Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Williard Huyck, Gloria Katz; story by George Lucas. Produced by Robert Watts. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Douglas Slocombe. Edited by Michael Kahn. Production designed by Elliot Scott. Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Kate Capshaw (Willie Scott), Ke Huy Quan (Short Round), Amrish Puri (Mola Ram), Roshan Seth (Chattar Lal).
Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with something that no student of its predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), could have ever anticipated: a musical number. As dancers and showgirls tap through an elaborately glitzy rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” (sung in Chinese), our senses are delighted—and bewildered. Isn’t this supposed to be an action/adventure film? Isn’t this a feverishly anticipated sequel? Starting with a song and dance routine? Is this an inexplicable choice?
Not at all, as it turns out. This opening doesn’t just drop us into the middle of the unexpected (just like Raiders, in a different way), or simply establish an important character (one who manages to stand in front of the film’s super-imposed title, telling us all we need to know about her before she says a word). Thematically, it’s completely on point: if there’s one mantra that perfectly summarizes the whiplash gaudiness of Temple of Doom, it’s “Anything Goes.” Here is a finely-calibrated piece of action adventure nonsense, done with such poise and skill that it approaches balletic intensity.
Yes, balletic. Temple is an unending compilation of stunts, suspense, action and adventure. “A bruised forearm movie,” Roger Ebert dubbed it, because every five minutes you would clutch the forearm of the person next to you in apprehension. That’s a descriptor for both the film’s richness of action and with the way it’s handled: with such poise and elegance that even 30 years in the past, Spielberg puts many current workers at the action factory to shame. The film’s kitchen sink approach to conceptualizing itself only heightens its own effect, because not only does Spielberg tackle each set piece with supreme confidence, but he switches between them with the juggling skills of a master, and maintains a pitch so manic that he purposefully invites you to consider the complexity with which Temple was conceived, and the ease with which it appears to have been made. After the financial success of Jaws, Raiders and E.T., Temple is Steven Spielberg fully unleashed, and its glorious excess becomes, in effect, a comment on itself.
Much has been made in the years since Raiders of identifying its inspirations: 1930’s Saturday matinée serials. Temple taps the same water, but from a different well, and casts its net bigger. Raiders was a two-fisted tribute to the likes of Commander Cody, The Perils of Pauline and Zorro: stories that pitted larger-than-life heroes against dastardly villains. That thread remains in Temple, but with Indiana Jones now established, this sequel draws from pulp adventure: Tarzan, The Phantom Empire, countless tales of darkest Africa. These films were typically about gosh-golly explorers who stumble into lost continents and underground cities, and are opposed by entrenched locals. They traded in exotically backwards locales and secret societies that drip with undiscovered evil. The 1930’s were an ideal time period for these types of adventures, because the world was still large enough to make such things teasingly plausible, and also because at the time aggressive western colonialism (and its inherent racism and xenophobia) was very much in vogue.
But of course, you didn’t go to the movies just to see the serials. There was often a program that followed, and Temple is a movie that also cherishes its ability to recall Old Hollywood. It borrows villains and settings from Gunga Din (1939), employs photography as colorful and busily controlled as those seen in the films of Powell and Pressburger (and their own inspiration, Walt Disney), stages a chase sequence that does for mine cars what Buster Keaton did for locomotives, and the near-monochromatic Busby Berkley beginning is pure Gold Diggers of 1933 (or ’35, or ’37). As is often in Spielberg productions, Temple is a movie that loves movies, and wants to refurbish old favorites to a new shine. The key difference between Spielberg and the many impostors who have followed in his wake is that Spielberg grew up watching movies, while his successors have grown up watching only Spielberg’s.
The screenplay (by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of American Graffiti fame–with a story by George Lucas), possibly moreso than any other Indiana Jones film, is primarily a clothesline for stupendous action sequences. Jones (Harrison Ford), now a fortune hunter and mercenary, escapes a business deal gone south in Shanghai with two refugees in tow: a feisty little kid named Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) and the prima donna showgirl Willie (Kate Capshaw). What with one thing and the other, they find themselves bailing out of a runaway charter plane via an inflatable raft, after which they fall off a cliff, navigate treacherous rapids, and arrive at the doorstep of an Indian village cursed by the mysterious abduction of a sacred stone…and their entire population of children.
Indy, interested in the stone as little more than a profitable artifact, agrees to go after it, and the trio travel to a palace where the hosts are all smiles, but that’s merely a cover for a subterranean hellscape that houses both child enslavement and Hindu devil worship (known as Thugee). This drives the entire second half of the film, a cavalcade of ritual sacrifices, beatings, whippings, stunts, gunplay, and Indy-on-Thugee violence so intense that it (along with the concurrent Spielberg-produced Gremlins) helped institute the now-shamelessly abused PG-13 rating. It’s a lot of fun.
Temple detractors are often quick to point out two serious flaws against the film: overt sexism and troubling racial stereotypes. The sexism speaks mainly to the character of Willie, a gold-digging, ceaselessly complaining shrew who goes through a whole repository of “spoiled city girl goes camping” clichés when the trio goes on the road (she does, however, give a spectacular scream). She stands in stark contrast to Marion from Raiders, who was smart, tough and practical. Here, Willy is a simpering ninny, who, even at her most heroic, rarely rises above the pathetic. Lucas apparently conceived the character during a messy divorce with his wife Marcia, and it shows: the gender politics between the two films are disappointingly regressive. However, Lucas deserves credit for not simply creating a Marion clone with Willie: she’s a pest, but she’s also very much part of the film’s overall strategy to be as different as possible. Another wellspring of Indiana Jones inspiration was, of course, the James Bond series, so it’s notable that none of the Jones leading ladies suffer from the interchangeability that certain Bond girls do. That’s damning with faint praise, of course.
The potentially racist material is, however, a different matter. The film’s viewpoint is dramatically unenlightened, imagining India as a land where people must choose between either simple-minded abject poverty or pitch-black magic, and the film’s finale, where a British detachment, with rifles drawn, brings order to the countryside, is bombastic in its xenophobia. But I would argue that’s the point, as much as the film has one–Spielberg is calling attention to the dark underbelly of the very thing he was aping last time. 30’s serials trucked very often in racial stereotypes, and the colonialist attitudes that pervade Temple would not be foreign to those. Spielberg hid those elements last time, but here, more confident in his command of the tongue-in-cheek Indiana Jones tone, he satirizes his targets via straight-faced presentation.
Temple is oft-noted as being a darker film than its predecessor, and this is indeed the case. Its dark ceremonies, replete with voodoo tokens, blood drinking, repetitive chants, and instant unsanctioned heart surgeries, seem to tap into a palpable Satanic power. There are little grace notes, too, like the necklace made of bloody fingers and the alcoves infested with both cobwebs and flayed skins. And the cackling Mola Rom (Amrish Puri) is less an evil priest and more a man possessed with apoplectic fury. In the mines, children are shackled and beaten with impunity, and even Indiana Jones falls under an evil spell for a while, forced to drink demonic blood and becoming a Thugee zombie, with just enough fire left in him to suggest that deep down he kinda likes it, a little. As Spielberg’s follow-up to the kid-friendly E.T., these choices are shocking, but they are earned when you see them as Spielberg’s attempt to find new ground in the Indiana Jones franchise, and establish different stakes.
Missing from this installment are, of course, Nazis, and indeed once you take stock of the fourth film’s Soviet baddies, this is the only Indy film to make use of non-military forces as villains, although the Thugees do all wear identical robes to make identification (and the stuntwork) easier. In that sense, both the Nazis and Thugees are the personification of evil conformity, although the Nazis had the advantage (even in the past) of having their loathsomeness pre-sold. Nazis are such a known commodity (in the storytelling sense) that they make terrific stock villains: a film with Nazi antagonists doesn’t have to apologize in the process of making them one-dimensional monsters, and the swift nature of serial plotting means that such scenes become not about establishing evil, but merely confirming it. In Raiders, Spielberg could waste no time in humiliating his Nazi villains, since he did not need to stop to ask our permission to do so. It’s part of what makes that movie sing.
But if Raiders was Spielberg’s attempt, as a Jewish filmmaker, to strike back against the Nazis within the framework of an adventure fantasy, then Temple sees him at a remove from the franchise’s heart and soul: without Nazis as villains, here he must work to establish the Thugees as equally vile, and in doing so he essentially doubles down. This is partially where the film’s over-the-top nature, arguably, comes from: Spielberg’s attempt to modify the Raiders formula while still supplying the same amount of reciprocal joy. This goes for the film’s ultimate construction as well: some have claimed that Raiders is an “impersonal” film from Spielberg, but the attitudes toward the Nazis help give it weight: it’s the story of an archaeologist, yes, but it’s also the story of a filmmaker purging his demons. Temple isn’t about that, or much of anything else, so it instead, by default, becomes the story of an artist trying to recapture a previous success via sheer craftsmanship.
But what craftsmanship indeed! And, in its own way, what success. Temple contains some of the most accomplished and sustained action sequences in Spielberg’s entire career, starting with the opening Shanghai number (which is mirrored in a brawl that happens in the same space five minutes later), and then moving on to nimble sequences that mingle comedy and violence, like the sexy flirting between Indy and Willie where one side is soon distracted by an assassination attempt, or the following moment where Indy and Short Round are imprisoned by an escalating booby trap, and Indy must talk the skittish, dim-witted Willie into successfully freeing them in time. There’s wit in the choreography and sight gags, again and again.
Raiders was a movie with nary a dull spot—it was literally one damn thing after the other. Temple takes a moribund turn about 2/3 of the way through, where Indy has fallen, everyone is threatened, and evil looks like it will win. But it’s a short-lived part of the grand design, because once that passes, it raises the curtain on a wall-to-wall action finale that lasts about half an hour and moves at breakneck speed: the freeing of the enslaved children, the battle with a muscle-bound Thugee slave driver (played by longtime Indy stuntman Pat Roach), the exhilarating, virtuoso mine car chase that resembles a multi-track roller-coaster over the fires of hell. The movie even saves one of its most memorable set pieces for the very end: a final battle on a precarious rope bridge across a river infested with crocodiles, which escalates in the most gobsmaking way. It’s thrilling stuff, and the sequence’s concluding moment, where Indy, clinging to the remnants of the destroyed bridge, pulls himself to safety and smiles in relief as he produces the stone is one of the best little moments in the entire series.
Ford is, arguably, better than ever in the role. Never more rugged, never more laconic, never more buff, it’s a shock these days to go back and see how, even in such dark material, how warm and wry he is. The film’s status as a prequel (it takes place one year prior to Raiders, in 1935) is able to recast Jones as more disreputable and dishonest—the filmmakers are now keenly aware of Ford’s strengths, of his innate ability to court forgiveness for his sins. They let Ford play to those strengths, emphasizing his Bogart self-involvement, allowing us to avoid any suspicion that Indiana Jones has gone too soft. He’s equally at home in a tux as he is in a tattered shirt, and he nicely plays Indy’s unshakable suspicion that he is slowly growing a conscience.
The relationship with Short Round, usually a sticking point for films like this (“Hey, let’s add a cute kid!”) works because both actors sell it with such conviction (notice the genuine feeling in the moment where Indy and Shorty change hats and embrace after Indy awakens from possession). The movie delights in pairing the two of them in entertaining ways: like their cantankerous poker game in the jungle, or the wonderful shot which tilts between Indy and Shorty fighting separate foes, throwing identical punches. There’s generosity here in all the performances, even within the go-for-broke shrillness of Willie. Like many Spielberg productions, this one doesn’t let the actors get swallowed by the technical credits, although they are uniformly superb: Elliot Scott’s delicious production design, Douglas Slocombe’s vivid cinematography, John Williams’ excellent score, all three being perhaps the finest in the Indy series.
Audiences were not ready for the full-frontal assault that was Temple of Doom. Parents were not thrilled by the film’s tone, and it’s a message that Spielberg seems to have internalized: these days, he distances himself from Temple as if it was a phase he went through, and although he has made finer films, it’s tough to find one with more verve and electricity. The criticisms of the villains led to a subsequent series of softball antagonists in later Indiana Jones movies, lacking much menace. That doesn’t make them bad films (well, Crystal Skull maybe), but they did lack a special something.
And so it goes. At 33 years, Indiana Jones is one of the longest-running un-rebooted franchises in Hollywood, even though it only consists of four films plus persistent rumors of a fifth. With Indiana Jones now under control of Walt Disney pictures, how long before they insist on another installment? And would that be a good thing? With Disney now approaching the traits of an entertainment monopoly, the last thing we should want is an Indiana Jones that reeks of sameness. (I have similar worries about Star Wars, mind you)–Disney middle-management has born great entertainments, but it has also felled them. Ironically, this very weekend, rumors began to spread about trouble brewing at Disney-owned Marvel Studios. If the Mouse House can fell young superheroes, what chance does a octogenarian archaeologist have?
The quality of such a project might be in doubt, but we (and they) should always be willing to give a great team a chance, and let them do their thing. For studio executives, their philosophy is that “anything is profitable.” But Spielberg, in his varied and intriguing career, has proven his own artistic philosophy time and again. Anything goes.