My favourite film aged 12: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Nazi jousters on motorbikes, crash-landing biplanes, spooky catacombs and ancient riddles – my first encounter with Indy was a thrilling sensory overload

It was 1994, and I was 12 years old. My dad had recently bought himself a Hi8 video camera and I requisitioned it to make my own movies. Given my sub-novice status, it seemed sensible to begin by copying my favourite films. I turned to my own library of movies for inspiration – all on VHS, mostly recorded from the TV.

To me, VHS technology was incredible. I could watch a movie, press pause, study a shot, rewind, and figure out how to adapt it into my own living room, garden or driveway (the most readily available locations). My bedroom was converted into a makeshift special effects studio and my younger brothers and I choreographed daft stunts with flour-based pyrotechnics.

These film-making adventures allowed me to relive my earliest and most formative memory of going to the cinema, where my movie-making obsession began. Even now, I still get goosebumps if I think back to that night in 1989 when I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at the Empire, Leicester Square in London.

I went with my best friend, who lived just up the road from me. His dad volunteered to take us – a detail made all the more exciting because he had worked on the movie in the special effects department. Before we all left, he took enormous pleasure in hurling a red brick at me and watching me crumple into a terrified heap. I opened my eyes, embarrassed, when I realised it was a polystyrene prop.

Rip-roaring origin story … River Phoenix as the young Indy.
Rip-roaring origin story … River Phoenix as the young Indy. Photograph: Lucasfilm/Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

We lived about an hour outside London, and the journey to the cinema was filled with anticipation and some screams of hysteria. (Looking back I now realise that my friend’s dad handled all of this with great patience). I had no preconception of who Indiana Jones was, or even what he did, but like a lot of kids my age I thought Han Solo was the coolest man on the planet, followed closely by James Bond. I was clearly the target audience because this film had both Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.

To experience Indy for the first time on a giant screen was utterly intoxicating. The film begins with a rip-roaring origin story set in 1912, in which a young Indy (played by River Phoenix) stumbles across a gang of grave robbers who discover a golden crucifix. Indy intervenes and a chase ensues. From there the pace never lets up.

We go from seeing Indy galloping alongside a circus train (and having a brush with a bullwhip and a lion), to exploring spooky Venetian catacombs, solving ancient riddles and jousting Nazis on motorbikes. And, just when you think he could do with a lie down, he still has to crash-land a biplane, attack a tank while on horseback – and bump into Hitler. Finally, he finds himself in the mysterious Canyon of the Crescent Moon, and heads start to roll in a more literal sense. I came out of the cinema looking like a deer caught in the headlights. In the space of two hours I had seen more of the world than I ever knew existed.

But the spectacle had overwhelmed my senses. I was too young to appreciate the dialogue (“You have chosen … wisely.”), or the chemistry between Ford and Connery. It wasn’t until I was 12 and had a copy of the film on VHS that I began to appreciate what it was really about.

An encounter with evil … Indy meets Hitler.
An encounter with evil … Indy meets Hitler. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Ostensibly, The Last Crusade is a race to discover the Holy Grail before the Nazis do and prevent the forces of evil from “marching over the face of the Earth”, as Connery puts it. But, while that may be the film’s MacGuffin, what Steven Spielberg, the director, was really interested in is a story of fathers and sons, and, typically for him, a desire to heal a divided family. Indy’s leap of faith in the final act isn’t so much about religious belief as it is about restoring his relationship with his father. Some of these details only fully resonated 26 years later when I became a father myself.

Unlike Henry Jones Sr, my dad wasn’t obsessed with discovering the “Cup of Christ”, but I could relate to Indy’s frequent and awkward attempts to connect with him. “Do you remember the last time we sat and had a drink together?” Indy asks as the pair try to escape Germany in a zeppelin. “I ordered a milkshake.” Henry retorts: “So, what do you want to talk about?” Indy doesn’t know. The scene felt familiar. Like most 12-year-old boys, I craved my father’s attention, and when I got it, the conversation usually steered toward something abstract, like science or religion. It was rarely about us.

During a thrilling rescue in the mountains of Hatay, Indy finds himself on a tank as it veers off the edge of a giant ravine. Henry looks down across the canyon, assuming he has been killed. “I never told him anything. I just wasn’t ready. Five minutes would have been enough,” Henry laments. When Indy scrambles to safety along the cliff edge and rejoins them, his father grabs him in disbelief, exclaiming: “I thought I’d lost you, boy.” Indy is suddenly 12 again, and we see his boyish smile as he receives a rare warm embrace from his father.

In a movie packed with breathtaking action, this brief moment of tenderness stayed with me. What I appreciate now, 26 years later, especially during lockdown, is that boys don’t just need rugged heroes who ride off into the sunset; they also need hugs from their fathers, whatever age they might be.

• Laurence Topham is the Guardian’s video special projects editor.

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