The Last Crusade Reconsidered

By which I mean the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What did you think I meant?

I can’t remember the last time I indulged in the Indiana Jones movies, but I checked out the two good ones from the library (you know which ones I mean, the ones without the boys) and re-watched them because I had some time. I can only assume that the last time I had seen these movies was sometime before I finished my bachelor’s degree in medieval literature and history. Why? Because after my degree, I have some problems with this last film (it is the last no matter how many space aliens you throw at the franchise!)

Overall, I think Raiders of the Lost Ark has held up better over the years than the other films. It simply comes across as less over-the-top. I mean in The Last Crusade we have Indy fighting a tank from horseback and let’s not forget the scene where his father brings down an airplane by scaring a bunch of seagulls. Or where the other plane crashes through a mountain tunnel. It’s all good fun to watch, but at some point it becomes so absurd that it’s hard to suspend my disbelief.

So what does my degree have to do with my uncomfortableness regarding The Last Crusade?

Well I accept that these movies are a sort of alternate history, as it were. But the way they try and conform crusade history and the Grail Legend to fit the movie is really jarring to me. Once again, like with the tank and the airplanes, it stretches my suspension of disbelief just a bit too far.

First let’s deal with the historical aspect. Indiana Jones finds out that the map to the grail starts from the city of Alexandretta. This city really does exist and really was renamed Iskenderun and was part of the Republic of Hatay (under French jurisdiction). It is also really on the route for pilgrims to take to Jerusalem. However, the movie clearly states that the crusaders laid siege to this city during the First Crusade for over a year and utterly destroyed it. We’ll ignore for the moment that the point of siege warfare was not to “utterly destroy” a city once captured; although they would definitely have been sacked, but then the city would be occupied rather than simply destroyed.

I’d like to focus on what the movie says about how long the city was under siege. One year. There’s only one city the crusaders laid siege to on the First Crusade for so long. Antioch. (This would later be pivotal to history because since the siege of Antioch took so long, the Arabs were able to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks. The Arabs were actually the crusaders allies at the time and even welcomed them as liberators).

So the film’s use of Alexandretta and it’s besieging over the course of a year bother me because of the pivotal point that Antioch occupies in crusade history. But, okay, maybe the filmmakers thought that Antioch was too well-known for the film and thus the Grail could not really have been hidden for two thousand years if Antioch was the beginning point for the map.

That brings me to the Grail. I’m not even sure where to begin on just how messed up the Grail Legend has become in The Last Crusade. But let me try. The elder Dr. Jones (Sean Connery) is apparently a medieval literature professor, the “kind students hate to get.” So he should be an expert on the Grail, right? Then why is pretty much everything he says about the Grail patently wrong according to the Grail Legend?

First, the Grail has nothing to do with Christ. Okay, I wrote that last sentence to be a bit provocative. The Grail does and does not have something to do with Christ. In the earliest Grail legends, the Grail is referred to as the “Sangreal” and it has nothing to do with Christ and perhaps even no religious connotation whatsoever. Although I suppose one could argue that it has a connection to pagan belief, which is possible. Originally the Sangreal was merely some kind of dish or plate that dispensed food. It was like a magic horn-of-plenty.

This is more Grail-like than any cup you may see

In the Arthurian cycle the Grail begins to take on a new character as an explicitly Christian artifact, although sometimes it’s still unclear as to what exactly the Grail is. The Arthurian legends are really a brilliant testament to medieval literature. They absorb numerous medieval legends into their own story structure. You know the legend of Tristan and Isolde from Germany? They find their way into the Arthurian cycle. So, over time, the Sangreal lost its earlier (pagan?) connotations and eventually (in some later versions) became the Cup of Christ which was used in the Last Supper and caught Jesus’ blood, then was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea.

What’s that you say? It was brought to England? Then why are Indiana Jones and his father looking around in Turkey? I have no idea. If the elder Dr. Jones is a Grail expert and a medieval literature professor, he should know this as well. So why aren’t they poking around in Cornwall or somewhere? Is it because it’s harder to fight Nazis if you have to explain why they’re in England in the 1930s? But then why are they in the French Mandate in the 1930s? Sigh, movie plotting.

Okay, so the Grail is not the Cup of Christ nor is it somewhere in Turkey nor did the Crusaders ever have any interest in the Grail. Their goal was Jerusalem, more specifically the Tomb of the Resurrection. The Arthurian legends absorb other stories into their structure, but even they didn’t go that far. They stayed pretty well confined to Western Europe.

Lastly, at the beginning of the film Indy’s friend and curator of a museum informs Indy that the quest for the Grail is “the quest for the divine in all of us.” Um… What does that mean? And how did this museum curator get that out of the Grail Legend? It’s nowhere in the earlier iterations of the Sangreal. When the Sangreal becomes the Holy Grail, the quest does not have to do with searching for “the divine within us.”

What is this crap?

The Grail Quest has numerous causes. You could write an entire doctoral thesis on the reasons why the Grail Quest is undertaken in the Arthurian legends (I’m sure some people already have). But searching for “the divine in all of us” is not one of the reasons. The Knights undertake the Grail Quest as… well, as a quest. That’s what Arthurian knights did. They undertake the Quest to be a “light in dark times.” They undertake the Quest for their own (to borrow a theological term) sanctification. I suppose you could say that is similar to “the divine in us”… But wow, would I phrase it differently.

In the end only one knight (Galahad) or three knights (Galahad, Percival and Bors) succeed in the Grail Quest (depending on the source), which does not mean that they win the cup. They merely find the Grail (and the wounded Fisher King) and contemplate it. And again, succeeding in the Grail Quest had nothing to do with the “divinity within” these knights, unless you consider the fact that it is only through God’s grace and plan that they achieve their Quest. Again, I would not phrase it as a “search for the divinity in all of us.”

Now you can see why I said that I must not have seen these movies since I got my degree in medieval literature and history. Because having this knowledge sort of ruins the movie for me. Ironically, if you want a decent film about the Grail Legend, you should watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Seriously. It makes fun of the legend, but it is also incredibly accurate to the story in many ways. No surprise given that the Python crew were all well-educated and one of them (Jones I think) went on to make a good educational series about the Crusades.

It’s kind of sad that The Last Crusade is somewhat ruined for me because I really want to like this film. The chemistry between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford is perfect. The scene with Indy and Hitler in Berlin always makes me laugh (that sounds horrible doesn’t it?) The movie has a zeppelin. Zeppelins are awesome. It’s got John Rhys-Davies. He’s even more awesome. It doesn’t have an annoying kid.

So maybe this is a sign of me getting old and crotchety.

I want to like The Last Crusade. But Raiders of the Lost Ark is really the best movie out of all of them now that I just can’t get past all the bits in The Last Crusade that completely contradict the Grail Legend and Crusade history.


~ by crossingthebosporus on September 16, 2012.

5 Responses to “The Last Crusade Reconsidered”

  1. I’m with you, ‘Raiders’ is better, although, of course, the makers ought to know that the Ark is in Aksum guarded by an Ethiopian Orthodox monk. That’s the problem with knowing stuff and watching movies – makes it hard to suspend disbelief.

    That bit about ‘the divine in us’ seems very ‘new age’ to me, which I guess is not surprising for Hollywood.

    • Yeah, I can get over the Ark being in Egypt because it is conceivable that it would have been a spoil of war at some point. So at least that helps with the suspension of disbelief.

      I figured the “divine in all of us” was an attempt to bring the Christian aspects of the Grail Legend to a wider audience, but it just rubs the wrong way. I mean if it’s New Age, this is a middle-aged museum curator from the 1930s saying such a thing. Rather ridiculous.

  2. My dear friend, I have nominated you for the ‘A thought-provoking blog’ award. You can pick it up here where you’ll also find the terms 🙂

  3. I’m glad that I don’t have a degree in medeival literature and history so that I can just simply enjoy all the action in the Indy films. 🙂

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