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Galahad in the 20th Century

So, obviously I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a number of times, like everyone else in the world (except, it seems, about three people in my Grail Quest class). This, the third and final Indy flick (until they make the fourth sometime next year), has Indy racing Nazis for the Holy Grail, with his father (whose passion is Grail lore) in tow. It’s a great thrill ride, with a fantastic balance of action and comedy and a very solid story holding everything together, and until I took this class, I didn’t really see a lot more to it than that.

History, “Indiana Jones” style, might not bear up under close scrutiny, but it generally sounds good on-screen. This is an impressive feat in itself, and I’ve always liked that about these movies. However, after studying the actual history and legends surrounding the Holy Grail, I figuring something out that I probably should have known automatically. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade isn’t about exploring pseudohistory to trace a believable real-world location for the protagonists to discover the Holy Grail at all. It’s about reimagining the actual legend of the Grail quest, but setting it in the 1930s.

Once one starts looking for parallels, they begin to sprout like weeds. From the beginning, Indiana Jones himself is being groomed for knighthood. He goes on quests, some of which take years (the successful acquisition of the Cross of Coronado at the beginning). He rescues damsels (sort of). He invades a castle. He jousts (from a motorcycle, no less). He slays a fire-breathing dragon (well, a tank with a really big gun).

And, of course, he achieves the Holy Grail after successfully passing through ordeals which test his humility, his knowledge, and especially his faith. Of course, the story has now entered the 20th century, and it would seem that chastity is no longer required of a knight who seeks the Grail. It’s rather a pity, as that, too, would have made a nice parallel. Nevertheless, the point is well-made.

Indy’s companions are significant players, as well. Four of them reach the ultimate objective together. There is Sallah, the average guy (Sir Bors), Brody, the simpleton (Sir Perceval), Dr. Henry Jones, the father who is denied entrance to the Grail chamber (Sir Lancelot), and Indy, the son who actually achieves the Grail (Sir Galahad). Interestingly, Brody’s character seems much more intelligent in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is possible that his character was deliberately changed to fit the Perceval mold (and, of course, provide some extra comic relief). Once again, though, that sexual impurity thing is really bothering me. The whole thing would fit so much more neatly if Indy hadn’t made it with Dr. Schneider, and the movie would just have wound up short a couple of jokes. It just subverts the entire basis of the Galahad character in some ways. In any case, it still seems to fit together very neatly.

Some other connections might include the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword as the various monks and other helpers who appear during the original quest to explain things or point the heroes in a particular direction. Dr. Elsa Schneider is like a conglomeration of all of the women from the Grail legends: she is sexually alluring, but she only serves as a distraction from the Quest. And at worst, she may be a satanic fiend in disguise. Finally, of course, Indy’s ultimate immediate purpose for retrieving the Grail is to heal a wound. Dr. Jones becomes the Fisher King at this point, with a deep wound located near the center of his body (though, most likely for the ratings and general sensitivity, not in the loins).

Most importantly, though, is the ultimate reward of the quest. It certainly isn’t the Grail (you don’t get to keep that), so what do the heroes take away from their experience? Well, it would appear that they achieve the same thing that all of their predecessors have. Not a physical reward, but (as Dr. Henry Jones puts it), “Illumination.” Throughout centuries of telling and retelling, that seems to be one of the universal constants. The Grail is simply a tangible metaphor for something else that we cannot actually see, only feel.

One final thought about this particular Grail story: As the story finally enters the 20th century, one very important thing seems to be changing. Dr. Jones gets “illumination” out of discovering the Grail, but (despite the many Christian references in the movie) his newfound knowledge is no longer directly connected to a communion/salvation experience. The beginnings of a paradigm shift are further evident in what is no longer required of knights on the quest: purity. Where will it all lead?

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~ by Jared on April 25, 2006.

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