Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The title card of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, blazoned in its pulpy font across the opening dance act of shimmering waists at club Obi Wan, was the moment a great movie became a brand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Indy’s adventures were born as serials, each entry a new exotic locale, another damsel, another sidekick, a new hellish fortress to conquer with a whip-cracking grin. But if Raiders of the Lost Ark was the adventure serial how we saw them, Temple of Doom is how they actually were. That may necessarily be a bad thing.

Temple of Doom opens breathlessly and never lets up. After the kooky club brawl during which Willie (Kate Capshaw) scuttles between pant legs looking for a diamond, she and Harrison Ford (clean-shaven but still wily in the eyes as Indy) drop from a window into the getaway car driven by “just a kid,” called Short Round (Ke Huy Quan). One implausible plane escape in a rubber raft later, they find themselves in one of Haggard’s or Lovecraft’s Indian villages, obscured by mountains and mysticism. As they learn over grubs and Willie’s whining (both of which you just have to get used to) the village children have disappeared, along with the sacred stone that protects them from evil.

As they take elephants bareback to Pankot Palace to find the stone, we learn that this isn’t quite the preservation-minded Indy on display in Raiders. Here he’s more interested in “fortune and glory” than village hocus pocus. I’m not sure where the same Willie that risked Indy’s life for a diamond gets off hounding him about it but it’s that kind of contradiction you just roll with in Temple. She harasses him because that’s what she’s supposed to do to get us thinking thematically. Though by the time they get to the palace, it hardly much matters.

Apparently both Spielberg and Lucas were in romantic rapids when this film was being made, Lucas with a difficult divorce and Spielberg with scandalous girlfriend Capshaw on the Temple of Doom set (I’m reminded of what George Washington said to John Adams on the latter’s inauguration day: “I am fairly out and you fairly in. See which of us will be happiest.”). They probably spent a lot of the production angry, frustrated, and temperamental. Temple of Doom probably couldn’t be expected to behave better with that kind of upbringing.

Pankot Palace is the perennial evil fortress viewers will recognize as the turf of any mystic evil, James Bond villain, or Scooby-Doo monster, guarded by freshly-bloodied statues filled with bats and a hundred identically-dressed swordsmen. Inside, Spielberg’s frustration begins to show as he becomes the little brother dangling a worm in our face, subjecting us to such farcical horrors as a dinner of wriggling snakes and monkey brains and a writhing hallway of beetles and maggot slime (walking through which, as Short Round cutely remarks, “Sounds like I step on fortune cookie”). But then we forget it all as we arrive at the demon fortress within, as startling a portrait of blood-drinking occultism as could ever appear in a film rated PG (or perhaps not, as angry parents remarked at the time).

The choreography of the terror in this inner sanctum is as pristine as its combustive horrors are bloodied and worn. Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), dressed imposingly in cow skull and wild eyes, pulls a still-beating heart from a caged man and drops him bodily into swirling lava like a cow into a raptor cage. Indy gets scarred by his own whip in more ways than one when he and Short Round are tortured and then he, force-fed cursed blood, becomes a black-eyed heathen mouthing litanies as he lowers Willie into the pit. Ford sells each of Indy’s painful phases, but Spielberg never lingers. An exhilarating mine cart roller coaster and wooden bridge brawl outclass not only their imitators but even the character drama that precedes them with pure sweaty spectacle.

From debonair dinner date to dusty safari man to bespectacled academe to shirtless heathen, Indy’s look runs the gambit of Spielberg’s locomotive plotting. It’s adolescent action porn, where outfits tell more of the story than the dialogue. Its own characters regard their development with such passionate disinterest that it tempts to be too historical: where Raiders was a commentary on pulp fiction, Temple may model it too closely. Its honesty to its material is photographic, reminding us not how our old adventures felt but how thematically primitive we were when we watched them.

To this end, Temple in many ways forces us to absolve ourselves of Indiana. To see his eyes dilate and his teeth raze the air (Ford is certainly less confident in this configuration) are enough to wilt any feather in any young adventurer’s cap. To see him bodily whip Short Round, the stand-in for much of the original audience, not only crosses the stars from our eyes in one of cinema’s most representative heroes, but it also validates a particular pair of filmmakers in their pursuit of meanness. Raiders was a dark film, made droll by physical wit and wide-eyed characters. Temple is more clenched and defiant, like it has to prove through grossness that Raiders never existed.

Believe it or not, I love Temple, just not in the way I love Raiders. Temple is sadistic and decidedly un-adventurous, aggressively evoking unease rather than happiness from its legions of little adventurers. But this does not mean that they cannot both contain their own forms of glee. Temple is a film wholly amused with itself. If Raiders was a box of toys, Temple is a box of torture implements. It cackles while it uses them, unrestrainedly joyous in subjecting children to bone-crushing defeat and primeval violence. It is wonderful to see someone so good at what they do, even if what they do has a spirit of meanness that no one would expect to endure over cereal shaped like little stegosauruses.

Even if I did not take impromptu pleasure out of being subverted away from happiness, the scheme in Temple works all on its own as a prequel. By subjecting Indiana to his dark side, he is given a spiritual default from which he can grow into a person who is too slick for his own shadow. Nothing can quite touch the Indy on display in Raiders, and rather than see him mine a circumstance for his symbols – how did he get the hat? The whip? The fear of snakes? – Temple more wisely officiates over his spirit. There was a time when he was in this for glory, but he saw the sadism in his own archetype and became wise. I don’t think he ever has to do anything heroic ever again, after taking this particular journey into his own spirit.

But audiences saw only cruelty aimed at children. Confronted with the outraged response, Spielberg decided to let the serial adventure shtick go completely, to abandon the dramatic simplicity that had been his guiding mythology. The result is a third film that devolves into concrete drama and more predictably cinematic relationships, complete with operatic daddy issues and unrequited love.

So Temple of Doom is purer than the third film as both a prequel and a sequel. It approaches Indy not as a movie character but a figure both historic and ongoing. Its direct opening establishes him as a force of culture, without a continuum of textbook origins and childhood psychopathy, admirably unapologetic in its childlike sense of adventure. Does it thwart the child in exposing it to such atrocity? I tend to think it makes it aware of itself. But there’s a difference, Mr. Spielberg, between childlike and childish. After two hours of showcasing more whining floozy than Indiana, and more gross-out eats than clever humor, I get the feeling that while there was certainly psychopathy in Indy’s second adventure, it belongs less to its heroes than to its director.

Cast & Crew

Steven Spielberg

Willard Huyck (screenplay)

Gloria Katz (screenplay)

George Lucas (story)

Indiana Jones Harrison Ford
Wilhelmina "Willie" Scott Kate Capshaw
Mola Ram Amrish Puri
Short Round Jonathan Ke Quan
Chattar Lal Roshan Seth
Captain Philip Blumburtt Philip Stone
Roy Chiao Lao Che

Official Trailer

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