Growing up in my family Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was required viewing alongside such iconic movies as Field of Dreams, the original Star Wars trilogy, and Tommy Boy. (In my family we apparently only watched movies that explored the complex relationship between fathers and sons, I guess.) Because of my family's obsession with The Last Crusade, I quickly grew to prefer the film over the rest of the Indiana Jones franchise, and now, on the 30th anniversary of the movie (how old do you feel right now?), I feel that I can say, without fear, that it is also the best Indiana Jones film.
Now, this title might seem obvious in comparison to Temple of Doom and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which I still refuse to accept as canon), but I recognize this is probably not in line with the opinion of a lot of fans, many of whom consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to not only be their favorite movie but also the best of the bunch. And it's true that Raiders is a great film. It has great action sequences, memorable villains, and a stand-out supporting performance from Karen Allen as Marion. It's a piece of art. But while Raiders of the Lost Ark might technically be a better film than The Last Crusade, it is not the best Indiana Jones movie.
The Last Crusade has a more instantly accessible plot than the other films — most people know of, or have heard of, the Holy Grail; I'm not sure as many knew of the the Ark of the Covenant prior to the film — and is easily the lightest, funniest, and most rewatchable movie of the franchise. This automatically gives it high marks. But the film also did what the previous two Indiana Jones movies did not — develop its leading man's backstory and channel the plot through it. This is necessary because we already knew who Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is by the time the movie stars. We've been down this road with him twice already, so the film has to build upon the fact we already know he is a charismatic hero. We already know what actions he'll take when his back is up against a wall. And we already know he'll be successful in his endeavors because this is a male action/adventure fantasy that owes quite a bit to James Bond. The Last Crusade built upon all of this by allowing us to actually get to know Henry Jones Jr. and how he became the adventurer known as Indiana Jones.
The film kicks off in 1912, with a sequence that features an encounter between a young Indiana (memorably played by River Phoenix) and a group of grave robbers in Utah. The young Indy steals the Cross of Coronado from them and attempts to escape, intending to give the artifact to a museum. This shows the audience that Indy's nobler instincts have been with him since at least his teen years, but it also reveals quite a bit more about the man he'll become. In the flashback, the leader of the group is wearing an outfit that closely resembles the sartorial look Indy will eventually adopt as an adventurer as an adult, right down to the iconic fedora. In the scenes that follow, we also learn how Indy got the scar on his chin, see his first time using a bullwhip, and find out how he came to have a fear of snakes. I don't know that we needed to know why Indy has a fear of snakes — a fear of snakes is a very reasonable fear to have! — but I appreciate the attention to detail in the opening train sequence and how effortlessly it all comes together, because it continues to deepen Indy as a character.
We're treated to this glimpse of Indy's backstory at the beginning of the film to explain how Indy came to be the man he is, and a great deal of that has to do with his strained relationship with his father, Henry Sr., a medieval scholar played by Sean Connery (whose James Bond past lends to the movie a truly impressive meta joke). The relationship between father and son is the emotional crux of the movie, and it is buoyed by Ford and Connery's excellent chemistry and rapport, as evidenced in this incredible bit of comedy as the two attempt to escape the Nazis.
There are a number of moments I could highlight just in this sequence alone that explain why Connery and Ford were comedy gold as father and son, but every time Indy starts to get an adrenaline rush from the chase, which happens a few times during the last part of the sequence, Henry's expression of disapproval says it all. It's a quick reminder of their complicated relationship, and at the same time it's a great source of humor. This is pretty typical of the entire movie, actually. While the rapport between the two actors elevates the film to its great heights, both Connery and Ford are doing a lot of work in other ways to make the audience believe in the complex relationship that exists between the two men (who are only 12 years apart in age in real life), so that by the end of the film, when Indy and Henry have come to see one another in a new light, it all works.
While there is obviously no doubt that Ford and Connery are incredible actors in their own right, by combining their talents, comedic and otherwise, they were able to create one of the best and most memorable movies of their combined careers. Part of the reason for that is simple: The Last Crusade is funny. Like, incredibly funny. And a lot of the humor actually comes from Connery and his reactions. I don't think many people would describe the Academy Award winner as a comedy legend, but I feel like maybe we should start thinking about it. Just watch this scene, in which Henry destroys the tail of the airplane they are in and blames it on the Nazis, and tell me he's not worthy of such a title.
And what about this scene, in which Henry frightens away a flock of seagulls while flapping an umbrella and making noise, an action that culminates in the destruction of a Nazi plane and the pilot attempting to kill them?
Sequels are notoriously hard to do well. Yes, there are a number that are as good as or better than the original films (Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Godfather Part II immediately come to mind), but there are far more sequels that crash and burn and threaten to ruin the legacies of their parent films. Like those other great sequels, though, The Last Crusade took what made Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark a truly great film and upped the comedy factor while deepening its hero in a meaningful way, and in doing so it created an infinitely rewatchable film that secured the franchise's legacy after a mediocre outing in Temple of Doom. Not even the fourth film could take that away.
So yes, while Raiders of the Lost Ark might be a great movie, I feel pretty good in saying that The Last Crusade is the best Indiana Jones movie of them all. If for no other reason than for the fact nothing will ever be better than finding out Indiana Jones took his name from the family dog.
All four Indiana Jones films are streaming on Netflix (but you can skip The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).