious territory the results can be iffy. Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich, all mostly exceptional; The Color Purple, Amistad and Lincoln, eh, not so much. Spielberg is typically at his best, at his purest, when, in a manner of speaking, he gets out of his own way and simply directs the movie, and/or when he’s directing a movie chiefly intended to entertain the widest audience. For example, Duel and The Sugarland Express were directorial calling card endeavors stripped down to the bare essentials as exercises in vehicular narratives while Jaws was adapted from a mere airport novel into a popcorn masterpiece with Altman verisimilitude, Hitchcockian flare and an indistinctly perverse enthusiasm à la William Castle. Other films such as Jurassic Park, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal and War of the Worlds reflect the director's more modest but mischievous intentions; by no means less concerned with box office success or wowing the crowds, but where Spielberg the 'voice', the 'man with a message', was largely neutral; where kept at a certain distance from whatever the material -- the less personal or prestigious the investment -- the mechanism that is Spielberg becomes unfettered. To the furthest end of this spectrum (either tied with or just slightly beyond the delightful Tintin) lies the Indiana Jones series. Lucas’ "big idea" stories coupled with whomever the hired-gun screenwriter laid the groundwork that allowed Spielberg, now working firmly in Hawks-Curtiz mode, to virtually disappear into his own craft. By that I refer to the classic, studio heyday film language revitalized through the director’s wunderkind (alternately, wonder-kid) sense of staging and fluid, in-camera editing, but without ever losing its signature “oldie” appeal. Virtuoso talent kept in check with journeyman discipline. As with the other three installments, Last Crusade is simple and punchy in its visual style where, unlike so many of today’s contemporary films, practically any one shot rings sensible with a kind of 'lobby card' clarity. Steady held deep focus lensing gives the various locations a bygone travelogue quality while interior sets fill up the frame with just the right degree of old Hollywood illusion. This is also the brightest film of the series. Literally. Whereas Raiders and Temple of Doom were bathed in duskier palettes, this time around Spielberg and Doug Slocombe, possibly opting for a closer match to the Bond films of the 80s (one of which Slocombe even served as DP), chose to color their established three-point lighting scheme with an excess of sky blues and mid-day whites, tans and sandy exteriors; only through the Castle of Brunwald, briefly, upon a moment of betrayal, are we treated to moodier, gold-lit tones and the series’ trademark shadow casting. Never do I tire of watching an Indiana Jones action sequence. Sturdy and reliable they are, much like the films as a whole. This is because Spielberg genuinely built them. He storyboarded profusely as blueprints for kinetic motion machines that are rhythmically timed and seemingly spontaneous. The numerous action scenes in Last Crusade are racked with advancing levels of mayhem while accumulating dramatic, if not physical, momentum. A foot chase across a circus train systematically expresses character traits-in-the-making before ending with a magic trick. A strafing fighter plane becomes a wingless, flaming fuselage as it blazes by our hero drivers; everyone exchanging comical dumbfound looks. The film’s main set piece is a tank chase that wisely avoids any attempt to outdo the rollercoaster speed from Temple of Doom. Rather, the tank itself is narratively designed by Spielberg as a relentless juggernaut -- and also a stagecoach equivalent -- around which our heroes engage like revolving pieces in a clock or game of Mouse Trap. It’s a great sequence that could have only been cooked up from a boy’s brain, for its dirt and grit, and for its continuing invention, as no one stunt is ever repeated: Indy evades cannon fire on horseback, lures into oncoming traffic, fights Vogel atop, dangles helplessly from the side gun; Henry Sr. and Marcus fighting Nazi stooges within. The whole thing is as much inspired by the chain reacting set pieces from Chaplin and Keaton and, not unlike Indy cutting the rope bridge with fed-up lunacy, crescendos with its own madcap crashing down the house. Yet, having discussed Spielberg’s reserved involvement from the director’s chair, Last Crusade is perhaps the most balanced entry of the franchise. Balanced in that Lucas’ mythmaking and Spielberg’s familial sentiment not only meet each other halfway but further commune as thematic gears cranking together in tandem. "The search for the Grail is the search for the divine in all of us," says Marcus early on. Simply translated, the search for the Grail is the search for Indy’s father, and what that means for the two men emotionally. Arguably the most dramatic stretch in the whole series begins when Henry Sr. takes a gunshot to the stomach, a sudden moment of surprisingly authentic violence that raises the stakes to their highest and where, fittingly so, the film is no longer playing a boy’s game: death is real, and looming. Now, for the first time, Indy’s treasure hunting archeology becomes the means to new kind of end, one that exceeds academic value and even the significance of supernatural forces. Christians or anyone in general with faith-based beliefs can certainly take away from this film whatever degree of spiritual meaning that best suits them, but I personally never viewed Last Crusade (or Raiders) as religious or God propaganda. A divine, supernatural power is clearly present in the final act, but no more a proclamation of truth than magic Sankara stones or interdimensional aliens. The storied myths in these films exist primarily to drive themes about history and morality and the characters themselves. Here, Indy is forced to make a leap from the lion’s head by stepping out onto a vast chasm. And while this is certainly the moment where our hero must prove his faith, it’s not really about faith in God or Christ; such is merely symbolic of something inherently more personal that is conveyed visually. Intercut with Indy’s hand-over-heart hesitation is a close-up of Henry Sr. whispering from afar, "You must believe, boy. You must believe," for it is the belief in his own father that gives Indy the strength to step into nothingness. The following moment reveals a stone bridge obscured by a simple optical illusion, thus driving the theme home: it wasn’t divine power that carried Indy across but something real, something concrete, that was there all along–family, love, the bond between father and son. Where all three of the other installments end with grand spectacles, I always appreciated the more subdued premise of Indy encountering a decrepit knight; still fantastic by definition, but equally humbled and measured with even a touch of goofiness. Likewise, the grail itself defines humility in its ordinary appearance, recognized among an assortment of glittering chalices only by a thinking man. When Indy brings it to his father the latter’s reaction is that of subtle curiosity -- a sort of, "Huh, there it is." -- instead of overwhelming awe. For me, the summation of the film comes when Indy, reaching for the Grail while hanging for dear life, is beckoned by his father and the two clasp hands. I've never been much of a sentimentalist, but that scene will forever remain a peak cinematic gesture simply for being so quaintly earnest ...and because Indiana Jones remains my favorite movie character and because I, too, once had a dad. If Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is only a relatively perfect movie, I'll be damned if it doesn't close with an inarguably perfect denouement: four bestest of friends, at the end of their adventure and in good spritis, saddling up together and riding off into the sunset. Many fans have since accused the fourth installment of undermining this classic ending to a classic trilogy. I disagree. But that's for another review.