Spielberg Double Feature: Indiana Jones, Always, And How Death Defines Us
With Jurassic Park coming back to theaters this week, we're looking back at the years when Steven Spielberg released two films, and how those films reflect on each other. Earlier this week Sean dug into 1993's double feature, Jurassic Park vs. Schindler's List. Today Kristy tackles 1989's Always and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Aside from their shared release year, what do Steven Spielberg's double-dips have in common? This was the question we here at the Cinema Blend looked to discover in this investigative series. In 1989, Spielberg released the third film of his Indiana Jones adventures, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as the largely forgotten fantasy-drama Always. It had be years since I'd watched Last Crusade, and aside from recognizing its title from Audrey Hepburn's filmography, I'd never heard of Always. Much to my surprise, both films have some stark similarities in their heroes and the crucial decision each must face, though the lesson lands better in the former.
You know Indiana Jones. Played by Harrison Ford, he's an archeology professor and adventurer who wields a whip, and wears a leather jacket and trademark hat with unmatched swagger. He's brave, though not fearless (snakes!), and willing to risk his life to save his loved ones. In The Last Crusade we see this last trait displayed in the film's final act, when Indy traverses the dangerous trials of the Canyon of the Crescent Moon to reach the Holy Grail which can save his father's life. But I was surprised to find Pete, the cocky hero at the heart of Always played by Richard Dreyfuss, has a lot in common with Indy.
Set fifty years later than The Last Crusade's finale, Always has a protagonist that shares Indy's sense of bravado, not to mention his penchant for leather outerwear. The two both come from Classical Hollywood inspirations. While Indy was based on the action heroes from 1930s film serials, Always is a contemporary remake of the 1943 Spencer Tracy drama A Guy Named Joe. Unfortunately, one of the '40s traits Spielberg brought to Always is Pete's smug condescension and possessive sexism, traits that made him much less lovable than Indy.
A hotshot pilot who flies over forest fires to unleash flame-quenching chemicals, Pete is all machismo and snarky rejoinders. His infuriated but devoted girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter) demands he stop playing so fast and loose with life or death moments. A strong-willed woman who works as an air traffic controller, Dorinda's autonomy is undercut by her willingness to forgive Pete's repeated thoughtlessness when shiny gifts are presented. This is almost as offensive as his regularly declaring her "my girl" in a tone that says more about Pete's possessiveness than his affection. Again and again he claims her, yet refuses to say he loves her. In turn, it makes it difficult to bond to Pete, especially when Indy is so willing to wear his heart on his sleeve with each of his leading ladies, who all give him a run for his money.
Always' narrative might sound less fantastical than The Last Crusade's. but that changes in act 2, where the same kind of religion-fueled fantasy is embraced. Just 30 minutes into this drama, Pete dies in a horrendous mid-air explosion and then meets an angel (the aforementioned Hepburn in her final film role), who assigns him to be the guardian angel to a wannabe firefighting pilot who has eyes for the still-mourning Dorinda. Of course a cocky old-school male lead and a penchant for faith-based fantasy may seem superficial similarities. But here they prove to be a framework for the question Spielberg seems obsessed with at this time: What's worth dying for?
Indy faces this question twice in Last Crusade's final act, first by bounding through potentially deadly booby traps to save his father. Moments later, as the great stone palace caves in around them, he has a second brush with death as he considers risking his life to save the Grail from following the overreaching Elsa into the gaping caverns of the Earth. Dangling from a ledge, Indy reaches for the most coveted archaeological find since the Ark of the Covenant while his father begs him to let it go, demanding both of Indy's hands so he can pull him back to safety.
The turning point comes when Henry Jones senior relents from calling his son by his loathed nickname ("Junior") and instead cries out the name he prefers, "Indiana." Our hero regains his senses, and grabs his dad's hand in time for a happy ending. And happy it is. Despite losing the grail and seeing his latest love interest die, Indy, his father, and friends literally ride off into the sunset. Indy has decided glory is not worth dying for. Things are not worth dying for. What is—what matters in life—is the people we love. The point hits home as the music swells and credits roll, in part because Indy is a hero we long to be like. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for us!
This message has far less impact in Always. Much to my surprise, Pete didn't die because of a senseless, showy risk, he died saving his friend Al's life. Both pilot pals were flying high, putting out fires when Al's engine caught flame. When the plane's safety features fail, Pete flies dangerously low to unleash his fire-killing chemicals that save Al from death. But then his plane catches fire and boom! It was a moment that in many movies would be the climax, but Pete still has a lot of growing to do in the next life.
Pete made a choice he knew could get him killed, but he did it for his best male friend. He gave all he could of himself, even if it hurt him, for someone he loved. This is a lesson he must learn on a more emotional level in his afterlife as he watches his Dorinda begin to fall for a new man. At first he speaks to her surreptitiously, manipulating her subconscious, trying to keep her his forever. This will leave her lonely and miserable, something the viewer realizes long before Pete does, making it difficult not to resent his selfish mind games. Eventually Pete learns that if he really does love Dorinda, he has to let her go, let her move on and be happy without him. He has to die on another level. While the lesson is clear, it doesn't land as well as Last Crusade's mainly because Pete was such a cad it's hard to relate to his emotional obliviousness. He's been a chauvinistic self-serving jerk toward the love of his life for the majority of the film. By the end, I felt less sad for his loss (of life, of Dorinda) and more relieved for Dorinda, who was engaged in a mentally abusive relationship with a dead guy without her knowledge or consent.
Spielberg has always been a filmmaker known for heartfelt films with a moral message, and with his 1989 slate he could not have been clearer on his intentions. Within a sequel and a remake he laid out quite clearly that what matters most—more than life, death, or self-satisfaction—is those we love. And whatever we need to sacrifice for them is worth it. However, while The Last Crusade is built from a central story about the love of a father and son, Always builds from a romantic relationship that is cringe inducing from the start. We root for Indy and his father not only to survive this adventure, but also to mend their broken bond. But in Always I found myself mostly wishing Pete would disappear because he was using his abuse of his God-given powers of suggestion seemed more suitable to a horror movie than a romance. Yes, by Always sentimental finale he has learned that love is not about possessing, it's about giving of yourself for the betterment of the one you love. But by this point it's become disturbingly clear that this film's only villain is its self-centered protagonist. It's little wonder Always is so often overlooked.
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