Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)
In the lead-up to the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a longstanding argument was revived. Which is the second best Indiana Jones film: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The two films split fans of the series down the middle; they are so different, and the qualities people value in each are so different, that there is no room for agreement. (It’s one of those arguments where both sides are surprised that the other could even pose such a question.) About the only thing that unites everyone is the unstated assumption that, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the untouchable, streets-ahead best of the series. I, too, love that film: I can’t fault so much as a single shot, line-reading, or camera angle. It’s funny and exciting. Harrison Ford is awesome as Indiana Jones, and the supporting cast are all fantastic. A number of sequences – the flying wing fight, in particular – are amongst the most skilfully mounted in Spielberg’s extraordinary oeuvre. But here’s my dirty little secret… as time has gone by, I think I have come to love Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom even more than Raiders.
It’s almost heresy. This is the film with the screaming blonde bimbo who interrupts an action sequence to complain that she’s broken a nail. The one where we’re asked to care about the quest for muddy-looking rocks. The one with the silly gross-out gags involving chilled monkey brains and eyeball soup. The one where the plot stops for what seems like forever about half an hour in. The one that even Spielberg and George Lucas have virtually disowned. But here’s the thing: as much as I love Raiders, after all these viewings it just doesn’t draw me in the way it used to. I still enjoy it, but revisiting it now I feel a kind of cosy familiarity, rather than a compulsion to keep watching. While that can often be a problem with the memorable, much-watched films from our childhood, I should add that other Spielberg and Lucas classics haven’t aged that way for me: American Graffiti, Jaws, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and E.T. remain solidly dependable, love-them-every-time-I-watch-them experiences. And so, too, is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. For all its flaws – and it has far more than any of those other Lucas/Spielberg films – it is simply endlessly entertaining, every time I see it. Strangely, I think it has remained so fresh partly because of its blemishes. Raiders is perfection, no doubt; but Temple of Doom is a crazy film, a grotesque film, a tasteless film, and most of all an intense film. And that makes it more exciting and fun to re-watch.
I didn’t feel this way for a long time. As a kid, I considered it grossly inferior to Raiders. When Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released, I had qualms about its derivativeness, but still – like pretty much everybody else – welcomed its return to formula and preferred it to Temple of Doom. For years I didn’t feel much need to look again at the second film in the series. The seeds of a re-evaluation were planted when I read Pauline Kael’s review of the film in her book State of the Art (it originally appeared in The New Yorker). No doubt relishing the chance to recommend such a pulpy film to the highbrow New Yorker readership, Kael was at her most effusive (so Kael-haters will be rolling their eyes already). Just a sample:
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the director Steven Spielberg is like a magician whose tricks are so daring they make you laugh. He creates an atmosphere of happy disbelief: the more breathtaking and exhilarating the stunts are the funnier they are. Nobody has ever fused thrills and laughter in quite the way that he does here. He starts of at full charge in the opening sequence and just keeps going. There isn’t a letdown anywhere in it…. The subject of a movie can be momentum. It has often been the true – even if not fully acknowledged – subject of movies. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it’s not merely acknowledged, it’s gloried in. The picture has an exuberant, hurtling-along spirit… The stunts are brought off with incredible precision. (The way the editor, Michael Kahn, clips shots, you can almost hear him chuckling)… this is the most sheerly pleasurable physical comedy I’ve seen in years.
I figured it was worth quoting from this review – despite all the adjectives that I now can’t use in my own – because Kael was one of the only people who got the pleasures of Temple of Doom right from the start. Re-reading it, I realise that this was probably because she was one of the few who didn’t like Raiders. If you liked that first film, the gulf between the two films takes some bridging, and the absent qualities of Raiders obscure the qualities of Temple of Doom. It isn’t just that the former lacks the latter’s flaws. Raiders was a prestige action film, taking disreputable old serial pictures, tarting them up, and presenting them to polite society; it’s the adventure film that could be – and was – nominated for Best Picture. Kael had baulked at the pretension of such an exercise, so when Temple of Doom came along she didn’t yearn for the underlying earnestness of Raiders, or its solid story structure, or the feel that Lucas and Spielberg took the exercise seriously (the latter was part of what she didn’t like about the first film). So she was more open to the gleeful abandon of Temple of Doom.
If this sounds like rationalisation on my part (or Kael’s), trying to explain away the flaws of Temple of Doom, that’s only partly true. The flaws of Temple of Doom are there, and I’m not pretending they don’t matter. Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott, in particular, is a serious liability (although even here I’d say all her really bad scenes are early on; once the film reaches the temple I don’t particularly have a problem with either the script or Capshaw’s performance) and there are too many gross-out gags. My point, however, is that part of what makes Temple of Doom so good (and at times, so bad) is that Spielberg and Lucas don’t take the exercise terribly seriously. Unlike in Last Crusade, there’s no attempt to replicate the feel of Raiders, or to treat the exercise as a serious project. Instead, Indiana Jones is dropped into a completely different type of adventure, with a different tone, and different basic rules (so, for example, if you look at the Raiders truck chase and the Temple of Doom minecar chase one after the other you’ll immediately see the latter is on a completely different register in terms of its physical plausibility).
You see this different approach right from the start. The other sequels carefully replicated the subdued, tasteful font of Raiders’ opening credits. Temple of Doom, however, splashes its gaudy, stylised title right across the screen… in front of a giant red smoking dragon’s mouth… that is billowing streamers… surrounded by a nightclub dancer and eight chorus girls… with a massive orchestral and choral flourish. After that we segue into a completely incongruous musical number involving an elaborately choreographed dance routine that is clearly not taking place in the film’s diegetic space. (It even includes a moment where the film is run backwards.) This is clearly not a film worried about respecting the tone of its acclaimed forebear or, indeed, conventional notions of restraint, generic appropriateness, or good taste. As Capshaw’s Willie Scott sings: “Anything Goes.”
When a sequel is missing things we like from the original, it’s usually disappointing. Yet by opening the film with such a completely out-of-nowhere musical number, Spielberg and Lucas push through that disappointment and come out the other side. If not for the sheer Panavision-screen-straddling size of the title, audiences in 1984 must have wondered if they were in the right cinema; what the film signals with such an unexpected opening is that this is a whole new ball game. It’s not Raiders 2: you’re in for a different film, that isn’t going to be afraid to try some really unexpected things. That’s what I love about Temple of Doom. Not everything in it works, but there’s a fearlessness to it that stands in contrast to the timidity that marks Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and certainly Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
It isn’t just that Spielberg is willing to stage a nutty dance number. He constantly pushes the boundaries of the action genre in which he is working, trying new things out to see if they work. The action scene at Club Obi Wan, for example, is an extension of the opening musical number: the score even switches from action cues back to Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” midway through the sequence, just as the dancing girls return to the stage to blend in with the melee. The fight itself blends occasionally brutal action (in a throwaway moment, Indiana Jones punches an innocent cigarette girl in the face) with comic farce, as characters scramble to find tiny objects dropped on the floor. Given its combination of fight, comedy, and musical number, it’s appropriate that Indiana Jones twice makes use of musical instruments, first knocking out an opponent with a cymbal (which of course gives the gag an apt musical “sting”) and then shielding himself behind the gong to make his escape.
What’s more interesting than the games he plays within individual sequences is the way Spielberg pushes the boundaries of his plot construction. It is a strangely constructed movie, and this is one of the features of the film that some really struggle with. Raiders is a very classically constructed film, closely following the model of previous globe-trotting adventures such as the Bond series. Its action sequences are discrete exercises, strung like beads evenly along the film’s narrative thread. Temple of Doom uses a quite different construction, taking the principles that Spielberg uses on a micro-level in each sequence and applying them to the macro-level of the film as a whole. I’ve talked before about the chains of cascading cause and effect that Spielberg uses to structure individual action sequences; Temple of Doom applies that logic to the film’s narrative, so that the tail of one sequence directly kicks off the next, and each solution leads to the next crisis. This happens at both ends of the film. At the start, Jones escapes the nightclub and gets the antidote he seeks, but is already in the car for the next chase before he has even drunk the remedy; later, what seems to be a triumphant moment of escape after the car chase is, on the exact same beat – Indy victoriously slamming the door of the plane – revealed to be the next crisis that has to be resolved.
This opening mega-chase takes us right through to the village in India, and this is where Spielberg (and screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz) have to set up the rest of the adventure. This lull, which continues through the Pankot Palace sequences until the action starts to unfold in the temple, gives the film its reputation for slipshod plotting and pacing. And while there are some neat little touches through this stretch of the film (like the very nicely done mockery of a typical seduction sequence) it also features many of the film’s gross-out and Willie Scott-related lowlights. This gives audiences much more time to ponder the film’s weaknesses than the more even-rhythmed Raiders ever did. What Spielberg gains from this long stretch of exposition and set-up, though, is the opportunity to get his dominos lined up so that once the action of the film’s second half starts, it cascades right through to the conclusion with barely a pause.
In particular, note the care with which Spielberg establishes the environment of the temple of doom itself: we have a series of underground tunnels, leading to a sacrifice chamber split in half by a central lava pit, and behind and below that is a mine. Spielberg uses the early sequence in the temple to lay out all the geography and machinery with which he will play for the last hour. The temple is, as I wrote in my earlier piece about Spielberg’s style in the films, a giant playground of tunnels, walkways, flying foxes, pulleys, conveyer belts, ladders, waterwheels, and minecarts. Once he has carefully put all this in place, he can truly go nuts in the last half of the film, and pick up the non-stop plotting that marked the film’s opening. In Raiders, Spielberg would set up each big-set piece with a flourish and a couple of “here-we-go” establishing shots: think of the moment where Jones peers over an embankment and surveys the airfield with the flying wing, or the elevated pan across the Nazi convoy that marks the start of the truck chase. Here, though, Spielberg has taken the time to establish one setting as a kind of ultimate action scene environment. While there are obviously various sub-sequences in the film’s climax, Spielberg can essentially treat the last half of the film as one big setpiece, free of the fat of exposition or geographical setup.
Once he has set that machine going, Spielberg can be particularly aggressive in terms of the language of film. An interesting example is the “rescue” sequence, in which Jones returns to the catacombs to free the child slaves. This starts with one of Spielberg’s most effective hero shots, cheekily set up as being lit by a minecar light being pushed towards Jones, allowing a motivated slow inward track to the character as his face is gradually illuminated. Yet once children are freed, Spielberg is able to drastically compress the exposition. Firstly, there’s the cross-cutting to the children running out of the temple, which in storytelling terms greatly accelerates their escape by allowing a seamless cheating of the timeframe of their return to their village. But note, too, the way Spielberg is able to economise the set-up to the big fight with the guard (that ultimately ends on the rock crusher). We get one shot of the guard looking menacing, and then we cut back to Jones grasping a sledge hammer, and that’s the entirety of Spielberg’s setup: we’re already mid-fight. With this kind of bare-bones construction Spielberg greatly intensifies the excitement of the latter portion of the movie, as well as turning the sheer elaborateness into a comic effect. Perhaps the most famous example of this one-thing-leads-to-another plotting is when Indiana Jones sets fire to his shoes trying to stop the minecar at the end of the film’s self-referential “rollercoaster” chase: he asks for water, only to be faced with a torrential flood.
This intensity of style is matched by an intensity of theme that makes it more interesting than the genial Raiders. On its release the film appalled many, and along with the Spielberg-produced Gremlins it prompted reform of the American ratings system (leading to the introduction of the PG-13 rating). Again, like it or not, there is a bravery to Temple of Doom that is impressive. Indiana Jones starts as far more of a mercenary, out for fortune and glory, rather than being on the side of good from the start as he is in Raiders (this is why Temple of Doom being chronologically the earliest film makes sense; this film shows the emergence of the more civic-spirited Indy we saw in Raiders.) And from that stating point, the film pushes him into much darker places. In the opening scene, a young Asian associate of Jones is killed while trying to save him; this plants the lingering idea that his adventures place his even younger Asian sidekick Short Round in peril. That, of course, is exactly what happens, with the disturbing scene of the entranced Indiana Jones striking Short Round and being spat on by his leading lady, and an overwhelmingly hellish edge to the production design (with lava pools, flames, steam and smoke filling many frames).
Given that the film also includes the most silly, freewheeling sequences of the series, Temple of Doom covers quite a tonal range. It’s little wonder at times the mix doesn’t quite work, but those moments that do work are all the better for this adventurousness. If we thought of the medium of film as a race car on a track, Raiders of the Lost Ark is Spielberg’s flawless lap, entering and exiting every corner perfectly, and always holding the correct line. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom sees him with the pedal to the metal, throwing the car into the curves with greater abandon, and occasionally spinning off the track completely. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a ride I’m always happy to take again.
For my review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, click here.
For an entertaining alternative persepctive, see Mark Lavercombe’s enjoyable retrospectives on these films, starting here, which partially prompted this piece.