In Defence Of… Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom
If ever an opening to a movie can be an indication of what is to follow then Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom is as clear as day.
A prequel to the 1981 hit Raiders Of The Lost Ark, this was an interesting turn from Spielberg and his producing partner George Lucas and they openly challenged themselves to not just churn out an identical film to the original. What they produced is one of the most high octane, action, fantasy movies ever made and subsequently one of the greatest sequels.
Even in the opening dance number with Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott leading a musical number this was always going to be an experimental film where anything goes. Action set pieces are crashed into each other with little room for stopping. This is a ride that is impossible to get off.
So why does it need a defence? And who from? The answer lies in an unlikely place, the film’s director: Steven Spielberg.
“I wasn’t happy with Temple of Doom at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific. I thought it out-poltered Poltergeist. There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom.”
It’s possible that Spielberg gave this response after the backlash from numerous amounts of feminists and defenders of Indian culture and Hinduism that challenged the film as lazy and offensive.
The two main support characters took a lot of the flak. Willie Scott was a deliberate creation as the antithesis to Raiders Of The Lost Ark vivacious Marion Ravenwood. Scott is a screaming, vulnerable, pampered and deliberately annoying female character. To make sure Dr Jones and Scott are not left alone too long it was necessary to create the fun and strange character of Short Round played with a convincing brashness by Jonathan Ke Quan. Short Round plays more like an annoying younger brother to Dr Jones but gets in the way of any impending romance that threatens to break out. The strange thing is that Scott and Short Round are annoying characters but the dynamic chemistry that is created between the main trio is so effortless that it never grates and even becomes encouraging. It was still a thankless task that Capshaw had on her hands but one she never backs away from. The comic tone that Ford and Capshaw create is still the most natural of the series. Note when Ford smiles after forcing Scott to sample some of the villager’s food and Capshaw’s amusingly butch delivery of the line:
“…and I hate YOU!!”
Also it’s worth noting one of the most bizarre and memorable lines delivered in Ford’s career which ends on a facial expression which has to be seen to be believed.
“Willie, we are going to die”
Short Round is strangely adopted by Jones which challenges Jones to be even more of a hero than normal, it also exposes Jones childish nature with the hilarious scene of cards playing whilst Scott flits around screaming at every jungle terror. Short Round is also a skilful martial artist which helps when Jones needs a wing man and also panders to the 1970’s and early 1980’s obsession with Bruce Lee.
Although it cannot be denied Scott does little more than scream and be the damsel in distress, at least the film makers believed in the necessary chemistry and didn’t try and shoe horn in a faux plot device to keep her busy (see The Mummy Returns and Pirates Of The Caribbean for the most blatant examples).
What is also easy to forget is how easily Harrison Ford wears the character and how he sits at his heroic best. His vulnerability and comedic talents are touched on so effortlessly in this edition that it seems strange that the film was overly criticised.
The depiction of India and Hinduism was most likely what made Spielberg distance himself this entry. The banquet scene is memorable but proved to be entirely untrue, suspicions were surely aroused when chilled Monkey brains are served as a dessert (nobody eats meat for a pudding). The chief complaint was the portrayal of the Goddess Kali which clearly angered the Indian authorities enough to ban the location of India for filming and then ban the film temporarily from release. These were unfortunately misplaced steps by the film makers but the critics that have challenged the film as racist might have been wiser to simply place it as ignorant.
Suspiciously, Spielberg cited the horrifically dark tone as one of the reasons he distanced himself from the film. He conveniently forgets the opening of the Ark scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark which is one of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed in a PG rated film. The censors seemed to share Spielberg’s thoughts though as the human sacrifice scene was one of the reasons that this film (along with Gremlins) was credited with the creation of the rating PG-13 in the United States.
George Lucas felt that the dark tone which had served him so well in The Empire Strikes Back was the way to approach this sequel. This seems a strange method of thinking when considering that Star Wars is a completely different beast to Indiana Jones. Nonetheless the idea was proven correct as the darkness in tone keeps the film gripping and the audience unsure how far they will go. With the zombie like chanting of the Thuggee’s, the beating heart of a man engulfed in flames, the skewering of a Shanghai gangster and the death of a child slave the darkness was well and truly achieved but when the action kicks in the film becomes exhilarating.
The strength of the film, and what makes it so easily rewatchable, lays in the action set pieces which are so frequent and varied that it is quite amazing to think that they all happen in the same film.
We start with a gangster scene in a packed restaurant that leads shamelessly into a crazily choreographed scramble for antidote amidst a gun battle, this finishes with an escape using a creative gong shield, leaps from windows, car chases, unpiloted planes, falling from a sky in a rubber dinghy and then one of movies longest descents down rivers and mountains. When we finally get a breath it is a welcome relief and act 2 sets up Indiana’s challenge as he is charged with recovering a sacred stone and freeing the villagers many missing children from slavery. On our way we contend with all manner of creepy crawlies, booby trapped rooms and secret caves. Once we’ve got to the final act and the child slaves are freed we are back on the rollercoaster. A tense conveyor belt scene (where the conveyor belt is used to smash rocks apparently) which leads into another grisly death. From there Indiana is fighting on scaffolding and then swinging into a cart where we are thrown into a memorable movie moment with the cart chase scene. Admittedly some of the brief moments of this scene are embarrassingly constructed with models rocking about unnaturally but this is a minor (sorry!) complaint. The twisty turny track and the inevitable jump are addictively watchable and lead into two literal cliff-hanger scenes. After the water bursts out of the Cliffside we are almost immediately treated to the gut dropping bridge scene where Dr Jones decides his only way out is taking everyone down and just for good measure we have some hungry crocodiles waiting for anyone not strapped in. Indiana Jones enjoys a well fought battle with Live and Let Die inspired Mola Ram and saves the day. This final act is pure adrenaline fuelled, gripping and superbly choreographed spectacle cinema. That so much action is crammed into its modest run time of 118 minutes is astonishing. The Temple Of Doom is not far off being the equal to Raiders Of The Lost Ark and is possibly the most memorable of all of the films but it is easily one of the most exhilarating, nonstop action movies ever made.
Spielberg followed The Temple Of Doom with the as close to James Bond as you’ll get sequel The Last Crusade, this was a fine end to a fantastic trilogy but set the tone for the overdue and undercooked Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull which tried to replicate the atmosphere of the Sean Connery lead picture and missed miles off the mark. A return to darker territory would have returned the Indiana Jones films to their strength. But in these days of 12 rated films that put the “franchise accessibility” ahead of an entertaining film it is not surprising that the fourth film in the Indiana Jones series failed so spectacularly.
My suggestion is to discard the fourth entry and enjoy one of the best trilogies ever made.
Coming soon to In Defence Of….One of the earliest Marvel comic movie adaptations…