I'm a Last Crusade girl. All the way ... and it's partly nostalgia. The movie came out when I was in the best year of grade school. We all discussed it over lunch, and the best ways to reenact it on the playground. Oddly, while I got to be Kim Basinger when we played Batman, it never occurred to the boys to make me be Elsa Schneider. We were all our own versions of Indy. I remember the "name of God" scene to be one of our favorites, and we all came up with horrible creatures to be under each letter, collapsing in laughter when we decided J should be "Jack in the Box."
In adulthood, I not only owed my history degree to a long cherished desire to be Indy, but that early dose of Grail legend helped nudge me into a medievalist. More than that, I earned a gold star on at least one occasion in Chaucer. While I was good at all things English, I was famous for my stupidity in linguistics. So imagine my professor's surprise when my hand shot up in answer to her query: "Why didn't Chaucer write a J into his alphabet poem?" "Because in the Latin alphabet, J is an I." "How on earth did you know that, Miss Rappe?" "Because Indy forgets and misspells Jehovah." In Scotland, I had my own "the tomb of Sir Richard!" moment when I followed a badly drawn map to the tomb of Bishop Wishart. While it wasn't exactly the second marker to the Grail, I knew how Indy felt.
But those are the personal reflections. The "professional" (ha!) reason I hold Last Crusade to be the better of the Indy prequel/sequels is because it is the perfect medieval quest. That is why I kicked and screamed against a fourth installment for so long. One element that makes an Indy film successful is a level of pseudo-history. When Dr. Jones delivers a lecture on Tanis and the Staff of Ra, there isn't a question of suspending disbelief. Indy convinces you that it's a level of arcane knowledge that you too would know if you had a Ph.D in archeology. The same held true for Last Crusade, and not Temple of Doom. With all the talk of fortune and glory, a vaguely interesting artifact, and a badly represented culture, it just didn't work. It was fun, it was a thrill ride ... but it wasn't the brains we expect from Indiana Jones. Last Crusade, on the other hand, was. Spielberg and Lucas managed, intentionally or not, to reach a level of literary and historic allusion that few films pull off successfully.
Within the first half hour, Last Crusade manages to reach the historic-fiction level of Raiders, when Jones and Donovan discuss the "bedtime story" of the three knights. If you know your Arthurian legends, this is clearly a "historic" version of the three knights who did find the Grail – Percival, Lancelot and Galahad. Percival fails to retrieve it because he lacks wisdom to ask the right questions of the Fisher King, Lancelot is allowed only a glimpse because he is impure, Galahad succeeds because he is the most holy. So profound is his encounter with the Grail that he slowly disappears from the mortal plane and ascends to heaven. Indiana Jones, grounded in pseudo-myth as it is, doesn't get that fantastical – but all three brothers meet a similar fate. Two return to Europe with the knowledge after a glimpse at the Grail, while the third remains behind to guard it because he is the most pure. Incidentally, I have always maintained that the Grail of Last Crusade didn't actually bestow immortality, not in the way all the characters believed it did. Maybe if you stayed behind to guard it, you could physically live forever – but I believe the immortality granted was the kind Galahad achieved; something more metaphysical in nature.
Indy and his father find themselves mimicking this age-old quest when they try to beat the Nazis to the Grail. Again and again, Henry Jones Sr. tries to make his son see that the search is about wisdom; something poor Indy doesn't understand. He is a kind of Percival, a man who doesn't ask the right questions and who snubs his father's knowledge until it is nearly too late. In fact, I would venture to say that Jones Sr. has the unfortunate role of playing the wounded Fisher King, who Indy has to save with the Grail. The lack of wisdom and faith is, naturally, what destroys both Elsa Schneider and Donovan. And it is Indy's own sin, like Lancelot's, which costs him the Grail and nearly his life.
There aren't just Arthurian allusions to Last Crusade. It also takes on the trappings of a medieval morality play. Indy and his father must overcome the evil temptress. Elsa exists merely to be medieval literature's favorite device – a beautiful, promiscuous woman! There are monsters, rivaling any dragon or troll, in the form of Nazis and tanks. Finally, there's just simple greed. The lust for the Grail that kills Elsa and Donovan (and nearly kills Indy) is pretty similar to the gruesome fate that befalls the three men in "The Pardoner's Tale." Medieval literature is chock full of these lessons – shiny prizes equal death.
But most importantly, in medieval quest literature (especially when it concerns the Grail), it isn't the finale that is important, but the journey. And we realize this at the end of Last Crusade, too. "What was it you found, Dad?" "Illumination." Not only is it the theme of a Grail quest, but it is the ultimate point of the movie – the Jones' are enlightened about each other, their relationship, about history, myth, and faith ... the list goes on. Thus, Last Crusade is more than a Raiders rehash; a goofy father-son action piece. It is, in the words of Marcus Brody, "man's search for the divine in all of us." That's why it is better than Temple of Doom, that is why it is as nearly good as Raiders, and ultimately, why I will always feel Indiana Jones should have remained a trilogy. You can't beat a series of films that ends with illumination. You can't mess with the quest motif.
Then again, I hear Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is pretty good...