Destroy All Monsters: 25 Years Later, Dr. Elsa Schneider and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
"I didn't trust her. Why did you?"
Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, we had the first "summer of the sequels," which gave rise to the summer movie marketplace as we know it today -- the tentpole system, whereby every few weeks (unlike nowadays, when it's every few days) a major summer movie is released to a pre-baked fan base.
My favourite movie that year was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (no, not Batman, though Batman came a close second and went on, overall, to have a much larger impact on the way movies are made, marketed, and distributed). I was 12 on the verge of turning 13, arguably the sweetest of the sweet spots for seeing an Indiana Jones movie. Guns and bullwhips were maximally important, and sex was a theoretical concept explicated by scientific diagrams having to do with reproduction.
The boys on my baseball team saw the movie before I did. Anxious about the mind-splitting terror of Toht's melting face and Mola Ram's heart-stopping cardiac parlour trick, I inquired about Last Crusade's theatre of body horror. I was reassured that there was nothing "freaky" in the movie; that the main bad guy aged hyper-fast after he drank from the wrong grail, but that the effects looked like something out of the cartoonish Beetlejuice.
Years later I began to realize that this was part of Last Crusade's strategy. Spielberg, after regretting Temple of Doom, said he wanted to make a movie he could "stand naked on top of" as the third (and final -- at the time) Indiana Jones movie. This, by his calculation, meant remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark, only even more family-friendly. The result is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
That decision is what costs Last Crusade some rungs on the Jones-o-meter when re-viewing the film as an adult. It's a grand motion picture, enjoyable for everyone from ages 8 to 80, but it sacrifices organic storytelling in its efforts to halfheartedly hit every beloved beat of Raiders all over again in a different milieu. (Snakes? Rats. Truck chase? Tank chase. Airplane propeller? Boat propeller.)
In this regard, it was a greater architect for the blockbuster paradigm than we probably realize. "The same, but different, and better," as Richard Corliss wrote of Last Crusade in his review for Time Magazine in 1989. We can quibble about the "better" part, but that line has become the unspoken mantra for blockbuster franchising forever after.
Possibly the biggest area in which Last Crusade falls down is its villains, who -- until the ignominious arrival of hapless Colonel Spalko, in the godawful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- were the least menacing in the Indiana Jones saga. Michael Byrne is almost laughably irrelevant as Col. Vogel, the Nazi-du-jour; whereas Julian Glover's Donovan, in an attempt to create a gentlemanly, Hitchcockian villain for the movie, demonstrates no credible threat to the heroes until he shoots Papa Jones -- literally ten minutes before the end of the film.
They are a far cry from Paul Freeman's Belloq, and Ronald Lacey's sublime Toht, and certainly Captain Freaky-Deaky himself, Amrish Puri's maniacal Mola Ram. Though cartoonish and bumbling in their own ways, the villains of Raiders and Temple of Doom convinced us that they had a better than average chance of defeating Indy -- which, in a movie like this, is better than half the point.
And then there was Elsa.
I was 12, so I can forgive myself for assessing Dr. Elsa Schneider within the box into which she most immediately fit. Played by Alison Doody, she was Last Crusade's female lead, following in the footsteps of Karen Allen and Kate Capshaw. She varied from her predecessors in that she was evil.
Sequels are about iterative change, after all; allowing that Temple of Doom required a female lead to replace Marion, what made its heroine different from Marion? Simple: Willie was blonde. (And she screamed a lot.) What, then, made Elsa different from Willie (and Marion)? Simple: Elsa was evil.
In the forceful iconographic landscape of an Indiana Jones movie, this is nearly enough. The law of diminishing returns applies with each iteration, but the system works well enough to sustain the movie in the short term. No, Elsa wasn't as interesting as Willie, who wasn't as interesting as Marion, but hey, at least she was different -- while still fulfilling the movie's basic requirement to have a beautiful woman with whom Indy could flirt, and eventually bed. Female Lead 101.
Except, Elsa isn't Last Crusade's female lead. Indy's father is.
At least in terms of how female leads worked in the first two Indiana Jones movies, he really is. Marion and Willie were useful (from an action movie structure standpoint) in their respective movies because they continuously did ridiculous things that got themselves into trouble, requiring Indy to shoot and whip various people to get them out. They set up the set pieces. Marion gets locked in a flying wing about to explode. Willie nearly gets herself sacrificed to Kali. Marion burns her whole bar down trying to get the better of the Nazis. And so forth.
Elsa never does any of this, but Papa Jones does. Repeatedly. He tries to rescue Marcus and gets stuck in the tank; he capriciously insists upon going to Berlin to get his diary, requiring the Joneses to fight and shoot and fly their way out; he gets imprisoned at Castle Brunwald, kicking off the whole story.
Elsa, meanwhile, reveals her duplicitous nature in a scene meant to draw on the degree to which we are familiar with Indy's leading ladies getting themselves into trouble: she feigns being captured by Vogel, only to con Indy into turning over the Grail diary. She (and the filmmakers) use the reliability of the lady trope in these movies to create Indy III's first major narrative turn, and Doody's sinister smile upon her success demonstrates just how proud of themselves everyone involved must be.
But to categorize Elsa as "female lead, only bad" is to stop paying attention at this scene. In Berlin, she has the opportunity to betray Indy again, but doesn't, because doing so does not support her interests, either professionally or emotionally. In the Grail chamber, she identifies the Holy Grail immediately, but gives Donovan a false one, because Donovan -- witless, ineffectual "villain" Donovan -- was never any more than the machinery that got Elsa to this point. She wanted the Grail, and in every single moment of choice throughout the film, she made the correct decision to get herself there.
As such, Elsa reveals herself to be the kind of female character that summer blockbusters don't have a lot of anymore: a woman with agency, independent of the male hero. Elsa is -- for reasons all her own, no one else's -- repeatedly, and crucially, steering Last Crusade's plot.
Elsa is the true villain of Indy III, or more accurately, the film's antagonist. She's the Belloq for this story, in that she's Indy's dark double, as competent as he is, with her only critical flaw (from our standpoint) being that she's in it for herself and not, I dunno, the Science of Archaeology or whatever Indy's supposedly in it for.
Papa Jones (played by that wonderful icon of chauvinist superiority, Sean Connery) cruelly dismisses Elsa after her cruel death, saying "Elsa never really believed in the Grail; she thought she'd found a prize." Untrue. Elsa absolutely believed in the Grail; she just also believed in her own right, having found and identified it, to take it for her own. It's Indy, in fact, who never believed in the Grail. He even says so, to Kazim, earlier in the movie: "I didn't come for the cup of Christ, I came to find my father," as weighty a line as this franchise ever wrote.
Poor Elsa. For the sin of betraying the hero (and perhaps the subtextually greater sin of bedding both Joneses, and quite unapologetically at that) she dies at the end of Last Crusade, but watching the film now, her death saddens me. Indy lost more than he thought he did when Elsa's glove slipped from his hand. In Crystal Skull, he quips to Marion that none of his relationships after her worked out, because "they weren't you, honey." Meaning facile troublemakers with passion but no brains? Sure. But the only time Indy ever met a woman who was his legitimate equal, he saw her die for daring to think herself as worthy of the Grail as he was.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and taking a summer break from twitter.