WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Indiana Jones, although still interested in historic artifacts, is here interested in a goal less tangible and harder to gain than a Peruvian idol or Sankara Stone -- communication with his father.
The structure of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is quite a bit more conventional than the structures of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom -- those movies had four acts of roughly equal length, with three chapters in each act, for a total of twelve chapters. I find Last Crusade to be more conventionally structured, a straight-ahead three-act narrative with a prelude.
PRELUDE (0:00-14:15) The "young Indy" introduction is an excellent example of the Spielbergian dictum "stand the idea on its head." We watch a boy scout spy on a man we think is Indiana Jones, but it turns out the boy scout is Indy in 1914. The other part of the dictum, of course, is that once you upend the audience's expectations it is best to then exceed them, and for the most part this prelude succeeds at that. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie -- the action is fleet but not particularly hard-hitting, jokey and light-hearted.
The young Indiana Jones is after the Cross of Coronado, which, for some reason, is stored in a cave in Monument Valley (the reason being, I think, that Spielberg wishes to evoke John Ford). In his pursuit of the cross, he tangles with a man who dresses just like his adult self (and bears a passing resemblance to Spielberg), acquires his fear of snakes, his whip, the scar on his chin and his hat. He makes off with the cross and races home to his father, who is, at the moment, studying an illuminated manuscript -- already pursuing the Holy Grail. Indy tries to get his attention and fails, and the cross is confiscated by the local sheriff and turned over to a Rich Guy With Moustache. Indy's father does nothing to stop any of this, so wrapped up is he in his dreams of immortality. Indy then, many years later, catches up to Rich Guy With Moustache and settles his hash on the open sea.
This is played out, writ larger, if sometimes sideways and upside-down, in the main body of the movie -- almost as though the prelude is an overture, a sampling of the conflicts to come. Indy's father is in pursuit of the Grail and finds himself kidnapped by the Nazis (that is, the sheriff) and turned over to lead villain Donovan (that is, the Rich Guy). Indy pursues not the grail but his father, and must tangle with another rival treasure hunter (Elsa), the local authorities (Nazis, including head Nazi honcho Hitler) and the Rich Guy (and, ultimately, his own fallibilities) in order to achieve the goal of communication with his father.
(Funny, now that I think of it, that the Ark of the Covenant is described as a "radio for talking to God," which would represent the ultimate attempt to communicate with the father.)
(Dr. Henry Jones, of course, shares his obsession with the divine, and his familial neglect, with Roy Neary -- maybe that's why Spielberg put Hooper's glasses on Dr. Jones's face.) (Come to think of it, we don't know why Elliott's father in E.T. ran off to Mexico -- maybe he was pursuing mysterious crystal skulls in Aztec ruins guarded by armies of the undead.) (Oh, and, of course, Marcus Brody's son rejected academia altogether and became a New York City detective, before becoming police chief of Amity Island, where he would never have to deal with Marcus's obsessions again.)
ACT I (14:15-47:55) Act I is "Get Indy to his dad." First we see Indy in his teaching environment. He is overwhelmed by clamoring students -- another "father" disinterested in communication with his "children." He lectures them instead of talking to them, just as his father lectured him instead of talking to him -- instead of helping him. He is, in fact a lecturer, an unhappy one at that. Maybe his discomfort stems from his dawning realization that he's turned into his father. In any case, he ducks out the window of his office -- his cramped, tiny office, filled with artifacts and wedged into what seems to be the building's furnace room -- to avoid interaction with his charges.
Rich Guy Donovan approaches him and dangles the Grail in front of him, tells him that his father was working for him (that is, working for Donovan) and vanished in Venice. The Maguffin of the movie, until the final sequence, is Dr. Jones's "grail diary." Donovan isn't interested so much in Dr. Jones himself, but the grail diary, which will tell him where to find the grail.
Indy takes his boss Marcus Brody to Venice and meets Elsa (a first-draft Nazi Woman name if I've ever seen one). Elsa leads Indy to a library, which used to be a church. After solving a not-very-hard puzzle ("Look! Roman Numerals! Dad must've been onto something!" a clue that belongs in Moonraker, not an Indiana Jones movie) Indy finds not his father, but the clue that will make all the other clues fall into place -- the city to begin the search for the grail.
No sooner do Indy and Elsa find the clue they need but they are attacked by Frank Zappa. Zappa, in addition to being one the most interesting guitarists and composers of the rock era, is also a member of something called the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword. This brotherhood is dedicated to making sure no one finds out where the grail is. And if you thought Frank Zappa was dangerous with a guitar, wait 'til you see him with a machine gun. Indy escapes the wrath of Zappa by explaining that he doesn't care about the grail, he only cares about his dad. (The theme of the relative value of objects and persons runs, of course, through all the Indiana Jones narratives.) Zappa then obligingly tells Indy where his father is being held prisoner. Indy sends Marcus to Alexandretta to fetch the grail, and Indy and Elsa leave Venice and head for Austria.
(And the movie references shift from The Searchers to Where Eagles Dare, a definite step down in my book. Unless the sequence in Venice really is intended as a reference to Moonraker, which, after all, included a reference to Close Encounters in its Venice sequence.)
Indy and Elsa sneak into Castle Nazi without much trouble at all, and Indy finds his father secreted away in a store room, bringing Act I to a close.
ACT II (47:55-1:21:00) If Act I is "Get Indy to his father," Act II is "Get Indy and his father to the grail." Like most movies, and especially most Spielberg movies, the middle act is where all the real conflicts are played out -- the first act sets all the pieces in motion, the last act pulls them all together -- the middle act (or acts, in many Spielberg movies) is the real heart of the movie, what it is "about."
So Indy hooks up with this father, who is being held captive by the Nazis in Castle Nazi. They are both captured by the Nazis, and then find out that a) they have both been duped by lead villain Donovan (not that Donovan). Donovan takes off for Berlin to confab, I guess, with Hitler, leaving Indy and his father tied up in Castle Nazi.
Meanwhile, Brody meets up with stalwart Helpful Animal Sallah on the way to the grail, and is promptly kidnapped by Nazis.
(Now then: it's my understanding that the lighter, more jovial tone of Last Crusade was intended as a kind of amends for the dark, weird, brutal Temple of Doom. And the tone is definitely lighter, but if it was me I probably would have stopped short of Indy and his father both having sex with Elsa. Although it certainly underscores a lot of the themes of the movie. But talk about things you have to explain to your kids. Sheesh. It was bad enough when my son Sam (7) asked how Indy could be with a different woman in Raiders and Temple -- now I have to explain how he can sleep with a Nazi who has also slept with his father.)
(Indy lectures Dad about his relationship with his mother, yet Indy seems to have no lasting relationships with any women whatsoever.)
THE BAD GUY PLOT: I'm fairly impressed with Donovan. His plan is better worked out than Belloq's, and more personal than Mola Ram's. His plot, largely unseen, goes like this: working in league with the Nazis (why I'm not sure) he hires Indy's father to find the clues that will lead him to the grail. When Indy's father refuses to cooperate and gets rid of his grail diary (sending it to Indy), Donovan hires Indy on the pretext of "rescuing" his father. Indy's father, of course, does not need rescuing -- he's in Castle Nazi and Donovan knows it. What Donovan expects is that Indy will lead Elsa to the clue in Venice and that will give Donovan the information he needs to find the grail. Donovan, oddly, isn't interested in the object itself -- he's happy to turn the grail over to the Nazis, all he wants is to drink from it and acquire immortality. And then Elsa, it turns out, has her own bad-guy plot -- she's going to lead Donovan to a false grail, which will kill him and gain her the grail for her own uses. All of this works nicely.
Indy and his father escape from Castle Nazi and come to a literal crossroads (complete with signpost in the shape of a cross). Indy wants to go get Brody, his dad wants to go get the grail diary back from Elsa. Indy wants to rescue the man, his father is still obsessed with the object. (This is why Brody had to come along on the trip -- so he can be kidnapped and allow for this restatement of theme. If Brody were not along as a Victim, Indy would have to argue against going after the grail, not argue in favor of rescuing Brody.)
And this is a good place to stop for today.