Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
Picture my five-year-old self hiding in horror behind the chair of Sydney’s State Theatre cinema, unable to face the unthinkable: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) allowing his leading lady Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) to be lowered into a pit of boiling lava. Indiana Jones…evil?! And yet, soon enough, an iconic moment of heroism personified, with a long line of screen ancestors, supplanted this nightmare: Jones appears silhouetted before a (literal) Thug who’s about to beat the hell out of an enslaved child, before the lamp of an advancing mining car slowly reveals his face, glowering in righteous fury. The concussive punches Jones lands aren’t even shown, only the result, as the Thug slides away through the dirt, as if the wrath of Jehovah just hit him. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the first Indiana Jones film, Jehovah intervened personally to teach some Nazis a lesson: in Temple of Doom, Indiana becomes a Maccabee.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was an almost perfect mean for action-adventure filmmaking. It’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the baby of masterminds Steven Spielberg and George Lucas alone. Two other notables of the Movie Brat generation, Philip Kaufman and Lawrence Kasdan, helped write Raiders, and in that first film, the hero bore as much resemblance to the shady noir and Western antiheroes Kaufman and Kasdan loved as to Spielberg’s battered everymen and Lucas’s super-warriors. By the second Indiana Jones film, Kaufman and Kasdan were busy with their own directing projects, so the installment was written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who had penned Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) and polished the script for Star Wars (1977). (Huyck would go on to inadvertently demolish Lucas’s own temple of cash with the bizarre Howard the Duck in 1986.) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was another colossal hit, and yet one that’s often been treated as a bit of a millstone and a turning point for its maker. I’ve always adored it, for strong is the hold the things that scare the hell out of us at five years of age, so it’s worthwhile for me to study what I get out of it that others don’t.
As usual, the lightning-paced, serial-inspired storyline sees Dr. Jones leap from the frying pan—battling Chinese kingpin Lao Che (Roy Chiao) and his psycho son (Ric Young) after they’ve poisoned him—into a different fire. Indy and his new tagalongs, Willie, a singer at Lao’s nightclub, and Wan “Short Round” Li (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan) face death as the pilots of a plane they used to escape Shanghai—a plane belonging to Lao—try to ensure their demise by draining off the fuel and bailing out. Indy’s quick thinking gets them off the plane using an inflatable raft as a parachute and soon enough, after plunging over a cliff and riding swollen rapids, they come to a peaceful stop in northern India. They are confronted by a wizened old shaman (D. R. Nanayakkara), who takes their having fallen from the sky as a sign they’re destined to help rescue his village from the withering curse laid upon it when the sacred Sankara Stone was stolen from the village by the followers of a revival of the dreaded Thugee cult. These murderous worshippers of the goddess Kali, the Shaman says, is based in the palace of the young Maharajah of Pankot (Raj Singh).
After comedic hesitations, Indy, Willie, and Short Round reach the palace, and Temple of Doom fulfils the darker horror-movie-inspired edge of Raiders—so much so that the filmmakers unnerved themselves, especially after the result was persecuted as a saga that kept the imperialist precepts of writers like Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, and Rudyard Kipling overly intact. There is some truth in this as an ingrained aspect of the kind of pulp Spielberg and Lucas were celebrating, but to be honest, it’s hard to know exactly why bad guys deserve a hammering any less when they’re Thugs than when they’re Nazis and when the cultural clashes are so cartoonishly overdrawn. Bad guys these are: their wicked high priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri, whose effectiveness secured him a lucrative career playing baddies in dozens of Bollywood films) tears the hearts out devout of Hindus and lowers them into that pit of lava, whilst an army of enslaved children labours to enrich his cult.
There is an ironic felicity in plunging Willie into a third world situation where she’s constantly freaked out by wild animals, smelly elephants, crawling insects and repulsive foreign delicacies. Willie, though inspired by the drama queens of ’30s screwball films, is equally a contemporary Hollywood diva (desperately seeking a phone to call her agent and complaining about broken nails) and an extremely caricaturised version of a rich white tourist out of her comfort zone, one that confirms the solipsism of such a species: “You’re insulting them and embarrassing me,’ Indy tells her when she tries to decline some of the villagers’ bad-looking food, which represents for them an excruciating generosity. The obvious contrast is with Indiana, who is in many ways the quintessential, rugged American male, but who is also a multitalented, innately multicultural man with a vast appreciation and respect for the lore and religions of other peoples. The essential theme of the series – uncovering profound, often earth-shaking truths through the dusty, lost representative relics of the past – has a quieter added meaning for the potential of humans to understand each other, or pit their primal selves in struggle, in the hunger to grasp such signs and stories, and Indy, broad-minded as he is, has to orientate himself anew every time.
Although driven by his religion of archaeology and the “fortune and glory” that can come with it, Indy always gives in finally to humanistic impulses, and is always finally humbled by evidence of the power of faith. Here, Shiva’s truth is as inarguable as Jehovah’s in Raiders. “I understand its power now,’ Indy finally states to the shaman in comprehending the relevance of beliefs he at first half-dismisses. Lucas has always been proud of the Jones series’ basis in actual folklore and breadth of cultural focus, and I can agree with him on that: Temple of Doom, whilst making me scared shitless of Kali worshippers, also introduced me to figures of Hindu faith and the pulchritudinous wonders of Indian mythology. Caution about respecting other cultures was a lesson often learnt in the works of imperialist-era writers, like, say, “The Monkey’s Paw,” but those tended much more toward the “look, don’t touch” lessons of imperial management. Missing from them was the interventionist element exemplified by the fact that Indiana cannot walk away from suffering when he encounters it.
Pointedly, this is the only film in the series in which Indy is entirely shorn of his Stateside associations. He’s a citizen of the world here, and Indy’s creed is more that of deep humanism and the seeking out of evil where it dwells, evinced particularly in the scene in which, instead of fleeing the Thug’s temple with the Sankara Stone, he’s distracted by a child’s screams, and discovers the slaves and tosses a stone at the colossal, vicious overseer (Pat Roach) as he beats an exhausted boy. When Indy, Willie, and Short Round first arrive in the cursed village, the images of the starving, emaciated locals crowding about them were instantly familiar to me as a child in 1984: I was seeing the same scenes every night on television in news reports on famine in Ethiopia. Short Round himself is an orphan, having been caught by Indy trying to pick his pocket after his parents died in the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese. Indy’s reluctant father status for him broached another of Spielberg’s recurring future themes, as the three interlopers form a pick-up nuclear family. The Jones of Raiders hints at darkness in his soul, described as a mercenary by his mirror-image antagonist Bellocq (Paul Freeman), with a suggested edge of the cad in his flirtations with students and sordid past with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). He’s redeemed chiefly by his genuine dedication to the potential for wonderment he finds in archaeology and love of kicking Nazi ass.
In Temple of Doom, he’s being scrubbed clean of his faults, which would be absent by the time of the second two, much more homogenous entries. Although Temple of Doom was technically a prequel, set a year before Raiders, thematically it’s very much an extension, as Indy, when captured by the Thugs, is forced to drink a mystic draught that brings on the “Black Sleep of Kali.” The drink turns him into one of the pliable cultists, so much so that Mola Ram forgoes the joy of ripping out Willie’s heart before sacrificing her for the even more pleasurable sadism of watching her freak out as Indy chains her up. The darker precincts of Indy’s character are revelled in, before Short Round, after escaping his chains in the mine, brings him back to his senses by jamming a flame in his side. Indy returns more righteous than before, declaring with hard purpose in response to Willie’s suggestion that they should get out of there: “All of us.” Temple of Doom represented new reflexes in Spielberg’s oeuvre: he would soon try, not without criticism and mistakes but with similar ardency, to take on conflicted historical milieus filled with schisms of race and power. The importance of Temple of Doom’s variation on a Messiah myth and imagery of oppression would become clearer as cinema’s most successful Peter Pan grew up.
The Indiana Jones films were chiefly a pop-art tribute to the idea of the past, fantasias of exoticism and danger, and even Nazism was just another prop to kick around. But that’s not to take them too lightly: in many ways, Spielberg articulated his anxieties here more fluently than in his dramas. The main problem, which renders this effort inferior to Raiders, is one that has dogged Lucas badly in his efforts since: an uneasy fondness for clumsy, overdrawn comic relief, particularly in the sequence in which Willie and Short Round are grossed out by the bizarre dishes on offer at Pankot, which, though it does serve a purpose as I’ve said above, is silly and grating and almost grinds the film to a halt. The greatness of Raiders was in how casual and uniquely antiheroic a lot of its humour was, with a hero who pulls off incredulous legerdemain in battle, but who feels the pain all too vividly afterwards. Some of that is still here, but muted in favour of slapstick. Although Capshaw gives an enthusiastic and occasionally funny performance, most effectively in the memorable flirtation she has with Ford, Willie’s a serious comedown from the Hawksian toughness of Marion.
Still, in its first 15 minutes and last hour, Temple of Doom displays Spielberg’s gifts as a prodigy of cinematic movement. He commences with a moment of nutty cultural hybrid, as Willie sings Cole Porter in Chinese with a chorus of fan dancers before segueing into a Busby Berkeley-esque dance number that exists purely on a plane of ethereal entertainment, declaring, like Willie, that anything goes. This musical prelude also amusingly prefigures the later, equally rhythmic, but very different staging of the Thug’s rites, the evil-dosed cultists chanting in horrid passion: Temple of Doom puts the melody in melodrama. It’s this heightened, almost surreal intensity of imagery and staging that makes the film such a disorientating and potent mixture. Where Raiders had adorned the Republic serial basics of the action scenes with grander flourishes borrowed from De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Temple of Doom maintains a stygian darkness until virtually the end. If some Hammer films, like Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and Don Sharp’s The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), had first attempted to meld gothic imagery with serial-like pacing and rolling set pieces, Temple of Doom, with Mola Ram as high priest of evil, returned the compliment.
The action set-pieces, like that in which Indy tries to battle the overseer on a conveyor belt before a huge rock crusher, while spasmodically folding up in agony as the Maharajah jabs a pin into his voodoo doll with sadistic relish, have a brute physicality to them that, these days, appears much closer to torture-porn horror than to the plastic action of Michael Bay or the Wachowskis. The scene in which both Indy and Short Round are simultaneously whipped in punishment is nearly pathological, but it also prefigures the key moment of Shorty reviving Indy from the Black Sleep by searing his flesh: the bonds of love are a painful, corporeal contract. The plot also contrives to break Indy’s reliance on guns, and by plunging him into the backwoods of India, to essentially create a timeless fantasy and a level playing field—except for Captain Blumburtt (Philip Stone), representative of the British Empire, whose rifle-wielding soldiers arrive too late to be any real use. Blumburtt, although only a minor figure, is important to the narrative’s echoes. Lal is eager to please the Captain to get him away from the cult’s centre, whilst not resisting taking digs at the imperialists: “How the British worry so for their Empire. Makes us all feel like well-cared-for children.”
The shade of an equal and opposite reaction is then mooted as Mola Ram triumphantly announces to Indy his plan for religious hegemony: “The British in India will be slaughtered. Then we will overrun the Muslims. Then the Hebrew God will fall. And then the Christian god will be cast down and forgotten.” Of course it’s a blind alley to dwell on such things too deeply in a film that climaxes when the hero’s cunning plan to foil the baddies involves his cutting the rope bridge he and his friends stand on. Temple of Doom is a swashbuckler through and through, and often references the kinds of comedic action seen in older variations on the genre, as trios of armed villains trip over each other and Indy fights off one swordsman by gripping the arm of another swordsman like a puppeteer.
The film’s brilliant, raucous set pieces, like the mining car chase, are more frenetic than those in Raiders, and it’s easy to underestimate how well that sort of thing is pulled off compared to the many dolorous subsequent imitations, in, for example, Stephen Sommers’ works. But 26 years can be a long time, especially if you’re Harrison Ford: watching his droll, dashing performances in these early films, compared to the often negligible vehicles he so often struggled through in the 1990s and 2000s. Critic Chris Peachment wrote in 1982: “What some Peckinpah could do with a Harrison Ford, made anxious by middle-age, would be very interesting to see.” But Ford has singularly lacked a guiding hand equal to a Peckinpah for his late career. His credentials as a passionate man of action were still writ large here. I can’t think of any contemporary actor appearing in action films these days who seems as real on screen as Ford does here, dripping blood and sweat and dirt but still defying Mola Ram, delivering a promise to introduce him to his deity in hell with a grit John Wayne would envy.