Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"31 Days of Spielberg" and plagiarism

Before proceeding with "31 Days of Spielberg" (I'm already a couple days behind schedule but it can wait; this is more important and should be dealt with swiftly and directly), I wanted to take some time and address a rather serious issue that has arisen recently. In case you were unaware of the situation, I have been accused of plagiarism in my writings here on this blog, particularly in my early posts on "Eyes," Columbo and Duel and specifically with regard to a book called Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Hollywood Blockbuster by Warren Buckland (you can read the charges on a thread here at spielbergfilms.com where passages in Buckland's book and my blog are compared). Now, as much as I would like to simply deny the claims and say "No, I've never read Buckland's book! I don't know what you're talking about. It's purely a coincidence!" I can't do that. It's not that simple.

In fact, I have read Buckland's book. It was one of many sources I used in my research for this project before the month of August began. I found it to be a very helpful and very insightful text (and can recommend it to anyone interested in analysing the specific filmmaking techniques of Spielberg). I agreed with quite a number of Buckland's observations and consequently found myself adopting some of his conclusions. For the purposes of the blog I wanted to incorporate the ideas which we both shared (along with several ideas which I know arose out of me spontaneously since I take notes on the films as I view them) into the final essays. In the actual process of writing, and as all writers should (they teach you this when you write research papers in Jr. High), I tried to "put it in my own words," but I found Buckland's descriptions of what actually occurred on the screen were quite apt and as I tried to describe the same shots myself, I found it very difficult to not refer to him on more than one occasion. In the end, I probably "leaned" on his writing more than I ought to have (to the point that it became difficult for even me to tell where his ideas ended and mine began). I realize, of course, that copying someone else's phrasing but simply changing a word here and there does not qualify something as an original writing and I can assure you that my intent was not to plagiarize anyone nor to pass off another author's hard work as my own. I merely wanted to write as intelligent, well-informed and well-researched (but still personal) a piece on Spielberg as I could. It may seem like that should be easy to do, but when you're the one sitting in your chair staring at the blank computer screen, it can be quite a daunting task.

In retrospect, I see that my biggest mistake was in not citing Buckland's book specifically or even throwing out a simple acknowledgement in the form of a "My thinking on this subject has been heavily influenced by Warren Buckland" or merely quoting his passages outright (which, incidentally, I do with other writers/critics elsewhere throughout the project and I always try to explicitly mention the source) but attributing them to him. This is really about giving credit where it's due and in that regard, I admit that I failed and I am sorry. I can offer no excuse except to say (and this is not really an excuse, just an explanation) that it was very early on in the project and I hadn't yet found the "rhythm" by which I was operating. I lacked confidence in the approach I had planned to take toward the material. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how to get there at first. I was not fully comfortable in the writing process, but as the days continued (and with the help of a constant deadline) I found it became much easier to, as I mentioned in the beginning of my entry on Jaws, simply say what I wanted to say and not worry about whether or not it has been said before (and in no doubt more eloquent fashion) by someone else. The hardest part of anything is always getting started; taking that first step. Once you get going, however, the pressure and insecurity seems to ease off significantly.

In an attempt to prove that I am not trying to hide anything from anybody, I wanted to let everyone know that since the plagiarism claims first surfaced I have been corresponding with Warren Buckland (which is in itself a humbling turn of events; I never anticipated this project would bring me into contact with actual published authors who have written on Spielberg, even if it's not under the best of circumstances). We have discussed the matter, I have apologized for any wrongdoing for which I might have been responsible and I have agreed to temporarily remove the three posts in question ("Eyes," Columbo and Duel) and revise them so as to satisfy everyone (hopefully) that they have come from me alone and from nobody else. I will still continue with "31 Days of Spielberg." My commitment to that has not wavered in the slightest. In fact, the writing of the essay on Schindler's List (which immeditately follows this next one on Jurassic Park) is one of the reasons why I undertook this project in the first place since that film has been a hugely significant one in my life.

Finally, I wanted to apologize to my readers. I hope I have not disappointed you or betrayed your trust in any way. Many of you have been very kind and generous with your praise all along and even through this recent turn of events several of you have been very supportive and encouraging and I thank you for that. However, I am not doing--nor have I ever done--this for praise, for esteem, for glory, for fame and certainly not for money. One thing I have never lost sight of is that in the big scheme of things, I am a nobody. I am a thirty-one-year-old video store clerk who lives in Corvallis, Oregon. I make little more than minumim wage a year and I happen to love movies. I never intended for this blog to be anything more than an expression of one little guy's passion and affection for cinema. Thus, I began this "Spielberg" project because I admire Spielberg and his films and I wanted to share that admiration with other people and maybe--just maybe--even spark a little bit of discussion on him because I personally don't think that enough can ever be said about this great artist. I never, ever anticipated this thing would catch on as much as it has (and I am not saying that to relieve me of my responsibilities as a writer) nor did I ever expect to be mentioned in the same sentence as professional, educated authors who have contributed greatly to the conversation about Spielberg. In spite of the way things have turned out, I am still glad that I've been able to participate in the discussion, even if only in a very minor capacity. This has been a learning experience for me too and I can assure you that I am learning a lot from it.


Thank you once again for your kind attention.


Sincerely,

Damian Arlyn

Sunday, August 19, 2007

DAY 19: Hook (1991)


For the first twenty years that he was making movies, Steven Spielberg was often referred to as the "Peter Pan of Hollywood," a filmmaker who simply refused to grow up, telling fantastically fun and entertaining stories with child-like sensibilities. Though this perception eventually came back to haunt him later in his career, for a long time Spielberg himself proudly wore this label (going so far as to feature a passage from J.M. Barrie's book in E.T.) and even considered doing his own adaptation of the classic tale. When Steven did finally get around to bringing a version of the Peter Pan legend to the big screen, he himself was already trying to grow up artistically and the resulting film--pardon the expression--didn't quite fly. Like Always, another disappointing effort from his "professional adolescence," one can't help but wonder what Spielberg's Peter Pan would have looked like had he made it years earlier.

The idea for Hook originated in the home of screenwriter Jim Hart when he and his family were gathered around the dinner table one night playing one of their regular "What if?" games. It was there that Jim's son Jake asked the question that would later become the film's tagline: "What if Peter Pan grew up?" Hart used the premise of Peter Pan growing up as the basis of a screenplay which he then shopped around Hollywood. At one point Nick Castle was attached to the project but eventually Spielberg came on board and such big-name starts as Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts were all hired. The budget for Hook ended up costing around $70 million. Principal photography began in February of 1991 and lasted 116 days. With a few very brief exceptions, Hook was shot entirely on studio soundstages. The enormous sets were designed by the Oscar-nominated Norman Garwood (Glory, Brazil) and brought a definite sense of theatricality, even artificiality, to them. Perhaps this was an attempt to capture the feel of a classic Hollywood fantasy like M-G-M's Wizard of Oz, but many critics felt that the film looked like it was shot more at a theme park than a movie set. "Every day it was like going to work at Disneyland," said actor Dante Basco who played the lost boys' leader Rufio.

When Hook hit theatres in the winter of 1991 it was not terribly well-received by critics. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained that "its tricks feel strained; we're constantly aware of the backbreaking effort it's taking to produce them, and that's no kind of magic at all." David Ansen of Newsweek stated that the the "Neverland sets are a letdown; overlit, they have a cheesy artifice of a rundown Amusement Park... Hook is a huge party cake of a movie with too much frosting. After the first delicious bite, sugar shock sets in." Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone: "The film has been engineered for merchandising potential and the widest possible appeal. What's missing is the one thing that really counts: charm."

Once again, Spielberg's usually keen casting sense seemed to betray him. Rather than hiring the right people for the roles, Spielberg felt compelled to go with major "names" (perhaps as a means to recoup much of the film's balooning budget). Hyper-active comedian turned dramatic actor Robin Williams was cast as the middle-aged businessman Peter Banning who must re-discover his forgotten identity as Peter Pan. Since Robin Williams was by this point extremely well-known for his high-spirited antics and childlike demeanor, this is an idea that by all accounts should have worked but for some reason didn't. Indeed, Williams' best scenes were his earlier ones in the film (where he played Banning) rather than his later ones (when he became Pan). At one point Kevin Kline was set to play the part but was unable to do so because scheduling around conflicts with the film Soapdish. This is unfortunate as Kline would no doubt have been able to find the right balance between the two distinct personalities.

In the role of Peter's fairy friend Tinkerbell Spielberg cast Hollywood hottest new actress fresh off of her lead role in the surprisingly successful Pretty Woman: twenty-three-year-old Julia Roberts. Spielberg's decision to cast Roberts could only have been motivated by her star status since there is little or nothing in her performance to indicate she could ever have played a satisfactory Tinkerbell. Oftentimes she seems like she's in her own movie and indeed, in many ways, she is (having shot all of her scenes in front of a blue screen to be combined later with footage of the other actors). Apparently Roberts was so difficult to work with (even Spielberg admitted in an interview that he wouldn't work with her again; a rare claim for the usually easy-going director to make) that she was given the name "Tinkerhell" by the crew. To be fair, Roberts was a little distracted at the time having recently called off her impending marriage to Kiefer Sutherland (while entering a new relationship with Jason Patric) and checked into a hospital for "exhaustion" shortly before filming.

Not every actor, however, is miscast. The real delight of the film is Dustin Hoffman's deliciously over-the-top, but nonetheless brilliant turn, as the titular Captain James Hook. Hoffman seems like he's having such fun playing the famous villain that he almost singlehandedly walks off with the movie and makes it very clear why the film is called Hook. Of course it helps that Hoffman has a great partner to play off of in most of his scenes: British actor Bob Hoskins plays Hook's faithful, but none-too-bright, lackey Smee. Hoskins makes the perfect foil for Hoffman and their scenes together are among the best in the film. Finally, even though she's only in the very beginning and very end of the film, esteemed English acress Maggie Smith (as Audrey Hepburn did in Always) brings dignity, grace and a welcome degree of genuine emotion to her role of Granny Wendy (while the role of young Wendy, seen briefly in flashbacks, was played by a then unknown actress named Gwyneth Paltrow). While the presence of these actors isn't anough to compensate for the film's massive shortcomings, they do serve as fitting, at times almost painful, reminders of what Hook could have been.

While Spielberg's vision for Neverland may have been to create a very stylized and fantastic (read "unrealistic") world, it also comes as wholly unbelievable. The only glimpses we get of the magical land outside of the enormous sets are computer generated, cartoony-looking images. Neverland never feels like an actual place; it's as two-dimensional as the animated Disney version, perhaps even more so since this one is inhabited by real people. In fact, the only two places in Neverland we really get to see are Pirate Town and the Lost Boys' hideout: a ridiculously modern playground with a basketball court and skateboard ramps. As Leonard Maltin observed, "It feels more like something out of a McDonald's commercial." It's a sad state of affairs when the most interesting environments in a Peter Pan movie are not in Neverland.

Spielberg's usual knack for directing believable performances from his child actors also seems to fail him on this project. Most of the kids in the film come off as sickenly cute or just plain annoying. The Lost boys themselves, a rag-tag band of misfits resembles nothing like the energetic, imaginative kids of Barrie's original story. The worst offender would be their punk leader Ruffio, for whom we are supposed to feel a tragic loss when he gets killed by Hook, but who, unfortunately, inspires very little in the way of sadness. Peter Pan's daughter Maggie, played by Amber Scott, is endearing (and has a nice scene where she sings the Oscar-nominated "When You're All Alone") but a little too self-consciously precocious. The only child actor who comes off as natural and inspires any degree of sympathy is Charlie Korsmo, who plays Peter Pan's son Jack. Korsmo had previously appeared in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy and across from comic actors Bill Murray and Spielbergian collaborator Richard Dreyfus in What About Bob? Following Hook both Amber and Korsmo quit acting (although Korsmo did come back in to play a small part in 1998's Can't Hardly Wait).

As with Always, the main problem with Hook is Spielberg's tendency towards excess. He just doesn't seem to know when to quit (Spielberg himself seemed aware of this during filming as he confessed to Ivor Davis of the London Sunday Times: "Every day I came onto the set, I thought, 'Is this flying out of control?'"). He pushes every scene well past the point where it should end (the climatic fight goes on way too long), he milks every emotion well beyond our tolerance level and even stretches the film's running length well beyond its endurable limit: Hook runs 2 hour and 22 minutes, which may not seem like much in comparison to a Harry Potter movie but it's the quality, not the quantity that makes the difference. Worst of all, probably, is that Spielberg doesn't seem to know what he wants to say with Hook. Although the film contains some of his usual themes (light, flying, familial disharmony, an absentee father, etc), the main message of the story (which seems to be that it's okay to grow up as long as one doesn't lose touch with their "inner child") feels insincere. Since Spielberg himself was in the process of trying to mature as a filmmaker, Hook's moral (however well intended it may have been) just doesn't seem consistent with its style and tone. Again, had Spielberg made the film earlier in his career, there's little it doubt would have been a superior product.

Coming from a director who has a history of producing episodic movies, however, Hook is not without its moments. The entire first twenty minutes of the film (especially the eerie kidnapping of Peter Pan's children from their beds) is nicely put together. One scene in particualr shows a grown-up Peter walking into the same nurseryhe used to visit in his youth and looking at the murals around the room depicting scenes of his adventures, which naturally he doesn't remember. As Peter starts to get a chill he runs to the window and closes it (with a "hook" latch no less) as a visual reprsentation of his attempt to keep from remembering that part of his life. However, at that moment his wife Moira calls his name out from another room, Peter turns and strikes his trademark pose of standing with his hands on his hips. Williams plays it as a natural, instinctual move on Peter's part, as if he were ready for anything at that moment. It indicates that the little boy Peter is still inside there waiting to come out and in spite of the grown-up's best efforts to keep him buried, he will emerge. It's a wonderful little moment made all the more maddening by the fact that film doesn't dramatize these events satisfactorily. These early scenes, which featured prominently into the film's publicity, are so good precisely because they promise so much. It's a shame that the film doesn't deliver on those promises.

Finally, the scene that always manages to give me goosebumps when I watch it (which, incidentally, isn't that often) comes after a rather sweet little flashback sequence depicting the story of Peter's life. It's when the grown-up Peter finally finds his happy thought and sails out of the tree and into the sky (passing, in typical Spielberg fashion, in front of the sun) as the always reliable John Williams unleashes his music score in all its glory. When Peter finally learns to fly Williams' music soars. It's a great moment because it's a very long time in coming and for a brief seconds Hook becomes the movie that we hoped it could be. If everyone were completely honest wth themselves, they would admit that that was the moment that they all went into the movie to see: when the grown-up Peter Banning realized who he truly was and became Peter Pan again. Unfortunately, the elation is short-lived as Spielberg makes the mistake yet again of allowing it to go on and on and on.

After the dust settled, Hook didn't turn out to be a flop. It went on to gross $300 million worlwide ($120 million of which was grossed domestically) and receive 5 Oscar nominations, but the film isn't exactly beloved by and, in fact, is looked on today as another one of Spielberg's biggest disappointments. After two less-than-successful attempts at "serious" films, one hit sequel, and two , it was beginning to look as if Spielberg's "Midas" touch had left him. Some critics and filmgoers might have even been tempted to conclude that Spielberg was now "over the hill" as a director, that his days of making great and/or hugely successful movies were past. Spielberg demonstrated, however, with his next two films that not only they were not past, they were about to begin all over again.


TOMORROW: The dinosaurs return

Saturday, August 18, 2007

DAY 18: Always (1989)

In February of 1989 (shortly before the release of Last Crusade), Spielberg’s three-and-a-quarter year marriage to actress Amy Irving came to an end. The filmmaker who for so long had told stories about divorce, having endured the separation of his parents when he was younger, had now experienced one of his own. Needless to say, it was devastating to Spielberg, but he continued to pour himself into his work (as he had done for twenty years by this point) and his latest project was a remake of one of his favorite movies: Victor Fleming’s 1943 A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy (glimpsed briefly on a TV in Poltergeist). As with every film in his career, the emotional tenor of Spielberg’s personal life affected his art and in this case, unfortunately, not in a positive way. Spielberg had wanted to remake Fleming’s film for a long time and it is possible, even likely, that had Spielberg made Always several years earlier it would have been a very different, and probably much better, movie.

A Guy Named Joe told the story of a WWII flyer named Pete (Tracy) who is killed and then comes back in the form of a ghost to inspire another young aviator (Van Johnson) but then has to watch as this new pilot falls in love with his former girlfriend (Irene Dunne). The film may be grossly sentimental and with strong propoganda intentions, but these qualities appealed to Spielberg’s sensibilities. If there were any filmmaker in the 80’s who could do a good remake of A Guy Named Joe, it would have been Spielberg. And yet, nearly every decision made during the film’s production seems to be the wrong one, his first mistake being the story’s setting. Always revolves around an aerial firefighter named Pete who risks his life to save his good friend during a flight gone wrong. Given Spielberg’s love for the WWII era, it is strange that he chose not to do Always as a period piece (like his Amazing Stories episode “The Mission”), which would have allowed Spielberg to re-create the forties in all its magnificent detail (as he did in 1941). For whatever reason, though, Spielberg chose a more modern setting. “It’s a contemporary movie.” he said. “It feels like it’s set in the forties, but in fact it is set today.” Unfortunately, by trying to give the film a timeless quality, Spielberg failed to make the story either believable or relevant. At one point in the film Pete’s buddy Al says: “What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe, which I personally was never at, but think about it. The beer is warm, the dance hall’s a Quonset, there’s B-26’s outside, hotshot pilots inside, an airstrip in the woods... It’s England, man! Everything but Glenn Miller.” While this dialogue is an attempt to explain why this contemporary tale has such an old-fashioned feel to it, it only works to further confuse the audience.

Another problem with removing the story from its original WWII setting is that the tragic death of Pete pales in comparison to the monumental sacrifice made by an American pilot giving his life for freedom and democracy. As Roger Ebert observed in the Chicago Sun-Times review: “It's one thing to sacrifice your life for a buddy in combat and quite another to run unnecessary risks while fighting forest fires.” Ralph Novak of People added: “Spielberg’s miscalculation was to forget that A Guy Named Joe spoke to a most particular need. Coming in WWII, when young lives were so palpably precarious and the need for comforting illusions so great, it had a ready audience. These were Americans who, if not more na├»ve than we, were at least more willing to suspend their cynicism.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone claimed the time shift was “calamitous—-Joe spoke to a nation’s sorrow; Always lacks a similar sense of scope or urgency.”

As further evidence that Spielberg himself didn’t seem to know what era the story was taking place in, he has a character utter an epithet like “Aw, nuts!” and then at another juncture in the film toss out a “Shit,” the inconsistency only heightening the film's schizophrenic nature. Also, as Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda makes a glorious entrance in a supposedly beautiful dress (when in reality it’s quite hideous), all the men stare as Pete whispers “Gosh!” The dance scene between Dorinda and Pete, incidentally, is another example of Spielbergian excess. Not only does it go on for far too long but at one point it descends into (literally) cartoonish humor with Dorinda telling the men desiring to dance with her that they must first wash their hands. They all immediately rush to the bathroom to accommodate her wishes. It’s a scene right out of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and might make more sense if it were believable that the men would treat Dorinda like a goddess, but there seems to be no reason to. Thus, their actions seem unbearably cute.

As David Denby noted in New York magazine, Dorinda’s entrance is “the most purely sexless moment in Spielberg’s long career as a boy, and it made me realize to what extent sex in his movies is a matter of dreams and idealization.” However, as author Doug Brode observes, “when Pete and Dorinda retire for the night, they do what a pair of lovers would do today: get in bed together, though they’re not married, something the couples in the forties film would never do. Their frank attitude about sex only makes the earlier idealistic attitude toward Dorinda seem all the sillier: it’s as if Spielberg can’t decide whether he wants to make an honest movie about today’s flying firefighters, whom he could easily observe firsthand at any Northwest outpost, or a sentimental film about the wartime pilots he knows from old movies and stories told him. Either approach would probably have been fine, but the combination in a single film is uncertain and all wrong.”

Another problem with the movie is the cast. Spielberg’s usual knack for picking exactly the right actors for the parts, bizarrely, seemed to abandon him on this one project. Spielberg friend and Jaws/Close Encounters collaborator Richard Dreyfus played the part of Pete, the devil-may-care pilot turned guardian angel. In fact, it was their mutual affection for A Guy Named Joe (discovered while working on their previous films together) that prompted Spielberg to want Dreyfus in the part originally played by Spencer Tracy. As fine an actor as Dreyfus is, he is no Tracy. As Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda, Spielberg hired the diminutive, but fiery, Holly Hunter. While Hunter has moments of wit and charm (particularly in a rather funny sequence when she’s trying to pretend that she’s spent all day in the kitchen preparing a meal which she really just bought ready-made), her usual tendency to over-act mars most of her dramatic scenes. Lest I get accused of being a "Holly-hater" I should probably beat everyone to the punch by adding that I have never been a big fan of Holly Hunter. Outside of the two Coen brothers' films (Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), I find her very unappealing, unattractive and, quite frankly, annoying... particularly her voice (I always found it interesting that the role she played that earned her an Oscar was one where she hardly said a word). If that makes me a "meanie," then I'm sorry. Finally, the role of Ted, the pilot whom Dorinda falls for after Pete's death, is played by Brad Johnson (no relation to Van Johnson, who played the corresponding character in the original film), a 6'3" male model with, alas, very little in the way of acting talent. He's certainly handsome but why Spielberg cast him remains a mystery to this day. It is difficult to believe that Dorinda could be interested in such a "big lug" for some reason other than his mere sex appeal. Johnson comes off as awkward and completely lacking in any grace or substantial on-screen presence. Granted, his character is supposed to be clumsy (as in the scene where he tries to douse a fire in the trash can and misses) but it is unconvincing and seems fake.

In fact, out of the all main actors, only two come off as anything better than mediocre. The first is John Goodman who portrays Pete's big-hearted friend Al. Although he plays little more than a variation of his usual screen persona (first established in the TV sitcom Roseanne), he is nonetheless eminently funny, charismatic and memorable. Goodman virtually steals every scene he's in. My favorite moments involve him dunking his chicken leg in beer and sucking the cream out of a twinkie through a straw. The other performer who positively shines in her scenes is the radiant Audrey Hepburn who plays Hap, the angelic "spiritual" adviser for Pete. Hepburn's last big screen movie role was in 1981's They All Laughed (though she did do a TV movie in '87), so the iconic actress practically came out of retirement for Spielberg's film, which proved to be her final screen appearance as she died of colon cancer four years later. Although her presence isn't enough to save the film from its own shortcomings, her two scenes are like a welcome relief from how "forced" the rest of the movie feels. She practically glides through her dialogue with an ease and effervescence that only someone of her class and elegance could achieve. When Audrey's on the screen, Always truly does fly. When she's not, it sinks.

The storyline of a fellow coming back after death provided Spielberg with yet another chance to exercise his abilities as a metaphysical filmmaker. Always certainly wasn't the first time Spielberg showed death to be less of an ending and more of a beginning (a la Poltergiest), but quite apart from seeing it as an opportunity to say something significant about either life or death, Spielberg seemed content to use it simply as background for something else: the real focus of the film is the relationship between Pete and Dorinda. Unfortunately, it's a relationship that is heavy on romanticism and sentimentality and very light on genuine emotion or depth. The fact that Spielberg was in such a vulnerable state in his own life no doubt played a big part in the bittersweet tone of Always. Why else would Spielberg sidestep the main storyline of the original film (a dead pilot becoming the invisible "guide" of a living one) in favor of the love story. The climactic scene of the original, which had Spencer Tracy guiding Van Johnson through a dangerous mission, is in Always changed instead to Pete guiding Dorinda through a tricky drop. While this might bring an interesting twist to the plot, it shows how unnecessary the "Ted" storyline is. What's the point of having Pete as the source of inspiration for the Ted character if he's not even going to function in that capacity when the moment of truth comes?

Always is the kind of film for which Spielberg is constantly being derided for making: essentially a two-hour version of "Kick the Can." A film dripping with self-indulgent, saccharine "sappiness" that has the effect of turning off audiences rather than engaging them. It's overkill. Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained: "Always is filled with big, sentimental moments [but] it lacks the intimacy to make any of this very moving. Though the story calls out for simplicity, it unfoleds in an atmopshere of forced laughter and forced tears. Gentle and moving as it means to be, there is barely a scene that wouldn't have worked better with less fanfare." Even these flaws might have been forgiveable were it not for the fact that Always (unlike E.T. or Color Purple) is extremely dull. This is probably the worst sin of all. Spielberg's indulgences can often be tolerated if he is involving us in an interesting story or fascinating characters. Always, unfortunately, has neither and so the film comes off as slow, preachy and (with a few exceptions) devoid of humor. It is, in other words, a bore.

As with all Spielberg's work, though, Always is not without its merits. In spite of its oppressively sweet-natured content, Always does contain a great deal of very striking cinematography by Mikael Salomon (especially impressive after the more conventionally shot, but far more enjoyable, Last Crusade). The aerial sequences, designed by future October Sky director Joe Johnston, are also extremely effective. The film was shot on location in Montana and Washington and features some spectacular plane choreography. The filmmakers even took advantage of the devastating 1988 Yellowstone Park fires to help contribute to the realism of the forest fire sequences. Finally, John Williams' music, which may seem melodramatic when heard accompanying the film's over-the-top images, is actually one of the most subtle, delicate and poetic scores he's ever composed. When heard on its own, the music's beauty and simplicity is easily apparent. It seems to have been written, as the Musichound Soundtrack Guide eloquently states, as if it “existed on glass.” Indeed, of all the movie soundtracks I own it is one of my personal favorites and a real delight to listen to when I am in a contemplative or meditative mood.

While Always may/may not be Spielberg's "worst" film, it is certainly a major disappointment. I still like it and would sooner watch it than 1941, but even the most avid of Spielberg fans can't deny its massive flaws and its (at best) extremely mediocre aspects. Although Last Crusade , released earlier the same year, was a big hit with critics and audiences and seemed briefly as though it might have brought Spielberg "back from the edge of professional oblivion," Always did nothing to help the situation... nor did Spielberg's next film.


TOMORROW: Faeries and pirates and Children. Oh my!

Friday, August 17, 2007

DAY 17: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

For years after the divorce of his parents, Spielberg had a contentious relationship with his father Arnold (the resentment being reflected in his films through the recurring theme of an irrelevant, absentee or even abusive father). Finally, after many years, Steven and Arnold reconciled in what the director has called a “tremendous coming together”: a meeting of the hearts and of the minds between a father and a son. Thus, when the time came to make the third--and presumably final--Indiana Jones adventure, once again, Spielberg’s own life informed his work and he had the idea of including Indiana’s father in the story in a big way. Far from being a mere “gimmick” (as it was in Richard Donner's Maverick) this decision enriched the Indy character by providing more history than had been thus far (although Raiders did reveal some background too) and also creating another significant character in the world/life of Indiana Jones. As a result, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, while it may not have been the best, most balanced or even most exciting of the three Raiders films, was by far the most dramatic, the deepest and, from the perspective of Spielberg, the most personal.

Of course this presented the formidable challenge of casting the role of Professor Henry Jones, a part without whom the film simply wouldn’t work (since the father/son relationship serves as the basis for most of the film’s emotion). Lucas envisioned a fussy, fastidious scholarly type while Spielberg wanted a charismatic character with enough force and power to intimidate the tenacious Harrison Ford. What wound up on screen was a marvelous combination of the two concepts and the actor who ended up being cast was undoubtedly the perfect choice. Spielberg eventually had the inspired idea of asking Sean Connery... who agreed to do it. Since Indiana Jones was, in many ways, the cinematic heir to James Bond, it only made sense that the original 007 portray Indy’s dad. Of course, by this point in his career Connery was also a terrific actor (recently winning a Best Supporting Oscar for Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables), which he proved once again in his performance as Henry Jones. In reality, Ford and Connery are only about 12 years apart in age, but the actors' performances sell their relationship so strongly that it makes no difference. Spielberg also wanted to bring back members of the Raiders cast that he had "missed so much on Temple of Doom." Denholm Elliott returned as Marcus Brody (this time with more to do in the story) and John Rhys Davies played the larger-than-life Sallah.

Since jumpstarting the film with action had become a hallmark of the Indy movies, it was proposed that Last Crusade open with a teenage Indy embarking on his first adventure (replacing an earlier idea of Indiana in a haunted castle). The sequence would lay the groundwork for several future trademarks of the character (the leather jacket, the whip, the scar on Indy’s face, the terrible fear of snakes and, of course, the hat) as well as foreshadowing several important things that would occur later in the film itself. Once again, however, this meant the filmmakers had to find yet another actor to play a seminal role: that of young Indiana Jones. Spielberg had already admired River Phoenix’s work from Stand By Me and was delighted when Ford, having worked with Phoenix previously on Mosquito Coast, suggested him. In the role of the central villain, American egomaniac Walter Donovan, British actor Julian Glover (who had played a small part in Lucas’ Empire Strikes Back) was cast. Finally, as Indy’s leading lady in this particular adventure--an Austrian Art historian named Elsa Schneider--the filmmakers hired the strikingly beautiful Allison Doody (coincidentally, Doody, Glover and Davies had all appeared recently in Bond films; though this was almost certainly not deliberate, it further emphasized the kinship between the two iconic movie heroes).

While Doody's character is certainly a stronger, smarter and more capable woman than Willie Scott, she is by far the "blandest" of the three heroines. She constantly changes sides throughout the story and makes it difficult for Indy (and the audience) to tell whether she is an enemy or an ally. In the end she perishes, having been overcome by greed and a lust for power, but her demise feels less like justice than simply a meaningless accident. Credit should be given to Spielberg and Lucas for trying to achieve complexity in her character, but unfortunately they end up creating a character with hardly a personality at all, always being thrown where the screenplay demands she go. It would have been far more interesting I think if they had simply made her a villain (certainly the real world as well as the "Indiana Jones world" is ready to handle a female heavy for a change). Ultimately, the most substantial relationship in the film is the one between Indy and his father.

As with many Spielberg films, metaphysics featured so prominently into the previous installments that another supernatural/mythological object had to be selected as the item for which Indy was searching (Hitchcock used to call such plot devices “McGuffins:” items about which the details really weren’t that important but which the audience nevertheless had to accept as being significant enough that everyone in the movie would be after them; part of the genius of Lucas and Spielberg is that they always found ways to make their “MacGuffins” actually relevant to the ideas/themes of the story and not just incidental). For a while Lucas had been pushing for a story involving the Holy Grail and indeed it seemed like the perfect artifact for Indy to pursue in this adventure. Firstly, because it continued the practice of focusing each subsequent Indy adventure on a different religion (Judaism in Raiders, Hinduism in Temple of Doom and now Christianity in Last Crusade) and secondly, because it provided the filmmakers with an opportunity to bring Indy’s father into the adventure in a logical, plausible way. If Henry Jones were a Grail scholar who had spent his entire life looking for the symbolic cup, then Indy's search for the Grail was synonymous with the search for his father. This allowed Spielberg an opportunity to share his philosophy on the importance of familial love as Indy finds his relationship with his dad to be more precious to him than possessing the cup of Christ.

Another major element in Last Crusade was the restoration of Nazis into the plot. While they had served as the main opposing force to Indy in Raiders, they were selected primarily because they were the reliable villains in American movies of the 30’s and 40’s. Thus, in trying to make the film closer “in spirit” to Raiders than Temple of Doom (restoring the "fun" as he put it; indeed it's ironic that Last Crusade is the "softest" of the three and yet it's the only one to be rated PG-13), Spielberg decided to bring them back. This time however, there was a different tone to their inclusion. They were still quite far from representing real Nazis—-in fact, they could easily be called “Hollywood Nazis,” nameless, faceless and oftentimes rather comic henchman whose main function was to simply impede our hero from his goal-—but Spielberg’s developing respect and knowledge of WWII, and the many atrocities that occurred during it, seemed to be pushing him (almost unconsciously) in a much darker direction. Indeed, Last Crusade actually takes our main heroes into Berlin (“into the lion’s den” as Indy says) to witness a book-burning rally over which Hitler himself presides. It’s a surprisingly dark event to appear in a piece of escapist entertainment precisely because it is not fantasy: it is historically real and therefore even more frightening than any of the exaggerated dangers of Temple of Doom. Eventually Spielberg’s growing fascination (one could even call it an obsession) with the subject of Nazism and the Holocaust would culminate in his masterpiece Schindler’s List.

"Of all the Indy films," Spielberg has said, "Last Crusade was the one that went off without a hitch." Menno Meyjes (Color Purple, “The Mission”) collaborated with George Lucas on the film’s story and the screenplay was penned by Jeffrey Boam (writer of the Spielberg-produced, Dante-directed Innerspace). As usual, Doug Slocombe, Frank Marshall, Vic Armstrong, Mike Kahn and John Williams added their talents to this latest entry. Principal photography commenced on May 16, 1988, in Almeria, Spain. From there the filmmakers journeyed to Majorca and Granada. Following three weeks in Spain, Spielberg moved his crew to England for an additional ten weeks on the soundstages at Elstree and on August 7, Spielberg packed flew to Venice (a location which presentd some of the same problems shooting a period-set story as the city of “Cairo” for Raiders). Finally, they flew to Jordan to shoot scenes in Petra—-a marvelously ornate structure carved right into the stone—-which served as the long-lost secret temple, the final resting place of the Grail.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade "swung" into theatres in the summer of '89 (still remembered today as one of the biggest and most eventful summers in the history of Hollywood) and earned nearly $200 million at the box office. For the most part the critics, who had responded so negatively to the first sequel, were charmed by this third installment, though many felt that no more could be done with the character or the series. In her New York Times review, Caryn James summarized the reaction of most critics and audiences: "Though it cannot regain the brash originality of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in its own way Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is nearly as good, matching its audience's wildest hopes... Of the three Jones films, The Last Crusade may well become the sentimental favorite, the Indiana to end them all."

Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert observed: "As I watched it, I felt a real delight, because recent Hollywood escapist movies have become too jaded and cynical, and they have lost the feeling that you can stumble over astounding adventures just by going on a hike with your Scout troop... If there is just a shade of disappointment after seeing this movie, it has to be because we will never again have the shock of this material seeming new. Raiders of the Lost Ark, now more than ever, seems a turning point in the cinema of escapist entertainment, and there was really no way Spielberg could make it new all over again. What he has done is to take many of the same elements, and apply all of his craft and sense of fun to make them work yet once again. And they do." Interestingly, in Newsweek David Ansen proclaimed: "This thrice-told tale gives you your money's worth. Now it's time to hang up the bullwhip and move on."


Continuing the tradition of the first two, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens with the old Paramount logo and dissolves to a real mountain. This "mountain" is in fact a large rock formation in a John Ford-like desert range. The camera pans over to a wide shot of a troup of riders as the main titles begin to appear and the astute viewer might notice that the lettering is the same used in Raiders, signifying that this film is going to resemble the first Indy adventure more than the second one.


As we cut to a closer shot of the group of uniformed riders we see that they are really Boy Scouts on an expedition. They stop, the leader yells out "Dismount!" and all the young boys climb down from their horses and begin exploring some nearby caves. Two friends in particular slip off from the main group and discover a small band of diggers searching for something in one of the caverns. The leader, whose back is turned to us, wears a leather jacket and brown fedora.


Cleverly playing with our expectations (since we know that this is the normal wardrobe of Indiana Jones when he is on an adventure), Spielberg makes us wonder whether this will be Indy's "reveal" in this movie. When one of the diggers unearths a box and brings it over to the leader, whose face we still haven't seen yet, he opens the box and examines the item inside.

As he lifts the artifact (a golden cross) out of the box, we finally glimpse his face and see that it is not Indiana Jones.

In fact, as the heavy-set boy (Herman) indicates by speaking to his friend, Indiana Jones is actually one of the two boy scouts. It isn't until this moment that Spielberg employs a title card to tell us that we are in "Utah, 1912." Spielberg deliberately waited until the introduction of Indy to do so because audiences might have remembered that the previous two adventures took place in the 1930's meaning this fellow in the fedora couldn't be Indiana Jones, which would have ruined the surprise of discovering for ourselves that it isn't and subsequently meeting young Indy for the first time.

Indy informs his companion that the artifact being handled by the men is the Cross of Coronado. Immediately Indy's social conscience concerning antiquities manifests itself. "That cross is an important artifact. It belongs in a museum." he says. Indy orders Herman to run to the sheriff and tell him that there are men looting in the caves. When Herman asks what he plans to do, Indy's response is similar to his "making it up as he goes" line from Raiders: "I don't know, but I'll think of something." Indy then quietly sneaks down and snatches the Cross. The fact that Spielberg has chosen to make the artifact in this opening sequence a cross is significant because of the symbolic importance of the cross to Christianity, the selected religion of this particular Indy adventure. In fact, crosses will pop up a lot throughout the film.

As he tries to escape, Indy makes a noise alerting the men to his presence and a chase ensues. Indy flees the caves on his horse and the looters pursue him in vehicles (led by an older gentleman in a white suit and hat). As Indy rides on, he approaches one of the most common sights to be found in a Spielberg movie: a moving train. This time the train is a circus train, harkening back to the first movie young Speilberg ever saw (DeMille's Greatest Show on Earth). Then, in a shot very reminiscent of the dismounting from the horse onto the truck in Raiders, Indy leaps aboard the train followed by the looters. Indy runs across the top of the train trying to elude them and eventually ends up in the Reptile car. It is here that Spielberg explains the origin of Indy's phobia of snakes by having him fall into a box filled with hundreds of them. Indy also falls into a car with a lion at one point, but noticing a trainer's whip hanging on the wall nearby, he grabs it and uses it to keep the lion at bay. Not only does Spielberg use this sequence to pinpoint Indy's first exposure to the many uses of a whip but in his first crack of the weapon, Indy accidentally cuts his chin explaining the scar that marks adult Indy's face (In reality Harrison Ford was in a car wreck when he was 20 years old). Eventually Indy eludes his pursuers and as the man in the fedora watches the boy race away from the back of the train, a smile slowly spreads across his face. He might find it a terrible inconvenience to his own purposes, but he likes this kid. He admired his spirit, his passion, his conviction. He likes his "heart."

Indy races home, enters the living room and passes by the dog that we later learn is named Indiana (a reference to George Lucas' own dog that provided the inspiration for his character's name). Indy throws open the door to his father's study to tell him what has just transpired but dad is not interested in whatever his son has to say. He is busy copying a painting into a small book. Seeing his friend Herman out the window returning with the sheriff, Indy gives up trying to talk to his father and exits the room. Although, like the man in the fedora at first, we do not see dad's face we hear his voice as he utters: "May he who illuminated this, illuminate me." Not only will this painting he's tracing, as well as the book he is writing in, be significant later in the movie but it is here that the concept of "illumination" is introduced through the father's words. Spielberg's light theme is again being revisited and, like Close Encounters, it will be used in assocation with enlightenment. In this case it is spiritual enlightenment: the attainment of truth, knowledge and wisdom.

Herman enters the house followed by the sheriff and when Indy tries to tell him what has happened, the sheriff interrupts him asking if he still has the cross (grown-ups never listen to kids in Spielberg films). When Indy produces it, the sheriff takes it and hands it to one of the young looters. Indy watches helplessly as the fellow runs outside and hands the cross to the man in the white suit and hat, who is apparently its "rightful owner." Everyone leaves save the man with the fedora. He looks at Indy and says: "You lost today, kid... but that doesn't mean you have to like it."


He places the hat on Indy's head and pushes it down. Then, in one of those great Spielbergian transitions...


..he lifts it back up and we've now cut to the grown Indiana Jones smiling at someone. A fist flies into frame and punches our hero in the face. It is nighttime and clearly we are on a boat caught in a storm. A title card reveals that we are off the Portugese Coast in the year 1938. The same man in the white suit and hat descends some stairs and confronts Indy complaining: "This is the second time I've had to reclaim my property from you!" He pulls the Cross of Coronado out of Indy's bag as Indy yells: "That belongs in a museum!" Indy manages to fight his way out of the situation, eventually jumping overboard while gripping the cross. A freak accident causes the boat to explode (it's name revealed to be "Coronado" as it sinks) and as Indy clings to a lifesaver the white hat floats by signifying his enemy is dead. Throughout the series it has been a gag that in spite of the life-threatening ordeals that Indy endures, he never loses his hat. In this film, though, Spielberg elevates the importance of the hat. Not only does Indy never lose it, but if he does lose it he will die. When hats leave their owners it is an indicator that they are either dead or about to die.

What is also notable about this opening sequence, besides pinpointing the origin of many of Indiana Jones trademarks, is that it explains quite marvelously the duality we've seen previously in Indy's character. Because he was ignored by his father after the death of his mother, Indy found another "father" figure to admire and emulate. Not a good man, which his father was in spite of his shortcomings, but a "bad" man: a looter, a grave-robber, a mercenary. Thus, when Indy puts on the hat and leather jacket he is manifesting a form of rebellion against his dad, a kind of freedom from his father's way of doing things. And yet, his father's approval still matters to him as he has also became an educated professor in archaeology who wears three-piece suits and spectacles (as his father does). Despite his trying not to turn into his father, Indy is far more like his father than he cares to admit to himself. Likewise, as the film progresses Dr. Henry Jones will learn to do things like his son. Both men will become more like the other and in the process grow closer.

Back in the states, the scholarly Dr. Jones gives a lecture to a group of dreamy-eyed girls. He starts by writing the word "fact" on the chalkboard and telling them that it is the real goal in archaeology and not truth. "If it's truth you're interested in, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall." he says. Indy proceeds to discredit a number of misconcptions people might have about archaeology. "We do not follow maps to buried treasure and 'X' never, ever marks the spot." In fact, Indy's words are untrue. Over the course of the movie Indy will follow a map to a buried treasure, "X" will mark the spot and Indy will discover a great and profound truth. As he speaks, Marcus Brody enters the classroom and when the bell rings and everyone is dismissed, Indy produces the Cross of Coronado and proudly declares that Marcus will be taking him out to celebrate this accomplishment since Indy has been searching for this object all his life. This is significant because just as Indy has finally attained something which he has devoted his life to finding, soon his father will finally achieve his life's work. It should also be mentioned that this entire scene is staged, shot and edited identically to the corresponding scenes in Raiders, once again emphasizing the connection between them.

After checking his mail and discovering a package from Venice, Italy, Indy goes for a walk and finds himself accosted by some rather ominous-looking men. He is taken to a penthouse where he meets a benefactor of the museum, Walter Donovan. Donovan tells him that through the discovery of a tablet left by a knight of the first Crusade they are about to complete a great quest that began almost two thousand years ago: they are near to discovering the location of the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Christ during the last supper, the cup that caught his blood at the crucifixion and which gives the gift of youth to whoever drinks from it. Setting aside that this plot point relies on a serious misinterpretation of scripture (the eternal life that Jesus speaks of in the gospels is not an earthly one) this maintains the supernatural element of the movies and raises the stakes for Indy achieving success. Donovan asks Indy if he would pick up the trail from where his last project leader (who has since disappeared) left off, but Indy tells Donovan that he's got the wrong Jones and to try his father. "We already have," replies Donovan. "Your father is the man who's disappeared."

After rushing to his father's house with Marcus and finding the place ransacked, Indy realizes his dad has gotten himself into a real mess. Seeing that the mail has been opened, and remembering Donovan's statement that the last known location of his father was in Venice, Indy opens the package from earlier only to discover it's his father's Grail diary, a complete record of his search for the cup of Christ. "This is his whole life. Why would he have sent this to me?" he wonders. "I don't know," anwers Marcus, "but someone must want it pretty badly." Deciding to pick up the search for the Grail (with the real intent being to find his father), Indy tells Marcus to call Donovan and accept the ticket to Venice. Marcus tells Indy that he'll take two tickets. For the first (and last) time, Marcus is going to accompany Indiana on an adventure.

On the flight to Italy (during which Spielberg once again uses the familiar red line) Indy studies the diary and upon arriving in Venice is surprised to learn that the Dr. Schneider which Donovan spoke of is a beautiful blonde Austrian woman. Indy tries to flirt with her but to no avail. She seems immune to his charms. Elsa takes Indy and Marcus to the place Henry Jones was when he vanished: the library. When they comment that it looks more like a church than a library, Elsa informs them that is, in fact, the case. They are on holy ground. Indy recognizes the large stained-glass window from a drawing in the Grail diary (the same painting his father was sketching in the film's opening) and realizes that his dad wasn't looking for a book about the tomb of a knight but rather for the tomb itself. The tomb is located somewhere in the library. All they have to do is figure out the significance of three Roman numerals (III, VII and X) and they'll have their answer. They find the "III" and "VII" but don't see the "X" until Indy climbs a staircase and sees an enormous "X" on the floor. "X markes the spot." he says contradicting his earlier words to the class. "X" is also a subtle variation on the recurring cross imagery in the film.

After breaking through the floor and descening into the open hole, Indy and Elsa discover a series of catacombs beneath the library. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the notion of there being and underground in Venice is ridiculous but it doesn't take away from the enjoyment of the sequence. Indy and Elsa wander through the tunnels looking at the artwork scrawled on the walls. Elsa sees one drawing in particular and wonders aloud: "What's this one?" Indy answers: "The Ark of the Covenant." Elsa asks: "Are you sure?" to which Indy replies: "Pretty sure." This is a very funny exchange not only because it references Raiders, but because John Williams once again chooses to underline it with a brief quotation of the "Ark theme" from the first movie. Furthermore, unlike the sword/gun gag from Temple of Doom, this one actually makes sense since this adventure occurs after Raiders (in fact, the humor of the moment is dependant upon the fact that Indy has actually encountered the Ark before in person and not simply as a drawing on a wall). Back at the entrance, Marcus is knocked out and dragged away by unidentified individuals who follow Indy and Elsa into the cavern.

After encountering oil and moving through a passage filled with rats (this movie's equivalent of the snakes and bugs) Indy and Elsa find the knight's coffin. Indy gets the information he needs from the knight's shield, but hears noises coming from behind them. Their followers have lit the petroleum in the water and a huge column of fire is quickly making its way down the catacombs towards them. Thinking quickly Indy overturns the knight's coffin and motions Elsa to dive under it because of the air pocket. While inside Indy tells Elsa not to "wander off" as he searches for a way out. Having found one, he pops up again and tells Elsa to follow him. They each take a deep breath and submerge. Outside a group of gawking patrons are surprised when a dripping Elsa and Indy emerge from beneath their feet.

When the same unidentified followers run out of the library and start pursuing Indy and Elsa, the two of them climb into a boat and a chase ensues. Along the way several of the men are killed and when Indy and the last surviving member of his attackers square off, Indy asks why they are trying to kill him and Elsa. The man reveals that his name is Kazim and he is part of a brotherhood (the Cruciform Sword) dedicated to protecting the secret of the Grail. When Indy assures him that he's not after the cup of Christ but rather is after his father, Kazim informs him that his father is being held in the castle of Brunwald on the Austrian-German border. After telling Marcus, back at his hotel room to have Sallah meet them in Iskendrun, and subsequently having a little tryst with Elsa (which Spielberg naturally doesn't show), Indy decides to go after his dad.

A red line takes us to the castle and upon arrival Elsa asks Indy: "What are you going to do?" Indy repeats the line spoken by his younger self: "Don't know, but I'll think of something." Indy manages to get himself and Elsa inside the castle, where he discovers Nazis at work ("I hate these guys.") and locates the room that he believes his dad is in. Indy uses his bullwhip to swing in through the window where he is promptly hit over the head with a vase, his assailant being none other than his own father (who is introduced stepping out of the shadows, just as Indy was first seen in Raiders). The reunion is not a terribly happy one, however, as Indy is frustrated that his dad still insists on calling him "Junior." Aside from being an amusing running gag throughout the film, this is actually important to the story's themes. Henry Jones sees his son less as his own person and more as an extension of himself. His refusal to call his son by the name he prefers represents this, but before the film is done the two will come to an understanding. Henry will finally acknowledge his son's individuality. One of the things that Spielberg has always said he was grateful for was that his father allowed him to follow his own path of becoming a filmmaker rather than force Steven to follow in his footsteps. Arnold recognized his son's individuality in a way that Henry Jones must still learn to.

After returning to Elsa Indy discovers she is being held hostage by a Nazi Colonel named Vogel. He yells at Indy to drop his gun or he will shoot her. Henry tells Indy not to trust her because she's a Nazi. In a classic scenario where the main character is not sure who to listen to, Indy is forced to choose between his woman and his father. Eventually Indy chooses the woman and, as it is shortly revealed, makes the wrong choice. She is a Nazi after all. Indy and Henry are taken into another room where they meet the mastermind behind all of this: Donovan. He takes the book from them and in examining it discovers some important pages missing (including a map that leads to the Grail's location). Elsa realizes that Indy has given the map to Marcus Brody who, after Indy passionately tells them all that they'll never find him because he's able to blend into any environment all over the world, is seen wandering a train station in the city of Iskendrun with no clue whatsoever as to what he's doing. It's a very funny moment and demonstrates that Brody's character is becoming more comic in this particular adventure. Some have derided this decision saying that Marcus was very much a dignified character in the first Raiders, almost a sort of father figure to Indy, but since this film already has another father figure, Marcus needs to be used in another capacity to justify his presence. Furthermore, he was never seen outside of his comfort zone in the first film, so it is not inconsistent to see Marcus with two left feet when he tries to be the same kind of adventurer that Indy is. Finally, as Denholem Elliott has said in interviews, he could't have had more fun playing Marcus as a more of a buffoon this time around (if it didn't bother him, it shouldn't bother us). After Marcus meets Sallah, he is shortly taken by the Nazis.

Back at the castle, Indy and his father have been tied up back-to-back and left alone in a room (a classic B-movie situation). Indy has his father fish his lighter out of his coat pocket (with a shamrock, or four-leafed clover, on it; yet another variation on the cross imagery) and try to burn through the ropes. Unfortunately, Henry proceeds to set the entire room on fire. Indy and his father manage to escape through a revolving door in the fireplace and effect their escape on a motorcycle. A chase ensues wherein Indy and his father are pursued by Nazi soldiers but using typical ingenuity, Indy dispatches all of them (at one point using a flagpole as a jousting lance; this emphasizes Indy's identity as a "knight" of the last crusade). However, Henry is still unimpressed and Indy's frustration at never being able to satisfy his dad is apparent on his face. When they approach an intersection (a "cross"-roads), Henry instructs his son to go into Berlin to retreive his diary because there is still crucial information contained within (clues to surviving three deadly booby traps guarding the Grail). Indy finds the notion crazy and the two have yet another confrontation (at one point Indy curses and receives a slap in the face by Henry for "blasphemy"). It's one of many scenes between just these two characters and it demonstrates that the real drama of the story is in the interactions between them. They may stop the action for a period of time but they develop character and this is something that I personally think would be nice if more action movies did today.

Indy and Henry journey to Berlin ("pilgrims in an unholy land" as Henry aptly states) and Indy retreives the diary from Elsa during a book-burning rally, but comes face-to-face with Hitler in the process, who thinks Indy just wants his autograph so, ironically, he signs his name to the Grail diary (with his right hand; Hitler was actually a southpaw). Despite the rather serious tone of the scene, Spielberg still remembers that this is still essentially a piece of entertainment and so chooses to end the scene on a joke. Indy and Henry then flee from Germany on a zepplin. This provides an opportunity for yet another father/son interaction where we learn more about each character's personalities and details of Indy's childhood are further revealed. Their dialogue is interrupted, however, when Indy realizes that the zepplin is turning around and taking them back to Germany. Under the belly of the zepplin, Indy and Henry board a small plane (with a cross imprinted on it) and fly to safety but not before engaging in combat with some Nazi war planes. Eventually they crash land and try to escape in a car. When that doesn't work. They end up on foot. Indy stands on a beach looking around but seeing no cover, he pulls out his gun and finds no bullets in it. Up until now Henry's discomfort and lack of experience in this type of adventure has been apparent. Several times he has royally screwed up (setting the room on fire, shooting the tail of his own plane with the machine gun, etc), but he has also been a help at other times (when he sat in a chair and inadvertently triggered a secret door that allowed them to escape the castle). At this moment, Henry is about to prove his effectiveness once again, using his umbrella to frighten a flock of seagulls resting on the beach. As they all fly up into the path of the oncoming plane, they stall out the propeller and cause it to crash. Indy is stunned that his father has saved the day and as he turns to look at him, Henry casually strolls toward his son smiling, with his umbrella still up, mentioning that he got the idea from Charlamagne: "Let my armies be the rocks and the trees... and the birds in the sky."

The look on Indy's face as he turns toward the camera is priceless, because he's seeing his father in an entirely new light now. He is, for the first time, really proud of him and has such tremendous respect, affection and love in heart at this moment. The two are actually sharing something together. They are (pardon the pun) "bonding."


Once Indy and Henry reach Hatay, they meet up with Sallah and learn that Marcus has been captured. They head into the desert after Marcus, Donovan, Elsa, Vogel and a horde of Nazis. Of course three men are no match for hundreds of soldiers (not to mention a tank), but Kazim's brotherhood inadvertently helps Indy out by fighting the Nazis for him. Although Kazim is killed, Indy manages to steal four horses (their car having been blown up by the tank) while his father is captured and placed in the tank along with Marcus. Indy bravely rides out to rescue him and what follows is a spectacular action sequence that almost equals the truck chase from Raiders.

Indy leaps aboard the tank and while battling with Vogel on the outside of it, Indy's father tries to gain control of the tank from the inside. The father and the son are rapidly becoming more alike. Indy's father has stepped up and become almost the adventurer that Indy is. At one point he even uses the tank to blow away a whole truckload of Nazis. When Marcus says (as Henry himself did to Indy earlier): "Look what you did!" Henry responds: "Marcus, it's war!" The sequence ends with Henry and Marcus getting pulled off the tank as Indy angrily batters Vogel. In the fight, Vogel loses his hat signaling to the audience that he will shortly die. In fact, the tank is headed for a cliff and when Indy looks up and the camera moves in on a close-up of his eyes (another common Spielbergian image) his hat also blows off. This is Spielberg causing the audience to wonder if we might lose Indy at this moment too. In interviews everyone involved had said that this would be the last Indy film. Could it really end with Indy's death?

When the tank careens over the edge of the cliff and crashes into the rocks far below, Henry briefly thinks that his son is gone. "Oh God," he says, "I've lost him... and I never told him anything." In fact, Indy got off just in time and after a humorous moment where Indy stands behind the others looking over the cliff (not knowing what he's looking at), Henry grabs his son and warmly embraces him. "I thought I lost you, boy!" he cries. "I thought you had to, sir." Indy responds. Despite his fatigue, Indy starts to smile as he enjoys this rare bit of physical affection from his father. After a few seconds, a slightly embarassed Henry regains his composure, clears his throat and says, "Well,... well done." (in a way, this is like Spielberg trying to restrain himself in his films given that his critics say he is often too emotional or too sentimental). In a nice litte capper to the scene, Indy collapses as the other three walk away and the wind blows Indy's hat right back into his lap.

Indy, Sallah, Marcus and Henry sneak into the temple just in time to see one of the henchman literally lose his head. They are soon discovered and brought before Donovan. In a nice bit of visual storytelling, Indy and his friends (the good guys) stand on one side of the frame while Donovan and company (the bad guys) stand on the other. Elsa stands between them in the very middle, not belonging to either side. Donovan orders Indy to get the Grail for him and Indy refuses. Donovan helps provide motivation by shooting Henry in the stomach. Indy tries to stop the bleeding by removing Henry's hat (indicating, once again, that we could very well lose Indy's father) but it does little good. Donovan tells Indy that only the healing power of the Grail can save his father now. Thus, Indy is forced to brave the booby traps in order to retreive the Grail. Fortunately he has the clues from Henry's diary and by interpreting them correctly, Indy survives them. Throughout these scenes, Henry also tries to decode the clues as he lays dying. Showing once again how alike their minds work, both father and son come to the same conclusions independantly (or it could be viewed as the father figuring out the answers and then, like the telepathic link between E.T. and Elliott, passing that information to his son; it is the ambiguity of this that makes the sequence very satisfying).

Finally, Indy arrives at his destination and discovers an ancient knight who, having drank from the Grail long ago, is still alive to guard it. He assumes that Indy is the knight who has come to relieve him of his duty, to vanquish him and keep the Grail safe. The theme of fate, present in other Spielberg films, now comes to the fore in this scene. Oftentimes in his adventures, Indy is regarded as a predetermined messenger or savior sent to help solve a problem (as in Temple of Doom when the Indian shaman believes Indy was sent by their god). Although Indy is always skeptical about this, in a way the hopes of these other "believers" turn out to be true. This film will end, for example, with Indy causing the Grail to indeed end up in a safe place where it can no longer be sought after for evil purposes. When Donovan and Elsa enter, Donovan looks around at the dozens of shiny goblets and wonders which one is the real Grail. The Knight tells him he must choose. Elsa chooses for him and selects a glittering gold chalice. Donovan drinks from it and (in the movie's equivalent of the melting faces from Raiders) quickly ages to the point that he becomes a pile of dust. Hilariously, the knight dryly observes: "He chose... poorly." Indy then scans the cups and notices one that looks very plain and simple. "That's the cup of a carpenter." he observes. He grabs it and drinks from it. The knight informs him that he has chosen wisely (this goes along with Spielberg's philosophy of the extraodrinary being found in the mundane) and that neither he nor the Grail can pass beyond the great seal at the entrance. "That is the boundary and the price of immortality."

Indy quickly runs back to his father and has him drink from the cup. Miraculously, his wound heals and he stands up. Henry smiles at his son, happy to see him, and then looks down at the cup in his hand. Finally, he has found the very thing that he has been seeking his whole life. When Elsa tries to take the cup from the temple, however, the entire place starts to rumble. The ground opens up and the Grail falls between a crevice. Indy dives for Elsa and grabs her hand as she hangs over the abyss. Overcome with greed, she unwisely reaches out for the Grail with one of her hands (despite Indy's pleading with her to give him both her hands because he can't hold her) and finally falls to her death. Suddenly Indy slips over and is grabbed by his father. Now, the sitaution is reversed. Indy is within reach of the Grail and his father is losing his grip on his son. Indy reaches for the cup, overcome with the same greed, but when Henry calls him "Indiana" for the first time in his life, it gets Indy's attention. He turns to look at his father who says, "Let it go." At last, the two are equals. Indy gives Henry both his hands and is pulled to safety. He, Henry, Marcus and Sallah flee the temple as it is sealed up forever.

In the final scene, as the four men stand just outside the temple, Henry tells Indy that Elsa never really believed in the Grail, that she only thought she'd found a prize. Henry on the other hand, had finally found what he had asked for twenty-six years earlier when he first sketched the painting in his diary: illumination. This illumination, though, is more than just spiritual; it is familial. Henry has now attained some wisdom with regards to his son. He sees Indy in a new light just as Indy sees his father in one. As the two mount their horses, it is revealed that Indy's real name is "Henry Jones, Jr." and that "Indiana" was actually the name of the dog. Marcus announces that he knows the way out and clumsily rides off on his horse. Indy and the others take off after him as the now iconic "Raiders march" swells and, in an actualization of the old Hollywood cliche (and an image reminiscent of a shot in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia), the four men literally ride off into the sunset. It is the perfect ending for Indiana Jones.


So, where does Last Crusade hold up in the Indiana Jones trilogy? Well, that depends on what one expects from an Indiana Jones movie. If one prefers pure visceral entertainment, non-stop thrilling action scenes, then Last Crusade would probably be the least of the three and Temple of Doom the greatest. If one likes more drama and character devlopment emphasized (even if it comes at the expense of some of the action) then Last Crusade would be the best of the three. If, however, one likes a nice balance of the two elements (I happen to be in this category) then one would probably prefer Raiders (as I do). Although I personally love all three films and think that any one of them is superior to most stuff being produced by Hollywood today, I tend to go in the order of Raiders first, Last Crusade second and then Temple of Doom third. I know not everyone shares that sentiment and that's fine. It's just my opinion.



Finally, I should probably say something said about the upcoming fourth film.

Although at the time, Last Crusade was conceived as the final cinematic adventure of Indiana Jones, in the passing years Spielberg, Lucas and Ford all discussed the possibly of doing a fourth one. After many years of teasing people with promises to do it, in June of 2007 principal photography began and the still unnamed fourth (and this time for certain final) installment of the succesful series was underway. While I was skeptical for a long time that a fourth Indy film was a good idea, I have to admit that now I am, like a lot of fans, greatly looking forward to it. The filmmakers seem to be going in the right direction by bringing Marion Ravenwood (the only woman who could ever be a fitting macth for Indy) back into the story. Because Sean Connery has retired from acting, Indy's father will, unfortunately, not be appearing in this one (or so we've been told) but Indy will have a son (played by the talented Shia Lebeouf) and the cast will also include such fine actors as John Hurt and Cate Blanchett. Indy will no doubt be much older and more worn in this one, but as we all know, "it's not the years, it's the mileage." The film is scheduled to hit theatres in May of 2008 (exactly 19 years since the release of the last one and, coincidentally, the same summer that another Batman movie featuring the Joker will appear). Whether this will be a fitting send-off for one of cinema's greatest heroes remains to be seen but I will relish finding out (I'll be there opening night with everyone else). One thing is for certain though... if anybody can make it work, it's the people behind this movie: actor Harrison Ford, writer/producer George Lucas and, of course, director Steven Spielberg.



TOMORROW: Spielberg's love story