This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
Definition of “parable”: a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. In many ways, this is what the Indiana Jones films are at their core: highly-entertaining parables with simple but relevant themes such as the drastic consequences of greed and the vitality of having solid human relationships. Released in 1989, the third film in this epic adventure saga, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, does a particularly skillful job of depicting what happens when greed overpowers the soul and of showing why it is so important for a father and son to lovingly nurture their relationship with each other
“Who drinks the water I will give him, says the Lord, will have a spring inside him welling up for eternal life. Let them bring me to your holy mountain in the place where you dwell. Across the desert and through the mountain to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, to the temple where the cup that holds the blood of Jesus Christ resides forever.” Such are the words that intrigue archaeologist Indiana Jones and many other different searchers who set out on a quest for the Holy Grail, the cup Christ held at the Last Supper that will supposedly give eternal Earthly life to any person who drinks from it.
While most people searching for the Grail are doing so out of a greedy thirst for power, Indiana has a much more personal motivation: his father, Henry Jones Sr., went missing in the process of searching for it. For a long time, Indy has been estranged from his father, who he always thought was neglectful because of his obsession with finding the Holy Grail, and he now fears that he will lose him forever. He therefore sets out to find and reclaim his own personal Holy Grail: the tricky but ultimately loving relationship he has with his father.
Once Indy finds and rescues his father from the captivity of the Nazis, who are hoping to acquire the Grail for world-dominating purposes, the awkwardly reunited father-son duo work together to find the Cup of Christ before the Nazis can get their hands on it and use it to sinister ends. When they are not preoccupied with staying alive– murderous Nazis and booby traps abound– they struggle to warm up to each other and rekindle their father-son relationship that was never really much on fire to begin with.
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, the two men have a drink together on an airborne zeppelin, and Indy expresses his sadness that Henry was not a more prominent presence in his life. Henry retorts that he was actually a wonderful father, saying, “Did I ever tell you to eat up? Go to bed? Wash your ears? Do your homework? No. I respected your privacy, and I taught you self-reliance.” Indy retorts back, “What you taught me was that I was less important than people who had been dead for five hundred years in another country. And I’ve learned it so well that we’ve hardly spoken for twenty years.”
While Henry does not immediately recant his years of neglectful fatherhood for the sake of saving face, his son’s words do secretly pierce his overwhelmingly scholarly but ultimately human heart, and in a later scene where it briefly appears that Indy has fallen to his death, his mournful and regretful tears say all that needs to be said about how much he loves his boy. Indy, too, has secret wishes that he had acted more lovingly towards his father throughout his life, and in another touching moment, his eyes bear a newfound appreciation for his old man after Henry fends off an attacking Nazi plane by cleverly using his umbrella to unleash seagulls into the air. As the film comes to its conclusion, Henry and Indy ride off into the sunset emotionally closer than they have ever been before.
At the other end of the film’s thematic pool is an effective commentary on the dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences of greed. Walter Donovan, the main villain, selfishly seeks the Holy Grail to attain an eternal Earthly life of riches and power, a life he does not realize will ultimately leave him feeling empty. In an unwise and decidedly Biblically-ignorant move, he picks up and drinks from what he thinks is the Cup of the Eternal King because of its opulent qualities, failing to remember that Jesus was a poor carpenter. He immediately ages and dies as a result, prompting Indiana Jones to “choose wisely” and pick up the dull wooden cup of a carpenter.
While Indy now possesses the Cup of Life, it has been revealed that no one can leave with the Grail and reap its rewards; they must stay in the Temple of the Grail forever if they want to have eternal life. Elsa Schneider, an amoral Nazi collaborator who cunningly coaxed Donovan into choosing the wrong cup, pays no heed to this Grail stipulation and tries to take it out of the temple, causing a supernatural earthquake that hurls her to the edge of an underground cliff.
As Elsa dangles from the edge of the cliff, Indy grabs her hand and tries to pull her to safety, but she is too preoccupied with retrieving the Grail, which is sitting just a few feet downwards on a jut of rock. Her greed for the Grail overpowers her love for life, and she soon slips from Indy’s grasp and falls to her death.
Suddenly, Indy is hurled off balance by the supernatural earthquake and finds himself in Elsa’s former position, dangling from the edge of the cliff and trying to reach the Grail, which to him represents the archaeological find of a lifetime. His father holds onto his one hand, but he needs the other to pull him to safety. Indy does not want to give Henry his other hand yet, hoping against hope that he can reach the Grail without falling to his death. “I can almost reach it!” he cries, echoing Elsa’s fatal greed-possessed words. In a beautiful character-defining moment, Henry rejects his years-long obsession with the Grail over his son and pleads lovingly, “Indiana, let it go.” Touched by his father’s simple but profound words of loving devotion, Indy grabs Henry’s other hand and is pulled to safety, leaving the Grail behind forever.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is wonderful popcorn entertainment with a purpose. It poignantly reminds us that greed is a sinisterly anti-life vice, and it also beautifully shows that it is never too late for a father and a son to grow in love for each other. Let us learn from its example and make an effort to strengthen the familial relationships in our own lives, especially those that have fallen flat over the years. It is never ever too late to ride off into the sunset with a newfound respect and affection for the people who, for better or for worse, have shaped us into the women and men we are today.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.