Indiana’s Crusade for the Perfect Female, or, Why We Go Grail-Hunting
When I was ten, my mother took us to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was the first time I had heard of the Holy Grail, and I was sucked in by the story of the swashbuckling archaeologist who searches for Christ’s sacred cup while fending off evil Nazis. It is a quest for the perfect item, the symbol of “illumination” as Indy’s father calls it. Of course, as a child, I was unaware of the subtext of the film, how it mirrors medieval attitudes towards women, enforcing the idea that women are evil, or at least an accomplice of evil. The film accomplishes this seduction in two ways—utilizing what Laura Mulvey calls “the gaze” in cinema, and in utilizing the elements of medieval Romance/the fairy tale.
The grail legend “is one of those fairy-tales of which there are so many, in which the search for a ‘treasure hard to attain’ and deliverance from a magic spell form the principal themes” (Jung and von Franz 9). The same can be said of this film. Indiana Jones sets off to find the Holy Grail, protecting it from the Third Reich, and hopes to both find his kidnapped father and lessen the power of the Nazis. Indiana is a type of Perceval, and so takes on the role of the young fool who wins the greatest prize. Like Perceval, he is introduced to us as living a long time ago in the wilderness—here, the wilds of Utah in 1911. This type of wilderness or country setting is a common fairy-tale opening. From here, we watch the youth make a number of mistakes in trying to do what is right (save the treasure of Coronado from a pack of looters), and is instructed by one of those looters in how to be a man, just as Perceval is instructed by Gournemant in Le Conte del Graal, the principal grail text by Chretien de Troyes. This is also where he gains his first talisman in the story, the fedora, which symbolizes his identity “;Indiana Jones'--Adventurer” as opposed to “Henry Jones--Professor”. From here we follow him to his adulthood, where we learn he is a well respected professor (here read knight), yet one who feels the need to escape the confines of the university (i.e., the court) for the adventure of the outside world.
And so he is told of the grail by a man called Donovan, and how his father has been searching for it but has since been kidnapped. Of course, it is Indiana to the rescue, searching for his lost father in Venice and Salzburg—a land far away. This is also the introduction of the second talisman, the “grail diary” of his father, which will tell them how to find the grail. It is a symbol of power—in a sense, phallic, representing the superior knowledge of man. In Venice, he makes a trip to the underworld (a series of catacombs), where he is able to gain information in order to locate the grail. (A trip to the underworld, especially to gain knowledge, is standard in myth; for example, Odysseus, Aeneas, the goddess Inanna). He is then taken prisoner with his father; they make several daring escapes, including a trip to the underworld to retrieve the grail diary from the bonfires of 1939 Berlin, and come face to face with the devil (Hitler) and survive. Meanwhile, Brody, the alternate hero, the Gawain of our story, has been captured by the Nazis, and is being taken to the location of the grail. Indiana goes to rescue Brody, and instead has his father captured yet again and placed with Brody in a tank—swallowed by a dragon (the event is even referred to as being “in the belly of that steel beast”). Indiana, now on horseback (as every knight is supposed to be: knight = (Fr) chevalier > (L) caballus, horse), saves the day, seems to die, but instead survives (hard-to-kill-heroes or heroes who rise from the dead are also a common theme, and an Arthurian one). The three now make it to the temple of the grail, where the Nazis are trying to pass the tests. Indiana is the only one who can pass the test by knowing the questions and their answers (like Perceval). As incentive, the Nazis shoot his father, who plays the role of the Maimed King or Fisher King that Perceval must heal. Indiana succeeds in passing the three trials, and makes it to the inner sanctum, where an ancient knight waits for him. Jones is followed by two Nazis—Donovan, who sent him on the original quest, and a woman named Else, who helped Indy get this far. Donovan has Else choose the grail from the many fakes which line the wall. She chooses poorly, and Donovan, when he drinks from it, is destroyed. Indy chooses now, and chooses the correct one—“the cup of a carpenter.” He takes the grail back to his father in the antechamber, healing him, and preparing to leave. Else, however, tries to take the grail from the temple, which the knight instructed them was impossible, and the temple collapses. However, Indy, his father, and Brody all escape, riding off into the sunset.
Now, as you can see, it follows a typical fairy tale/Romance storyline. Talismans, trips to the underworld, the quest, all play a role in this story. So it is fitting that this film should serve both Laura Mulvey’s essay on visual pleasure as well as medieval attitudes towards women in its depiction of Else Schneider, Indy’s fellow archaeologist and a Nazi, as well as the few other women in the film, which for the most part are Nazis also. First we will deal with Mulvey’s essay, and then the problem of the evil female.
In Mulvey’s essay, she writes that cinema offers a specific types of pleasure, that of “scopophilia (pleasure in looking)… which is the process of taking other people as objects” (16), and that of narcissism, which leaves the viewer either identifying with or emphasizing the difference between himself and the figures on the screen. Woman “connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure” (21). She is always the other, “that which is not me,” representing danger. Elsa is then our nemesis, that which will cause both our desire and our destruction, while Indy is that whom we identify with. This is aptly displayed in the way the film visually presents her to us, both as an erotic object and as a dangerous female, not as smart as she thinks she is.
This identification is also applicable to fairy tales and Romance, as the following demonstrates: “When a fairy-tale is told, the healing factor within it acts on whoever has taken an interest in it and allowed himself to be moved by it in such away that through this participation he will be brought into connection with an archetypal form of the situation and by this means enabled to put himself ‘into order’” (Jung and von Franz 37).
When we first meet Else Schneider, we see this beautiful blond, dressed in a gray skirt, her hair down. Any sort of hardness that comes with a profession like archaeology (long hours in the sun, sifting through dirt, for example) is softened by her feminine appeal. She is seen from far off, making her way toward Indy and Brody, only saying her name, “Dr. Else Schneider.” As they walk the streets of Venice, Else is “book-ended” by Indy and Brody, hardly ever standing on her own. Later, when finding the entrance to the catacombs, she is inappropriately dressed, yet dressed for sex appeal—high heals don’t work well when traveling through a sewer. One shot is simply of her legs being lowered in, her person being reduced to sexualized body parts. As danger progresses in the catacombs, she needs to be rescued by Indy, instead of being able to do it on her own.
Later that day, we—as Indy—find her room ransacked. We find her unawares, standing in the bathroom, dressed in lingerie. When she and Indy start to fight in this scene, Indy asserts his control over her, kissing her. She rebels, and kisses him instead. The swift movement from violence to sex is one of sadism, which Mulvey lists as being one of the two escapes from castration anxiety (21).
When rescuing Indy’s father, we learn that Else is in fact a Nazi, and that she has been trying to get his diary the whole time. She helps trap both Joneses, and while apologizing to Indy, takes the grail diary out of his pocket and hands it to her superior. This is a rather blatant castration, with Indy’s power to find the grail taken away from him by a woman. When the Joneses are then tied up, Else kisses Indiana goodbye; he is then punched by a Nazi male. Sex and violence meet again, but here to emphasize the danger in allowing yourself to become dominated by a woman. Note also that from here on, her dress is different; competent that she has castrated the hero, she can revert to more masculine clothing, though still retaining enough sex appeal for the audience watching in the theatre. Also, when Indy and his father try to escape again, they unfortunately are discovered by a woman, who rats them out—another Nazi. The majority of women in this film (excepting Professor Jones’s secretary in the beginning) are Nazis—figures of evil.
The Joneses head to Berlin to retrieve the diary from Else. She proclaims that she believes not in the swastika, but the grail—she’s not all Nazi. Well, as women are weak, one can’t expect them to be purely evil, only helpers of evil. True evil is left to men. Also, when Indy finds her, he threatens to kill her. She insists—honestly, now—that he loves her. He responds with nearly strangling her. He leaves, his masculinity restored by both threatening Else and regaining the diary; however, the camera lingers on her dejected face, simply looking to where he left—yet another instance of “the gaze.”
Finally, examine that final few scenes in the temple. Else and Donovan, who by now we learn is also a Nazi, follow Jones into the inner sanctum of the grail. (Donovan, it is worth noting, is a rather effeminate Nazi—always well dressed, never resorting to violence himself, but setting others to do so—he’d sooner cut a deal, as with the Sultan of Hatay). Donovan has Else choose the true grail from the false ones, but she fails, and he is destroyed. She couldn’t possibly choose the right grail, not only because she is a villain, but because she is a woman, and not as clever as Indiana Jones, who is able to choose the right one. Later, when the grail is in the antechamber, she ignores the words of the knight and attempts to leave with it, which sets up the destruction of the temple. It is a woman who loses the grail to the world, and men who are able to escape the destruction she has caused. Again, there is a certain sadism here, allowing her to die as punishment, despite the fact that she was going to leave Nazism for good.
This fits very well with the medieval view of women. For an example of medieval misogyny, there is Book III of The Art of Courtly Love: “Furthermore, not only is every woman an miser, but she is also envious and a slanderer of other women, greedy, a slave to her belly, inconsistent, fickle in her speech, disobedient and impatient of restraint, spotted with the sin of pride and desirous of vainglory, a liar, a drunkard, a babbler, no keeper of secrets, too much given to wantonness, prone to every evil, and never loving any man in her heart. …Wasn’t it Eve, the first woman, who, although she was formed by the hand of God, destroyed herself by the sin of disobedience and lost the glory of immortality?” (Capellanus 201, 205-6). Or take the words of St. Jerome: “Take examples. Sampson was braver than a lion and tougher than a rock; alone and unprotected he pursued a thousand armed men; and yet, in Delilah's embrace, his resolution melted away. David was a man after God's own heart, and his lips had often sung of the Holy One, the future Christ; and yet as he walked upon his housetop he was fascinated by Bathsheba's nudity, and added murder to adultery… So, too, with Solomon. Wisdom used him to sing her praise, and he treated of all plants ‘from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall;’ and yet he went back from God because he was a lover of women. And, as if to show that near relationship is no safeguard, Amnon burned with illicit passion for his sister Tamar” (Jerome para 12). Love for a woman will bring about the downfall of even God’s champions. Examine the tales of King Arthur—Morgause tricks Arthur into producing Mordred out of incest; Morgan le Fay constantly plots Arthur’s death through enchantment; even Viviane—the Lady of the Lake, an ally—causes Merlin’s death; and of course Guenevere is an adulteress who brings ruin to the kingdom. Fairy tales, which are but degenerated myths, psychodramas, and Romances, often feature witches, evil stepmothers and queens, evil stepsisters, even mothers who simply stand in the way of the hero’s adventure out of motherly concern (such as Perceval’s mother, who tried to raise him alone in the woods, and a few allusions to Indiana’s dead mother, who attempted to steer him away from such a dangerous profession).
What was pleasurable (and perceived as dangerous) seventeen-hundred years ago is pleasurable now, only more seductively so with the advent of cinema. In that darkened state, we are in the womb, lost from our own identity while engrossed in that which is upon the screen. The most primitive desires of man are flickering before us, seducing us into an infantile state of identification formation, and sadly, mainstream Hollywood cares little for the identity formation of women; no surprise, when there was once debate whether women even had souls.
What is most striking about this tale is what the quest was for—-a cup. Many Romances, Lays, and fairy tales have the quest be for a woman, a wife, a lover, even revenge-—but some human element is at stake. However, here the quest is for an object with feminine characteristics, yet with no threatening castration complex. The grail is the perfect mother, the all-nourishing object which will fulfill desire in a way that the deadly woman cannot. It is the cauldron of renewal, the womb of the Goddess, and yet is not a woman, a person, an object of sexual desire which threatens the male with castration because of his own fear of the unknown. With the grail, all is known beforehand—it will give the owner eternal life, eternal fulfillment. Humans can’t do that, something we should have learned while very young, and yet people still search for that grail, that magic item which will make life perfect. Often, they think they see it on a flickering screen.
Andreas Capellanus. The Art of Courtly Love. Trans. John Jay Parry. New York: Columbia Press, 1960.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. dir. Steven Spielberg. perf. Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody, Denholm Elliot. 1989.
St. Jerome. “Letter To Eustochium.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 12 December, 2000. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-06/Npnf2-06-03.htm
Jung, Emma, and von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Grail Legend. 1960. trans. Andrea Dykes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Orange Julius says:Your Indiana Jones write-up is flawed. I will attempt to explain... In the Temple of the Crescent Moon, Else PURPOSELY chooses the wrong grail in order to kill off Donovan. It was in fact her idea to choose the grail, not his. After Donovan graphically dies, it is Else that suggests to Indy that the grail "would not be made of gold". One could summize that Else is in fact much smarter than Donovan, and on par with Indiana, although her greed gets the best of her.
I have to disagree that she automatically knew this and sought to kill Donovan. That is not to say that she isn't portrayed as intelligent, but I think that the realization only came after Donovan was killed. Either way, this does not go against what I write regarding the portrayal of Elsa.