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After the lukewarm reception to the previous entry, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, director Steven Spielberg and co-writer George Lucas steered clear of heavy drama and too much gore, instead took a sharp turn toward funny. That’s not to say there isn’t any of the trademark action the series is well known for. In fact, it is the arguably the most action heavy of the original trilogy, a two-hour epic adventure. The main story takes place three years after the first film but the movie begins well before, giving us an origin story for the Indiana Jones character, played as a 13-year-old Boy Scout by River Phoenix and as an adult by Harrison Ford. From there, Jones discovers that his father Henry (Sean Connery) is on the trail of the Holy Grail and has mysteriously vanished. Receiving his father’s secret journal in the post, Jones decides to mount a rescue and heads to Venice where he meets a beautiful woman named Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), a colleague of Henry’s who helps Indy find the last piece of the puzzle in locating the Grail. It’s then a race to beat the Nazis and rescue the senior Jones before it’s too late.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is boosted entirely by its outstanding performances, most especially Ford and Connery whose timing and chemistry are so strong, we lose almost all interest in the supporting characters, their impact lessened, but the solid mix of action, comedy and drama hold together mostly well, despite a growing abandonment of logic that will become fully embraced years later in the next installment. A fun, satisfying adventure, again directed supremely well, this chapter may not reach the heights of the original, but does get close. No matter the result, there’s no denying the achievement in direction from Spielberg, who by this point was a master at the craft and was stitching together some of the greatest cinematic moments ever made in films. Here, he does some of his best work, combining large-scale action with tight, personal imagery. He also knows a thing or two about timing. Let’s take a closer look at a pivotal example.
Searching for his father, Jones, now in Venice, discovers the tomb of a First Crusade knight, which houses clues to the location of the grail, and after some hairy escapes, ends up in Castle Brunwald, Austria, where he and Elsa find and release the senior Jones, but it’s all for naught as Elsa (spoiler) is revealed to be a Nazi sympathizer. She and her goons take the two men to the lavishly large dinner hall where they are tied to a couple of chairs and left alone as the Nazis work in other parts of the castle.
To escape, Henry has an idea. He intends to use a pocket lighter to burn the ropes but drops the torch on the ground as it’s still burning. Giving a few puffs of air in an attempt to extinguish the small flicker, it only spreads the fire to the carpet, then a chair, then a table and soon the whole room is doused in flames. In a panic, the two men are able to jostle their way to a large open fireplace where Indy tells his father he nearly has the ropes untied, but as he jiggles about, pressed a lever near his floor, which activates a secret wall where the fireplace actually rotates in place, carrying them momentarily into the room next door.
It’s filled with Nazis but none see them as the Joneses return to the burning dinning hall. Henry wisely proclaims that their situation has not improved. Indy almost has hands free but again, as he struggles, displaces a second lever and around they go once more, but this time stopping in the Nazi control room. Now, someone notices. She is not amused.
Let’s stop here and consider what’s happened, because even though it might seem like little has, actually a lot is going on and we can see the genius behind how well Spielberg weaves a story, but more importantly how he creates tension with humor. The dynamic between Ford and Connery, as mentioned, propels this movie at supersonic speeds and this scene is a prime example of how their skills makes what could have been silly and makes it authentic comedy, but comedy with intent. A room awash in fire is no laughing matter and most people watching instinctively feel anxiety, despite not having a shred of worry about the heroes. They will get out, of course, but Spielberg (and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam) wisely balance the fear with believable, diverting dialog.
But what’s Spielberg really done is also set up a joke that could have been forgettable and instead made it lasting. First, he uses a visual site gag that has its roots in slapstick: the rotating wall. The rotating wall trick is perhaps most famously seen in Mel Brook‘s 1974 monster satire, Young Frankenstein with the now iconic “put the candle back.” It’s one of the funniest bits in the classic comedy. See it. Believe us.
But the gag goes even further back than that, with 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein where the famous comedy duo are stuck in Dracula’s castle and come upon a spinning wall that sees them on one side and monsters on the other.
Homage aside, Spielberg uses the spinning wall twice at the start, both times giving the viewer a clean, clear opportunity to see and understand what’s coming. That’s important for the audience and the gag. The first spin is once fully around where we leave a fire-filled room, enter another with armed Nazi soldiers, then back to the blaze. The rotation is a metaphorical out-of-the-pan-and-into-the-fire (but perhaps reversed). When the second rotation comes, we are prepared and can appreciate the joke when the female soldier sees them. It’s a masterful ploy that pays off because Spielberg understands the value of the setup and the need for the viewer to intake, assess, and respond. Now Spielberg has the freedom to get all he can from the prop. And he does.
As the Nazis give chase and Indy spins the wall back, the soldiers press the button and we have the wall freeze in mid-position, with all but one soldier rushing through into the fire room with Henry and Indy hiding up the chimney and dropping down. Indy punches the lone solider as Henry inadvertently reactivates the door and sets it in motion with him trapped on the side with the Nazis.
Pay attention to Connery here who fully understands the point of this sequence and expertly uses his body to convey precisely the language necessary to relate both the fear and the funny as he slips past them and is replaced by the solider on the other side who we know has been knocked out cold from the off-screen punch sound.
What follows is a grand escape and a string of action that carries the movie into the next act. We learn much about the elder Jones and his relationship with Indy here in the burning castle, learning that while he might lack the physical dexterity his son has, he has the intellect. The choice to make Connery’s part a funny one was surely one that must have been a tough decision, but it pays off in surprising ways, as the former James Bond finds the right tone and personality to easily woo us into wanting more. The escape from the burning room is where this humor between the father and son begins and it subtly incorporates one of the funniest and revealing bits in the movie. This is a duo we’ll follow on a first, middle, or last crusade.
Jeffrey Boam (screenplay), George Lucas (story)
Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody