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.


Laurence Topham

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
My favourite film when I was 12: Jurassic Park
Continuing our series in which writers revisit childhood movie passions, Stuart Heritage recalls wishing the dinosaurs could talk – until he was caught by the epic film-making

Stuart Heritage

02, Apr, 2020 @9:50 AM

Article image
Harrison Ford back as Indiana Jones for fifth film, directed by Steven Spielberg
Long-mooted instalment in archeologist’s adventures to reunite star, director and producer George Lucas, and be released in 2019

Catherine Shoard

15, Mar, 2016 @6:08 PM

Article image
My favourite film aged 12: You Only Live Twice
The fifth Bond had enough ninjas, piranhas and flamethrowers to blow one boy viewer’s head off – but its casual racism and sexism don’t look so smart post-Austin Powers

Stuart Jeffries

13, Apr, 2020 @10:40 AM

Article image
Indiana Jones and the Tide of Ageism: why such a reaction to the fifth film?
The announcement of a new Indiana Jones movie, to be released when the lead actor is 77, has revealed an attitude to old age out of sync with society

Catherine Shoard

16, Mar, 2016 @1:35 PM

Article image
Harrison Ford: 'I’d love to do another Indiana Jones'
73-year-old star reveals he would jump at chance to shoot one more whip-cracking adventure as the intrepid archaeologist, following Steven Spielberg’s hint at fifth outing

Ben Child

12, Nov, 2015 @10:41 AM

Article image
My favourite film aged 12: GoldenEye
The first 12-rated Bond film – and power-thighed assassin Xenia Onatopp in particular – seemed impossibly glamorous if you were just old enough to be admitted to the cinema

Catherine Bray

17, Apr, 2020 @8:51 AM

Article image
My favourite film aged 12: Back to the Future II
I can’t feel anything but eternal love for this propulsive, unrelenting time-travel sequel that changed my life

Daniel Harris

29, Apr, 2020 @11:26 AM

Article image
My favourite film aged 12: Speed
Continuing our series in which writers revisit childhood movie passions, we get back on the bus for an audaciously over-the-top thrill ride with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock

Rebecca Nicholson

06, Apr, 2020 @7:57 AM

Article image
Steven Spielberg: Harrison Ford will never be replaced as Indiana Jones
The director is keen to make a fifth adventure with the star and denies rumours that another actor will take on the role

Benjamin Lee

02, Dec, 2015 @3:32 PM

Article image
My favourite film aged 12: Young Sherlock Holmes
An exceptional protagonist, his daft mate and a gutsy girl go on an adventure in a supernatural public school ... A proto-Potter it may be, but this trippy origin story was a queasy tween delight

Phil Hoad

14, Apr, 2020 @12:17 PM