Like those who were thrilled and dazzled by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s ode to the pulpy action/adventure serials of a bygone era with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), I eagerly anticipated their follow-up three years later. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) was not only a prequel but a much darker tale. After being teased with images in Starlog magazine ahead of time, I finally saw the film and was once again transported back into Indiana Jones’ world of fortune and glory filled with even more impressive death-defying stunts and daring escapes from seemingly impossible situations.
Over the years, the more times I saw this film the more its flaws became apparent. This was even more evident with the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which returned to the heartfelt, freewheeling vibe of Raiders, making the darker tone of Temple of Doom even more obvious. There was also the annoying presence of Indy’s love interest, moments of casual racism and rather extreme violence for a PG rated film (demonstrating Lucas and Spielberg’s clout within the industry). I was curious to see how the film has aged, especially in light of the crushing disappointment that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which failed to live up to decades of built-up expectations.
Right from the opening credits, film buff Spielberg gets to indulge in his love of musicals with a rousing Busby Berkeley-esque song and dance number that introduces nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). Lucas and Spielberg quickly segue into a James Bond-esque action sequence as Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), decked out in a dapper tuxedo, has it out with Chinese gangsters in crowded nightclub all the while fighting the effects of being recently poisoned.
Spielberg ups the intensity of the violence as Indy skewers a gangster with a flaming kabob. The action sequence is impressively choreographed as Indy uses the chaos of the panicking patrons to frantically search for the antidote. Like Raiders, he narrowly escapes the local baddies, this time with the help of his diminutive sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), and with Willie tagging along via an airplane only this one is piloted by men working for the gangsters.
While our heroes are asleep – understandably exhausted by the nightclub mayhem – the pilots dump all the fuel and parachute out. Indy wakes up and is forced to improvise, which leads up to the franchise’s most ridiculous death-defying stunt until Crystal Skull saw Indy survive a nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a refrigerator. Indy, Short Round and Willie plummet for miles as they inflate a raft, manage to land right side up only to then fall off a cliff, landing right side up again in rapids. Now, I know the Indiana Jones films are pure escapism but they always had one foot in the realm of the semi-real world and this stunt pushes the envelope of credibility even for this franchise.
Our heroes arrive at an Indian village and right away we notice something is amiss. Everyone is starving and the surrounding countryside is a barren wasteland. Most alarmingly there are no children. The vicious Thuggee cult has come in, taken the village’s sacred Sankara stone, their children and caused all the poverty and desolation. Their elder chief appeals to Indy’s altruism and enlists him to go to nearby Pankot Palace to retrieve their stone.
Indy translates the chief’s sad tale of the tragedy that befell them to Willie and Short Round (and us) in Harrison Ford’s typically low-key yet moving way that makes us sympathize with the plight of these people. Further motivation comes in the form of a young boy who somehow managed to escape, dehydrated, starving and showing signs of physical abuse. This, more than anything, provides an emotional weight to Indy’s new adventure. How can you not get behind the destruction of an evil cult so that an impoverished village can become prosperous again?
As Indy and co. get closer to Pankot Palace, Spielberg does a nice job of gradually introducing an ominous tone as our heroes uncover a Thuggee altar decorated with severed fingers and limbs while swarms of vampire bats populate the sky indicating that they are getting closer to the heart of darkness in this particular jungle. Once they arrive at the palace, Spielberg immerses us in Indian culture and has a bit of gross-out humor as Willie and Short Round are subjected to local delicacies: a snake cut open to reveal smaller snakes, beetles, soup with eyeballs floating in it, and for dessert chilled monkey brains. It is a bit of frivolous juvenile humor while Indy and the palace bureaucrat Prime Minister Chatter Lal (Roshan Seth) discuss the region’s history.
Not surprisingly, Temple of Doom really takes off once Indy uncovers a secret passage to the bowels of the palace. It is here that Lucas and Spielberg really push the PG rating envelope as far as it could go in 1984. Our heroes witness a Thuggee ceremony that features its chief priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) rip a beating heart out of a living man only to see him lowered into a molten lava pit. It’s not graphic per se but it is pretty disturbing, made even more so by the terrified reactions of the man and Willie. It does an impressive job of establishing just how evil this cult is and sets up Mola Ram as a formidable opponent.
Things get even darker, if that’s possible, when our heroes are captured. Short Round is whipped and sent to work in the mine with the other children from the village, Willie is prepared to be Mola Ram’s next sacrifice and, worst of all, Indy is tortured and forced to drink the “Blood of Kali,” which brainwashes him over to the Thuggee cult. If that wasn’t enough, we get scenes of emaciated children being beaten and whipped, which threatens to take us out of the film with its almost sadistic overtones.
Harrison Ford gets to play a much richer range of emotions in Temple of Doom than he did in Raiders, starting in suave Bond mode before shifting gears to the Indy we all know and love. From there the actor gets to engage Kate Capshaw in screwball comedy banter and then gets to play evil when he’s possessed by the Thuggee cult. This part of the film is particularly chilling as we see the good doctor try and fight it but ultimately succumbs to the dark side. The evil look Ford gives once he has been turned to the Thuggees, coupled with the infernal light that bathes his face, is a truly unsettling sight. It allows Ford to show off a versatility that he didn’t in Raiders.
Willie Scott’s initial role in Temple of Doom is to act as Indy’s foil, trading insults in screwball comedy fashion but once they arrive in India, her role changes to annoying whiner, pointing out how yucky the local cuisine (thereby embarrassing Indy in front of the villagers) is and how icky the local wildlife is to her. I understand that Willie is a nightclub singer used to a pampered, luxurious life in the big city but her constant complaining is an irritant. After the feisty sexiness of Marion Ravenwood as brought so vividly to life by Karen Allen in Raiders, who could readily adapt to a given situation and actually help Indy once in a while, Willie is a major step down, acting more often like the requisite damsel in distress than an equal. Indy often spends too much time early on chastising her.
I don’t blame Kate Capshaw, who does the best with what she’s given, but rather Lucas who was going through a messy divorce at the time of the film’s inception and channeled those dark feelings into the screenplay written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, which feels more mean-spirited with a sadistic streak that is a tad disturbing. One feels as if Lucas and Spielberg intend Willie to be the audience surrogate, confirming our revulsion with foreign customs and culture that we don’t understand. She’s comic relief as evident in one scene where she clumsily tries to climb on an elephant only to get on backwards, which sums up her character perfectly. In the next scene, she falls off said elephant and complains about everything, much to Indy’s complete and utter disinterest. Then, when they camp for the night, Willie runs afoul of every creature in the surrounding area and proceeds to scream at the top of her lungs.
All of the darkness that our heroes confront in Temple of Doom makes Indy’s redemption and taking on the Thuggee cult that much more rewarding because Lucas and Spielberg have built up Mola Ram and his followers as the very epitome of evil. We want to see them destroyed and the children freed, which the film obliges in spectacular fashion, culminating in an exciting rope bridge confrontation. Like the other films in the series, Indy doesn’t end up with the treasure in the end. In what is probably the most altruistic of all the films, he recovers the village’s Sankara stone and gives it back to their chief along with all their children. For Indy, seeing a village restored and an evil cult destroyed is better than the fortune and glory he pursued at the beginning of the film.
Temple of Doom used to be widely regarded as the weakest film of the Indiana Jones franchise and with good reason. Indy is saddled with a love interest that spends most of her screen time either whining or screaming in fright. The film also treads the fine line of racism by portraying the people of India as noble, impoverished savages that must be saved by the cultured white man. In attempt to outdo the stunts in Raiders, Temple of Doom ups the ante but it comes across as a bit of overkill. The film lacks Raiders’ heart and soul. And yet, for all of its faults, Temple of Doom is no longer the weakest film in the series thanks to The Crystal Skull, but it did serve as a valuable lesson to Lucas and Spielberg of the dangers of going to extremes and straying too far from what made Raiders so appealing, which they fortunately rectified with The Last Crusade.