“Don’t Call Me Junior”: Honoring the Father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

illustration by Tom Ralston
The first scene of Steven Spielberg’s third Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, begins differently than its predecessors: instead of opening in medias res during one of Indiana Jones’s international adventures (say, creeping through a South American rainforest or preparing to make a deal with Chinese gangsters at a nightclub), this third installment plays with the introductory expectations laid out by the two previous films. Shots following a trail of horseback riders winding their way through the burnt orange canyons of the American West appear to constitute a classic Indiana Jones opening, in which we follow our hero (Harrison Ford) as he leads a party to a temple or tomb—but then the riders are revealed to be a group of Boy Scouts, and the eponymous hero whose caravan we thought we were tracking is actually nowhere to be found. After dismounting, two scouts explore the caverns and, peeking over a ledge, observe a group of men excavating something. Standing over them is a familiar silhouette, a man in a leather jacket and a high-crowned, wide-brimmed sable fedora. But when he turns to examine a golden cross that the diggers have unearthed, we don’t recognize him; he is not Indiana Jones. That’s because Indiana Jones, we realize, is one of the two teenagers peeking down at the crew. This is 1912, and he’s just a boy.

What follows is an elaborate chase sequence that serves as a kind of origin story for our hero—the adolescent Indy (River Phoenix, doing a bang-up Harrison Ford) realizes that the men are grave-robbers and stealing a valuable artifact, and so swipes it and flees, accumulating the classic Indy iconography as he goes. After he jumps off his galloping horse onto a speeding circus train, he encounters animals who spur him to use a bullwhip for the first time, give him his prominent chin scar, and ensure his phobia of snakes. He runs back to his house, hoping to tell his father what has happened, but his father is absorbed in research and makes him wait, telling him to count to 20 out loud in Greek as an exercise in patience. In the meantime, the bandit catches up to him and re-acquires the artifact. But the man is impressed with Indy, even proud of him. Smiling, he takes off his hat and places it on Indy’s head. This is the hat, we realize—the one that, as an adult, Indy has loved for two films, the one he’ll stick his arm under a falling slab of stone to grab, the one he’ll never leave behind.

Furthermore, this man’s whole outfit is the one Indy will later wear on his adventures—the button-down and khakis, the leather jacket and shoulder bag. The grown-up Indy has fashioned himself in the image of this man, emulating the look and even the occupational stylings of this nameless stranger for his whole adult life. That this man means so much to him suggests firmly that he has rejected his own father—the man who sits in such close proximity, yet has no time, patience, or interest to listen to his son and understand what is wrong. This man, this bandit he has just met, offers the young Indy admiration and pride—fond paternal regard which, it is implied, he has long been denied. 

In this same scene, Indy rushes through his house past a large, sleeping dog—who looks up and squeaks with glee when Indy goes past. Indy’s name is Henry Jones, Jr., but he never goes by it—he prefers to be called “Indiana,” a moniker which remains unexplained until the film’s last scene, which humorously reveals that his beloved childhood dog was also named Indiana, and that Indy took that name for himself. Rejecting his father’s name, teenage Indy chose to share a kind of patronymic connection with the only other creature in his household who presumably provided him with attention and love. For Indiana Jones, everyone is a formative father figure—random criminals, animals—except his own father.


While the previous two films—Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—send our hero to recover ancient religious artifacts that have been intercepted by nefarious parties, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade sends Indy on a quest for something much more personal. Though the film’s artifactual MacGuffin is the Holy Grail of Christian tradition, this time, Indy’s actual quest is to track down his dad, who has gone missing while working to locate the Grail itself. When the tycoon Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) attempts to recruit Indy to locate the Grail, he initially declines, bitterly dismissing the legend as the provenance of his father. This valuable historical object is normally the kind of thing Indy would be thrilled to track down—this is the cup from which Christ drank at the last supper, which caught his blood during his crucifixion, and which is believed to endow all who drink from it with eternal life—yet, despite his palpable excitement, Indy refuses. Until, that is, he learns that his father had been involved in that same Grail expedition and has since vanished.

Indy’s father is an expert on the subject—probably the world’s foremost expert. “Grail lore is his hobby,” Indy explains to Donovan. “He’s a teacher of Medieval Literature, the one the students hope they don’t get.” It’s at this point in the film that we begin to understand how conflicted Indy is to overlap with his father’s existence at all, let alone how tortured he is by their similarities—both are PhDs, scholars of religious history, and skilled readers of ancient languages. Indy, too, is a teacher with a complicated relationship with his students, though he seems to swing towards the opposite extreme; an earlier scene shows him mobbed by incredulous college kids on his way to his office at Marshall College, with his secretary handing him an enormous stack of term papers that “still haven’t been graded.” One might imagine that Indy’s whole persona comes from his desire not to be the kind of professor his father is. But, despite the co-eds we see smiling at him, it seems like many of his students also find him to be a frustrating teacher. Indy has clearly battled with his father’s influence on his interests and career, and has managed to combine his academic father’s thirst for research and history with his behatted father figure’s penchant for graverobbing and related fieldwork misdemeanors.

The great beauty of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, screenwritten by Jeffrey Boam, is that the dynamics between the two Dr. Joneses play out alongside their exploration of New Testament legend—which centrally features a deferential, sacrificial relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The film is about fathers and sons, through and through; the Holy Grail is, after all, the most enduring relic of New Testament history, which chronicles Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of (and struggle with) his divine Father’s plan of salvation. On a narrative level, Indy’s dad’s quest is for the Grail, and Indy’s quest is for his father; a father seeks a son while being sought by his own son. Indy, who both resembles and rebels against his father, is on the road towards accepting his father’s mysterious ways, just as his own father will be driven to accept his son’s deviation from his own likeness.

Even though they will meet at some midpoint, this is more Indy’s journey. As in Christian theology, the son must show love for his father by accepting what the father needs from him, not the other way around. In the Christian tradition, Jesus struggles with the burden of his father’s expectations for him—expressing his doubts about his impending execution in the Garden of Gethsemane, crying out that his father has forsaken him while on the cross—but ultimately he decides to honor his father’s wishes for the greater good. And, as repeated in The Last Crusade, the son will find his greatest purpose in finishing the mission originally begun by his father.


Immediately after learning of his father’s disappearance, Indy and his colleague Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) board a plane to Venice, the last known location of Indy’s father. They have a few clues—before he disappeared, Henry Jones Sr. had mailed his “Grail Diary” to his son. For his entire career, Henry has mined Medieval texts for information about the Grail’s whereabouts; as is the case with his son, teaching is a day job adjacent to his true passion of hunting for relics. When they arrive in Venice, Henry’s colleague, Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), says that Indy’s father was very close to finding the location of a medieval knight’s tomb, which reveals further clues about the Grail’s location. “He was as giddy as a schoolboy,” she tells Indy and Marcus. Indy scoffs. “Who, Attila the Professor? He was never giddy, even when he was a schoolboy.” He turns back to look at Marcus, as if to verify this—one of several clues that the Englishman Marcus (who says he has known Henry “since time began”) went to school with Indy’s father, whom we have heard in the flashback sequence speak with a Scottish accent while telling Indy to wait. Marcus seems to have a more avuncular relationship with Indy than suggested in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, since Indy frequently brings Marcus the relics he finds (ahem, steals) on his expeditions, and Marcus is thrilled and proud to receive them, it’s conceivable that working with Marcus is the closest Indy has ever felt to his dad—or to having a dad at all. 

Indy makes jibes like this whenever his dad comes up. When Donovan, who is funding the Grail expedition, first summons Indy, our hero calls the story of the Grail a “bedtime story” and “an old man’s dream”—simultaneously criticizing his father of the past and mocking his father in the present. It seems logical that the Grail stories with which Indy’s father is obsessed were literally Indy’s bedtime stories as a little boy—if his father told him any at all. Indy wants to write his father off as an unfriendly fuddy-duddy academic, but every time his father’s research leads him in a meaningful direction, Indy gets excited. “Just like your father,” Elsa tells him, when they locate an inscribed Grail marker in the knight’s tomb. “Giddy as a schoolboy.” Indy shrugs this off, noting that his father would never have been able to make it down to the catacombs, which were teeming with rats. “He’s scared to death of them.” Indy should know a thing or two about a vulnerability like this, but he doesn’t say more.  

They quickly learn where Henry is—held prisoner, for some reason, at a castle along the Austro-German border. Indy and Elsa realize they’ll need disguises in order to enter, so Indy borrows Elsa’s beret and whips up a character, Lord Clarence MacDonald, who has arrived at the castle in hopes of viewing the tapestries. He performs a loud, exaggerated Scottish accent so fake that the snooty butler sneers, “If you are a Scottish lord, then I am Mickey Mouse!” It’s curious that Indy, who has never done an impression or enacted a performance once in his entire series (even after stealing and donning people’s uniforms to sneak into places), feels compelled to don a mocking Scottish persona. His father is somewhere in the castle; Indy’s snarky jabs have mutated to full-blown parody as he has gotten closer to his dad, suggesting just how stressful he finds their imminent meeting.

But nothing prepares him for the nostalgic blow of seeing his father again. When Indy swings from his bullwhip and crashes through the window of the room where his father is being kept, Indy’s father, believing him to be one of his captors, smashes him over the head with a vase. Surprised, he exclaims “Junior?!” when he sees his son, and Indy, head wound or not, straightens up right away and reflexively cries, “Yes, sir!” 

Indy regresses to his childhood attitude towards his father, and viewers watch their relationship play out in microcosm: Indy rubs his injured head, while his father worries more about having destroyed a vase he believes hails from the Ming Dynasty. Indy thinks he’s apologizing when he murmurs, “I’ll never forgive myself”; a big, goofy smile sneaks onto his face, but fades when his father cheerfully realizes that the vase is a forgery. “You can tell by the cross section,” he chirps, as Indy grimaces. “I am sorry about your head, though,” Henry adds, but it’s too late. Once again, Indy feels unimportant to his father—significantly less valued than a random antique. “What you taught me,” Indy shoots back in a later scene, “was that I was less important to you than people who’d been dead for 500 years in another country.” 

Their reunion, which takes place almost halfway into the film, is made even more complex via the legacy of the actor who plays Indy’s father, Sean Connery. The irony of casting Connery—the man who invented the 20th-century action hero archetype from which Indiana Jones is doubtlessly descended—as an uptight bookworm provides the film with further charm. But it also imbues the relationship between the two Dr. Joneses with even greater meaning, since Indiana Jones exists in the shadow of the Bond films, a similarly episodic, set piece-driven action series. Connery’s James Bond is the epitome of cool—an untouchable, indefatigable, slick, high-tech hero—while Ford’s Jones is scrappy, sweaty, often careless, and frequently has to make things up as he goes along. Connery as Dr. Jones Sr. continues to embody a kind of distant, unapproachable expertise that chafes with Indy’s devil-may-care antics. It makes sense that Indy might see his father rather a bit like Bond—cool, controlled, unreachable. Indy looks up to his father and craves his approval, no matter how much he pretends not to. Nothing makes this plainer than his knee-jerk reversion to calling his father “sir” when he sees him again.

Connery and Ford have unmatchable chemistry—they bicker constantly, thoroughly believable as parent and child, especially because their characters are united ideologically. Not long after Indy bursts in on his captive father, a horde of Nazis enters the room; it becomes clear that Henry had not gone missing but was imprisoned after realizing the Nazis were involved in the Grail recovery efforts (most likely after realizing that Dr. Elsa Schneider was a Nazi herself). It’s 1938, two years after the Nazi effort to possess the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and this is their sophomore attempt; Walter Donovan, it turns out, has teamed up with the Nazis in his determination to access the Grail and its promise of immortality. Both the Joneses hate the Nazis. But even though they understand the critical importance of preventing the Grail from falling into the hands of the Third Reich, they disagree about how to get things done. After mailing Indy his Grail Diary to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands, Henry is irate to find out that Indy has brought it with him, snapping, “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!” Furthermore, Henry is often shocked by Indy’s fighting choices; when Indy grabs a machine gun and kills an entire pack of encircling Nazis, Henry gasps, “Look what you did!” Other times, as when they are fleeing from the castle via motorcycle and Indy grabs a flagpole with which to joust their Nazi pursuers, chuckling, his father looks unamused, winding his watch instead. As the opening flashback sequence indicates, Indy has always wanted his father to recognize his maturity, or treat him at least like a young man. Every time his father calls him “Junior,” Indy grows agitated—both for the insinuation that he is greener, and for the reminder of the connection to his father, which he has already rejected. 

As much as they chafe, though, Indy clearly longs for a bond between them. They find an unlikely overlap when they discover that they have both slept with Elsa, but this is not ideal. It is significant, though—father and son are, to a degree, interchangeable. In Christian tradition, Jesus Christ is God just as his Father is God; here, both men are different personages of the same entity. There are lots of moments in the film that reinforce this doubling (“Not that Jones! The other Jones!”). But if this film is about the importance of the son growing up and assuming his father’s mantle, then their shared sexual partner is significant in this regard; by sleeping with the same woman his father has already slept with, Indy is taking on his father’s roles. 

Since both men are two sides of the same coin, they take a little while to warm to the other’s way of conducting business. Henry is learning to be intrigued by his son’s style of work, even marveling, “Sharing your adventures is an interesting experience,” but Indy still has bones to pick with his father’s work ethic, which has always prioritized solitary research above family. “It was just the two of us, Dad,” he says, adding, “It was a lonely way to grow up. For you, too. If  you’d been an ordinary, average father, like the other guys’ dads, you’d have understood that.” Here, comparing Henry to his friends’ fathers, Indy might as well be a teenager, begging for something by noting that other kids’ parents had given in. An earlier attempt to pit his mother against his father is a bit sophomoric, too; Indy mutters that his late mother was also hurt by Henry’s isolating tendencies—we learn that she kept her illness secret from Henry, so as not to hamper his work. Indy still does not forgive him for this. Henry, though, claims that his wife had understood him, and insists that he was a “wonderful father”—teaching his son “self-reliance” and never nagging him. But Indy’s behavior in these scenes suggests a desire for more than a bond. He wants to be parented. He’s frozen in time, stuck as his father’s adolescent son rather than his adult one.

Thus, Indy’s quest turns out to be not only to find his father physically, but also to find his father’s true inner self—to understand how to communicate with him, how to build an adult relationship with him. When Indy and his father have stolen back the Grail Diary, and head into the desert of the Republic of Hatay to rescue Marcus (and the Grail map he is holding), they wind up battling a horde of Nazis, who (this time) are armored with a giant tank which they intend to drive to the Grail site. In an extended chase sequence, Indy, Henry, and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies, a jolly delight in Raiders and back to similar effect) manage to catch up with the tank. While Henry had been taciturn in their last adventure—escaping from the castle—he’s in his element now. He sneaks into the tank to rescue Marcus. Tapping his friend on the shoulder from behind, he completes one half of a secret handshake, which we  can infer harks back to school days in Britain. “Genius of the Res-to-ration,” Henry says, flapping his hands in time. Automatically, Marcus finishes it before he even asks Henry what he’s doing in the belly of the tank: “Aid our own re-sus-ci-tation,” he says, gesturing back. He is as “giddy as a schoolboy” now—and when the Nazi officers pile into the tank after him, he manages to fight a group of them using a fountain pen he fishes from his blazer pocket—squirting a would-be strangler in the face with it. This leads Marcus to cry, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” By the time Indy lands on the tank, Henry pops out of the top, laughing to his son, “You call this archaeology?!” even though Indy doesn’t recognize this for the good humor that it is.

Henry may have come round to Indy’s way of doing things, but he hasn’t officially atoned for the neglect with which he raised his son. Indy lingers on the tank after Henry and Marcus dismount, wrestling with a particularly vicious Nazi as the tank charges towards the edge of a cliff. The machine tumbles over the side, and Henry, Marcus, and Sallah run to the edge in panic. At the realization that Indy has likely fallen over with the tank, Henry appears shocked—because it has happened so quickly, but also doubtlessly because he has seen his son defy death countless times before, seemingly as immortal as God the Son. He screams “Junior!” into the canyon, and scans the ground below, searching for any sign of his son. Connery sets his jaw into a grimace, and for a few moments, his eyes flick from side to side, as if he’s reading the scene before him like words on a page. But then his face softens and his eyes go still. Connery designs Henry’s initial reaction as a search, first, and an emotional response second—rather like his son did upon realizing his father had been kidnapped. The Joneses respond to emotionally fraught moments—even presumed losses—by getting into gear, logically looking for evidence and solving problems. But Henry can’t find his son on the ground, and as he looks hard, his face melts into dumbfoundedness. “I’ve lost him,” he says, stunned. “And I never told him anything! I just wasn’t ready, Marcus.” He pauses. “Five minutes would have been enough.”  

But Christ figure that he is, Indy’s apparent death has not lasted; when he staggers back up to land from the vine he had caught himself on, he joins his father, Marcus, and Sallah in watching the battered tank groan hundreds of yards below. His father does a double take, and then pulls Indy forward in an enormous embrace. “I thought I’d lost you, boy!” he cries, smiling hugely. So does Indy, and for a moment, the two men grin in each other’s arms, their first breakthrough possibly ever.

Of course, neither man’s emotional journey is complete. When they arrive at the temple where the ancient map says the Grail rests, they find Donovan, Elsa, and the Nazis, who have beaten them there, but have been stalled by the booby traps at the entrance to the Grail chamber. Donovan cleverly shoots Henry’s father in the abdomen, enticing Indy to walk through the traps to recover the Grail for them. “The healing power of the Grail is the only thing that can save your father now,” he says.

Indy is terrified. Laying his father on the ground, he winces when he sees the hole in his father’s side. Gritting his teeth, he steps up to the entrance of the chamber, holding his father’s Grail Diary in his hands. This scene is the fulfillment of all the swirling questions in the film: Indy must show his love for his father, not only by sacrificing himself, but also by finishing the mission his father began—a mission he did not choose to be part of, and which he never understood. As Indy gets ready to enter the chamber, Donovan tells him, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”

The question of Indy’s faith curiously pervades Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, heightened by the fact that, in the first two installments of his franchise, we have seen him encounter divine artifacts whose supernatural capabilities might prove the existence of a higher power. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the opening of the Ark releases Angel of Death-esque phantoms that kill anyone who dares to look at them. Indy knows enough about the fury and power of the Old Testament God to know to close his eyes when the lid is lifted—but no one else, including the horde of Nazi soldiers guarding it, does. And in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy is a firsthand witness to the divine powers held by sacred Sankara stones honoring the Hindu god Shiva, as well as the destruction wrought by the evil priest of a Thuggee cult making sacrifices to the god Kali. In other words, by the time Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has begun, Indy has personally seen enough evidence to suggest the existence of the gods of several religious traditions; why, then, is the question of the veracity of the Holy Grail, or the realness of God, even up for debate?

Perhaps it’s not that Indy doesn’t believe in God, but that he has never believed in his father’s God, which is to say, he has never believed in his father. Now, though, he only has his father to rely on—via the clues Henry had written in his Grail Diary. All the traps are geared around respecting God; as he solves the puzzles to save his father’s life, Indy winds up practicing veneration of a figure he has long grappled with. As he proceeds, following his father’s notes, we realize that his father’s methodical, calibrated work is the only thing that will save his life here. The first trial makes him kneel—lest he get sliced open by giant spinning blades. The second trial requires that he step on tiles marked with the spelling of God’s Latin name, Iehova. But the third trial is the trickiest one. Indy finds himself standing at the edge of an enormous chasm. The doorway to the Grail chamber is on the other side. Indy realizes that the third trial is “a leap of faith.” The distance is impossible to jump, and the abyss below is countless fathoms deep.

Indy has seen this strange bridge at the beginning of the film, standing in his father’s ransacked apartment, just before he and Marcus head to Venice. Wondering where his father is, he looks at his father’s collection of Christian paintings. There is an old-looking illustration of a knight walking across a chasm of air to reach the Grail while knights around him fall into the gorge. “Do you believe the Grail actually exists?” he asked Marcus then, symbolically linking the Grail (and its leap of faith trial) with filial doubt from the get-go. Now, Indy has no choice other than to believe it does. 

As Henry Sr. whispers the clue in terror, bleeding out in the front of the temple, with Marcus and Sallah by his side, he whispers a sort of prayer: “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Henry is not praying for his sake, but for his son’s. As if guided by these words, Indy closes his eyes and steps off the edge. And he falls—a foot below, onto a solid, invisible surface. At this moment, the camera pulls to the side, revealing that Indy is standing on a stone bridge painted over to look exactly like the wall on the opposite side, creating an optical illusion that he is walking on nothing.

This last challenge is tricky, because it’s not like the two previous ones: there’s no chance of dying simply for proceeding through. In fact, by proceeding, you decidedly live. The hard part is deciding to proceed in the first place, despite the grand lack of evidence for success. If the first two challenges symbolize Iehova, the Old Testament God, then the last challenge firmly honors the God of the New Testament, Jesus’s father: benevolent, always promising to catch those who fall. This sequence calls to mind Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son, which tells of a father happy to embrace a son who has strayed from him. No matter what Indy has believed at other times, his faith now saves him. He is caught when he falls. This is what Indy has needed to learn about his own father—that despite their tense relationship, he should trust that his father always has a plan, and know that his father will always be there for him.

This moment firmly dispels the prevailing theme of intergenerational conflict that presides over the film, and so does Indy’s encounter with the Grail’s guardian, an ancient knight of the First Crusade who has been watching over the relic since then. Weary, centuries-old, he lifts up his sword when Indy walks through, but then falls over. The aged Knight explains that his task is to duel whoever enters; in order to pass on the Grail legend to the next man, he must be defeated in combat by him. But he puts his sword down, gracefully and kindly telling Indy that he passes his guardianship of the Grail willingly—underscoring the idea that fathers and forefathers want to pass on their missions to their heirs without having to fight about them.

Later, after Donovan’s greed kills him in the Grail Chamber, and Elsa causes an earthquake by trying to take the Grail from its temple, a rumbling inside the temple shakes Indy into a crevasse—the Grail has toppled down into the crack before him and is perched on a little ledge a few feet down. As Indy dangles, grasping the ledge with one hand, he reaches for the cup with the other. He’s not about to let the greatest artifact in the history of the world get lost again—and it seems that his father, of all people, should understand. “I can almost reach it, Dad,” Indy says, straining to finger the cup.” But then he hears his father’s voice and it breaks his temptation. In a reversal of their first encounter in Venice—in which Henry cares more about the Ming vase than about his son’s injured head—he picks his son over the holy cup. “Indiana,” his father tells him. “Let it go.” With this remarkable gesture, Henry has demonstrated that Indy is more important to him than his ostensible life’s work, a reversal of the order Indy had perceived for his entire life.

 The relationship between a son and his father is frequently fraught and emotional—constricted by traditional modes of masculinity, and burdened with the conflict between love and the desire to define oneself according to one’s own terms. The only way to bridge the gulf between father and son is to accept the love that the other is capable of giving, rather than dwell on the love one wishes to receive. On a plot level, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is about Indy saving his father. But on an emotional level, it is about Indy learning how to love his father, to accept his father’s guidance, and to discover how much his father already loves him. Much like God the Father and God the Son, Henry Jones Sr. and Henry Jones Jr. are a part of each other, inextricably bound together for all eternity. And by the end of the film, they can both learn to live with that.