Not-so-buried treasure: ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ revealed that Indy is a Life Scout

River Phoenix plays Life Scout Indiana Jones in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

A dozen Scouts on horseback meander through the Utah desert.

“Dismount!” their Scoutmaster calls. The Scouts do as asked and then scatter to explore their surroundings.

Two of the Scouts, one named Herman and another named Indiana Jones, step inside a dark cave and soon discover they aren’t in there alone. They watch undetected as some looters inspect a piece of treasure.

“It’s the Cross of Coronado. Cortez gave it to him in 1520,” Indiana whispers, already a history buff as a teenager. Then a realization hits. “That cross is an important artifact. It belongs in a museum.”

While the thieves have their backs turned, Indy — in full Scout uniform complete with the campaign hat — sneaks in and takes the Cross of Coronado. He bolts, and a 10-minute action sequence ensues involving horses, trains and snakes (why did it have to be snakes?!).

The sequence ends with a clever cut from young Indiana, played by River Phoenix, to adult Indiana, played by Harrison Ford.

This perfect prologue, part of 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, reveals that the title character was a Boy Scout while growing up in Utah. The young Indiana Jones even earned the rank of Life Scout, as evidenced by the red-hearted rank badge on his uniform.

This week marks 40 years since the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was released.

Fans had to wait another eight years — until the release of the third movie in the still-growing franchise — to learn that the loyal, helpful and brave title character got his start in Scouting.

But you don’t have to wait another moment to dive into the Scouting history behind everyone’s favorite adventuring archaeologist.

Indy takes the Cross of Coronado, planning to deliver it to a museum where it belongs. ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Flash back to the flashback

Last Crusade begins with young Indy as a 13-year-old Scout in 1912 — just two years after the BSA was founded. Indy, whose troop wears yellow neckerchiefs, is exploring Arches National Park when he discovers thieves trying to take the jewel-encrusted Cross of Coronado.

Even as a teenager, Indy recognized the value of this artifact and took it from the thieves to ensure its rightful place in a museum.

From this flashback, we also learn how Indiana Jones got that iconic scar on his chin. He was defending himself from a lion (as one does when one falls into a circus train car) and cracked a whip to try to scare the animal away. He hadn’t yet perfected his whip technique, and the tail of the whip clipped his chin, drawing blood.

On that same train, Boy Scout Indy fell into a crate of snakes, sparking what would become a lifelong fear of limbless reptiles: “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” (No Reptile and Amphibian Study merit badge for this Scout.)

The July 1989 issue of Boys’ Life magazine covered the movie.

Made by and starring Scouts

While some Scouting references in Hollywood films are blink-and-you-miss-them moments, like this one from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, others are much more apparent.

That director Steven Spielberg would choose to devote the first 10 minutes of his film to a sequence involving Scouting should come as no surprise. He’s a Distinguished Eagle Scout who says the Photography merit badge helped spark his interest in making movies.

He even helped the BSA release the Cinematography merit badge (now known as Moviemaking) at the 1989 National Jamboree.

But the prologue and director’s chair weren’t the only place where Scouts could be found in the Last Crusade. Harrison Ford was a Life Scout himself and even served on summer camp staff at Camp Napowan in central Wisconsin.

Jonathan Howe, an Eagle Scout and one of Ford’s fellow summer camp staffers, remembers a young man who was kind, shy and just fine around snakes. Ford even taught the Reptile Study merit badge at camp.

“Unlike the Indiana Jones portrayal, he was fine handling a snake,” Howe remembers.

Geeking out on the details

Because we love to analyze (and then overanalyze) details like these, here are a few notes worth mentioning:

  • The mere appearance of the Life badge on young Indy’s uniform is something of an anachronism. The cloth Life Scout badge was first issued in 1913, so unless Indy had some sort of pre-release version, he really shouldn’t be wearing it.
  • As a Life Scout in 1912, Indy actually had the third-highest rank in Scouting — not the second-highest. At that time, the Life rank was earned before Star. The two ranks didn’t switch places until the mid-1920s. Today’s order: Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life and Eagle.
  • One popular fan theory says that Indiana Jones was originally written as an Eagle Scout, but because the Eagle badge could only be purchased for verified Eagle Scouts, the character’s rank was lowered. If true, props to those costume designers for following those rules when they could’ve easily created their own Eagle badge.
  • Another explanation for why Indy isn’t an Eagle might be that the cloth Eagle badge didn’t exist until 1924. He would’ve had to wear a medal, which might have been too dangly for a chase sequence.
  • If Indiana Jones had become an Eagle Scout in 1912, he would’ve been one of just 23 recipients of the award that year, sharing a place alongside the first Eagle Scout in history, Arthur Eldred. (See the year-by-year breakdown.)
  • While we see 13-year-old Indy as a Life Scout, we can only speculate as to whether he continued earning enough merit badges to become a Star Scout and then an Eagle Scout. He would’ve had several more years of action-packed adventures before turning 18.

We may never know whether George Lucas, who created the character of Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr., thought of Indiana Jones as a Scout from the start. But we can deduce that the filmmakers, after studying the character’s traits, habits and hobbies in the first two films, saw Scouting as a natural foundation for those characteristics.

“There’s a perception that Scouting is walking old ladies across the street,” Spielberg told Scouting magazine for a story in its October 1990 issue. “Scouting really is about discovering positive values that are going to serve you well for the rest of your life — just being honest, being fair, telling the truth.”

Those positive values — just like Indiana Jones himself — are still relevant today. The Indiana Jones franchise is still going strong, with a fifth movie due out in summer 2022. Scouting is still going strong, too, offering the kinds of unforgettable adventures most young people only get to see in the movies.

About Bryan Wendell 3200 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.