I /msged AMJ God knows how long ago in disagreement with her above assessment. I drafted a response, but never posted it, for reasons I've now forgotten. However, now that it's Indy-pendence Day on AMC, I figured I'd post the dissenting view before returning to the television to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom.
The portrayal of women in the Indiana Jones trilogy is less than perfect. After Indiana crosses her path for the first time in years, the strong and independent Marion Ravenwood is reduced to shouting "Indy!" for the remainder of the "Raiders Of The Lost Ark". Willie Scott is essentially a sheltered princess in "Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom", and Elsa Schneider is indeed a greedy Nazi in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". But to assess "Last Crusade" as a film about grail legend and the medieval attitudes towards women is absurd.
The third film in the Indiana Jones Trilogy, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", is less a story about the quest for the Holy Grail and medieval attitudes towards women, and more a story about faith and the interpersonal relationships between Indiana and his father. This rebuttal seeks to disprove the assertion of the above essay, with a more in-depth analysis of the film.
Because the film is part of a trilogy, it cannot be analyzed on its own, nor can the trilogy be discussed without a word about its creators. Significant character development has occurred before the opening credits have rolled! The films are a result of a writer's words, a director's vision, and the actor's inspiration! This necessitates the introduction of elements from outside the scope of just "The Last Crusade" in order for a complete analysis to be made.
As the film opens, in 1912, Indiana Jones is just a teenager, but is already learning skills he will need for the future through the fledgling organization known as the Boy Scouts of America. While on a troop hike, Indy and his friend come across a group of treasure hunters who have uncovered the Cross Of Coronado (even in his young age, Indy is able to identify it and explain its history and significance).
It is important to understand that this part of the film is in a sense a mini-prequel to "Raiders Of The Lost Ark". It is not the introduction of the Indiana Jones character, but rather an insight into how the Indiana character we already know came to be. A number of "Indi-isms" are explained here - his fear of snakes, the origin of the whip, and of "Betsy", his trusty hat. The viewer also learns that at this young age, Indiana has already developed his rogueish pursuit of an altruistic goal, as he steals the Cross not for personal gain, but so that it might be displayed in a museum.
It is here that we also first meet his father, working diligently on what we will learn later is his grail diary. Indiana races into his home and bursts into his father's study, eager to show him the Cross and win his father's approval. His father doesn't even bother to turn around, focusing on his diary and suggesting that his son count to twenty... in Greek. In the meantime, the cross is stripped from him. This is a classic Spielberg motif -- his films often feature absent or bad fathers -- popping up in such films as "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial", "Hook", and "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind".
Fast forward to the Portuguese Coast, 1938. Jones once again comes into possession of the Cross, narrowly escaping for the umpteenth time, arriving back at the university. When Brody promises the university's standard retrieval fee (along with dinner), Indy displays the same "So what" attitude that he showed after retrieving artifacts from the Chachapoyan Temple in "Raiders". The pursuit of facts (not truth, as he explains) is what drives him. The pursuit of facts, however, is the pursuit of his father's approval under the guise of a different name.
It is his father who drives him towards the Grail. When he meets with Donovan (the true villain in the film) and is told of the Grail and the missing man, he suggests that his father is a much better resource to tap for those seeking the grail. His father, he is told, IS the missing man. Thus begins Indiana's true quest, and the introduction of Elsa. It should be noted that although Donovan is portrayed as a non-violent effeminate male, he is no more a Nazi than Belloq was in "Raiders". He simply uses the Nazis as a means to an end.
The good doctor Elsa meets Jones and Brody at a pier in Venice. She is suitably dressed for the occasion, skirt below the knees, as is Indiana, in suit and tie. She is not terse with them, in fact exchanging pleasantries with Indiana. It is not until Marcus stumbles forth that she introduces herself formally as "Dr. Elsa Schneider". Indeed she has a feminine appeal that would soften the hardness of a profession like archaeology, which the essayist would describe as entailing "long hours in the sun" and "sifting through dirt". The film contradicts the essayist's point, however, as Indiana explains to his class that "70% of all archaeology is done in the library. Reading. Research." This would seem to indicate the archaeology is not such a dirty profession.
But Elsa Schneider is not an archaeologist. She is an art historian. Which would suggest an even cleaner profession. She is dressed as you would expect an art historian to dress in a meeting with a professor of archaeology. If there is a negative portrayal of women here, it is in Brody and Jones' assumption that Dr. Schneider is a man. Even as they exchange pleasantries, it doesn't cross Indiana's mind that SHE is Dr. Schneider. This speaks less towards Indiana's treatment of women and more towards the state of the world in 1938. It would not be very common for a woman to be a reknowned art historian, although one could argue that this doesn't excuse the pair's assumption.
It is the essayist's assertion that Schneider is not dressed suitably for a trek through the catacombs, and this is true. But neither is Indiana... the trip to the underworld was not a planned one, but one made only after Indiana discovers that it is not a book about a knight he is looking for, but the actual tomb of the knight. As Elsa is lowered into the catacombs, we see only her calves lowered, which the essayist attributes to "her person being reduced to sexualized body parts." It should be noted that her calves get less screen time in this scene than Henry Jones' stomach gets later in the film, and the selected shot serves the purpose of showing feet stepping on skulls -- a forboding sign. She also changes her dress later, not because she's "competent that she has castrated the hero," but because she's expected to travel, to Castle Brunwald, to Berlin, to the African desert.
At the same time Elsa is betraying Jones to her superior Donovan, Jones is reunited with his father. Thus begins the interaction between father and son, and through scene after scene it appears that nothing has changed. His father seems more concerned about the condition of a Ming vase than he is about the condition of the son he hit with it. After escaping from Castle Brunwald, Indiana looks back at his father with a smile on his face. His father looking unimpressed, the smile disappears and Indiana's heart sinks. After the escape from Berlin (in which we see Elsa crying over the Nazi book-burning festival... showing a good side usually not reserved for villains in the trilogy), Indiana shares a "we made it" with his dad. "When we're airborne, with Germany behind us, then I'll share that sentiment," comes the stern reply.
During this time, the Joneses are busy getting reaquainted. Indy's mother is mentioned, but not in a way that shows she tried to stay the Joneses from their course, as the essayist contends. Indy claims not to understand his father's obsession with the grail, and doesn't believe his mother did either. Henry replies that she knew all too well. It is also Indiana's assertion that Henry was a delinquent father who "cared more about people who had been dead for 500 years in another country" than he did his own family. When Henry explains that he was teaching Indiana self-reliance and offers that "I'm here now," Indy has nothing to say. This, not the quest for the grail, or the evil of women, is the crux of the story. It is Elsa, in fact, who plays a crucial role in helping Indiana save his father.
In the Cavern of the Crescent Moon, Donovan shoots Henry Jones to force Indiana to retrieve the grail. He has already verbally reprimanded Elsa, but when she protests his act, he physically pulls her back from our heroes. Perhaps this is the last straw... one can see the anger and sadness in Elsa. She gets her revenge in a way Donovan never suspects after Indiana passes the three challenges and reaches the grail room, where dozens of false grails hide the real grail.
The knight in the grail room explains that only the Grail offers eternal life... the others mean certain death. Donovan is confused -- he is power hungry, but uneducated -- so Elsa offers to choose for him. Handing her choice to Donovan she gives a knowing look to Indy, who gives her the same look back. They both know it's the wrong cup. After the threat of Donovan is dispelled, Elsa offers "It would not be made of gold." One could argue that she was only now realizing this, but given her earlier turn against Donovan and her telling look, this seems unlikely. Even the ancient knight senses this, commenting "He chose poorly" after Donovan meets his demise. Perhaps the knight is not talking about his choice of cups (since Elsa made the choice), but on his choice of who to trust.
The key scene in the film comes moments later, as Elsa's quest for the grail spells her doom. Despite the knight's warning, Elsa crosses the Great Seal with the Grail, causing the temple to collapse. As the walls come crumbling down and schisms open in the floor, Elsa reaches for the Grail as Indiana tries to lift her to safety. Unable to pull her up, Indiana's grip slips and Elsa falls to her death. Moments later, the scene is repeated, this time with Indy hanging on for dear life, and his father trying to pull him. Indy, too, is tempted by the Grail, but in the end he doesn't suffer the same fate as Elsa.
Elsa's goal is to find the grail. She sees it as "a prize to be won." She even confesses to Indiana, "We both wanted the Grail, I would have done anything to get it. You would have done the same." And in trying to achieve her goal, she meets her demise. Elsa is not punished because women are evil. She is punished for the same reason that all Indiana Jones villains are: being evil, or consorting with those that are. Given the fates that await evildoers in the Jones universe (melting faces, exploding bodies, bolts of lighting shooting through torsos, falling from rickety bridges suspended from great heights), it should be apparent that not only does evil not pay, but ends never justify means.
Prior to "The Last Crusade", one could argue that Indiana's goal is the pursuit of facts. He is known as a finder of lost antiquities, always for further public study. This is why he couldn't destroy the Ark of the Covenant when given the chance. But in light of the third film, it becomes apparent that this near obsession with artifact hunting comes from somewhere else -- Indy's quest for the approval of his father. In that respect, capturing the Holy Grail, the object his father has spent a lifetime pursuing, is his path to that goal. It is with one simple word that Henry convinces his son that the approval he seeks has been there all along:
For his entire life, Indiana has been called Junior by his father. Because that is his name: Henry Jones, Jr. And for as long as we can tell, even in 1912 Utah, Indiana wishes to be called Indiana. The fact that his father will not consent to this most basic of requests is seen by Indy as a slight. It is when his father finally calls him Indiana that his quest is complete... with or without the grail.
As a pedantic side note, it should be noted that the word "knight" comes from the Old English "cniht", which comes from Old High German "kneht", meaning "military follower". The English word that comes from the French "chevalier" is "chivalry".