The Ballad Of Henry And Indiana Jones

“I should have sent it to the Marx Brothers!” How can anyone dislike THE LAST CRUSADE?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a movie full of choices that should sink the whole thing paired with choices that are just too delicious to deny. For some, the film does sink too deep for full recovery. The rest of us, however, get a film with just enough greatness to gleefully neuter the parts that don’t work. 

The opening epilogue offers a perfect example. Steven Spielberg welcomes us back into the world of Indiana Jones not by jumping into his latest adventure but by showing us his first. These things rarely turn out well. But while this sequence is filled with the kind of cutesy nonsense that makes most prequels unbearable (Indy thwarts a guy who looks just like his adult self, develops a fear of snakes, gets his trusty whip and procures his famous hat all in the same day?), it also offers tons to love within the known context of this character. Of course Indy was a Boy Scout. That is so perfect. And in regards to the rest of the film, seeing an excited Indy come home to a disinterested father who instantly makes him practice his ancient Greek is crucial. This tension between father-son drives so much of the film; it would be hard to imagine an introduction that better illustrates that than one that takes place during Indy’s childhood.

Henry Jones’ involvement at all should be the kind of thing that sends The Last Crusade over the edge. Indiana Jones is not a character who requires history, psychology or continuity. His second of three films is a prequel, totally unrelated to the film that made us love him in the first place. Like James Bond, he is a specific character that pops in and out of adventures that have little interest in long-lasting consequences. He’s just a cool guy, and we like watching him do cool stuff.

But now he has a dad. We find out how he was raised. We find out how his mom died. We find out too much about a character that requires no explanation. It’s the kind of idea Hollywood has a very hard time leaving alone, one that almost always backfires. The Last Crusade is not innocent of this. The film “cleverly” reveals that Indiana was Indy’s childhood dog’s name, for goodness sake. This is how you ruin a character.

And yet, The Last Crusade takes these bruises and still manages to be a great movie -- a great Indiana Jones movie, even. It’s all thanks to Sean Connery’s Henry Jones. Literate, aloof, obsessed, goofy, apt, clumsy and good enough with the ladies that he gets to sleep with the same beautiful blonde as Indy before Indy, this is not some lazy screenwriter character. Henry Jones is a full creature, and his relationship with Henry Jones Jr. offers a comedy pairing that never gets boring and doesn’t feel unfitting when dipping into more dramatic stuff.

We see Henry and Indiana Jones’ relationship defined right there in the prologue. Indy wants to impress his father. Henry’s too obsessed with finding the Holy Grail to notice his son’s efforts. But even if he weren’t, he’s not the kind of guy to think Indy’s adventures are all that cool. Henry’s a hard guy to impress. Even getting shot at wins him only a befuddled reaction. Indy can’t help but look pleased with himself after taking out multiple Nazi goons on a motorcycle, but his father sits in the sidecar with a look of bored disappointment. Time and time again, Indy thinks he’s doing something great only to realize he just screwed up in front of his dad.

Indiana Jones has always had an element of buffoonery in his DNA; it’s part of what makes him so endearing and funny. The Last Crusade uses Henry Jones to magnify this to great comic effect. This would get tiring after a while, but Henry also has real (mostly hidden) affection for Indy, and the film isn’t completely without moments where Indy manages to please his father. Furthermore, we as audience members are fully aware that, screw-ups notwithstanding, Indy spends most of the movie bending over backwards to save his father’s life.

All of this adds up to a side character that reflects far more positively on Indy than someone like Temple of Doom’s Short Round. Instead of ruining him, the contrast between Indy and his father adds shades to his character that end up being surprisingly welcome. He is not totally unlike his dad, but we can also see where he made choices to distinguish himself.

Eventually, we see how much Indy and Henry care about each other. Indy faces the Grail’s three trials only because his mortally wounded father needs the cup’s healing powers. And when Indy finds himself seduced by the Grail, it is Henry -- the guy who spent his life chasing it -- who convinces him to let it go before it costs him everything. This warmth, which could be cheesy and worthy of eye-rolls, feels totally earned. 

As a result, so is The Last Crusade’s place in the Indiana Jones trilogy. Thank goodness they left it at just three movies. They managed to pull of the impossible with Indy’s dad. Can you imagine how bad it would be if they tried again with Indy’s son?

This was originally published in the September issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. The INDIANA JONES trilogy screens at the Alamo Drafthouse this month. Check for listings.