Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade borrows a few tricks from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy finds himself searching for a religious artifact (The Holy Grail) while also fighting off a bunch of Nazis. It’s a pretty simple plot, and its similarities to Raiders suggests this is more of a do-over, replacing or erasing Temple of Doom rather than a true close to the trilogy.
The movie, though does set itself up to be the final chapter of the Indiana Jones saga. A lot of stories, whether it’s film or television, signal the end by returning to the beginning. In the third to last episode of Breaking Bad, for example, we witness the consequences of all of Walter White’s actions and deceptions through the 5 season run of the show. That episode begins with a flashback to show the first time Walt lied to his wife about his whole meth cooking enterprise. Before showing the end, they have to show you the beginning.
It’s a nice technique, and it frames the story nicely. In The Last Crusade, we begin by seeing young Indiana, full of restless energy and an already developed yet still developing moral code. He is with a troop of what look to be boy scouts out in the Utah wilderness. Sneaking into some tunnels, he stumbles upon a few grave robbers who have found a valuable golden cross. Indy steals it, planning on taking it to a museum where it belongs. A long, Indiana Jones-type chase sequence follows, and we’re introduced to both Indy’s trademark whip and his familiar hat. When his plan ultimately fails, the man who defeats him gives him a few words of encouragement, admiring his effort. The man gives Indy the hat, and we cut to him as an adult, still wearing that hat.
The scene is full of unbelievable moments and a few cliches, but that’s kind of what Indiana Jones is all about. The films are based on more pulpy material, and the stories aren’t meant to be all that deep. They’re an excuse to show Indy in action. The story sets up everything you need to know in long, talk-heavy expository scenes, then it jumps into the sept pieces and takes its time in the action.
This story follows Indy’s quest to find the Holy Grail, picking up on his father’s research. In one of those talk-heavy expository scenes, Indy meets Donovan, a man who tells him everything he needs to know about the Holy Grail. When Indy expresses doubt about its authenticity, Donovan provides him further proof. See, he has one of two tablets that indicate the Grail’s location. The other tablet is somewhere in Venice, but the third necessary piece of information is a map drawn by Indy’s father that was then mailed to Indy himself.
In this scene, Donovan clearly wants Jones to agree to search for the tablet. He says one of their men has gone missing. Then at the end of the scene, Donovan tells Jones that the missing man is Jones’ father. Now, in a more realistic conversation, Donovan would tell Indiana that his father has gone missing right away, before he tells him anything else. Waiting to reveal this until the end of the scene serves to improve the script dramatically, and it also helps him use this information as a tool to convince Jones to search for the Grail. It’s clearly some sort of manipulation. Soon after, Donovan tells Jones to not trust anyone, very clearly setting up an eventual betrayal.
So Jones goes to Venice where he meets Elsa, the new love interest. What’s interesting is that Jones wears his trademark hat, but he also wears a suit, not his usual brown jacket and other adventuring clothes. This makes him look a bit childlike, as if he’s forced to wear a suit to his uncle’s wedding, but he rebels by wearing a cowboy hat.
He also keeps referring to his dad, since he’s following his dad’s drawings and looking for what his dad spent years looking for. Then, he’s surprisingly taken by Elsa, almost like he knows the script is going to force them to get together eventually. He’s completely on her terms, so much so that it’s pretty apparent she too will betray him (she does, she also turns out to be a Nazi). This all contributes to a less masculine image of our masculine hero. He feels like a child, or at least like he doesn’t realize how bad things will get. It’s funny, though, because he faces death numerous times in this film, but he did so too in the previous films. None of this should be knew to him, it’s what you get when you choose to become an archeologist.
Indy and Elsa find the tablet, narrowly escape death, then Elsa and Donovan betray Indy. This happens when he reunites with his father (Sean Connery), so the rest of the film follows their adventures side by side. The father-son relationship works fairly well, I’d say. It’s humorous, and it’s never taken too seriously, which is good considering it’s not all that important. With this being the “final” Indiana Jones movie, and with the story following him and his father, it would feel more impactful if we had known anything about his father before this film, but we didn’t (I think). Instead it’s just another story in Indiana Jones’ life.
The story unfolds and some stuff happens, ending with the two Joneses and the Nazis and some others all colliding at the site of the Holy Grail. There are a bunch of booby traps, and Indiana has to take a few leaps of faith, but he ultimately gets there. Instead of one cup, though, there are many, and you have to pick the right one or else you die. Well, Elsa hands Donovan the wrong cup, and after drinking from it, he shrivels up and dies in a matter of seconds. It’s pretty grotesque, but the effects are impressive. It’s very much like the face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Indiana then picks the right grail, and everything is swell… well, except that Elsa gets greedy, grabs the grail, then stumbles backwards onto something that causes a large earthquake and she dies. Indiana is grief-stricken for a moment, despite her Nazi-affliction, but once he, his father and their friend Marcus escape, they are already making jokes with each other and riding off into the sunset, despite not being able to recover the Grail.
So, like Raiders, Jones doesn’t get the macguffin, and the story proves to be more about the personal relationships that are resolved throughout the course of the story. In that case he made nice with his ex-wife, and here he is able to reunite with his father.
Elsa’s role in the story bothered me. She is made to be the new love interest, but Indy’s passion for her feels a little unwarranted, or at least a little too eager. Then she betrays him, and we’re supposed to think, “oh, she’s a Nazi, so she’s one of the villains.” She’s basically a femme fatale, and Indiana Jones does have a few similarities to Film Noir. Indy himself feels like the hardboiled detective out of that genre.
But even after we learn that she’s a Nazi, we get scenes of her appearing to be unsure about being a Nazi. When the Nazis hold a book burning, she looks on with tears, like she knows book burning is bad. I find it a little unbelievable that a Nazi would just decide to not be a Nazi so easily. She didn’t know Indiana that well for him to convince her to stop being the bad guy.
Well, either way she does seem to slip out of her old ways, making me think we’re supposed to like her now because she’s always been a good person, just a little directionless or something. But then at the end she greedily reaches for the grail and falls to her death, as if punished for wanting the Grail. We know it’s punishment because moments later Indy is in a similar predicament, hanging off the edge and reaching for the Grail. His father tells him to “let it go,” and he does, then he’s lifted to safety. She was punished for wanting the grail, he was not punished because he let it go.
In many movies, characters die who are supposed to die. This is because they are being punished but he writer aka God. I feel like I could write a paper on Indiana Jones and Intelligent Design. There are a lot of religious undertones, mostly in Raiders and this film but also in the entire series. If you ignore the more obvious references to Christianity (the ark of the covenant, the holy grail), everything suggests the good people live and the bad people die. First of all, the villains are obliterated in Raiders and Last Crusade. They aren’t just killed, they’re destroyed, like in the fires of hell. Indiana survives the face-melting explosion in Raiders by closing his eyes, knowing that doing so will somehow save him and Marion. It’s a leap of faith, and in Last Crusade he similarly takes a couple leaps of faith to get to the grail.
Everywhere Indy goes, he’s the best. He’s even a hero now at the school at which he teaches. Heck, in Raiders that one student had “love you” written on her eyelids. Indiana is loved, and he’s a good guy, deserving of that love. All the physical pain he endures isn’t really that painful (only in that one Raiders scene did we see the consequences of his hard-fought life), and everything is kind of fun for him. It’s all a game.
The other idea behind intelligent design in this world is that there are hidden tunnels everywhere. No matter where Indy goes, there’s a hidden tunnel with an impressively designed hidden staircase of swiveling fireplace. While I get that it’s more just for the fun of the story and to add to the sense of adventure, it’s awesome and crazy that there are so many hidden features all over the world. It makes it feel like there are no accidents. Everything is so precisely constructed because it’s part of a kind of Rube Goldberg machine.
In one scene, Indy’s father sits in a chair and leans back and of course this reveals a hidden staircase down which Indy goes tumbling. There were similar scenes in Temple of Doom in which Short Round would accidentally bump into something, setting off some sort of trap.
I know I’m overthinking all of this, but that’s the fun of it.
I don’t know what this film wanted to be. On one hand it felt like it was trying to tie everything together, but it also felt like a remake in many ways of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It felt similar to The Force Awakens in terms of borrowed plot from A New Hope. Those repeated plot mechanisms aren’t such a bad thing, they just simplify the story. Indiana Jones needs a simple story, because it just needs something to justify the action set pieces. Sprinkle in a few expository scenes, then pump the script full of action and chase sequences as well as lighthearted humor and a sense of fun. It doesn’t need to be dark or gritty, it just needs to be a good time.
At the end of the day, it feels like we don’t just want to have fun watching Indiana Jones scramble for a holy item, but we want Indy himself to be having fun doing it.