Shortly after I viewed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) as a boy, I was convinced that I could go to the library and discern the current location of the Holy Grail, the Chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper. After all, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) tells his class early on in the film that the majority of archaeology is done by studying books and records rather than digging around in the ground. Thus I dragged my poor father off to the local Seminole County Library System branch to pour over its offerings to find the ancient cup. It will probably not come as a shock to you that I was unable to figure out its location. My dad knew what I would not accept on that day, that as fine of an institution was the Casselberry branch, it did not have a shred of the archival holdings necessary to come close to solving this particular Biblical mystery. Still, I like to look back fondly at that inspiration inflamed in me by this bit of cinema, and it stands as my favorite in the series to this day.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reintroduces us to the title character by showing him as a teenager in 1912 out on a Utah dessert excursion with his scout troop. While exploring a cave, young Jones (River Phoenix) happens upon a group of treasure hunters who have discovered a Crucifix belonging to the infamous Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado. Convinced that such a relic belongs in a museum, he sneaks up on them and steals the piece. They catch him in the act, though, and after a chase that included jumping through circus train cars, he reluctantly hands over the Cross. The film then has one of my favorite transitions in cinematic history where Jones’ trademark hat is placed on his head by the treasure hunters’ leader (Richard Young), and then the grown-up Jones looks up in the time in which the main story is set in 1938 . . . only to be immediately punched in the face. Upon returning from another adventure, he is approached by wealthy businessman Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) who wants Jones to take up the quest to find the Holy Grail. When Jones informs Donovan that his father, Henry Jones (Sean Connery), would be better suited for such a task, his potential employer tells him that dad had already been approached and is missing. This revelation gives Jones an added incentive to accept this task. The first place he travels is Venice, Italy, where he meets up with Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), an Austrian researcher and the local leader for Donovan’s Grail project. They pick up the Grail search where Jones’ father left off, which attracts the attention of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, a shadowy group sworn to protect Jesus’ Chalice. Their leader gives Jones the information as to where his father is being held prisoner in Austria. During his rescue attempt, it is revealed that both Donovan and Schneider are working for the Nazis, who believe that finding the Grail will make their armies immortal. Though both Jones escape, the Nazis now have the clues they need to make their own attempt at retrieving the cup. Both parties meet up, proceeding an exciting trek through the desert, at the structure where the Holy Grail rests. The younger Jones is convinced to navigate the various boobytraps designed to keep unwanted people out who want to retrieve the Grail when Donovan shoots the elder Jones. Only by retrieving the cup and giving it to his father to drink from can dad be saved from dying. It is forced to be left behind, though, a point driven home when Schneider attempts to abscond with it and the building they are in begins to shake itself apart.
That last bit is a key revelation for Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and indeed for the whole series. When he successfully gets through the boobytraps and Schneider and Donovan enter the room where a knight (Robert Eddison) kneels in prayer, playing sentinel over the true Grail, there is one last test. There are a variety of vessels there and they are designed to test the character of the person who seeks Jesus’ Chalice. Given some of the over-awing architecture of some Catholic churches, one can sometimes forget just how humble were Christianity’s origin. Thus when they survey the various glittering wares before them, and following Donovan’s gruesome death from drinking from a false grail, Jones spots the one cup that could have belonged to a carpenter, the true Holy Grail. This moment of inspiration is driven home when, in the midst of the floor splitting apart and his father holding on to him while he hangs over the abyss, he spots the Chalice lying just out of reach. Still, he reaches for it and his fingertips are able to barely brush against it. What saves him is the gentle voice of his father, who refers to him as Indiana for the first time instead of “Junior.” Here is the elder Jones, a man who spent a life obsessing over finding the Holy Grail, telling his son to let it go. What is important is the relationship between people, like father and son, and it brings to mind a warning (from Willie Scott, of all people, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) that his quest for fortune and glory was going to get him killed. But it is the soft command of the father that brings him back to his senses. I like to think of that in a similar to the way God speaks to all of us.
On a personal note, I rewatched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on Father’s Day. Given the dynamic between father and son in this film, it might be the perfect film for a history nerd like me on such an occasion. It was my dad who instilled my love of history for me in the first place. I also daresay that this might be Sean Connery’s best performance. Most of his roles are tough guys, like James Bond, and he certainly does that well. But he pulled off an understated, aging Medieval literature professor impressively. The film does have the typical violence and innuendo we have come to expect from Indiana Jones movies, but at least nobody is getting their still beating hearts ripped out. Still, Donovan’s death could probably be nightmare fuel for young ones, and it is truly scary even to me to watch his face transition from middle-aged gentleman to sunken skeleton to pile of human dust faster than you can say Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you end up taking my recommendation and watching this movie, try it. And be patient with your kids if they insist on a trip to the library.