In 1912, Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) is 13 years old and riding with the Boy Scouts in Utah. Scouting caves, he finds a group of grave robbers who have dug up a golden crucifix belonging to Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, and he steals it from them so he can give it to a museum. They chase him through a circus train, giving him a cut on the chin from a bullwhip and a fear of snakes. Indiana escapes but the local sheriff makes him return the cross to the grave robbers, who pass it on to a mysterious benefactor in a Panama hat. Impressed by Indiana’s pluck, the man gives him a fedora.
26 years later, Indy (Harrison Ford) is fighting the Panama hat man (Paul Maxwell) and his henchmen on a ship off the coast of Portugal. He escapes overboard just as the ship explodes, recovering the cross and giving it to Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) for his museum. Later, he learns from Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) that his father, Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) had vanished searching for the Holy Grail. Henry’s Grail Diary turns up in Indy’s mail from Venice and he goes there with Marcus, where they meet Henry’s Austrian colleague Doctor Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody).
Beneath the library where Henry was last seen, Indiana and Elsa find half-flooded catacombs that contain the tomb of a knight from the First Crusade. The tomb has on it the complete version of the damaged inscription that Henry was using and reveals the location of the Grail. The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, a secret organization that protects the Grail, sets fire to the petroleum-saturated water in the catacombs, driving a flood of rats that Indy and Elsa hide from in a tomb.
They capture one of the Brotherhood named Kazim (Kevork Malikyan) and convince him that Indie is only looking for his father, not the Grail. He gives them Henry’s location. Henry’s diary reveals that his search began in the ancient city of Alexandretta. Indy gives the map to Brody for safekeeping and sends him to Iskanderun to rendezvous with their friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). Elsa and Indy begin a relationship and they set out to find Henry.
They head for Castle Brunwald, under Nazi control in Austria, where Henry is a prisoner. Indiana finds him and frees him, but they both are captured by S.S. Colonel Ernst Vogel (Michael Byrne) and learn that Elsa is a Nazi and Donovan is working for them. They are using Jones to find the Grail. Elsa kisses Indy good-bye and leaves with the other Nazis. Henry tells Indy that the Grail is guarded by three booby-traps and his diary shows how to pass them. Disguised as a German Colonel, Indiana gets the diary from Elsa at a book-burning rally in Berlin, where an unknowing Hitler autographs the diary. Indy and Henry board a Zeppelin to escape Germany but are discovered and bail out in a biplane. They are attacked by the Luftwaffe and forced to crash land. In Hatay, Sallah tells them that Marcus has been abducted. The Nazis are equipped by the Sultan of Hatay and are headed for the Grail. Indiana, Henry, and Sallah find them. The Nazis are ambushed by the Brotherhood. Henry is captured, Kazim is killed, and Indiana chases a tank on horseback, saving Henry and Marcus. Vogel goes over a cliff in the tank.
Indiana, Henry, Marcus, and Sallah catch up with the Nazis, led by Donovan and Elsa, at the Temple of the Canyon of the Crescent Moon. The Holy Grail is inside but surrounded by traps, and the Nazis can’t get past the first one. Donovan shoots Henry to force Indy to risk his life passing the traps so he can save his father with the Grail. Indy figures it out and gets into the Grail chamber, which is guarded by a knight. The Grail has been keeping him alive for 700 years. There are many to choose from. Elsa selects the wrong cup and Donovan crumbles to dust when he drinks from it. Indy correctly chooses a simple clay cup appropriate for a simple carpenter, drinks from it, and then heals Henry’s wounds. Elsa tries to steal the cup and the temple collapses. It tumbles into a crevasse and she dies trying to recover it. Henry persuades Indy to let it go. The Grail Knight says farewell and they ride off.
The film was directed by Steven Spielberg from a story co-written by executive producer George Lucas. It was a financial success and popular with audiences. They took five years to write it after criticism of Temple of Doom. Sean Connery was of course the perfect father for Indiana Jones, brilliant and adventurous and someone Indy would want desperately to impress. Their scenes together were both touching and funny, much of it ad-libbed. The beginning scenes of Indiana’s childhood inspired Lucas to create the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles for TV. The amazing Petra location quickly became a must-see tourist attraction for Jordan.