"The Arthur legend. I've heard this bedtime story before," says Indiana Jones to Walter Donovan. Yet before the movie is through, Indy and his compatriots take on aspects of the Arthurian legend as they embark upon their own quest, seeking, as did Arthur's knights, the Holy Grail.
The quest is similar, but the details vary. The year is 1938, and Indy finds himself battling for the Cross as he did twenty-six years earlier as a boy with his band of squires (Utah boy scouts.) This time, however, a storm rages, and nature rails against the ship where he single-handedly defends himself against the entire crew. As noble and skilled as Lancelot (or any knight who could take on hundreds of men in the legends and still remain whole) he rescues the Cross and, when clear of the ship, the wrath of God sends the force of lightning, leaving none alive.
Back in his "court", the university, he is besieged by people, mostly women, needing his help. Images of Steinbeck's Lancelot come rapidly to mind as he sits, overwhelmed, in his office while students press their faces up to his door. He slips out the window, only to find three mysterious men in dark suits who take him to the "castle" of Walter Donovan, reminiscent of the three women (including Morgan le Fey) who abduct the sleeping Lancelot to tempt him in their lair with power and riches.
Donovan's library is strikingly posh, and filled more with things than with books (this becomes important later in the discussion.) In the middle of the room, a crystal sculpture brings to mind the cave of Merlin in Excalibur where the wizard is trapped in ice by Morgan. Incidentally, later, Donovan is to suffer the same fate as Excalibur's Morgan - rapid aging and a painful death. And so the scene is set.
Similarities and echoes of minor details of the Arthurian myth continue throughout the movie, but before proceeding, it is necessary to identify the overarching themes that are evident, specifically character parallels, with an emphasis on the Guenivere/Morgan complication, and the fertility element. In all Arthur stories, there must be a woman figure and there also must be the element of prosperity of both the individual and the land or people for which he stands.
It is easy to see Henry and Indiana Jones as the Arthur and Lancelot figures at certain points, but what does that make Ilsa Schneider? If the original myth developed the two personas of Morgan and Guenivere from the two aspects of woman, then "The Last Crusade" combined these two aspects again into Ilsa (though she tends much more toward the Morgan figure.) Like Morgan, Ilsa is a woman with greater knowledge than is expected for her gender at that time, as can be seen by the reaction of Brody and Indy when finding that Dr. Schneider is, in fact, female. She uses deception to achieve her own ends, such as ransacking her own room, in the reverse of Morgan's making Lancelot's cell seem lavish. Yet, at the same time, she is fair like Guenivere, she cares deeply for "fertility" (which will be discussed momentarily) and she, like Guenivere, becomes part of a triangle between King and knight (Henry and Indy.)
The dominant Arthurian theme of the fertility of the land takes on a different form in this movie. It is not the land, but the mind that must be kept fertile. Books manifest the fertility of the mind, and the theme of books and their importance prevails throughout the movie. In the very beginning, fertility is in practice as the older Jones works in his Grail diary. "May he who illuminated this illuminate me," he says. When Indy finds out that his father is missing, he returns to his father's house to find it in shambles, with books strewn across the floor. In Venice, they find the clue they seek, the knight's tomb, in a library - a converted Church. The height of the "desolation of the land" is in the heart of Germany at the book burning. The Nazis rally around their standard, the swastika, and "fertility" is desecrated, as Ilsa sheds tears. (With the importance of books, it might be that the Grail diary is Henry Jones' Excalibur. When the diary is parted from him, everything goes awry.)
Other similarities come to mind. After finding Sir Richard's tomb, Indiana encounters the knights of the cruciform sword. After being almost killed by him, Kasim echoes the standard question "whom does the Grail serve" by saying, "Ask yourself - why do you seek the cup of Christ? Is it for His glory? Or for yours?" Indy's response is "I don't seek the cup of Christ; I'm looking for my father." "Then God be with you on your quest," answers the angelic figure of Kasim.
Indy does, in fact, continue on his quest, with the Pellinore-esque Marcus Brody, who has a knack for getting lost in his own museum. Upon finding his father and escaping the Castle Brunwald, he must joust with a Nazi soldier, using a conveniently placed border pole. Later, he must "slay a dragon" which nearly kills him: his father and Brody are held in "the belly of that steel beast," the Nazi tanks which make their way to the valley of the crescent moon. During this battle, the book/power theme is played upon when Henry defeats a gun-wielding soldier with a fountain pen.
In the final encounter within the cave, Henry sustains the wound in the side so integral to Arthurian myth. The Grail must now be claimed in order to save the dying patriarch, the movie's Fisher King. Indy must pass through three trials to reach the Grail, and the final one is a leap of faith. His step into the chasm places him onto a bridge (like Lancelot's sword bridge, or the drawbridge over which Percival finds the Grail in Excalibur.) At the other side, he finds the last knight, sitting at a table reading, who attempts to pass on the guarding of the Grail to the one who was worthy. Yet the exchange between "knights" is cut short, as Donovan and Ilsa come to claim the prize. Yet, they have been seeking a false grail, and Ilsa, as a deceptioner, gives Donovan a grail that he, blinded by greed, takes to be the true one. "As the true grail will bring you life, the false one will take it from you," says the knight, and it is proven true as Donovan turns to dust before their eyes.
Indiana finds the true grail, and with it, goes to his father, healing his wound and restoring him to life. Yet, the Grail itself is also a false prize. As in The Mists of Avalon the Grail and the desire to possess it brought on misery after a moment's joy, so too, does this Grail wreak destruction. Ilsa steps over the bounds of where the Grail must lie, and, as the collapse of the castle after the touching of the sword of Longinus, the entire cavern is thrown into tumult. Ilsa dies trying to reach the Grail, and Indiana would have done the same, except that his father, calling him by his name, pulls him up to safety.
"Ilsa never believed in the Grail. She thought she found the prize." "And what did you find, dad?" "Me? Illumination." With this, knowledge/fertility is brought to culmination, and they are able to ride into the sunset, as Arthur, perhaps, into Avalon.