Ever drink your Sprite out of a solid gold goblet? Yeah, we haven't, either. We enjoy the simpler things in life: a good nap, changing autumn leaves, aluminum cans.
If you're Walter Donovan, though, odds are you've sipped out of a bejeweled cup or two. This guy views the world from a pedestal. To him, the Holy Grail is a prize to be won—and not just any prize, but the biggest, best-est prize in the world. So naturally it should belong to him.
It's not a prize he's going to bust his butt for, though; at least not directly. Donovan doesn't like to get his hands dirty. That's why he teams up with the Third Reich and tries to manipulate Henry and Indiana into doing all the dirty work for him. Donovan's rich, and he's arrogant—and that's why he thinks work is beneath him. That's also why he assumes that the Holy Grail is some gaudy goblet.
To Donovan, the Grail symbolizes power—and power, for him, means opulence, superficiality, and straight-up showing off. He couldn't be more wrong about the Holy Grail, of course, but, since he manipulates others into doing his work for him, he learns nothing on his quest to find it.
To that end, the Holy Grail also symbolizes this guy's ignorance. That's why he chooses "poorly." That's why he dies a gnarly death. That's why you kind of want to cheer when he bites it, too.
In Indiana's case, on the other hand, the Holy Grail symbolizes pureness of spirit. He's still that curtain-haired kid who recovered the Cross of Coronado on a scouting trip and outran some armed bandits, risking life and limb, just to make sure that precious artifact ended up where it belongs: in a museum for everyone to appreciate.
Indiana's not after the Holy Grail for fame, fortune, or immortality. At first, he's just after it to prevent Donovan from gobbling it up. After Donovan shoots Henry in the gut, though, Indiana pursues the Grail and puts his own life on the line to save his dad's. For him, the Cup of Christ represents self-sacrifice. Go figure.
Since Indiana chooses the correct cup in the Grail room, we also see that he has acquired wisdom. Unlike Donovan, Indiana learns and grows on his Grail quest—especially where his father's concerned. Working side by side to outwit Donovan, Elsa, and the Nazis, Indiana and Henry are forced to confront their family demons and have a Festivus-style airing of grievances along the way. In the end, after a lot of bickering, they're both better for it. Their journey to find the Holy Grail brings them together.
For Indiana, the Holy Grail represents his and Henry's past mistakes, too. It's a big ol' cup of hurt. That's why, at the end of the film, when Henry tells Indiana to let the Holy Grail go and take his hand, he isn't just talking about some dusty goblet. He's also encouraging his son to let their past problems go and move on.
…And not to fall to his death in a deep, dark crevasse. There's that, too.
In Arthurian legend, the Holy Grail is the cup Jesus used during the Last Supper, and it's also the cup Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Jesus' blood when Jesus was hanging on the Cross. In some of the earlier Arthurian romances, it might have a dish or a plate or a stone, but pretty soon, it came to mean the cup we see in this movie.
There are lots of medieval—and not-so-medieval—poems about knights who go questing for the Grail, in particular Perceval, Bors, and Galahad. One theme that comes up again and again in these poems is that only the purest knight can actually find the Grail, because he's the only one who is worthy of it. In the legends, that knight is usually Galahad.
Does any of this sound familiar? Many people searching for a fantastic artifact that can only be achieved by the one with the purest intentions? Yup: that's the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana, like Galahad, is able to achieve the Grail precisely because he's the one with the purest intentions toward it. Everyone else—Donovan, Elsa—falls by the wayside.
After Indiana recovers the Cross of Coronado on his scouting trip, he runs home to show his dad what he found. His dad ignores him. Doesn't even look up from his diary. Nothing.
Then the sheriff shows up with the bandits Indiana just outran and forces him to hand over the Cross of Coronado. The sheriff promptly gives the cross to the bandit in charge, a nameless robber wearing a fedora who, only moments before, was downright impressed by Indiana's ability to outsmart him on the train.
Everybody strides back out of Casa Jones (while Henry continues to ignore the entire affair), but just before he leaves, the man in the fedora turns to Indiana:
FEDORA: You lost today, kid, but that doesn't mean you have to like it.
Then he puts his fedora on Indiana's bowed head. When Indiana raises his head, we're greeted by the familiar face of the adult Indiana Jones, who smiles and then promptly gets punched in the face. Seems about right.
As a symbol, the fedora works in two ways. First, using it to carry out a time jump like this emphasizes the hat's transformative power. When mild-mannered archaeology professor Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., puts that hat on, he becomes Indiana Jones: fearless, charming, a world-class explorer. It's a source of power and identity for him. It's who he would be 24/7 if he didn't need that teaching career to pay the bills.
The fedora also symbolizes Indiana's quest for a father figure. Sure, he had a father, but Henry wasn't exactly a doting dad. When the sheriff shows up in his living room, Henry can't even be bothered to leave his study or ground Indiana until he's 40.
Meanwhile, the bandit who gave Indiana the fedora and a small morsel of encouragement clearly made a huge impression on him, given that grown-up Indiana's still wearing the hat today. The fedora represents the man young Indiana wanted to become from that day forward, and the man adult Indiana successfully became: a roguish adventurer who, unlike his AWOL dad, spends more time in the field than in his study.
Indiana Jones and the Train Full of Man-Eating Circus Animals. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
The flashback that kicks off Last Crusade doesn't have a name, but if it did, that's our choice. Those animals don't just get the movie off to an exciting start; they're also instrumental in creating two more pieces of the Indiana Jones persona: his whip and his scar.
Indiana picks up both when he falls through the roof of one of the train cars and encounters the circus' lion. He grabs a bullwhip from the wall and cracks it at the snarling beast. He also cracks himself on the chin, too. Boom: now we know how Indiana Jones got introduced to his iconic whip, and we know what's up with the slash on his chin.
More importantly, we also know that Indiana's always flown by the seat of his pants. The whip and the scar symbolize his sense of improvisation. He's a man without a plan, and he always has been. "I don't know," he says to Elsa when she asks how they're going to rescue Henry later in the film. "I'll think of something." Even as an adult, he's still making it up as he goes.
In short, the scar on his chin and the whip on his belt illustrate Indiana's talent for thinking on his feet, a skill that's good to have, whether you're in the lion's den or in Hitler's Germany.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
For Indiana, the ordinary world is his college campus. He teaches class, wears a bowtie, lets students' papers pile up for weeks, and is so bored and disinterested in it all that he sneaks out a window rather than hold office hours. Teacher of the Year? Yeah, probably not.
Indiana's adventure begins when he meets Donovan, who goes on and on (and on) about the Holy Grail before finally cutting to the chase: he's hunting the Grail, and the project leader's gone missing. Wait. There's more: the project leader is Indiana's dad, Henry, and he was last seen in Venice.
We don't see Indiana tell Donovan, "Thanks, but no thanks," but we can assume that that's how things went down because, in the following scene, Indiana tells Brody to call Donovan and tell him he'll take that ticket to Venice, after all.
Here's where things get a little complicated. Henry is Indiana's mentor. In our story, Indiana first meets him not in the flesh but through his meticulous Grail diary, which contains decades of research about the Cup of Christ. It's Henry's life's work. It's when the lightbulb goes off over Indiana's head and he realizes why his dad mailed him his diary—it must contain something majorly important that the guys who kidnapped him are after—that's when Henry's mentorship begins.
Once Indiana arrives in Venice (with Brody) and meets Elsa, he's in. He leaves campus life behind, dusts off his whip and fedora, and commits to rescuing dear old Dad. When he busts through the floor of the library and starts exploring the catacombs with Elsa, he's all in. So long, academia. Hello, crypt full of rats.
Indiana faces a variety of increasingly difficult tasks and tests on his route to the Holy Grail. First, there's that crypt full of rats we just mentioned. Then there's the speedboat chase with Kazim. After that, Indiana impersonates a Scottish nobleman, shoots a handful of Nazis, finds out his girlfriend's a Nazi sympathizer, and escapes from being tied to a chair in a burning room.
He follows all of that up by trying to escape Germany via zeppelin, impersonating a waiter, having a painful heart-to-heart with his deadbeat dad, hijacking a plane, and outwitting a Nazi gunner.
Last but not least, he rides a tank off a cliff and survives.
Along the way, Indiana's joined by his allies: Henry, Brody, and Sallah. Henry plays the most active role in helping Indiana out, even if he occasionally does things like setting the room on fire or shooting their own plane. Whoops.
Indiana also faces his fair share of enemies: Donovan, who wants to achieve eternal life without getting his undoubtedly well-manicured hands dirty; Elsa, who starts off as an ally but reveals herself to be almost as bad as Donovan; and Colonel Vogel and the rest of the Nazis.
The inmost cave can represent a lot of things. In Last Crusade, it's an actual inmost cave. It's the Grail room, which is guarded by one seriously old knight, and Indiana must pass three final tests in the form of booby traps and puzzles in order to gain access.
For Indiana, the supreme ordeal is choosing the correct grail. In a cave full of more chalices than a suburban Medieval Times restaurant, Indiana wisely chooses the simple cup befitting a carpenter.
After Indiana picks the right grail out of the bunch, his reward isn't the Holy Grail itself, it's the power that it holds. He uses the cup to heal the bullet wound Donovan so graciously gave Henry, saving his dad's life. As far as prizes go, that's pretty huge.
The road back is the reverse of the call to adventure. Here, Indiana starts making his way back to his normal life. Instead of bringing the treasure home, though, Indiana must make sure the Holy Grail stays in its temple like the knight said. That means stopping Elsa from running off with it.
Indiana's final, and biggest, test comes when he has the Holy Grail within reach. For a moment, he's blinded by its offer of immortality, just like Elsa was, and when his dad extends a helping hand, Indiana must choose between letting the Grail go and letting his dad go. He wisely chooses to let the Grail go.
Indiana's journey wraps up with him literally riding off into the sunset with his dad and his pals. He's a changed man, having not only let go of the Holy Grail, but also of most of his resentment for Henry.
There's a reason why none of the Indiana Jones movies are set in Buffalo, New York. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as the other films in the franchise, are adventure flicks, and that means each needs to be set in an exotic, exciting locale—preferably several.
Setting aside the prologue, most of Last Crusade is set in 1938, and the action takes place across the globe. First, Indiana recovers the Cross of Coronado from Panama Hat off the coast of Portugal. Next, after a quick pit stop in the States, he's off to Venice to meet Elsa and start the search for Henry. After that, he travels to the German-Austrian border to rescue his dad from gloomy Castle Brunwald. Finally, Indiana's Holy Grail hunt brings him to Hatay and the Canyon of the Crescent Moon.
Never heard of Hatay? No worries; you're not the only one, and you're probably not supposed to know much about it. (It's in Turkey, by the way.) Last Crusade's far-off locations only enhance the story's thrills and chills. They lend an air of mystery to the proceedings. Because the setting is unfamiliar, you don't know what usually goes down there, and, thus, you feel like anything can happen.
The fact that the story moves from spot to spot serves the narrative as well. A proper adventure requires a passport. Think about it: a treasure hunt through Venice would be rad. But a treasure hunt that continues through Germany and Turkey? That's really rad. As an adventure film, Last Crusade's setting and genre are entwined like a mass of jungle vines.
Last Crusade's setting in the late 1930s amps up the adventure, too. For one thing, we've got Nazis. It's hard not to cheer for Indiana, and it's hard not to feel how much is at stake, when he's up against these real-life supervillains.
Back in those days, there were no text messages, email, or Google Maps. If you wanted to say, thwart the Nazis and capture the Holy Grail, you couldn't do it virtually: you had to get your hands dirty. Your fedora, too. If you wanted your pal to hide important pages from your Grail diary in Iskenderun, for instance, you had to physically rip those pages out, hand them to your pal, and point him toward the nearest airplane or ocean liner.
These hands-on forms of both exploration and communication are way more exhilarating than if we were to watch Henry track down Donovan's desert location using a drone and his MacBook Pro, or if we had to spend five minutes watching Indiana decide which Waze voice he wants to guide him to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon. When the action takes place face-to-face, IRL, it raises the stakes and ratchets up both the excitement and the sense of adventure on screen.
Indiana Jones is a no-frills kind of guy, and the narrative in Last Crusade unfolds in a similarly straightforward manner: there are no voice-overs, no talking heads, no Family Guy-style cutaways. The story steamrolls ahead chronologically from action set piece to action set piece, keeping the emphasis firmly on adventure. Indiana's on a quest, first to find his father, and then to find the Holy Grail. Narrative pit-stops? Ain't nobody got time for that.
The movie does feature a pretty significant time jump, though, as the narrative kicks off in 1912, with young Indiana on a Scout trip in Utah. In addition to kick-starting the action and adventure, this prologue accomplishes two things.
First, it's part of Indiana Jones's origin story as an iconic pop culture character: we finally learn where he got that famous fedora, whip, and scar. We're willing to bet that nobody suspected a train full of circus animals played such a pivotal role in Indy's origin, but still… The prologue takes us back to Indiana's roots and helps us understand him just a little bit better. We learn that he got the fedora from a father figure who was also a total criminal, for example, since his real dad was too busy writing in his diary. Womp womp.
Second, it establishes Indiana's ethics as an archaeologist, which are central to the film. In fact, the concept of principles, in general, is one of the narrative's biggest themes. Young Indiana nabs the Cross of Coronado from the bandits not because he wants to show it off to his pals or make a buck off it, but because he firmly believes it belongs in a museum. Even as a teen, he's willing to risk his life to protect history.
When the narrative makes its time jump to the present day, 1938, we see that Indiana still feels the same way about the Cross of Coronado. Age hasn't changed his moral code, or his willingness to stick his neck out there, one bit.
Indiana's ethical awesomeness, proven in the prologue, extends to his hunt for the Holy Grail. Once again, he wants to prevent an important cultural artifact from falling into the wrong, greedy hands, not because he wants life everlasting or his face plastered across newsstands.
Whether it's his first crusade, last crusade, or even that ill-conceived crusade he made against aliens, Indiana Jones is synonymous with adventure. He remains Hollywood's go-to guy for archaeological swashbuckling.
Adventure films are often marked by their exoticism and energy, and Last Crusade overflows with both. From stately Castle Brunwald to Alexandretta and the ancient Holy Grail temple, the film has no shortage of striking locales, each serving as the backdrop for some high-octane exploits. We're talking about things like speedboat chases, tanks careening over cliffs, bareknuckle brawls, and dogfights (war planes, not puppies).
Last Crusade, like the rest of the Indiana Jones films, also pays homage to the adventure serials of the 1940s through its focus on treasure hunting and heroism. Indiana may not be the best-prepared protagonist, but he's a hero through and through, as he always does the right thing and saves the day. And when it comes to treasure, prizes don't get much more prestigious than the Holy Grail and its promise of everlasting life.
You can't make a cake without breaking a few eggs, and you can't make an adventure movie without breaking a few noses. For this reason, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is also an action movie. Indiana faces obstacle after obstacle as he tracks down first his father, and then the Holy Grail. He gets into everything from fist-fights with Nazis to high-speed chases on land, on sea, and in the air. He overcomes each with his physical prowess.
Sometimes that means straight-up violence, but that's just another hallmark of the action genre. Kicking butt and taking names isn't always pretty. In Last Crusade, it's often hilarious, though.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is also a comedy, because when we think "comedy," we think about religious artifacts and Nazis.
Okay, not really.
But we do think of heightened situations, awesome stunts, and rib-tickling dialogue, and Last Crusade features all three.
For example, while Brody's ineptitude creates its fair share of comical moments, a perfect example of all three of these genre elements coming together in one scene is the sequence when Indiana and Henry hijack the plane attached to a zeppelin and outmaneuver the Nazi gunners chasing them. Heightened situation? Um, yeah. Awesome stunts? Only if you think dogfights at 10,000 feet are awesome. Rib-tickling dialogue? Try this on for size:
INDIANA: Dad, you're going to have to use the machine gun! Get it ready!
Henry turns around and readies the gun. Indiana spots an approaching plane.
INDIANA: Eleven o'clock! Dad, eleven o'clock!
HENRY: (Looking at his watch:) What happens at eleven o'clock?
If you have parents—and we're willing to bet that you do because, you know, biology—we don't have to tell you that the father-son dynamic in Last Crusade provides ample opportunity for humor, even in the middle of a high-speed chase, and even if sometimes it's in the form of a charmingly cheesy dad joke.
Ready for a quick history lesson? Here we go.
From 1095-1291, Christians and Muslims fought a series of wars over who got to control the holy lands in the Middle East, in particular the city of Jerusalem. (Some crusades were also launched against non-Christians and heretics in Europe, for example in the Baltic countries and southern France.) The conflicts lasted for close to two hundred years, and together, these wars were called the Crusades. Individually, they were called the First Crusade, the Second Crusade, the Third Crusade, and so on. (Source)
The title Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a nod to these legendary skirmishes. Indiana and Donovan aren't battling for holy territory—though they are following the trajectory of the Crusaders from Western Europe into the Holy Land—but they are fighting over one of the most important religious artifacts ever, the Holy Grail. Secure that sacred cup, and you could probably control whatever land you want: Jerusalem, Wyoming, Tomorrowland, you name it.
So why is this the last crusade? Well, for one thing, it's the most recent. This crusade is happening in 1938, way after the last major official crusade ended in the 13th century. But more than that, this film, at the time, was the last stop for Indiana Jones. The final installation in the Indy trilogy, Last Crusade aims to show our hero going on his most important adventure: finding his father and reestablishing a relationship with him.
What this flick shows, even in its title, is that family, love, and relationships are more important than any artifact could ever be. They're even more important than immortality and world domination.
That's some deep stuff.
Let's set the scene: Indiana has just watched Elsa plummet to her death because she couldn't shake her obsession with the Holy Grail. Now he's dangling off the same cliff while his dad pleads with him to take his hand and forget about the Grail. "Indiana, let it go," Henry says quietly. Indiana does as his dad says.
There's more going on here than Indiana coming to his senses and avoiding death by crevasse. First things first, Henry calls Indiana "Indiana." That's huge. Before this point, Henry's constantly and only called Indiana "Junior," because, as Henry explains to Sallah, "That's his name: Henry Jones, Jr." This ticks Indiana off. He wants to be called the nickname that he gave himself (in loving tribute to their family dog, no less), so when Henry calls Indiana what he wants, it shows care and consideration.
Second, when Henry tells Indiana to "let it go," he's not just talking about the Holy Grail perched precariously below. He's also talking about the resentments and anger toward his dad that Indiana's held on to since he was kid, when Henry was too absorbed by his own obsession with the Holy Grail to take Indiana to Chuck E. Cheese or throw down on the Xbox.
Basically, Indiana's spent his entire life harboring a handful of grudges against dear ol' Dad. When Indiana finally lets them go, as Henry suggests, and takes his dad's hand, they can start repairing their relationship.
Indiana isn't the only one who wises up at the end of the film, though. After Henry pulls him to safety and they tell the old knight to peace out, he and his dad have the following exchange:
HENRY: Elsa never really believed in the Grail. She thought she'd found a prize.
INDIANA: And what did you find, Dad?
HENRY: Me? Illumination.
Dude's not talking about lights. After almost losing his son to the Holy Grail, Henry realizes what a cruddy dad he's been to Indiana because of his own preoccupation with the Cup of Christ. Indiana wanted guidance and structure that Henry didn't provide, and the lightbulb's finally gone off above Henry's balding head.
Ultimately, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ends with a reconciliation. Indiana's started to release old resentments. Henry's realized that his kid wanted him to be around more. Lines of communication are finally open, and the two men are ready to ride off into the sunset and reboot their father-son relationship.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade earns its PG-13 rating primarily for violence, most of it with guns. Henry gets shot in the stomach, and several Nazi goons take a well-deserved bullet or two. Additionally, several bad guys meet their grisly end thanks to a tank.
Donovan's demise also contributes to the film's rating, as well. It's the goriest and most unnerving part of the film, as he ages so rapidly that we see his skin rot and fall off before he becomes a skeleton and ultimately turns to dust. Whoa.