Utah, 1916, and a troop of Boy Scouts are traipsing through the majestic scenery on an expedition when two of them break off from the main party on discovering an archaeological dig nearby. Teenage Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) notes the leader has found a priceless, gold, jewel-encrusted cross but has no intention of doing anything with it than keeping it for himself which outrages the young man: after all, artefacts like that belong in a museum where everyone can see them, not locked away in a private collection. Thus he sneaks into the cave and steals the treasure in the name of posterity, commencing a chase which has Jones escape on horseback then leap onto a circus train - but he'll learn a hard lesson today.
The third Indiana Jones instalment was all too aware of the controversy the second had brought out in several sections of society, but though it was a sizeable success it was regarded as too much of a departure from the widely acknowledged classic that was the first, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which was why with Part 3 director Steven Spielberg was keen to get back to what had appealed to audiences with that blockbuster of eight years previously, which meant essentially much the same plotting as he had used before, the same mix of fantasy adventure, romance and humour, the rollicking John Williams score and bringing back the Nazis as the main antagonists, a safe bet since there were very few who would accuse the production of missteps with that lot.
It was very nearly a copy of what had been so popular, which would have made for a sense of overfamiliarity too contrived to leave us feeling we had seen something fresh and novel. Fortunately, Spielberg used one of his tropes to inject a different spin here: it was not romance which fuelled the central relationship, but his favourite theme of parental responsibility, even then getting to be a regular occurrence as his default concern when making his stories. This could have left us thinking, not again, get over the daddy issues Mr Spielberg, only he had the bright idea of casting James Bond as Indiana Jones' father: step forward Sean Connery as Dr Henry Jones Sr, who doesn't appear until almost the second half of the film which rendered the search for him all the more telling.
Indy learns early on, after the opening sequence which saw the soon-to-be late River Phoenix doing an amusing juvenile variation of Harrison Ford, that his parent has gone missing while seeking his lifelong obsession, the Holy Grail, but has posted his notes in diary form back to his son in America from which he realises Henry disappeared somewhere in Venice. Off he goes after him, summoning up the need for parental approval in adventure serial tribute, which has been there from the very first sequence as we begin to understand the formative influences that maketh the swashbuckling archaeologist we see before us as the man he stumbled across in Utah all those years ago was clearly who he sought to emulate because his actual father was so distant once his mother died.
It's actually kind of sad when you think about it that Indy was so starved of a role model he would turn to such a vivid memory instead, not that Last Crusade gave you much opportunity to mull that over, with the set-up detailing a wealthy collector (Julian Glover) putting him on the trail to Europe accompanied by a returning Denholm Elliott (John Rhys-Davies was back as well, later on), indicating this was now paying its respects to its characters' screen history as well as those vintage tales of derring do Raiders attempted to recapture so triumphantly. Star who never quite made it Alison Doody was the thankless love interest this time around, but didn't get much of a look in once Jones Sr appeared, and thanks to Tom Stoppard's uncredited dialogue rewrites the rapport between Ford and Connery managed to suggest a genuine history in between slightly tediously funny, tough love shtick that carried the film over plenty of spectacular stunts and special effects oddly less, er, effective in 1989 than they were in 1981. Some say it should have ended here, but nostalgia is a powerful thing, as this proves.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.