The Ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Has Forever Puzzled and Fascinated Me

The Ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Has Forever Puzzled and Fascinated Me
Image: Paramount+/Lucasfilm

For years, I believed Indiana Jones was immortal. I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when it was first released in theatres and, since he’d taken a drink from the holy grail before he rode off into the sunset, I thought Indiana Jones would live forever. It wasn’t until years later that the explanation on how eternal life given by the grail was limited to the temple dawned on me. And I tell you all of this because it’s just one example of why I’m still completely fascinated by the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

For anyone who maybe hasn’t seen it in a few years, here’s the set up. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his father, Henry (Sean Connery), have spent the whole movie looking for the Holy Grail. It’s the cup Jesus used at the last supper, which then caught his blood at his crucifixion, and is believed to grant eternal life to whoever drinks from it. Problem is, the Nazis are after it too, and when everyone arrives at the grail’s location, one of the Nazis (a fellow grail collector named Donovan, played by Julian Glover) shoots Henry, forcing Indy to retrieve the grail. To do so, he’ll have to face three challenges.

Of course Indy bests the challenges, the Nazis die, Dad is saved, and all is well. What happens in the meantime though, to this day, remains as weird and dense as any scene in the franchise. And look: I am, 100%, a mega fan of this movie. Everything I’m about to say doesn’t change that I love Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, full stop. And, normally, I hate the level of nitpicking I’m about to do. It’s just that anytime this movie is on, which is a lot in the last 30 plus years, I think about these things. I can’t stop thinking about them. So it was time, finally, to see if I was the only one. My apologies Indy fans. Don’t let any of what follows let you think any less of this movie which is amazing and I love it and I’m sorry. But here we go…

Challenge 1: The Breath of God

last crusade
Apparently penitent men duck AND roll (Screenshot: Paramount+/Lucasfilm)

The first challenge is called “The Breath of God.” It’s series of saw blades that you can only get by if you kneel. A “penitent man,” as Indy says. OK, we got that. So Indy knows to kneel, but how did Indy know he had to roll too? And I never quite understood what the shot of the rope on the wooden wheel was. For the longest time I thought it was the knight stopping the blades because it happens instantly. Of course, that’s not true, it’s just Indy kind of blocking the blades, so Donovan and Elsa (Alison Doody), who accompany him on the trials, can get through. But even then it’s like, how did he know to do that so fast? Because it’s instant. Also, why is there even a rope there? Who resets it other times? Anyway, it’s a fun moment that’s a bit odd but is by far the clearest of the challenges.

Challenge 2: The Word of God

What is he holding onto here? (Screenshot: Paramount+/Lucasfilm)What is he holding onto here? (Screenshot: Paramount+/Lucasfilm)

The second challenge is “The Word of God.” It requires a person to spell out the name of God, or rather the Latinization of God’s proper Hebrew name, Jehovah, one of seven in Judaism. And, humorously, we’re told that in Latin Jehovah begins with an “I” as Indy steps on the “J” revealing the deadly secret. The secret is, if you step on the wrong letter, you fall to your death. OK, got it. Director Steven Spielberg even puts in a shot meant to illustrate that the real letters have huge stone pillars below them to support the person while everything else is hollow. And yet, I have always had so many questions about this. Has no one ever made a mistake in this challenge before? Is that why all the letters are still there? And if someone was to die in this challenge, would someone replace the letters? When Indy falls and grabs hold, how does the letter he’s holding onto not break as well? It’s quite clear from the film that he’s not holding onto a stone with a pillar under it. Then he gets up, starts spelling and his heel hits another block, it doesn’t fully break. I know that’s because it’s a practical effect, but it always bugged me. Seriously, I could go on and on about this challenge but I have to, oh no, what’s happening…WHO CONSTRUCTED THIS ROOM? WHAT KIND OF EQUIPMENT DID THEY HAVE TO MAKE THIS PERFECT PILLARS? HOW LONG DID IT TAKE?… ok, sorry, sometimes I can’t control myself.

Challenge 3: The Path of God

How are these the same thing? (Screenshot: Paramount+/Lucasfilm)How are these the same thing? (Screenshot: Paramount+/Lucasfilm)

The Last Crusade challenge three, “The Path of God.” Oh boy, “The Path of God.” At this point you all know where I’m going to go with this one don’t you? Indy has to take a leap of faith in order to pass, only the chasm is too long for a human to jump. So he just puts his foot out and wouldn’t you know it? There’s an invisible bridge. Now, I know this is a movie about impossible things and supernatural beings — in a series that’s been full of aliens, ghosts, gods, and Nazi-melting magical boxes — but an invisible bridge? What the hell. How did the people who built this room figure this all out? Was it a special material? An optical illusion done with mirrors? Mirrors didn’t exist centuries ago. Did they colour it somehow with an ancient paint or clay? How did they get it to blend so perfectly? Or, is it even there at all?

Overall, we’re meant to assume that the bridge is always there but is just so hard to detect, anyone who is willing to step out onto it has faith. That’s the gist. But the scene around it is so wonky. To start, it’s quite clear when Indy enters the space either there’s nothing there, or it’s completely invisible. Then, after he takes a step, the bridge appears almost out of nowhere, revealing itself within the space. So was it always there or not? And if it wasn’t, how does this place know if you believe or not? These questions wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t a shot of Indy getting over the bridge where it’s clearly permanent stone. It’s physically in the space, without a doubt. But that’s then followed by a shot where Indy throws sand over it, and it’s invisible again. I’ve been watching this for 30 years and I still have no idea how any of this works. The fact you can argue either way sort of plays into the mystery of it but nevertheless, it’s just very confusing, and cool, but very confusing to me.

The Final Challenge: Selecting a Cup

Screenshot: Paramount+/LucasfilmScreenshot: Paramount+/Lucasfilm

Once Indy, Donovan, and Elsa get to the room with all the cups, things are once again mostly plausible. Save for the fact Donovan is obsessed with the grail, specifically says he’s imagined what it could look like, then lets Elsa pick a cup that’s no prettier or more ornate than any other cup in the room. She doesn’t even look at them all, she just grabs this nearest one. Yes, years of rewatches have made it fairly clear Elsa is just betraying Donovan and knows he’s an idiot, but with his life on the line, you think he would have taken a bit more time and consideration here. Obviously the point is no, he doesn’t, he’s a dumb Nazi who deserve what he gets, but still. If I’m nitpicking, I’m nitpicking. Watching the sequence again, the knight’s rules are crystal exactly clear: “The grail cannot pass beyond the Great Seal,” he said. “That is the boundary and the price of immortality.” Which could be interpreting that in two ways. One is that ONLY the grail can’t go past the seal, which is false, then the real meaning, which is that the seal is also the boundary of immortality. I don’t blame my 9 year old self for not getting it immediately the first time he watched this movie, honestly.

Plus, how does the immortality work? The knight is still alive but also very weak and aged. Not hundreds of years aged, but aged nevertheless. Does he keep ageing like that? What happened when he loses all his strength? Maybe he doesn’t really get to move around much. I must admit I would’ve loved to see the Knight walk backwards through all the challenges to wave at Indy. Does he have a secret path? And how often does he walk around the other rooms? He doesn’t have to stay in the grail room, necessarily, to remain immortal. He could probably walk around and hang out in the other rooms over the centuries. It’s not like people are coming for the grail every day. And when someone does come, how do they kill him if he’s immortal? Do they have to fight outside?

You see? I’ve thought about this 10 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade way too much. It’s endlessly fascinating. Yes, it’s a bit silly, I’m thinking about it way too much — especially as, honestly, you could handwave all this as a touch of the supernatural in a movie series filled with it. But despite what you just read above, I don’t actually care all that much if Last Crusade doesn’t make logical sense. I just love that it exists, and still inspires me to watch and think about it decades after its release.

Indiana Jones 5 has now been pushed until June 2023. While you wait, here’s our guide to watching the flicks in chronological order.

This article has been updated since it was last published.