Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The second Indiana Jones is a disappointment. Not a crashing disappointment in the way that the fourth installment is; by most standards this is an entertaining blockbuster, well-performed and frequently exquisite to look at. The problems with Temple of Doom are fundamental ones to do with narrative and structure.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was essentially one long chase; Temple gets the chasing out of the way in the first fifteen minutes, after which it confines itself to one big soundstage until the climax. It’s difficult to define it in terms of acts, in fact, as the temple scenes could be regarded as one over-extended second act. It basically stops moving, and not just in terms of location. It’s as if the cobbled together set pieces that didn’t make it into Raiders (the mine car chase, part of the opening number, the life raft) were judged sufficient once the MacGuffin had been settled on. There’s no progression, as the titular temple is all there is.
There are other reasons that the film is demonstrably inferior to Raiders, not a least a willingness to indulge in laurel-resting referentiality to its predecessor (even though this is a prequel, no one really thinks of it that way). Indy’s sidekicks are very schematic; the love-interest Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) is window-dressing (perhaps wisely, as it would be difficult to measure up to Marion), a cartoon character there for cheap yuks.
Short Round provides the surrogate son of the trilogy as, broad a character as he is, Jones is shown to be emotionally invested in him (the only thing in the plot approaching a character arc). So, in terms of the trilogy, the relationships are wife, son, father (which rather highlights the way in which Crystal Skull does nothing new, as it settles on wife and son). “Shorty” (Jonathan Ke Quan) is a dry run for his “shouting as performance” turn in the following year’s The Goonies.
Both characters work, to an extent, because the actors have strong chemistry with Ford, but they underline a broadness (in some cases sledgehammer even) of approach in this film that illustrates how Raiders might have come undone if less time had been spent on the script, characters and set pieces. In fact, the entire film is pitched at a level that twins it more with The Goonies than Raiders. Even Williams score is frequently so on-the-nose as to suggest Spielberg had completely unlearned all the comedy-from-drama skills he showed so confidently in Raiders, and was reverting to 1941 “anything goes” (as the opening song warns us).
Early ideas for Temple included an opening on the Great Wall of China involving a motorcycle chase (this became the plane sequence when permission to film on the Wall was denied). Apparently a (Conan Doyle’s) Lost World dinosaur sequence was also mooted (the director would get to scratch that itch eventually, of course). Premises included the legend of the Monkey King and Lucas’ initial pitch of setting the story in and around a haunted Scottish castle; the fixed setting eventually evolved into The Temple of Death (the various traps Indy and co encounter on their way down to the temple certainly bear much in common with traditional horror plot devices), the original title.
With all the ideas flying about, it’s curious that what was settled turns out to be such a botch job. Spielberg was unhappy with the darkness of the film. It’s certainly true that it feeds off horror tropes rather than those of action/adventure to be found in the Republic serials. But the biggest problem is dramatic inertia. Lawrence Kasdan was busy with The Big Chill (he was unimpressed with the choice of subject matter and especially the tone) so Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (co-writers of American Graffiti with Lucas) were brought in to attend to his shopping list of elements (the aforementioned mining car, life raft and the gong in the night club among them). The trio worked together on the stinkerous Howard the Duck a couple of years later; Huyck and Katz have done little of note since.
Lucas specifically wanted a darker tone because it had worked with Empire. Which isn’t a problem per se, but what he clearly missed was that Empire is nuanced and richly shaded; in that sense it is actually much closer to Raiders in approach. Temple bashes away at its point (be it comedy or horror); in that sense, the rather one-note pitch of the storytelling is more akin to Return of the Jedi (on which Kasdan did work).
Huyck and Katz assume an awful lot and so don’t feel the need to do groundwork in important places. There is no building of narrative in terms of escalation (only within individual scenes, although this in itself works to a fairly rigid template set out by Raiders); the approach to the temple setting is how to “fill it out” rather than setting plot objectives. So Indy is possessed, falling under the Black Sleep of Kali Ma, for 10 minutes. And while he’s down there he should have a fight and free the slaves before getting down to that mine cart chase. With a prescribed “holy” quest this time, Indy must conform to a more classically heroic mode and you don’t feel his motivation shine through in the way it does in the first and third films.
It’s ironic that Spielberg commented that the film was too fast in the first edit and needed to slow down; he may have an argument strictly scenically, but in terms of plot there is precious little to back him up. A good example is Mola Ram who, appearance aside, is the most banal of villains. He shows up and hour into the film and has no motivation other than to be evil. No complaints about Amrish Puri’s malevolent portrayl, but Mola Ram personifies the problems with Temple.
One of the inspirations for Temple’s villains was the 1939 film Gunga Din, in which Cary Grant and his British chums overthrow the Thuggee cult in 19th century India. In Temple, Captain Blumburtt (Philip Stone, who played Delbert Grady in The Shining a few years earlier) explains how “The British did nicely away with them”. Whilst lip service is paid to a slightly mockery of the British Empire by Chattar Lai (Roshan Seth), the young Maharaja of Pankot Palace’s Prime minister, Temple does little to make it other than an ultimately benign force. As in Gunga Din, it is there to help restore order to India – which no doubt will fall into ruin if left to its own devices. British forces turn up to save the day at the climax. Like most of the ignorant elements in the film, I don’t think this apparent endorsement of imperialism is intentional; it’s merely the result of a clumsy, thoughtless approach from the writers; “That’ll do”.
Indiana Jones: I suggest you give me what you owe me. Or, “anything goes”.
Ironically then, the opening sequence is nigh-on perfect. Inventive and enthralling in equal measure, it shows Spielberg at his most inspired as a Busby Berkley musical number sets the scene for masterfully intercut mayhem in which different objects (gem and antidote) are pursued by different characters. If the Club Obi Wan name is a tad lame, the director is disinterested in looking over his shoulder at past glories. Kate Capshaw comes on, singing to camera as the film’s logo appears behind her; Spielberg goes further, introducing non-diegetic space as the Anything Goes inhabits its own world beyond the club.
Lao Che (Roy Chiao) and Kao Kan (Ric Young, who would go on to explode memorably in Big Trouble in Little China) are far more engaging villains than the those who make up the main body of the film. Their cackling relish at the hardships they inflict upon Indy is much more in keeping with Ronald Lacey’s grotesquerie in Raiders.
The choreography of the action is every bit as good as that of the dancing that preceded it. As with Raiders, Indy doesn’t best his foes in the opening section; indeed, he is subject of what appears to be a decisive trumping by them when he smugly escapes their clutches at the last minute. Only for the audience to be shown the gag as the door closes; the plane belongs to Lao Che. Spielberg’s forte is this kind of joke, but in Temple he’s very hit-and-miss. Perhaps this is a result of his decision to improvise comedic bits on set in an effort to lighten the tone. The hammer bouncing on a Thuggee’s head is funny because it is so broad, but the problem is that it’s more illustrative of the approach than the humour arising from the storytelling (the reveal of the owner of the plane).
The opening also appears to posit a more mercurial Jones than the one we see in Raiders. His price for returning Nurhaci (the ashes of Lao Che’s ancestor) is a diamond; is this to be placed in a museum? The “fortune and glory” that forms the repeated goal of Indy in this adventure suggests that his purity of motive as an archeologist takes a backseat to profit. Although, when it comes down to it, this fortune and glory seems to be just an ill-fitting buzz phrase for procuring items for the museum referred to in Raiders; at the climax he reflects that the Sankara stone would just have ended up gathering dust in a museum and it is better served returned to its rightful place in the village (it would have been an uncomfortable fit if, having been sent on this quest, he should qualms about fulfilling it, but there is no intimation that he is contemplating such a course.
Willie: What are you supposed to be? A Lion tamer?
The plane sequence has some much-needed poultry (always good for a bit of comedy, are chickens) but the concept of the life raft dropping from the sky as their “parachute”, saving them from certain death, has more than a touch of the “nuke the fridge” that was much-criticised in Crystal Skull (a similar selective reasoning can be found in those ignoring the OTT elements of Die Harder and with a Vengeance when complaining about Live Free and… ).
The issue that arises here, as with the mine cart chase, is one of how far from practical, stunt-driven effects the series can go before it loses the sense of visceral thrills. Raiders felt like you were there with Indy in every scene, and it was bruising. But the blue screen close-ups of Indy and co in the raft are an indication of how much model work and/or stunt doubles were used (there is a nice touch with the plane exploding into a mountain behind the landing life raft). Likewise, the mine cart chase bears more resemblance to the Speeder Bike chase in Return of the Jedi (that film as a comparison again) than any of the practical stunts in Raiders. Although these seams are, in some cases, less glaring since it has been cleaned-up on DVD/Blu-ray, something has been lost since Raiders.
Willie: I hate the water and I hate being wet and I hate you.
Nevertheless, the first 15 minutes is replete with all the escalation and energy that was sustained throughout Raiders. But then… it pauses for breath, to set the scene for this “mission”, and never quite gets started again. There’s the mining car scene, of course, but in general horror replaces suspense and atmosphere.
The scene in the village seals the deal on Willie’s personality. She is stuck up and shallow and will remain this way, even if her lines are often very funny. As mentioned, Capshaw and Ford enjoy a strong rapport. But Willie never feels like a fleshed-out character; like Short Round, she is a brash caricature. Quan makes Shorty appealing, but Capshaw never manages to make Willie endearing. Just noisy.
Indiana Jones: Evil? What evil?
The lack of subtlety in the village scene is astounding at times. It’s one thing to have the mystic trappings of destiny (“This is why Shiva brought you here”, Indy is told; to retrieve the stone from Pankot Palace, and thus revitalise the starving village). It’s quite another to bring on a weary child stage left who just happens to be clutching a vital scrap of cloth that tells a story! This is Huyck and Katz weaving elements together without even a hint of deftness.
Indiana Jones: That’s why they call it the jungle, sweetheart.
Lines like the above have Indy sounding more like Han Solo than Professor Jones. And then we’re introduced to comedy elephants and accompanied by John Williams’ comedy music. It’s all much too broad, either playing to the little kids or (later) making the adults queasy (at the human heart-removals).
Still, Spielberg’s signature intercutting of elements is second nature in this film. So much so that it’s the only thing sustaining otherwise weak material. The campfire scene, where Willie is more and more alarmed at the fauna surrounding her while Indy and Short Round get into an argument over cheating at cards, works because of great timing (editing and performance) rather than anything of particular merit in the writing.
This is only furthered at Pankot Palace, where the director indulges his most childish instincts with a series of gross-out dishes (understandably resulting in accusations of racial stereotyping). The trick of intercutting the exposition concerning the Thuggee cult with Willie’s hammy reactions to the menu (chilled monkey brains, eye ball soup etc) is the same one we see throughout. On a basic level, it’s well edited, but the content is just that; base.
Chattar Lai: We are all vulnerable to vicious rumours. I seem to recall that in Honduras you were accused of being a grave robber rather than an archaeologist.
Indiana Jones: Well, the newspapers greatly exaggerated the incident.
Chattar Lai: And wasn’t it the Sultan of Madagascar who threatened to cut your head off? If you ever returned to the country?
Indiana Jones: No, it wasn’t my head.
Chattar Lai: Then your hands, perhaps?
Indiana Jones: No, it wasn’t my hands. It was my (looks down) misunderstanding.
Chattar Lai: Which is exactly what we have here, Dr. Jones.
Spielberg is on firmer ground with the bedroom farce of Indy and Willie playing hard to get (“I’m not that easy!”), transitioning effortlessly into an attempt on Indy’s life. It ends up being the same approach of comedy/drama intercutting he’s used for three scenes in a row but there are moments of genuine inspiration (Indy, being strangled with his hand outstretched as Willie tells him through the door that she has slipped right through his fingers). The only way to go with these two is laughs, as we don’t care to see them end up together.
Indiana Jones: We –are – going – to –die!
It’s fairly typical of Temple that, having discovered smut, the director batters the point home (the tunnel entrance is revealed through grasping a statue’s breasts), but the sequence with the descending roof is nigh-on flawless, and up there with the opening. As a fully-formed vignette that can proudly stand on its own.
The creepy crawlies are suitably over-sized and multitudinous enough to more than do for insects what Raiders did for snakes, while the intercutting between Willie fretting about cosmetic concerns and Indy and Shorty about to be crushed is masterfully edge-of-the-seat (the ‘berg borrows a Raiders device too, having Willie plunge the trio back into peril just as the situation appears to have been resolved). It should be observed that even if his material is patchy, Ford is on great form throughout. His comic timing is perfect.
With Douglas Slocombe returning as cinematographer, he is shot superbly too. Once we are under the palace, the opportunity for iconic shots of Indy is let out of the bag, and Slocombe makes the most of it. If the temple set occasionally feels like just that, in the main Slocombe ensures that the restrictions of the Elstree sound stage are not intrusive. Indeed, a gorgeously epic matte painting of a cavern passed through by Indy and company signals our entrance to the subterranean world.
But what do you do once you get there? This is where the film loses the plot. There’s nothing very evocative or mysterious about the Sankara stones; all they can do is sit there and glow (again, this a problem that lends itself to the fourth film). If it’s not indulging in inadvisable sentimentality (“Look at all the poor child slaves!”) the screenplay is wallowing in some horrendous signposting; Indy is locked in a cage with several slave children, one of whom helpfully, and woodenly, launches into an explanation of the Black Sleep of Kali Ma. Helpfully, as this is precisely the fate that next befalls Indy.
There’s something rather tiresome about this sequence. It foregrounds the emotional centre of the film (Indy and Short Round’s relationship) in neon lights, and then resolves itself with alarming simplicity (a bit of pain is all you need!) Was the escape of Mola Ram through a hole in the floor inspired by Live and Let Die?
From here, Indy leads a not-terribly involving slave revolt (the passive sheep just need a big strong American to show them what’s what; Edward Zwick would be proud). The fight with the slave master is a substandard repeat of the plane fight in Raiders that comes out of nowhere; Spielberg just decides its time for a scrap with a big bastard played by stuntman Pat Roach (on both occasions). He throws in some impediments to progress (the Maharaja sticks pins in an Indy doll – it’s all the black magic clichés here, folks!) and ends with a messy death (propellers for Par in Raiders, sucked into a roller here).
Indiana Jones: Water… Water… Water.
I’ve discussed the mine cart chase, and there’s no doubt that it was touted as the set piece de resistance at the time of the film’s release. All the makings of… foregrounded it. Unlike the truck chase in Raiders, Indy isn’t after anything, he’s just trying to escape; we aren’t invested in the sequence in the same way, so when crazy stunts take over (the cart leaps huge distances from one track to land perfectly on another), the rollercoaster ride becomes about spectacle only, with no look-in for plot progression.
Indiana Jones: Prepare to meet Kali – in hell!
Spielberg commented of Temple that it was “too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific” and when Indy actually gets out into daylight, and on location, it’s a great relief. The story is moving again, and not just round in circles. This is where the two of the best Indy gags occur, both riffing on previous Ford scenes. Confronted by to Thuggee guards with swords, Indy goes to pull out a gun that isn’t there (and won’t be for another year; this is 1935, remember, Raiders was 1936). Soon after he stares past the camera at something coming his way, then turns and high tails it as a whole squad pursues him (recalling Han Solo’s chasing of, then being chased by, Stormtroopers in Star Wars). These jokes work well, but in general there just isn’t the structure to support them; they’re just thrown on top.
As for the rope bridge finale, it is as well-sustained as you’d expect, even if the seams show a little too much at times during the Elstree-shot cliff face section (great hand acting from Ford as he pulls himself up from the remains of the bridge). Why does Indy’s incantation result in the stone catching alight in Mola Ram’s hand? Because the scene needs it, presumably. The supernatural element in Temple consistently lacks any of the myth-making, awe or spectacle of Raiders.
Indiana Jones: Yes, I understand its power now.
The coda, back in the village, is particularly smug and unearned. All the kids are back to the unfettered joy of their families. It’s like the Ewok village all over again. And Indy’s admittance that he has “learned” something is audaciously trite. The less said about the return of the terrible funny elephant antics, the better.
Indiana Jones: You betrayed Shiva.
The controversy created by Temple extended in two directions. Firstly, there was the horror show element, strong enough that it was widely seen as ushering in the PG-13 certification (along with Gremlins). The theory being that a moneymaker like Spielberg had such clout and importance that a change in the ratings system was not beyond his reach. In the UK the heart removal was edited, and remained so until the recent Blu-ray release. As mentioned, Spielberg has gone on record expressing his dissatisfaction with the film. Lawrence Kasdan referred to it as ugly and mean-spirited, featuring elements that he deemed unsuitable (child slavery, black magic, human sacrifice).
As strong were the accusations of racism that greeted the release. There were problems from the start, with location filming taking place in Sri Lanka after permission to shoot in India was refused on the grounds that the script was racist. It’s difficult to disagree; certainly, if not outright racist, the depiction of Indians is wantonly stereotypical (chilled monkey brains, indeed). There were also complaints over the representation of Kali as evil. There’s a tone of the regressive about so much of the character and story that it could almost have been made in a less-politically correct era.
Willie: Maybe he likes older women.
Kate Capshaw referred to Willie as “not much more than a dumb screaming blonde”, and she’s right. Temple suffers most in the character department, and I doubt that Sharon Stone (who was considered) could have done a better job (arguably, her comedy chops aren’t as honed as Capshaw’s). I recall my disappointment that the film did not feature a revealing scene promised by the Marvel comic adaption where Willie wears nothing but a snake.
As mentioned, Jonathan Ke Quan’s achievement deserves significant praise. Not only is the character all about shouting, but also cutesy kids are the plague of Hollywood movies. It’s a considerable credit to Quan that Short Round never once falls into that category. And surprising that Spielberg resists the impulse to drown his relationship with Indy in sentiment.
Ford famously herniated his back while filming (but was it from riding elephants or hoisting a fellow performer during a Thugee fight? – there are conflicting versions) and as a result Vic Armstrong did a significant amount of doubling for the stricken star. You wouldn’t be conscious of this if you didn’t know it, though.
No, what stands out in Temple is the lack of choice villainy and witty writing. Most of the time we are at the receiving end of the tonal hammer that bops that unfortunate Thuggee guard on the head. Dan Aykroyd does deliver a memorable cameo, however (pretty much at the point where Temple starts to head off the rails).
Indiana Jones: Ah, they’d just have put it in a museum.
The problem with Temple of Doom isn’t that it’s a bad film (see Crystal Skull), or that Spielberg’s flair has deserted him (see Crystal Skull), but that no one’s trying hard enough. Like Return of the Jedi the year before, there’s a sense of resting on one’s laurels and relying on tried and tested tropes. Even the decision to go “dark” is a calculated one based on previous forays. Ultimately, though, the failures can be traced back to an undercooked script that inters itself in one location and gets stuck there for much too long.