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.
20 thoughts on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)”
A nice appraisal of—yeah, I’ll say it—my favorite film in the series. For all the racism and imperialism it espouses (which, as you suggest, is done in such a cartoonish manner that I find it hard to get too upset about), I’ve always found it a more vivid, inventive and exciting ride than the original, for many of the reasons you cite. In Temple of Doom, Spielberg seems to unleash the full breadth of his imagination, logic and good taste be damned, and the cumulative effect is often exhilarating, if sometimes genuinely terrifying, to behold.
And of course you’re right about Harrison Ford then compared to now. Did you see him as he was presenting an award during the most recent Oscar ceremony? My gosh, he sure did sound tired up there!
By the way, there’s another action sequel that I find rather similar to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, at least in terms of its over-the-top nature, its relentless pace and its near-total disregard for good sense compared to its predecessor: Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin’s 1990 sequel to the classic 1988 original. If you’re interested, I expound on some of the similarities I see in both here: http://mylife24fps.blogspot.com/2009/12/john-mcclane-and-engine-of-doom.html
For me, TEMPLE OF DOOM is definitely the weakest of the first three films. While I like the action sequences just fine (esp. the ones that open and conclude the film), the film is marred by the absolutely annoying portrayal of Willie Scott by Kate Capshaw who seems to only function as someone who is either complaining or screaming all the time. I know, I know, the Indy films are essentiallyboys fantasies but the series really hit an all-time low with leading ladies on this one. But hey, at least Spielberg got his future wife out of this one. And it’s interesting to note that the negative portrayal of Willie was born out of the messy divorce Lucas was going through at the time.
I also really can’t stand Short Round. As far as sidekicks go, he is a major step down from Sallah in RAIDERS and certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Sean Connery in LAST CRUSADE. Again, his character is too annoying and one-dimensional but at least he does stuff and does help out Indy once in awhile so there’s that.
Maybe I’m being too harsh but compared to the high standards that Lucas and Spielberg set with RAIDERS, this film is a bit of a disappointment. I do like the darker tone and I thought that Ford was fantastic in it but it’s missing that special something that I think was regained with LAST CRUSADE and should have been the end of the series, going out on a high note but then we were served up CRYSTAL SKULLS in recent years.
I was 25 when Temple came out and I loved it too-starting with the Anything Goes number. If anything, it is Last Crusade that was the weak link in the original trilogy for me (I found the father/son issues too heavy for an Indy film to bear). I still haven’t seen Crystal Skull, but I’m sure I will eventually.
I myself have never really liked The Last Crusade much. If Willie’s a relatively negative aspect of a great film here, Connery’s Henry Jones was the lone top-notch addition to an otherwise bland and stolid entry from the flattest phase of Spielberg’s career. It repeated the first film’s Nazi villains and Judeo-Christian mysticism without any of its darkness or surprise, and if Willie’s an acquired taste, Allison Doody’s love interest/villainness there wasn’t anything (as I recall the film: I will actually be revisiting it very soon to see what I think of it now). I used to find Willie kind of annoying, or perhaps more accurately superfluous, when I was a kid, but when I looked at it again after a long break I appreciated why Pauline Kael liked Capshaw’s performance so much: given that Willie is supposed to be trying, I find she does a good job of making her out-of-her-depthness absurd and spry rather than obnoxious.
I can easily see why Short Round would be irritating, too, but there I’ve never found him so: I like how his character straddles cultures and retains his pluck. I also like how well Spielberg used Ke Huy Quan here as opposed to the stereotyped Asian nerd he was stuck playing in The Goonies. Speaking of this film’s racial component, it occurred to me after writing this piece that it represented two divergent takes of its director and producer to a very great extent. Where Lucas’ dubious delight in the ludicrousness of certain racial caricatures was eventually to be taken to a limit with Jar-Jar Binks, and pops up throughout this film, Spielberg’s expanding theme of humanism and cultural interaction wars with this throughout. I’m not saying the negative side isn’t in this film, but I am saying that the positive side is willfully ignored by many critics.
Kenji: I immediately saw what you meant in the Die Hard 2 comparison: it’s got a similarly infernal look and tone. I always liked that film a lot, too, not so much as this one – the Die Hard films are, when all is said and done, just meat and spuds action flicks – but it’s similarly hated for similar reasons, that both films get too dark and dirty, and it’s interesting that considering franchise pictures are held to be the stand-out examples of mechanical, repetitive commercialism, both of these sequels were picked on for the exact opposite, of going too gamy and gruesome.
TD: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a total mess in many ways, with a bad story and a fragile balance of characters, but it does manage a surprising amount of thematic and emotional relevance to the earlier films. I was talking about this at length in another context recently, so I’ll just include below what I wrote there:
“I recently re-watched KOTCS a couple of weeks ago after “Raiders” and “Temple of Doom” and it simply lacked the cohesive force and grit of those films, and the story is poorly constructed. I also don’t like how colorless Indy has been rendered in each progressive instalment: he’s really quite a shady character in the first film, called a mercenary and a grave-robber. By the time of KOTCS he’s been redesignated as an Ike-loving uber-patriot and his most lovably raffish traits totally buffed down. On the other hand, I fully agree it’s a film that pays conscious tribute to Howard Hawks and his genre of aging-heroes movies, particularly apparent in the banter between Indy and Marion (which had also, in “Raiders”, clearly owed something to Hawks). It also displays a great amount of self-mockery on Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas’ parts, in acknowledging, unlike other recent revivals like “Die Hard”, that getting old and feeling the fear of that is a sonofabitch, even for a man of Indy’s force. I was particularly interested by the juxtaposition of the kind of youth culture that would have finally been immediately nostalgic for the film-makers, which you make note of, including not only hot rods and rock music but also the menace of the atomic bomb, against what had been for them the retro tropes of the Jones series: Indy’s literal, narrow survival into the atomic age, old and battered but undaunted, has appropriate fantasy logic in the film. Indy’s encounter with the bomb and the fridge is simply an extension of Orson Welles’ planned end for his version of “Don Quixote” where the characters would walk unharmed out of an atom bomb’s mushroom cloud: the spirit they and Indy represent can’t be killed.”
I’m a fan of both Temple of Doom and Die Hard 2, and if anything more of the latter than the former. Doom has the most authentic pulp feel of the Jones films, probably because it leaves the Nazis out, and Mola Ram is a hellacious villain. I like him best confronting Indy on the bridge: “The stones will be found. You won’t!” I liked Short Round and while Willie was no match for Marion, I appreciated that she’s meant to be annoying. As for Last Crusade, it left such a bad taste that I still haven’t seen Crystal Skull despite assurances that Connery did not appear in it.
As for “infernal” and “dark and dirty” sequels, does Batman Returns make three of a kind? If this counts as a category, I’d even make a case for Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Good call, Sam, on the Mola Ram quote. If Willie’s not a decent successor (or predecessor: in fact I half-suspect, as both The Last Crusade‘s Elsa Schneider and KOTCS‘s developments would seem to confirm, that Indy’s other partners were deliberately characterized as a lesser distractions from Marion), then Ram is certainly a worthy follow-up to Raiders‘ loathsome Toht. The force of Puri’s emodiment of evil is entirely admirable: he so clearly relishes his own evil, but Puri keeps any whiff of camp right out of it, and instead plays it literally as someone’s whose apotheosis in life is to tear the soul out of another.
I’m interested that Connery in The Last Crusade left such a bad taste in your mouth: pour quoi?
Batman Returns would certainly qualify, although according to my (very faint) memory of it, it was the least successful of the films we’ve talked about here, but nonetheless, you are very right in that it dragged the awkward balance of elements in Burton’s first Batman far closer to outright gothic nightmare. As for Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, you’re probably right there too: it’s actually significantly better than the first film (if still not exactly one I’d praise to the heavens). It at least had a surrealist gusto to it that would have been taken for nearly David Lynchian if it hadn’t been, you know, a Bill and Ted film.
Rod, you wrote:
“I myself have never really liked The Last Crusade much. If Willie’s a relatively negative aspect of a great film here, Connery’s Henry Jones was the lone top-notch addition to an otherwise bland and stolid entry from the flattest phase of Spielberg’s career.”
I dunno ’bout that. I think THE LAST CRUSADE has a lot going for it. The opening prologue with River Phoenix as a young Indy was very well done, exciting and set up some of his tics later on in life (fear of snakes, where he got his hat, etc.). It’s a shame that Phoenix died as he would have been a much better actor to carry on the franchise than Shia LeBouf. Also, you’ve got Connery playing dear ol’ dad. The back and forth between him and Ford is well-played, I thought. I will concede that the villains of LAST CRUSADE are definitely the weak spot of this film. They really aren’t all that threatening but hey, at least they brought back the Nazis. Plus, it was great to see Sallah and Brody return and then see them all ride off in the sunset together. What a fantastic way to end the film.
As it happens, J.D., I finished watching The Last Crusade just before I saw you’d posted this. I found it a better film then I had remembered, one that improves significantly as it goes on, especially once Connery enters it. And whilst I too really like that Sallah and Brody were brought back for it, I’m never too impressed with what they actually get to do in it – they, like a lot of the film’s elements, seemed to have been stuck in without quite thinking through how to balance them out. Denholm Elliot sneaks in some very good humour, like the one occasion of Brody trying to find someone who speaks English in the Iskenderun market an throwing off that quip about “I never drink water, fish make love in it!” That was a great and I suspect ad libbed touch. That and his scenes with Connery in the tank. It’s also probably got the tightest plot of all the films. Yeah, the back-and-forth of Indy and his dad is well handled. The battle with the tank is still a strong set-piece, and I actually appreciate Michael Byrne as the SS general – I like him a lot as an actor, and his exchange with Connery in the tank is the grittiest moment in the film; I wish he’d had more to do.
But I still vastly prefer the thunderous kick-in-the-teeth force of the first two films, and it lacks their sense of sheer drama. The finale’s weak, with the over-cutesy lesson of learning to let things go, and the ill-focused anti-hero characterization of Elsa could have been much more carefully and incisively handled (her hate-sex bits with Indy are good though) as a female counterpart to Belloq. The old Crusader’s farewell to the Joneses has a poignancy to it, but the Grail’s miracle is a bit limp after all the apocalyptic notes that had come to mark the series out. The Nazis just don’t have the threat they wielded in the first one. I also noticed a disturbing number of sloppy edits and rather duly staged soldiers-get-knocked-over-make-funny-now gags and action throughout. The speedboat chase and the motorcycle bit are both rather pedestrian and seemed to have required much more the carefully crafted construction that marked out the first two films. Also, I just can’t agree about the opening Indy-as-a-lad bit – I find that far too obvious. Phoenix is cool, yes, but the tone’s too juvenile and bears out what I think about Spielberg’s waning interest in that type of moviemaking at that point. Relative complaints, I suppose: it’s still a solid adventure flick. Douglas Slocombe’s photography was a graceful as ever.
Rod, you asked: “I’m interested that Connery in The Last Crusade left such a bad taste in your mouth: pour quoi? ”
It’s not so much Connery’s performance, which was actually an admirable change of pace for him, but the overall limp effect of the film which you noted in a later comment. Also, when I hear nowadays that “it’s about fathers and sons” I reach for my Luger. You could tell that the actual plot mattered less to the filmmakers than the father-son dynamic, on which they really had nothing to say. Connery’s absence meant that these topics, at least, would not recur in Crystal Skull, but Karen Allen’s return and other details warned that there’d be more relationship maintenance in the new film than an Indiana Jones movie really needs.
Going back to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey: I agree that it surpassed its predecessor, which I didn’t even like, and was much better and stranger than a Bill & Ted film had any right to be, but we aren’t really talking about a comedy or fantasy classic here. It may just be proof that any film from the period (see also Die Hard 2) was enhanced or just made more wild by having Bill Sadler in it.
Bill Sadler, yes, and the never-negligible Joss Ackland factor in Bogus Journey.
I see what you mean now re Connery’s part in The Last Crusade‘s scheme of things. It’s interesting for me at least that the third film in the series extends Spielberg’s interest in families that have broken up and recompose often with new members, as I noted in the body of the main review Indy becomes a surrogate father, where The Last Crusade looks more squarely at the idea of feeling abandoned by a preoccupied, tough-love father, an element which would have special resonance for Spielberg. But it doesn’t ever really generate much of his usual warm sense of those things, and as far as I’m concerned Indy saving his old man with the grail doesn’t have half the desperate ache that Shorty saving Indy has here. Not as bad as Jurassic Park with Sam Neill making psychopathic jokes at his young charges’ expense, though.
I was about 5 or 6 myself when I saw this movie and I loved it. I feel this statement: “I’ve always adored it, for strong is the hold the things that scare the hell out of us at five years of age…”
I was so morbidly fascinated with the movie.
Maybe it’s because I wasn’t old enough to see Raiders when it first came out and only about 8 when the 3rd movie came out, but Temple of Doom and Last Crusade have always been my favorites in the series. Sentimentally, at least.
You make some great points that I really can’t refute except that I have to disagree with you on the Indy-as-a-lad bit. If anything, I thought that was the one sequence that showed the most energy and it seemed like Spielberg was having a lot of fun with this bit. There is a lot of energy in the camerawork and he gets good performances out of the actors. I guess it boils down to a matter of taste. But I think we are all pretty much in agreement that at least LAST CRUSADE is marginally better than CRYSTAL SKULLS.
Jessica, your viewing experience obviously closely resembles mine. I’ve kicked around that notion too that Last Crusade falls flattest with me because I was a bit older, but if age had so much to do with it and the film’s weren’t good then I obviously wouldn’t watch them at all today. The Last Crusade is the weakest for me because it seems the most programmatically blockbuster-ish of them. The obvious superiority of Raiders however always strikes me with fresh force when I watch it – the filmmaking is so lean and yet spectacular, the characters haven’t been over-buffed by familiarisation, and Spielberg and Lucas were obviously still comfortable with their youthful, blase, nasty-older-brother mischievousness, before the second guy especially decided to get responsible and boring. And it really scared the hell out of me: I couldn’t watch the very end of it for many years after I first saw it.
JD: Okay, we’ll disagree there. I don’t so much have a beef with the filmmaking, and I do like the portrayal of Indy having picked up a lot of his mannerisms from an outright criminal – it explains a lot – but some of the other so-that’s-why-he’s struck me as overly forced. Yeah, doesn’t matter what happened to him in the intervening thirty years, he got it all on this train. As for KOTCS, I’m not as down on it as a lot of others, but having watched The Last Crusade again, I’ll give you that one. The great problem with KOTCS is the way it takes to extremes the comedy that also keeps rendering The Last Crusade a more lightweight, unsatisfying experience, such a distance from the slyness of Raider‘s humor.
Somewhere along the line I discovered that I actually preferred Temple to Raiders (though I suppose that could easily be reversed should I see them several more times in the next few years; opinions are like that!). I have to agree with all and sundry that Crusade comes in a pretty weak third, though (not that it isn’t fun, and doesn’t have its moments, but the others are two tough acts to beat!). Having never seen Skull so far I can’t really comment on it.
I’ve thought for a long time that, whereas Raiders was pretty much a straight-ahead all-out action pic right out of the old serial mold, Temple was actually striving to be the comedy picture of the three (and, speaking of hard acts to follow, I think it rather a good thing that they made Willie so completely different in temperament from Karen Allen’s character; otherwise it would have been glaringly same-old, no?…even if those differences are frowned upon in some circles), and I find it funnier every time I watch it (and not at all as forced as you and some others seem to think). Not to deny the humor of Raiders, but I suppose one could say that Raiders was an action movie with a lot of humor (a rare commodity in 80’s action films until “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” came along), whereas Temple was more of a comedy action film.
On the other hand, it’s also paradoxically by far the darkest of the three, which makes for an intriguing counterpoint to the comedy.
After all, if there’s truly anything to all the points the detractors of this film constantly bring up…why, when all is said and done, do they remain such fans of it?
I can’t really agree, Jake, that it’s a comedy with action: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is much, much closer to being a comedy with action. The film’s comedy was reportedly worked up a lot on the spot at Lucas’s insistence because he was unnerved by the horror show. I would however say that the comedy tends to be more ostentatious than in Raiders, with whole scenes often devoted to it in the first half, rather than blended in as in Raiders. It tends to alternate very giddily between poles of high melodrama and slapstick. Of course, some of the portions, like the mining car chase, are both utterly, almost Buster Keaton-ish absurd and are also superlative action, but that’s a mix that’s quite definitive of the series in general. Also, as you say, it’s the darkest: the emotions aren’t quite as engaged in Raiders, where there’s not as much immediately at stake. However, I think you’re certainly right in Willie’s being conceived as a definite anti-Marion.
Terrific article, Rod. The ties you make between Temple of Doom and its pulp roots — whether deliberate or not — are fascinating reading.
I’d like to chime in with my opinion that the Indiana Jones series went from a 10 to an 8 to maybe a 6 with The Last Crusade and a 2 with Crystal Skull, which only got made because Harrison Ford would have been too old to make another Indy had they waited for the right script.
There’s a great piece at Mystery Man on Film contrasting the Frank Darabont draft of Indiana Jones and the City of Gods with the 4th film. It’s a wonderful piece on the Indy sequel that Spielberg was keen to make, but Lucas vetoed.
As far as Temple of Doom, I find Kate Capshaw hilarious. “Annoying” is the point; she does a wonderful job of annoying the hell out of Indy. I stand in awe of the dark tone and flurry of imagination put up on the screen and found the score by John Williams the most rousing of the series. For all the charges of racism, as a kid, I actually learned something about India.
Great freaking movie and another outstanding piece!
Actually, thank you for mentioning something I omitted for the sake of space: yes, Williams’ score – those bloodcurdling, spiralling chants of the sacrifice scene, the cannonading drums when Indy appears in the mine and starts kicking ass, those herky-jerky rhythms when the characters are dangling from the bridge – is a master class in grand score-writing. If anyone ever wonders what I’m listening to when I’m walking round with my iPod, I’ll admit a lot of the time it’s excerpts from this score.
Thanks for that link, too. It’s an interesting read because I hadn’t seen Darabont’s version and whilst I’m not huge fan of his it does seem that he hit the nail on the head. Still, I find KOTCS light years ahead of, say, Live Free or Die Hard for reviving ’80s action heroes: it had some lovely throwaway bits, like Indy spitting on the ground when recalling old Mexican adventures. What is so pregnant and promising and yet unfulfilled in KOTCS however seems to have been completely in flower with Darabont’s version, and it begs the question of why the hell Lucas nixed it.
“I stand in awe of the dark tone and flurry of imagination put up on the screen…For all the charges of racism, as a kid, I actually learned something about India.”
Agreed. I think one of the more positive sides of pulp adventuring was that although it usually rendered the foreign alien and slightly inhuman, it could also broaden and deepen a sense of the world’s multitudinous traditions, and, like classical myth, could serve, in a fashion, as a kind of naif map to those traditions. I think in general the Indiana Jones films sustained that nobler side. Although, in the end, it of course has nothing to do with India: it’s just a setting for as primal a vision of good versus evil, nurture versus exploitation as could be envisioned.
It’s interesting that you don’t consider Temple a “comedy,” yet mention that mine car scene! (I was going to bring it up, myself, earlier, and forgot.) Here, right in the middle of the high point of the action and immediately after the absolute darkest parts of the film, we’re faced with this bit of slapstick which, you must admit, would have absolutely no counterpart in real life! Where on earth did it come from except a comedy tradition? (Buster Keaton, indeed! It looks like nothing if not a frenzied version of the train scene from “Our Hospitality!”)
Still, I suppose it all depends on how you define “comedy;” I think our differences about this have a lot more to do with rhetoric than actual viewpoint.
(And as I said, I still haven’t seen Skull, but I’m starting to be leery of it, rather than being comedy, bordering on farce.)
And I’m glad somebody thought to mention the score. I agree that it ranks very high on the list of Williams’ scores (which is very high in my book, indeed). I’ve always loved his Indian theme and the way he was able to weave it into the main “Indy” theme. Gorgeous!
And what’s wrong with making up comedy on the spot? Witness Corman’s “The Raven,” which I believe wasn’t originally planned to be a comedy (though I may be wrong there), and wherein Peter Lorre pulled off by far the best lines, mostly ad-libbed (and I’m pretty sure about that)!
(Oddly enough, legend has it that Lorre was, in real life, actually a very funny guy and an inveterate practical joker!)
I think almost all modern action films have an element of Buster Keaton-esque absurdity about them: the likeness first occurred to me, for instance, in watching Broken Arrow a few years back. And there is a close link between this variety of derring-do and the traditions of slapstick – look how closely related they are in silent cinema, for instance: Indiana’s a close relative of Fairbanks and Flynn, but also of Harold Lloyd and Buster himself. But I still would regard the mining car chase as more action than comedy, as opposed to, say, James Franco driving with his leg out the windscreen in Pineapple Express, which is definitely on the far side of the line into slapstick comedy. But it’s all finite, and not really worth arguing about.
Nothing wrong with making comedy up on the spot. Who said it wasn’t? (As long as it’s funny) Merely indicating that comedic value was a injected into the film to compensate for the darkness.
I doubt too much of The Raven was ad libbed, although indeed a lot of Lorre’s shtick does seem improvised. The jokes in Matheson’s script, like “entrails of troubled horse”, are fucking great.
“Temple of Doom” is probably my favorite Indiana Jones film. It’s odd, considering that when I first saw it, I didn’t like it. But it eventually became my favorite Indy film.
Did I find Willie Scott annoying? No. Probably because I understood where she was coming from. I would probably be screaming a lot louder than her. And I doubt that I would have been able to save Indy and Short Round in that mining car, the way she did.