What makes a film, or anything for that matter, good? Perhaps I should answer that in a different way, since the word “good” in the English language has two broad but distinct definitions – the first moral, the second beneficial. Both of these are valuable as qualities in filmmaking, but what I mean to ask specifically is how do we, from our various frames of reference, discern value in a particular film? A rating system – of points, stars, tomatoes, what have you – seems arbitrary and ever-changing even at the individual level, and ranking becomes an impossibility as soon as one has seen more than ten films. Perhaps the best indicator is popularity. Immediate popularity at the time of a film’s release can be dependent on marketing, budget, luck, zeitgeist, and countless other factors, but the lasting popularity and acclaim of a film, or any work of art, certainly seems like a decent indicator of some underlying value that particular work possesses. For this reason, I have chosen to look at a film within the Indiana Jones franchise.
Perhaps it is surprising that I have not chosen to analyze Raiders of the Lost Ark, since it is often hailed as the best film in the franchise – which it might very well be – and is obviously the film that planted the character of Indiana Jones in the public consciousness and cemented the “lasting goodness” I wrote about above. Instead, I have chosen to look at The Last Crusade, because the film’s three writers, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Jeffrey Boam, were tasked with answering the same question I wrote above: “What makes a film good?” And then refine that question to be, what made Raiders of the Lost Ark so good? Why did it resonate with viewers? And who is this Indiana Jones character anyway? Why do people like him? And should they like him? The Last Crusade had the task of standing up to Lawrence Kasdan’s original script after Temple of Doom, which relied on the excellent direction of Spielberg but lacked any new depth of character or theme, was not quite as well received and made less at the box office than its predecessor three years earlier. As I began wrestling with this question while watching this third installment, I noticed that it too was concerned with the same thing. So without any further ado, let us plunge into the world of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Hero’s Microcosmic Journey
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens in 1912 Utah with a group of boy scouts on horseback. They are surrounded by red rock desert: the American midwest, the heart of 19th century unconscious imagination. Among the boys is a young Indiana Jones, who breaks from the herd of youths and descends into a cave with his friend Herman following close behind. They discover a group of bad men (we can tell they are bad by the way they talk: their poor rapport), the leader of whom looks distinctly like the Indiana Jones we have all come to know and love from the previous films, with similar clothes, a rugged appearance, and a very familiar fedora atop his head. The men have discovered a bejeweled golden crucifix, the Cross of Coronado, which young Indy tells his friend “belongs in a museum.” This of course prompts the young Jones to steal the artifact, resulting in a chase across the desert (“technology versus horse” as Donald Kaufman would describe it) and onto a circus train. After several close calls, Indy manages to escape with the cross, running home to his father, who does not hear a word he says, before the Sheriff comes to the door and takes the cross, giving it back to “[its] rightful owners,” a man who is very well dressed and affluent.
This scene parallels the opening of Raiders, and works as a microcosm of all three of the Indiana Jones films. Every one of these films begins with someone stealing something that Jones had worked to find: in Raiders it is the golden idol and Belloq takes it, in Temple it is the diamond and Lao takes it, and in Crusade it is the Cross, taken by Panama Hat (as he is called in the script). In each of the films there is a descent to find a treasure where Indy is aided by a friend: in Raiders it is the descent into the temple of snakes to find the Ark of the Covenant assisted by Sullah, in Temple it is the descent into the bowels of Pankot Palace assisted by Short Round, and here at the beginning of Crusade, it is the descent into the cave in the Utah desert assisted by Herman. Finally, there is the subsequent chase, capture, and escape by way of the supernatural: there is the truck chase in Raiders with Marion later being captured on the boat (leading to Jones’ eventual capture as well), only escaping when Belloq opens the Ark and the angels of death melt the Nazis. In Temple the chase happens on the runaway mine cars in the mines under Pankot Palace which leads to Jones, Short Round, and Willie’s capture on the rope bridge – resolved only when Jones activates the ancient stones with Sanskrit, causing Mola Ram to fall to his death. The beginning of Crusade parallels both of these with the circus train chase, where Indy is surrounded in the last train car, and uses a magic box to disappear and escape.
If the general structure of this sounds familiar, it should. It is, roughly, Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. So here we are, presented with all the elements of a good Indiana Jones film in the first fifteen minutes of The Last Crusade’s runtime, save for one important thing made explicit by Fedora (the leader of the bad guys, working for Panama Hat): “You lost today kid.” In Raiders and Temple, Indy wins. He and his friends escape, and the sacred artifact goes where it belongs (the Ark is hidden away from the world because of the power it holds, and the sacred stone is taken back to the village it was taken from). But in Crusade, Indy is just beginning. He cannot win, because otherwise, what would keep him going? This is exemplified by Fedora’s addendum, “But you don’t have to like it.” And with that, Indiana Jones, both the character and the previous two films, can be summed up.
The film then pushes ahead, beyond those two films, both expositionally – it is now 1938, after the events from the other films have happened – and thematically, with Indy again confronting Panama Hat, and taking the Cross of Coronado from him, still holding on to the idea that “[the Cross] belongs in a museum.” After Jones escapes from the Coronado (the boat that Panama Hat had been sailing) just before it burns and sinks into the deep, Indy has found the object that he later admits to Marcus he was searching for “[his] whole life.” It acts as a metatextual acknowledgment of the need to move past trying to replicate the success of Raiders in the way that Temple of Doom did.
What is the film to be then, if not a simple hero’s journey 1930s archaeologist style? We are given an immediate answer in the following scene. After escaping the pressures of an actual archaeology professor by jumping out a window, Dr. Jones meets a group of bad men (you can tell because the soundtrack gets sinister when they appear), who take him to meet a well-dressed man, vaguely reminiscent of Panama Hat. This is Walter Donovan, a collector of ancient artifacts and obviously very affluent. Indy is relieved, and when Donovan asks him to look at something covered in cloth, saying “this might interest you,” he is genuinely intrigued. This is again microcosmic. The covered artifact is a representation of what Indiana Jones films are: the lure of some mystery from far away and long ago (George Lucas helped write this, after all), pure, unadulterated escapism.Pictured: The Indiana Jones franchise
The cloth is removed, revealing half of an ancient tablet. The tablet depicts a cross surrounded by ancient text. Indy immediately knows how to describe it – “Sandstone, Christian symbol, early Latin text, mid-twelfth century” – but does not yet know what the tablet points to. This is all Indiana Jones has been so far, impeccable textural details with a sense of something beyond them, but nothing more. Jones is then asked to translate the tablet and realizes that it is pointing to the Holy Grail. This is the next step for the franchise. Not only is this film to be about Indiana Jones’ search for the Holy Grail, but it shows us the aim for the franchise as a whole: to give the character of Indiana Jones eternal life. It serves to create something that lasts, standing the test of time, the exact litmus test I described in the introduction.
Indy, however, rejects the opportunity to search for the Grail – a Campbellian ‘refusal of the call’ so to speak – and learns about the disappearance of his father after Donovan recruited him first. Jones searches his father’s house, thinking he will find him, but does not. And then he remembers a package he received earlier that day. He opens it to find his father’s diary, and the viewer is reminded that this had been Jones Sr.’s life’s work: the diary appears earlier, when young Indy interrupts his father in his study. Jones Sr. is writing in the same diary and has a picture of Christ on the cross with His blood pouring into the Grail. 1938 Indy looks at the same picture hanging on the wall of his father’s house and asks Marcus, “Do you believe the Grail actually exists?”
Marcus responds, “The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us, but if you want facts, Indy, I have none to give you. At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.” This points further towards the fact that Crusade is going to be doing more than the previous films in the franchise. It is an exploration of what makes a film transcendent, and we are going to find that out as the character of Indiana Jones finds the divine in himself.
In an early lecture scene, Jones said “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth … We cannot afford to take mythology at face value.” This belief is exemplified by Jones’ earlier declaration of the Cross “belong[ing] in a museum,” and he searches for it to put it in one (giving the cross to Marcus, who states, “This will find a place of honor in our Spanish collection”). However, Indy now finds himself juxtaposed against Marcus and his father, who are ready to believe in something beyond fact. With his life work now complete, and feeling at a loss, Indiana Jones consents to looking for the Holy Grail: to searching for truth and not fact. It is the acceptance of moving the franchise past pure action adventure and into what lies beyond it: what makes the excitement last beyond the screen, and why people connect with these films.
Descent into the Unconscious
Once Indy accepts Donovan’s offer to look for the Grail, he and Marcus fly to Venice and upon landing meet Dr. Elsa Schneider, who recognizes Indy, remarking how he has “[his] father’s eyes.” This is the first time we are given any indication the two men are alike in any way, and thus it seems that Indy’s search for the divine within has already begun.
The two men are led to a library, a “converted church” that supposedly offers some clues on the resting place of one of the three brothers who found the Grail during the crusades, because it might provide clues to the resting place of the Grail. This makes sense: after all, Indy himself said that “Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library” and described his father as “an academic, a bookworm.” It is clear that this is still the old Indy: despite a slight change of mind, his actions do not change.X marks the spot
Within five minutes Jones discovers that the library does not hold information about the tomb of the brother, but the tomb itself: the entrance to catacombs marked by the Roman numeral for ten, “X marks the spot.” It is here that Jones contradicts himself, again from the same earlier lecture: “We [archaeologists] do not follow maps to buried treasure, and X never marks the spot.” This contradiction when juxtaposed with the earlier “fact, not truth” mantra shows the first change in both Jones’ character, and, symbolically, the film’s thematic depth. It is also important to note that X is an early Christian symbol for Christ. However, Jones and Elsa descend into the catacombs (Marcus however does not follow them down, which is important, but I will save that explanation for later), a reminder that the point of this film is not to change Indiana Jones, but to dive deeper into it. The same textural details are still found in Crusade, in this case a descent near the middle of the film: a loosely Campbellian structural element which I pointed out earlier.
This descent is particularly symbolic of a descent into the Jungian unconscious: it is a tomb, filled with water, oil, and rats. They are searching for lost (read: repressed) information and are pursued by the librarians. Elsa and Indy find the knight’s tomb where Indy creates a rubbing of his shield, which has a complete version of the transcription from the tablet at Donovan’s apartment, before the librarians smoke them out of the tomb. This descent reveals a truth about creating a great film: one has to plumb the depths of the unconscious to find the everlasting, i.e. complete the tablet that is the Indiana Jones franchise.
The duo is pursued through the canals of Venice by the librarians. It is important to note that this chase involves Indy and Elsa, and takes place on water, again linking that pair with a symbol of the unconscious. Eventually, all but one of the members meets their demise, and Indy takes the offensive, jumping into the remaining member’s boat and knocking it into a nearby ship’s propeller which slowly hacks away the boat. Indy uses this to interrogate the man about the whereabouts of his father. When the man does not answer, he threatens to let them both die unless the man answers, which prompts him to respond “My soul is prepared, how’s yours?” – reminding Indy and the audience of the search for truth that was decided upon earlier. This reminder moves Indy to spare the man’s life (as well as his own), and the pair joins Elsa on the one remaining boat.
The man introduces himself as Kazim, “a member of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword,” and protector of the Grail. He says to Indy, “Ask yourself, why do you seek the Grail? Is it for His glory, or for yours?” Which points to the real reason to look deeper into what makes a good film (like Raiders), to look beyond the character of Indiana Jones, the Self, and to something higher.
Jones responds, “I didn’t come for the cup of Christ, I came for my father.” The denial of desire for the cup proves that Indy has began to move past his love for the material and to higher things: attachment to his father, and considering the Christian subject matter, it does not seem too far a jump to consider this to also meaning that Indy is looking for his Father – the thing furthest from material possession. Jones meets up with Marcus and the two look over the rubbing of the shield that he had made in the tomb. This reveals a starting point for them to follow from a map to buried treasure in Jones Sr.’s diary. This again highlights Indiana’s departure from his past self, implying he is searching for truth and not fact.
Appetite and Reason
Indy and Elsa arrive at the castle where Jones Sr. is being held and need to figure out a way in. Elsa reveals that the nobles are famous art collectors, giving Jones the idea to masquerade as a Scottish lord come to inspect the tapestries as a ruse to get inside. The butler answers the door and lets them, but is not taken in, saying, “If you are Scottish lord, I am Mickey Mouse!” before Indy knocks him out. This is yet another metatextual comment. Here we see that though Indiana Jones is trying to do high brow things (the search for truth, what makes good art, etc.), it still has an identity as American kitsch (“Mickey Mouse”) that it cannot deny.
Now inside the castle, Indy and Elsa find the room that Jones Sr. is being held in, and Indy alone crashes through his window. He is immediately hit on the head with a vase wielded by his father. The vase breaks, and after realizing that the intruder is his son, Jones Sr. becomes distraught that he broke such a rare piece of art, before taking a closer look at the broken vase and realizing, “It’s a fake.” This reveals two things: the first is that, as alluded to earlier, Jones Sr. is very much concerned with higher things (art, truth), being very discerning about these things, but with little regard for anything else (like the well-being of his son). The second thing is that the art collectors, or, metaphorically, those who concern themselves only with the highbrow, are often too concerned with textural things as well, not realizing that the vase had to be broken to be determined a fake.
Hearing the noise from within Jones Sr.’s rooms, a gang of Nazis with guns come in wanting Indy’s father’s diary. The two Jones get into an argument in which Jones Sr. keeps calling Indy “Junior.” Indy uses the argument and his frustration to grab a gun from a Nazi and shoot the rest of them. He then turns to his father, who is bewildered by the sudden violence, and says: “Don’t call me junior!” – thus denying his association with his father and keeping his identity in his Self. This also draws a dramatic distinction between the two, with Henry being quite reserved and flappable, and Indy being very rough and tumble. A classical thinker might see them as a head and a stomach, and the pair will have to meet in the middle if the film is to achieve its goal.
The Jones boys find Elsa captured by Nazi leader Vogel with a gun to her head. Indy feels threatened and is ready to surrender, but Henry tells him “But she’s one of them.” He knows this because “she talks in her sleep,” but it is not enough to convince Indy. This again highlights the distinction between the two, with Henry being reason and Indy being appetite. Jones Sr. ends up being correct, of course, and the Jones boys are captured. They are brought to Donovan who is revealed to have been behind it all, and is still well dressed, drawing a parallel to Panama Hat in the microcosmic introduction and Belloq from Raiders. It is clear the textural details of the franchise are not going to change, but the scope of what the film is doing is changing.
Henry and Indy are tied up and left in the castle. Henry accidentally burns the entire room, which enables their escape and manages to kill a bunch more Nazis. Here we see fire used to purify a place a second time, the first being in the tomb of the knight where Indy and Elsa were forced out (and the rats and oil were burned) by the fire the members of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword set. In this instance it is Henry Jones who sets the fire, with similar results – the burning of a bunch of Nazis who took residence in a castle filled with art. The men who set the fires care about things beyond themselves, having lofty ideals, and pursue purity for this reason. Note that Indy and Elsa were the impure things being kept out in the first instance.
As the Jones boys escape, they come to a dead end and Indy is sure that there must be a secret door that will allow them to escape, but he cannot find it. Henry sits down in a nearby chair, saying “I find that if I just sit down and think,” revealing a secret staircase which Indy falls down, “a solution presents itself.” This is another example of the head-stomach dichotomy that can be used to understand the father-son relationship. In rest, the head is often able to find a solution where the stomach panics. The body is forced into an unwilling descent (Indy falling down the stairs) when left to its own devices, but the head is prepared, as Henry takes the stairs with leisure.
The dichotomy is further exemplified by Jones Sr.’s next comment to his son, as they escape to the exterior of the castle: “I suppose this is just another typical day for you,” again pointing out the dangers of a life ruled by appetite, but also giving insight into what makes the franchise popular. Real archaeology looks a lot like Henry Jones Sr., academic and fairly boring (at least to a stomach), while Indiana represents archaeology as it is seen in the franchise. The goal of this film is to unite the two, and ultimately to bring the both of them to a higher state through this union. It is important to note that Indy and Henry do not try to escape on boat, with Indy saying “no more boats.” He has made progress in his journey towards the divine, rejecting another escapade barely skirting above the Jungian unconscious.
Indy and Henry are chased by the Nazis on motorcycles (“It looks like Germany has declared war on the Jones boys”) with Indy able to take them out rather easily, and enjoying himself while he does it. This of course bothers the head (Henry) who does not approve of such things. They come to a crossroads where Indy wants to go to Venedig and Henry wants to go to Berlin. Indy describes Berlin as “the lion’s den,” which was foreshadowed at the beginning of the film when he fell into a literal lion’s den on the circus train (similarly, Raiders’ snake pit is paralleled on the circus train). His reasoning is that the map is in that direction. As the stomach, he wants to go as quickly as possible, still not ready to stop and think, and responds to danger with a flight or fight response (flight in this case, fight in the previous scenes against the Nazis).
Henry wants to go to Berlin to get his diary because it contains “more than a map,” but precise instructions on retrieving the Grail. The head thinks beyond the immediate situation to think of all that lies ahead. Henry then goes on to say, “The only thing that matters is the Grail,” proving that he still thinks only of the most lofty ideals and needs to be tied down or will end up as nothing more than a “selfless martyr.”
Indy comes to a better understanding after his father explains, “The quest for the Grail is not archaeology, it’s a race against evil. If it is captured by the Nazis, armies of darkness will march all over the face of the Earth.” The biblical phrasing reminds Indy, and the audience, of his quest for the divine, and ultimately the quest for the divinity of the franchise. It is enough to persuade Indy to listen to his father. After all, he has experienced this Evil in Raiders, as the audience (and filmmakers) well know.
Berlin fades in, with the Nazis burning books, a reversal of the purifying fire I wrote of earlier. In this instance the unclean burns away the divine. It is truly a Hellish sight, confirmed by Jones Sr.’s remark: “My boy, we are pilgrims in an unholy land.” Elsa is standing to the side of the bonfire where Indy confronts her without his father. This is a spiritual descent mirroring the previous descent with Elsa and Indy into the tomb, except this time Indy recognizes the filth around him (instead of being the impure thing himself). Elsa, however, is unchanged: she says, “I believe in the Grail, not the swastika,” but is still associating with the swastika. Indy recognizes that impurity cannot be used as a means to an end and responds: “You stood up to be counted with the enemy of everything the Grail stands for. Who gives a damn what you think?” Elsa responds, “You do!” Elsa’s response proves that Indy is still wrestling with his transformation, and his relationship with Elsa is the main temptation to get past if he is to succeed.Pictured: Hell
With the diary in hand, the Jones boys are both ready to leave Germany and complete their quest for the Grail. They board a zeppelin, but it is soon discovered that Germany’s most wanted are aboard, so they board a plane and engage in a dogfight with some more Nazis. With Indy moving past his appetites and following his father, the head, the two are able to be chased in the heavens. This is symbolically a reversal of Indy and Elsa’s chase on the motorboat in Venice, together they skim the surface of the unconscious, but when Indy and Henry are together they soar through the heavens, the realm of the superego. This does not last long, however, because Henry is given the task of fighting, something better left to the appetite or body than the head.
The remaining biplanes are only defeated when Jones Sr., to Indy’s surprise, scares a flock of seagulls right into the path of the final plane, causing the Nazi pilot to crash and die. Henry explains that “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne: let my armies be the rocks and the trees, and the birds of the sky.” This is a major step towards the union of head and appetite, with the head recognizing the necessity and usefulness of the appetite. The two men grow closer, and Indy is impressed with his father.
The Holy Grail
Cut to the Republic of Hatay where Donovan, Vogel, and a horde of Nazis talk to the Sultan and his guard to ensure they get the Grail with no problems from the local authority. They offer the Sultan treasure, but he is only swayed by Donovan’s “Rolls-Royce Phantom II,” a possible stab at the Germans who would later be fought against with planes incorporating engines produced by Rolls-Royce (with the real irony being that today BMW, who provided engines for Germany’s plane in WWII, owns Rolls-Royce), but also serves as a reminder of the archetypal opposition of technology to the divine. This is further exemplified by the German tank which destroys Sallah’s brother-in-law’s car, forcing him and the Jones boys to get horses (and camels). This was foreshadowed in the introductory microcosm where young Jones is chased by the group of men riding in a car while he rides on horseback.
In the entourage of Nazis surrounding the tank, Marcus Brody, having been captured earlier, sits behind Donovan and next to Elsa in a truck. Donovan tells Marcus, “We’re on the brink of discovering the greatest artifact in the history of mankind.” This is reminiscent of Indiana’s point of view at the beginning of the film: “That belongs in a museum,” or “archaeology is the search for fact, not truth.” Marcus responds by saying, “You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend,” and Donovan (like Jones before he began his search for the divine earlier in the film) cannot comprehend it because he is looking for a material possession, not for something beyond it.
Suddenly the Nazis are attacked by the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword. It only causes a slight delay (enough time for Indy to find the horses mentioned above), but allows Kazim to tell Donovan that he is “A messenger from God; for the unrighteous, the cup of life holds everlasting damnation.” This goes unheeded by Donovan, but serves as a reminder that in life, as in filmmaking, the search for the divine is useless if one goes about it in the wrong way. A focus on only the material does not bring about everlasting life, and that goes for the life (the remembrance or prestige) of a film as well.
In an attempt to rescue Marcus, Jones Sr. manages to get inside of the tank, only to be captured by Vogel, who interrogates, “What does the diary tell you that it doesn’t tell us?” Henry replies, “It tells me that goose stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them.” This cements Henry as the seat of reason speaking to an evil appetite, as well as reminding the viewer of the “lion’s den” of Berlin seen earlier, which is particularly apropos when Sullah makes a similar biblical allusion, describing the location of Henry and Marcus to be “in the belly of that steel beast.” Shades of the old testament here are a reminder of Indiana Jones’ search for the divine in this final film.
Indy seeks to rescue his father from inside the stomach of a machine. Here we have technology and the appetites linked in an unholy union, imprisoning reason. Inside, however, Marcus and Henry manage to take out one of the Nazis by squirting the ink of a pen in his eyes. Marcus remarks “The pen is mightier than the sword,” implying that the tools of reason are more powerful than the tools of the appetite. Once Marcus and Henry are on top of the tank, they are stuck, and Marcus shouts, “How does one get off this thing?” – a metatextual comment on how reason, which Marcus also represents, having been friends with Henry “since time began,” wonders about the action of the Indiana Jones franchise. While the appetites of the audience surely enjoy the action, reason wants to move past it to get to the Holy Grail, the transcendent elements within each of the films. The filmmakers seek to penetrate past the texture of these films to the true spirit found within them.
Marcus and Brody manage to get off the tank, but Indy is still on it as it goes over a cliff. Jones Sr. turns to Marcus and says “My boy, I’ve lost him and I never told him anything. I just wasn’t ready Marcus. Five minutes would have been enough.” It is clear that Henry as the head has finally fully acknowledged the need for him to interact with the appetite (Indy), to tell him what he knows so that they might find virtue together, instead of “grow[ing] apart” as Marcus had said earlier to Indy after his first meeting with Donovan. This can be described as the head’s realization of something similar to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where the happiness (eudaimonia) is produced only when the head and stomach point towards virtue together.
Fortunately, Indy is not dead, having managed to hang on a cliff edge and pull himself up. This would have been his third descent and meant his demise, but he is finally ready to move past the stage of descent and pull himself up. After a brief reunion between father and son, Henry says to the tuckered out Indy, “Why are you resting when we’re so near the end?” – showing that he’s come to accept the need for the appetitive, and a metatextual comment on it being ‘that time’ of the film, i.e. the big finale. It is a nod to the structure of the films as one of the elements that make them great.
The resting place of the Grail is located in “the canyon of the crescent moon,” which makes sense since the moon is a Jungian archetype for the female or the mother, and the Jones family lost the mother some time ago. Henry said that she understood the quest for the Grail “only too well,” and she seems to be the missing link between the two men: something that would have kept them connected throughout their lives instead of growing apart.
A man wanders through a dark, cobwebbed passage only to have his head removed from his shoulders and roll to the four men waiting behind the evil entourage. Reason will not help you in this place. Donovan, seeing the Jones boys, Marcus, and Sallah, asks Indy to go after the Grail, telling him, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.” The time has come, this is Indy’s test of divinity, being called out by the enemy. He refuses, having moved past the search for material possessions, so Donovan shoots his father in the gut – something worth saving. Indy consents, and brings his father’s diary to help him get past the trials ahead.
Each of the three trials centers on a virtue, the first penitence, the second knowledge (the Word of God), and the third faith. Indy has no trouble getting through the first trial: he is not a head, after all, and the appetite is not opposed to rolling around on the ground. The second trial is a little tougher, but he manages to get past it with help from his father (the two have an unconscious connection). The third trial however, seems impossible to him. It is a huge chasm impossible to jump, and must be walked across despite nothing appearing there to walk across on. Jones Sr. chants, “You must believe boy, you must,” and with a giant step of faith, Indy puts his full weight forward, and walks across to the other side. Only when reason and appetite work in harmony is “the Holy Grail” of human flourishing attainable.
Jones meets a knight who protects the Grail and who tells him that Indy is now the Grail’s rightful protector, but just as he is finished speaking, Elsa and Donovan walk in. Donovan wastes no time and immediately seeks the Grail, and drinks out of a beautiful jeweled cup. This brings about his death in a similar fashion to Belloq and the Nazis’ deaths in Raiders, and leaves Indy and Elsa alone to confront the supernatural, similar to how Jones saves his and Marion’s life in Raiders. Indy chooses “wisely,” recognizing the Holy Grail as the “cup of a carpenter,” humble with no adornment.
Jones uses the Grail to save his father, who, after his healing, takes a long look at the Grail before embracing his son. The Sultan’s men (who were assisting the Nazis) run out, astounded at the power of the Grail, leaving their guns, which Sallah grabs to hold the remaining Nazis at gunpoint. In the confusion Elsa grabs the Grail, passing “the Great Seal” with it, at the entrance to the temple. The temple begins to break apart with the ground cracking to reveal giant chasms. Elsa falls into one of these and manages to hold onto the edge, but the Grail falls onto a ledge beneath her. Indy rushes over to her and tries to lift her out, but is unable to with her reaching for the Grail. He tells her he needs her other hand, but she does not listen and falls in. The ground cracks even more, and Indy slips in. His father grabs his hand just as Indy had grabbed Elsa’s, as Indy reaches for the Grail. His reach is closer to the Grail than Elsa’s was, even being able to touch it. But he is slipping too, and Henry calls for him to give him his other hand. At first he does not listen, but then Jones Sr. speaks to him softer and more gently than he ever has: “Indiana, Indiana. Let it go.” This is the first time he has called his son by his own name, always calling him “Junior” in the past. It represents an acknowledgement of the other’s self-identity, and that he has finally accepted his son as being different from himself. This prompts Indy to give him his other hand so that his father pulls him to safety. The Grail falls into the abyss and Jones Sr. tells Indy, “Elsa never really believed in the Grail, she just thought she found a prize.”
Here, at the end, we see two things most clearly. The first is the relationship between Elsa, Indy, and Henry. I wrote above on how Henry and Indy can be viewed as reason and appetite, but these three can be viewed as the Id, Ego, and Superego respectively. This is why Elsa and Indy are chased in water, why she continues to pull him down. It is why Henry and Indy are pursued in the air and defeat the Nazis with birds. And it is why when the three of them are together, Indy does not want to let Elsa die, but Jones Sr. knows exactly what she is, and why the final chase takes place on land, the normal realm of humanity which consists of all parts. This ending then, is insight into what the relationship between id, ego, and superego should be: with the ego recognizing the id for what it is and mourning its loss when it must ultimately be banished into the unconscious (the abyss), and the superego reconciling with and saving the ego from that same fate. This dual understanding of the main characters, the first as the ancient head-stomach dichotomy, and the second as the modern Freudian self, are not opposed to one another, but can best be understood through Jung, who ties ancient archetypes to his Freudian education. Considering George Lucas’ hand in this script, and the similar themes explored in the Star Wars films (on which Timothy Lawrence has written extensively), this is not particularly surprising.
The second thing the ending highlights is the conclusion to the metaphor for filmmaking and the Indiana Jones franchise. When Henry saves his son, instead of the Grail, we can take this as a direct replacement of the two metaphorically in the eyes of the filmmakers. The Indiana Jones franchise is their Holy Grail, at least in a way, and what they have come to understand about filmmaking is that in trying to search for something transcendent in the creation of film (or art in general), what you were trying to find may have been right in front of you the entire time. Indiana Jones may have everlasting life, but it is the human connection that happens through these films that matters the most, just as it is ultimately the love for his son that matters most to Henry.
Near the beginning of the film, as Indiana tells Panama Hat that the cross “belongs in a museum,” Panama Hat replies, “So do you!” The point of The Last Crusade is that neither the cross, nor Indiana Jones, belongs in a museum. Life is more than the search for facts, but it is a search for truth, and that is ultimately why people continue to enjoy the Indiana Jones franchise. There is something deeper that connects humanity – reason and appetite, or id, ego, and superego – and that is what this is all about.The Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse)
At the very end of the film, Indy asks his father: “What’d you find, Dad?” and Henry replies: “Illumination.” That was his true life’s work. Indy had said it was for the cup of Christ, but in the very beginning, when young Indy interrupts his father in his study, the younger Henry Jones Sr. says: “May He who illuminated this, illuminate me.” Thus it was the search for truth all along that Henry was after, and he found it. After this, the four men, Henry, Indy, Sallah, and Marcus, ride off into the sunset on horseback. Four horsemen at the end of time – reminds me of a certain higher Truth that I found as well.