Indiana Jones Was Made in a Day

Examining the birth of cinema's greatest adventurer as seen in the opening scene of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.'

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Paramount Pictures

Falling in love is the easy part. Maintaining a relationship is tricky. A person’s looks and personality alter over time. If you lock your desires onto a particular moment, you will quickly resent the object of your affection as they move along their story. You’re not the same person you were a few years ago, why should you expect anything different from your partner? The same is true for movies and their sequels.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a near perfect adventure film. Indiana Jones as played by a 39-year-old Harrison Ford is everything a kid bred on comic books and serials could want in a fortune seeker. For those that started their descent into pop culture pulp with the swashbuckling archeologist, Dr. Jones is the template in which all wannabe movies would be judged going forward. Including Indy’s own sequels.

The hat, the whip, the scar, the charm, the vulnerability. Indiana Jones is an attractive scallawag hero. He means well, but he’ll kick dirt in your eye to gain the upper hand. Bring a sword to a gunfight, and he’ll reveal the error of your ways with a smile. Blam. You’re done. Such roguish behavior makes ya blush, “Oh, you.” With that rosy-cheeked infatuation set, it’s easy to attempt to seal him, mint in box. Please, never change.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a bit of a wallop for audiences expecting more of the same. Producer George Lucas was a firm believer in a dark second act, having already pushed the Star Wars franchise to its emotional low in The Empire Strikes Back. He once expressed to Empire magazine that his crumbling marriage was probably a contributing factor as well, and Steven Spielberg‘s recent separation also made him more susceptible to traversing a gloomier, gorier landscape. Temple of Doom certainly has its defenders, but the delight it takes in showcasing monkey brains and flaming hearts soured a lot of stomachs.

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Retroactively, the sequel didn’t sit well with Spielberg or the cast. The director is famous for saying that the only positive aspect to come from the film was his marriage to its female lead, Kate Capshaw. He felt uncomfortable wallowing in the grotesque and saw the third film as a chance for redemption. Temple of Doom was not the Indiana Jones that he and his audience fell in love with, so he would use the next one to right the perceived wrongs.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade rehashes the Nazis and the quest for Christian antiquity. We see your Ark of the Covenant and raise you one Holy Grail. The sequel treads new ground in the character of Indy. From where does a gentleman graverobber spring? What were the influences that shaped his righteous celebration of history’s artifacts? A lifetime makes a man, but with only a limited popcorn runtime, an afternoon will have to do.

Most of Last Crusade mines Indy’s inner life by pairing him against the one person who can shred him with a stare: dear old dad, Dr. Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery). Their combative father/son dynamic is exhilarating because of how it recontextualizes the cinema’s most magnificent adventurer as a relatable child struggling with the same parental issues we all must work to free from ourselves. The ultimate pursuit resulting not in the procurement of a relic, but in the mending of their antagonistic relationship.

All that we adored about Raiders of the Lost Ark began on a hot afternoon in 1912 Arches Nation Park. Previous script incarnations saw Indy battling Scottish ghosts and African pygmies. With other ideas rejected as a supernatural bridge too far, Spielberg transplanted a prologue hunt for the Grail to the main story. Lucas was the one who insisted on traveling back to Indy’s youth for Last Crusade’s catalyst, and a Spielberg still weary over the lukewarm reception to his World War II boy-adventure film Empire of the Sun, eventually conceded.

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In what plays like a dry-run for the emotional purpose of Star Wars Episodes I-III, Indiana Jones’ entire being solidifies in Last Crusade‘s 12-minute opening. Thirteen-year-old Indy is a dreamy, curtain cut River Phoenix who wanders away from his Boy Scout troop patrolling the rocky Utah desert only to discover a squad of goons pillaging a Conquistador burial site. When the thieves uproot the jewel-encrusted golden Cross of Coronado (which also happens to contain a shard of the cross that crucified Christ), Indy encourages his chubby buddy to fetch the police while he attempts to retrieve the item himself.

Before he amscrays, his cohort inquires: why should they care if these guys make off with this cross or not? With rage simmering behind his baby blues, Indy spits a mantra with indignation that will carry him all the way to his professorship, “That cross is an important artifact. It belongs in a museum!” He nabs the crucifix, and the goons jump in chase.

Indy hops from horse to circus train, bouncing from boxcar to boxcar, dodging bullets and trading blows with henchmen when necessary. He sneaks through the House of Reptiles tumbling into a vat of serpents only after coming face to face with a cartoonishly large and rubbery boa constrictor. He screams the scream of a newborn phobia, and the audience knowingly laughs at the emergence of his one kryptonite. Indy pushes on, wrestling atop another train car with another baddie as an angry rhino below nearly pins them together with its horn. We’re still waiting to see his aichmophobia (a fear of sharp instruments) expose itself during his grownup escapades — stay tuned for the proposed Indiana Jones 5.

From there, the scurry falls to a car containing a mad-as-hell lion. It’s a two-fer as we witness Indy’s first foray into whip-cracking that immediately snaps his face creating the signature Harrison Ford chin scar. In the caboose, he discovers a treasure trove of magic tricks and escapes through a secret compartment in the floor. Indy believes himself free and clear back home where he disturbs his father hard at work translating the whereabouts of the Grail from an illuminated manuscript. Dad doesn’t even lift his head to see what disturbs his son, and Indy slinks off when the Sherif arrives on his doorstep.

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With his father dismissing his alarm, Indy runs into the arms of governmental authority. He does not find salvation, just further disappointment. Johnny Law returns the Cross of Coronado into the hands of his pursuers who in turn place it into the paw of a shadowy souled man in a white Panama hat. This moral outrage not only sends him into the next chapter where his adult self will find historical retribution but also his own Young Indiana Jones spinoff series (complete with a Sean Patrick Flanery facelift).

To dismiss the Last Crusade prologue as nothing more than fan service wankery misses the true beauty of cinema itself. Narrative is crucial. Sure, we all want a good yarn to pass the time around the campfire. But character is everything. We don’t keep coming back to Indiana Jones because he punches Nazis and rescues heirlooms. Again, that’s all rad. We keep coming back because his heart is easy to fall into.

Indiana Jones is the square-jawed hero our childish sides dreamed into existence. Once we fell for his persona in Raiders of the Lost Ark, if we were going to find any satisfaction in continuing adventures, it would be through internal excursions. Establishing Last Crusade on Indy’s origin as an archeologist sets up the rest of the film to heal the wounds born on this dry day in Utah. The boy is why we cherish the man.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.

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