Come Drink with Me
Jeff Reichert on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
It’s a plain cup, scuffed and worn. A hint of misshapenness betrays traces of the hands that formed it. The plating (brass, copper, bronze?) is tarnished and faded and, unlike the other cups it rests amongst, it’s not elaborate, not bejeweled, not shiny and golden. This is of course the reason why, at the climax of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it is the cup chosen by the film’s hero, who is at the end of a search for the legendary Holy Grail, to drink from. “That’s the cup of a carpenter,” growls Indy as he wraps his hand around its thick stem. This contrasts with the final words of Walter Donovan, the Nazi-sympathizing American businessman who was returned to dust just moments prior by quaffing from an ornate, emerald-encrusted chalice: “It’s more beautiful than I’d ever imagined…This certainly is the cup of the King of Kings.” After Donovan’s desiccated remains are scattered by a mystical wind, the grail knight intones, one eyebrow raised, “He chose . . . poorly.”
While most of the other kids I was friendly with in my youth attended Catholic Mass on Sundays, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes during the week, proudly wore crucifixes and would eventually be confirmed into the Church, I was raised without much in the way of religion. What I absorbed about the Judeo-Christian faiths I sourced largely via culture—songs, TV and, of course, the movies. It was an imperfect education. I still jumble my Abrahams and Isaacs, Cains and Abels, and receive pieces of Christian apocrypha as if it all might be central to unlocking a buried Templar secret. For the longest time, a simple cup that I saw in a movie fixed for me an entire vision of the Christian religion.
Last Crusade was released at an especially opportune moment: by age 11 (or so), my absence from the religious activities of my classmates was increasingly glaring. They would return to school laughing about a joke told in CCD the day prior, or some naughty act committed at a recent Mass. They were privy to a whole sphere of intriguing knowledge: texts, names, dates, entire histories and narratives—narratives that I could sense were often refashioned into core elements of “secular” books and films I was experiencing on my own. Even their complaints about the crushing boredom of their religious curriculum seemed exotic. Indy picked up that carpenter’s cup, drank, and was informed by the knight that he had “chosen…wisely.” This moment signified for me far beyond the bounds of one film.
The cup in Last Crusade didn’t suggest the existence of a magic drinking vessel that could heal wounds and grant immortality hidden away and guarded by an ageless knight. This is not how dominant ideologies are perpetuated. Beneath the surface of the text, in which we see that the film’s hero has indeed found and drunk from the Holy Grail, thus achieving his narrative aims, we can recognize how the choice of a simple prop cup, selected by the film’s creative team for use in a commercial production, communicates a highly specific vision of Christ and Christianity entire to its audience: modest and humble, unostentatious and definitely working class. Spielberg’s film doesn’t say this overtly, thus making the transmission of this vision all the more potent.
The entire thrust of the Indiana Jones cycle is object-centered: the hero, meek, bespectacled professor by day, globe-trotting beefcake archaeological adventurer by night, is always in search of some new, long-thought-lost something or other, regularly mystical relics central to Judeo-Christian lore. In Raiders, it is the Ark of the Covenant, a chest rumored to hold the stone tablets upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, and in Last Crusade it is the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus and his apostles drank from at the Last Supper and which would later be used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ’s blood as it dripped off of the cross.
Both artifacts bestow myriad potential benefits on their wielders: perhaps unlimited power or immortality. Indy searches for these objects under the neutered heading of “knowledge” while his Nazi opponents seek to use their magic to achieve world domination. The opening sequence of Last Crusade flashes back to the early 1900s (Raiders and Last Crusade are set in 1935 and 38, respectively) where a young Indiana (River Phoenix), while on a field trip, stumbles across a band of thieves who have unearthed the golden Cross of Coronado, said to contain a splinter taken from the one used to crucify Jesus. Young Indy conspires to steal the cross from them; “It belongs in a museum,” he shouts several times as he attempts to escape his pursuers. Indiana Jones, something of rogue, but always on the side of learning even as a teen.
We could and should ask questions about how Indy’s titular “Crusade” (a word that lands with a thud today) through the Levant is necessarily better or more valuable than what Spielberg’s imagined Nazis were up to—but the movies certainly do not. It doesn’t require explicitly siding with historical villainy to recognize a further ideological transmission at work: the implication that, while it is not okay for all white people to pillage valuable artifacts from Middle Eastern regions, it is acceptable, even desirable, for some to do so. The images and ideas contained within the Indiana Jones films are certainly deeply indebted to a different religious tradition—cinema, from B-movies to Westerns—as opposed to a mystical or religious one, but it is curious that in two of the four films to date, the sought objects in question are Judeo-Christian in origin.
The Holy Grail is an idea so potent in that culturally dominant collection of tales we call Christianity that it has, over time, achieved the status of widely employed secular metaphor (X item is the Holy Grail of Y field/search/ambition, etc). Harrison Ford’s Indy travels towards the Grail with his father, Henry Jones, Sr. (a never cheekier Sean Connery), and a pack of Nazis in tow, a trajectory not dissimilar from that of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1989, in the very early stages of Hollywood going truly global (Last Crusade is the first Indiana Jones picture to see the majority of its revenues earned overseas), building a narrative around a sacred Christian artifact made good business sense—the industry’s main audience, domestic and internationally, at that point, was likely well-aware of the Grail concept. Did the controversial reception that greeted the India-set Temple of Doom at all point towards returning the series to familiar Western religious traditions? How might an Indiana Jones film set in India, a Temple of Doom, minus the racist trappings, fare in the current marketplace? “Global” meant something quite different then than it does now.
There’s an irony underlying the deployment of Grail mythology: there is no mention of a Holy Grail in the Bible. There is a passing reference to a cup in Matthew 26:27-28: “Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” There are references to this same vessel in Luke and Corinthians. Yet it isn’t until somewhere around the 12th or 13th Century in France (though this is debated) that the Grail starts to find some purchase in the world of poetic Arthurian texts as that same Last Supper vessel, one imbued with magical properties from contact with Christ’s blood. In some texts, the Grail is less a cup or bowl than a stone—might this have been the Philosopher’s Stone, whose potential to turn tin to gold animated the actions of 16th-century alchemists? Other scholars locate antecedents for the Grail in Celtic/Pagan myth as with many other core elements of Christianity.
Most Americans are probably unfamiliar with Robert de Boron’s Joseph d'Arimathie a 12th-century text that is considered the likely first to link Joseph with the Holy Chalice, thus extending the life of the cup mentioned in Matthew beyond the bounds of the New Testament. So how to explain the prevalence of Grail lore in Western, especially U.S/U.K. cultural products? Various postulations that Joseph fled the continent and settled with the Grail in Britain allow the cup to play a role in numerous Arthurian legends. Not long after “Camelot” was applied retroactively to JFK’s brief presidency, in the early 1980s, popular texts like nonfictional bestseller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (eventually found to be based on forged historical documents), or Mary Zimmer Bradley’s fictional saga The Mists of Avalon led the charge, but I wonder if it was moving image arts that helped this object maintain cultural currency in the late 20th century. John Boorman’s portentous Excalibur earned $34 million in the U.S. in 1981, making it the sixth highest grossing film of that year. It was released in theatres in April, but the popular documentary series In Search of… hosted by Leonard Nimoy aired a Grail episode nationwide two months prior. Not long earlier, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a film that seems to, with uncanny prescience, lampoon the Boorman film), was the highest-grossing British film domestically in 1975. Last Crusade was released in May, 1989 and by September of that year, MacGyver was ready to get in on the act via a two-episode Grail quest arc. It is worth noting that, as compared to the Last Crusade cup, the one used in Excalibur is grander, bulbous and shiny. We never see the Grail Monty Python dreamt up—their production ran out of money before they were able to stage King Arthur’s climactic assault on the Castle of Aaargh.
If we can separate the Indiana Jones series from the specifically Western Judeo-Christian tradition and the objectively colonialist impulses underlying stories of a white male academic traveling to non-Western countries to take religious objects considered the property of the West, the films do make a thin case for the value of locating, collecting and cataloguing objects to fill out historical records. (Even if the Ark of the Covenant is placed into deep storage at the end of Raiders, we are at least left with the sense that it is somehow “safe”.) Indiana Jones texts following Last Crusade broaden the purview: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which posits a group of ancient alien archaeologists who once came to Earth to research us, and the should-be-canon 1992 point-and-click video game Fate of Atlantis, move the series away from Judeo-Christian religious mysteries towards those that could more broadly be deemed secular. We don’t know yet what artifact(s) the fifth installment will pursue, but I’d wager that the implications of Indy and his father both drinking from the Holy Grail in Last Crusade will remain unexamined.
Christianity, that nervous and scattered middle child of the three Abrahamic religions, is obsessed with objects and talismans, of wealth gospels and accumulation. One could go further, cynically, and suggest the Eucharist locates “consumption” as a/the central node of the religion (Mike Flanagan’s sly Christian-horror series Midnight Mass concurs). That cup in Last Crusade: it was designed, but not for the film, by two Finnish craftsmen, Saul Nordqvist and Holger Granbäck, who collaborated for decades producing objects via a studio called Savitorppa. Their work is earthy, rounded, out-of-time; their vessels look as though they could have been unearthed from an archaeological dig in Syria or beamed back to us from some distant post-capitalist future. The use of a cup of this sort in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is ideologically loaded, even if, for me, the ideas and images it transmitted dulled over time.
It feels appropriate at this point to mention that anyone wishing to own their own Holy Grail can do so quite easily via Amazon for the low price of $42.99. Plus shipping, unless you’re a Prime member, natch. In Last Crusade, as Indy chooses his cup to drink from, his teutonic love interest notes, “It would not be made out of gold.” The “Bulex Indiana Jones Holy Grail Cup Crafts 1:1 Resin Replica Halloween Cosplay Prop (Gold)” sure ain’t ether. What’s the line from Ecclesiastes: “All are from dust, and to dust all return”?