Wednesday, May 08, 2024

40 Years Ago: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

I still vividly recall the summer of 1984, and the reviews and chatter about Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. In particular, there was much talk about how on earth George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could possibly “one-up” their previous cinematic blockbusters.
This was actually a popular parlor game of the age.  First came Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters (1977), then Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Between them, Spielberg and Lucas were responsible for the most successful and beloved genre pictures of the age, and they seemed to keep upping the ante in terms of action, special-effects, and sheer spectacle each time at bat.
Next out of the gate came….Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)....
To this day, both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas relentlessly talk the picture down.  
It was “too dark,” they insist. 
Or it was a silver-screen reflection of their personal troubles and bad mood at the time.  Lucas was undergoing a bitter divorce, for example. 
Spielberg even calls Temple of Doom his “least favorite” Indiana Jones film.
However, Spielberg and Lucas aren’t alone in their condemnation of the film.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been termed racist, culturally inaccurate, a wrong-headed defense of colonialism, anti-woman, and even compared to “child abuse” in term of its impact on young eyes.  It is one of the films, along with Gremlins (1984) that caused the M.P.A.A. to develop the PG-13 rating, after all. 
And one mustn’t forget, either, that some movie reviewers were certainly out there looking for Lucas or Spielberg -- or two for the price of one -- to stumble and fall from their perch as princes of Hollywood.  

Too dark?!
All the critical arguments against Temple of Doom are debatable, of course, but all the intense and varied criticism of the film tends to obscure the fact that this 1984 film stands as the finest and most creative of the Raiders of the Lost Ark follow-ups.  Temple of Doom is a film that thrives on its own unique (sinister…) energy without feeling the need to re-hash familiar scenes or re-introduce “repertory” characters for reasons of nostalgia or sentimentality.  Instead, the movie is lean and mean, relentless and driving.  Delightfully, it also picks-up on Raiders' leitmotif of Indiana Jones as a man conflicted over his path or destiny.  Should he pursue "fortune and glory" or do what is right?
In fact, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom remains defiantly and audaciously a picture in which -- as the title sequence explicitly warns audiences -- “anything goes.”
Not many sequels or prequels can live up to that billing, but Temple of Doom is a thrill-a-minute, non-stop action masterpiece, that -- like its predecessor -- pays homage to Hollywood tradition and history while simultaneously blazing a new path.  Buoyed by both outrageous humor and Hellish visions straight out of a nightmare, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a screwball comedy/horror/fantasy/adventure film, and one finely tuned to produce audience gasps and guffaws in equal measure.

“Fortune and Glory”
In Shanghai in the year 1935, a business transaction between American adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and the local gangster Lao Che (Roy Chaio) goes awry at the Club Obi Wan.  Indy escapes with his life, but also with a ditzy nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), and his eleven-year old Chinese side-kick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) in tow.
The trio escapes from China aboard a small cargo plane, only to learn that it is the property of Lao Che.  When the pilots bail out of the low-in-fuel plane over the Himalayas with the only parachutes, Indy, Willie, and Short Round evacuate the craft in an inflatable raft. 
After a harrowing landing on a mountainside and a race through choppy river waters, Indy and his friends realize that they have arrived in India.  An old man leads them to Mayapore, a village where the sacred Sankara or Sivalinga Stone has been stolen by a “re-awakening Evil.” The stone’s absence at its shrine has caused the river bed to dry up, and crops to wither on the vine.   
The same evil -- which makes its home at distant Pankot Palace -- is also responsible for abducting the village’s children and making them slaves.
At the request of the villagers, Indy, Willie, and Short Round make the long and dangerous trek to Pankot Palace, and soon realize that the Maharajah is the puppet of a sinister Thuggee leader, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).   
This menacing individual has acquired several Sankara Stones, and is seeking the last one, which he knows is buried deep within the surrounding mountains.  When he possesses all the stones, this Thuggee believes he and the Goddess Kali will dominate the world.  Mola Ram also controls his minions through pure terror, ripping out the hearts of human sacrifices with his bare hands.
When Indy and his friends are captured, Jones is forced to drink the “Blood of Kali,” a potion which apparently turns him evil.  Short Round is able to save his friend from this “Black Sleep,” and a re-awakened Indy commits himself to freeing the slaves, recovering the Sankara Stone, and destroying Mola Ram…

“Anything Goes”

George Lucas receives a great deal of criticism because he often attempts to recreate or pay homage to Hollywood and movie history, even when that Hollywood and movie history happens to be controversial.  

For instance, Lucas was widely panned for featuring aliens that speak “Pidgeon English” in The Phantom Menace (1999).  In some sense, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom showcases the same brand of political incorrectness (or perhaps, more accurately, tunnel vision).  Specifically, much of Temple of Doom is modeled directly on the popular 1939 Hollywood effort, Gunga Din. That film from director George Stevens is revered by many, but also derided by others as being insensitive to Indian culture and history.  

Gunga Din depicts the story of an Indian camp worker, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) in 1880.  He aspires to serve in the British Army, and along with three British officers, he investigates a British outpost at Tantrapur that has mysteriously fallen silent.  It turns out the facility has been attacked by the Thuggee, and late in the film, the Thuggee leader orchestrates a trap for Gunga Din and his friends at a temple of gold. Gunga Din dies in the battle, but is remembered, finally, as being worthy of a British uniform.

To put a fine point on the matter Gunga Din depicts the British Army in India as heroic and righteous, Indian culture as savage or heathen, and suggests that the highest aspiration of the Indians should be to serve the Queen.   

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom purposefully apes this world view.  It features a “cavalry comes over the hill” moment in which the heroic British soldiers -- occupiers? -- dispatch the Thuggee.  Similarly, the depiction of Kali as Evil in the film does not square with Hindu beliefs regarding the God as a deity of empowerment.  And the much criticized-dinner scene at Pankot Palace does not accurately reflect Indian cuisine, to say the least.  

On one hand, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom could be said to trade in stereotypes, but on the other hand, the film is set in 1935 and, to a great extent, it makes that date feel absolutely “real” by mirroring the Hollywood world view of that age.  

It would be weird, to say the least, to see Indiana Jones -- a man of the 1930s -- evidencing 1980s beliefs and opinions, and that simple fact seems to be lost in the complaints over the film’s Western-centric approach to a non-Western culture.  Who can argue truthfully that a 1930s serial on the same topic wouldn't take the same approach as this film?  So if we stop to view Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a time-specific “fantasy,” there’s no reason to be offended by the specifics its “imaginary” world.  In other words, the film doesn’t take place in real India, in 1980.  It takes place in 1930s Hollywood-ized India. That's a crucial distinction.

One can even state for a fact that Lucas and Spielberg were influenced by Gunga Din because of similar visual flourishes. Most notably, both films open with a similar shot...of an over-sized gong.  Thus, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's game is not to offend, but to pay tribute, as noted above, to movie history.

Another example of 1930s films providing an influence on the aesthetic of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom also occurs in the opening sequence.  Here, Willie Scott sings Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," and wanders off-stage (through a dragon's head stage prop...) into an "alternate world" of chorus-line dancers. 

Notably, this kind of  fantasy setting was featured all the time in the films of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976), such as Gold Diggers of 1937.  There, for instance, a tune called "All's Fair in Love and War" segued into a bizarre musical "number" outside of the film's traditional back-stage narrative.  Overall, the film was grounded in reality, but then it veered suddenly into a weird, expressionist dance number that didn't preserve the realism of the stage itself. The audience was carried into an abstract world beyond the confines of normal narrative structure.

The same approach is mirrored here.  We leave "the real world" of the Shanghai Club, and travel into a Busby Berkeley dance number of dancers, glitter, and music. Then we slip back into the real world, and the filmmakers offer no commentary about the detour.

My point here is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom deliberately evokes again the voice, feel and world-view of the 1930s in terms of presentation and structure. The over-arching idea here, as it is in terms of Gunga Din, is to re-create a "lost world" for audiences: a world of Hollywood movies circa 1935 - 1940.  It is wrong to perceive the film as taking place in the "real" world.  It takes place, instead, in the world of Hollywood; of movie serials and musicals.

Gold Diggers of 1937: "All's Fair in Love and War."

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: "Anything Goes."

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been criticized frequently as being anti-woman in nature because Willie Scott screams in the movie…a lot.  There is a simple and clear response to this argument.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark featured a brilliant, capable female lead in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Marion could out-drink, out-fight, and out-think many an opponent. The makers of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus found themselves in the position of either presenting a female character that would be dismissed by critics as a “pale copy” of Marion, or going in a new and original direction.  They chose the latter approach, but were clearly in a can't-win situation.  If they re-did Marion, they'd be criticized.  And we know they were also criticized for choosing a different path. 

But once more, it is fruitful to examine Willie Scott and her role. If one looks at the details of the story, Willie’s aversion to danger isn’t representative of any anti-woman stance, but reflective again of the time period, movie history, and even the character's situation.  She’s a pampered American singer who, after living the good life in Shanghai, suddenly finds herself riding elephants, handling snakes, and crawling through bug-infested caves. 

 Hell, I might find myself screaming in the same situation…

Another way to put this:  Is the depiction of Marcus Brody as a hapless ninny in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also sexist because it portrays a man as incompetent and incapable?   If the answer is simply that Marcus functions within that story as comic relief, then we must, in good conscience, apply the same answer to Willie Scott in Temple of Doom. 

Similarly, it's easy to see that Willie Scott in Temple of Doom screams approximately as much as Fay Wray did in King Kong (1933).  Once more, we must accept the premise, then, that this Lucas film is deliberately evoking a time, a place, and a world-view; that of the silver screen in the 1930s.

Two movies, two different women: Marion Ravenwood is capable and tough.

Two movies, two different women: Willie Scott...not capable or tough. At all...

I don’t intend this review to be a point-by-point rebuke of critics of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but some of the criticisms do seem truly absurd. Those who claim that the film is equivalent to “child abuse” because of the scene of Mola Ram ripping out a victim’s heart seem to have forgotten the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark, wherein a man’s head explodes on screen, and two other men are melted alive on camera, their flesh transforming into bloody puddles.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a darker film than Raiders, but one can’t really argue in good faith that there is actually more on-screen gore in the 1984 film than its predecessor. The heart scene, actually, is fairly bloodless, despite the action that occurs there.  

And the point must be: is the darkness justified?  

I would argue that it is.  That the sheer darkness of Mola Ram's world view is the very thing that turns Indy from mercenary to savior, that turns him away from fortune and glory so he can reunite grieving families. Jones experiences the darkness of the Thuggee world view in himself when he drinks the black sleep potion, and so realizes how horrible Mola Ram's reign could be.  

From a certain point of view, Temple of Doom actively concerns the idea that you can't run away from the darkness; that you must stay and fight it where it lives.  The film features very little in terms of globe-hopping, and thus Indy must face the consequences of all his actions.

Isn't this actually gorier..

...than this?

My affirmative case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom involves the fact that the film knowingly and meaningfully attempts to separate itself from Raiders of the Lost Ark in virtually every way.  It doesn’t return to Africa and the Middle East, but spends its time in the Far East and South-East Asia.  As I wrote above, it doesn’t “globe-hop” to the extent that Raiders did either, instead settling in one major location after the first action scene or set-piece.  Similarly, the characters are not reruns, but new people with individual voices.

In virtually every way imaginable, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus escapes Raiders of the Lost Ark’s gravity well, and thrives as its own unique story. 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is also the last Indy picture that features Jones as an occasionally mercenary, occasionally narcissistic individual.  As this film opens, he bargains with Lao Che for a relic he has successfully recovered.  Significantly, Indy doesn’t even discuss putting that relic in a museum.  No, this is a transaction: the relic for payment, for a diamond, specifically.  The details of Indy’s deal with Lao Che suggest that the original vision of the character -- as a man fallen from faith -- stands.  He’s a hero, but he’s also a man with foibles.

In fact, it is this film that originates the phrase “fortune and glory” in the saga, and it is clear that Jones has competing interests in taking down Mola Ram.  He wants to free the children, and defeat the Thuggee “evil,” but Indy is also in search of the “fortune and glory” that comes with the recovery of the Sankara Stones.  It’s clear that he is in this quest, at least partially, for himself…out of avarice.  This Indiana Jones is more Fred Dobbs (from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948]) than in later installments, and this is the mode that I, personally, prefer.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while staking out original characters, new locations, and a new “grounded” structure in one main locations, nonetheless adds meaningfully to Raider’s leitmotif about the Third World providing the First World with a new sense of spirituality and belief.  Here, Indy learns for himself the power of the Sankara Stones, and once more finds that “magic” can exist in the technological, on-the-verge of war world of the 1930s.  

What this means is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom tells a new story in a way that one can nonetheless recognize as being “of a piece” with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps the simplest reason to laud Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is that it remains one of the most exciting action pictures ever made.  In terms of the one-upmanship I discussed in my introduction, Temple of Doom actually one-ups itself, moment after moment, scene after scene, throughout its entire running time.  The opening set-piece in the Club Obi Wan is a perfectly-balanced presentation, one that escalates into a bizarre musical number, one ingredient at-a-time.  

The escape from the plane in an inflatable raft, the mine-car chase, and the final battle on a suspension bridge are similarly unimpeachable in terms of imagination, choreography, and execution.  These set-pieces are sustained ones -- lasting for several minutes each -- and just when you think they can’t get any more frenetic, brawny, or exhilarating, Spielberg cranks everything up another notch.  

In these moments, "anything goes," and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's creators do the seemingly impossible.  They one-up their already impressive blockbuster history.

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