At the end of The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones reaches for his father’s hand instead of the world’s most famous antique artifact. It’s the final, transformative test for a man who has spent his life worshipping idols.
Indy’s first idol was his father. In his youth, he labored after the man’s respect (or at least getting his dad to look at him when they talked). Hunting for powerful, one-of-a-kind objects eventually replaced the hunt for his father’s love. On his search for the Holy Grail, faced with risking his life for the drinking cup that can grant eternity or simply connecting with his father — split between the two things he’s wanted most in life — he finally chooses a person over a shiny thing.
It’s an impressive act. Indy is a hoarder with a bull whip and tenure at a major university. He doesn’t mind storing his preciouses in a museum, but he’s just come within an outstretched pinkie’s reach of the shiniest object of them all.
Yes, Sean Connery’s soothing voice leads him, and yes, Indy just watched Dr. Schneider fall to her doom for trying the same thing, but the opening of the movie cements Indy as so deliriously dedicated to objects that he spent years tracking down and risking his life for the gold cross he couldn’t hold onto as a teen. The release of that obsession is cathartic.
We’ve spent the entire movie — from Indy’s childhood as a pint-sized swashbuckler running around on circus trains to his contentious, father-son adventure to seek the Cup of Christ — exposing and testing those emotional weak spots to see if he’d eventually make the correct, difficult choice, but there’s an element of his decision to leave the Grail behind that isn’t immediately obvious. The way it plays out elevates the film from incredibly satisfying character arc to ingenuous bit of franchise-spanning plot continuity because it’s actually a callback to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
When Indy was faced with the option of destroying a religious relic to save himself (and the world) the first time around, he chose poorly.
At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he’s given the choice between destroying the Ark of the Covenant and letting it fall into Nazi control. Indy aims an RPG at the Ark of the Covenant, but he can’t pull the trigger.
Maybe it’s because it’ll kill Marion, maybe it’s because he can’t bear to lose the shiny thing, but all his nemesis Rene Belloq has to do is call Indy’s bluff, knowing that he doesn’t have the spine to incinerate something that belongs in a museum. Indy hands unbridled power to the Nazis.
Luckily, the ark violently opens up everyone’s pores, the government crates it up, and everything works out for our rugged hero anyway. Except he harbors that flaw of valuing objects over people.
By the end of The Last Crusade, he’s finally willing to do what he couldn’t do back then: destroy the MacGuffin.
Thus, the maturity Indy shows by allowing the most important object on the planet to fall into an endless chasm doesn’t merely span The Last Crusade’s storyline; it tracks all the way back to the first time we met him. That single action simultaneously resolves the movie and the trilogy. Pretty brilliant for a guy named after a dog.
A 10-year veteran of movie culture criticism, Scott’s writing appears at Nerdist, Vanity Fair, Slashfilm, IndieWire, and more. He also co-hosts the screenwriting podcast Broken Projector, and his fiction has been published by Mulholland Books and Mythic Magazine. He wants to be Buster Keaton’s best friend.