On Monday I wrote about how amazing it was to watch the Complete Indiana Jones Adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — I left before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) back on the big screen! On Monday I wrote about Raiders, now it’s time to dive into Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The first thing we need to notice is that I think Temple of Doom is the first instance of George Lucas’ proclivity for giving terrible, terrible titles to his films. For some reason, Temple of Doom has never bothered me as a title the way some of Lucas’ later titles (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) have. Maybe that’s just because I grew up with Temple of Doom — it’s one of those things that I just never really thought about — the movie was called Temple of Doom and that was that. But I think it’s worth noting here. I am all for the fun of a pulpy title, but Temple of Doom is a bit too simplistic for me.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is often-maligned and I do tend to agree it’s the weakest of the original three Indy films. (Though the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — click here for my review of that abomination — made The Temple of Doom look like Citizen Kane.) But, though it’s not as 100% successful as Raiders or Last Crusade, I still think Temple of Doom is a pretty terrific film.
Watching all three films back to back drives home just how different Temple of Doom is from Raiders and Last Crusade, and that is most likely why it doesn’t sit as well with some audiences. Indy’s familiar supporting characters are all absent in Doom. There’s no Sallah, there’s no Marcus (both of whom would return for Last Crusade) and there’s no Marion.
The palette of the film is very different. Raiders and Last Crusade are both fairly brightly colored films. But Temple of Doom is literally much darker, with the screen dominated by black and red pretty much throughout.
The Temple of Doom is also much darker, thematically, than either Raiders or Last Crusade. This is a pretty brutally violent film, and in particular there is some pretty horrifying violence against children. Mostly it is implied, but there are still some on-screen sequences of children getting beaten and whipped in the mines underneath Pankot Palace that are pretty shocking. What particularly struck me was the scene in which, at the same time, we see Indy getting whipped by Mola Ram’s huge hulking minion, while Short Round is also getting whipped by the young Maharaja. It’s pretty stunning to see the heroic little kid character suffering such on-screen abuse.
Temple of Doom also gives us a slightly different, slightly darker Indy than we saw in Raiders. This seems to be a more brutal Indy, and a somewhat more selfish Indy. What the heck is Indy doing, in that opening sequence, selling an archaeological relic to a seedy crime-lord, Lao Che? Indy apparently values the diamond he can get from Lao Che more than the find he uncovered. Not very heroic!
This brings me to my central question about Temple of Doom: Why is it set BEFORE Raiders of the Lost Ark? (Raiders takes place in 1936, while Temple of Doom takes place in 1935.) One possibility is to give Indy more of a character arc — he’s already heroic in Raiders, so maybe Temple of Doom is supposed to be about how Indy transformed from a highly-skilled but somewhat morally disreputable “obtainer of rare antiquities” into a more noble archaeologist hero. I guess that would make sense, but setting Doom before Raiders also leads to some inconsistencies in the series. At the start of Raiders, Indy scoffs at Marcus’ suggestion that the Ark of the Covenant has any mystical powers. (“Oh, Marcus, what are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time — I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus…”) But The Temple of Doom is all about Indy’s learning that the Sankara Stones are more than just a ticket to “fortune and glory” and that they actually possess mystical powers. Indy sees how they restore life to the Indian village, and when the village shaman tells him: “Now you see the power of the rock you bring back,” Indy replies: “Yes, I understand its power now.” Huh?? So did Indy forget all that when talking to Marcus a year later?
There’s also a joke in Temple of Doom in which Indy is attacked, late in the movie, by two sword-wielding Huggee thugs. He tries to replicate the famous moment from Raiders in which he just pulls a gun and causally shoots the swordsman, but when he reaches for his holster he realizes his gun isn’t there. It’s a funny moment for the audience, playing on that famous scene from Raiders, BUT in the context of the reality of the movies, it doesn’t make any sense for Indy that the moment in Doom would have happened BEFORE the moment in Raiders!
So I really wonder why the film was set before Raiders. There’s a big part of me that wishes that was not the case, and that Doom had taken place after Raiders. I also regret the filmmakers’ decision not to bring back Marion. I understand the action-movie convention that the hero has a different love-interest each time, but I think that Karen Allen was a huge part of the success of Raiders and I really miss her in Temple of Doom. It also doesn’t help that, in creating a new female love-interest for Indy, Spielberg and Lucas created such an anti-Marion character in the terribly annoying Willie Scott. (I have nothing against the lovely Kate Capshaw, but the role is terribly written and the performance, either because of Ms. Capshaw’s instincts or Mr. Spielberg’s direction, or both, is shrill and distracting.)
Consider how much different Temple of Doom would be had it been set after Raiders and had Marion returned as the female lead, in place of Willie. Obviously the film’s story would have had to be much different (the whole Indy-Willie meeting at the Club Obi Wan in Shanghai would have had to have been changed), but wouldn’t the moment in which Indy, under the evil influence of the blood of Kali, locks Willie into the metal frame that is about to be lowered into lava have been much more agonizing had the woman he’d locked in there been Marion? And wouldn’t the ending, in which Indy returns the kids to the Indian village surrounded by his new family unit (Willie and Short Round) have been much more powerful had it been Indy and MARION and Short Round?? As it is, the ending of Temple of Doom is totally undermined because we know that by the time Raiders happens a year later Marion and Short Round will be gone.
(By the way, just what the heck ever happened to Short Round is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Indiana Jones series. I can understand Indy and Willie breaking up shortly after the events of Temple of Doom, but what about Indy’s sort-of-son, Short Round?? They seemed pretty devoted to one another. It’s weird.)
OK, enough picking on Temple of Doom. It’s a credit to what’s on screen that despite all of my problems with the story, it’s still a pretty thrilling action adventure movie. I absolutely adore the whole opening sequence in the Shanghai nightclub. I love the audacity of opening the movie with a musical number, and seeing Harrison Ford in his dapper white James Bond-in-Goldfinger tuxedo and all the pulpy business with the switcheroos with the diamond and the antidote is great gleeful fun. That opening is very unlike the feel of the rest of the Indiana Jones series, and I love it for that.
Harrison Ford is still spectacular as Indiana Jones, and he’s great whether trading barbs with Willie (I must admit I do enjoy the scene in which they’re each waiting for the other one to come into their bedroom in Pankot Palace) or wrestling with Mola Ram while hanging from a collapsed bridge. It’s contrary to my usual stance about the silliness of kid side-kicks in action-adventure movies, but I sort of love Short Round! Jonathan Ke Quan is cute and very convincing in the role (he’s really a terrific actor and is believable in every moment he’s on-screen, no matter the situation), and it helps that not only does Short Round get almost all of the film’s best lines (“Dr Jones, no time for love!” “I’m very little, you cheat very big!” “Hey lady, you call him Dr. Jones!” “Indy, cover your heart!!”) but also that Short Round never falls into any of the usual kid side-kick traps. He is smart and brave and resourceful, and the movie treats him like a real adult character. When shit goes down in the second half of the film, Short Round isn’t spared. It’s possible he suffers even more than do Indy or Willie down in the mines.
There are some great, inventive sequences in the film. The whole first Thuggee sacrifice to Kali ceremony that introduces Mola Ram is a show-stopper. The huge set is astounding (though on the big screen the weaknesses of some of the composites in the wide shots — just look closely at the lava — did show a bit), a unique and creative and horrifying design. John Williams’ music is spectacular as always (that “Mola Ram” chant is incredibly memorable), and the image of Mola Ram pulling the still-beating heart out of the chest of a poor victim still stands as an indelible moment.
Watching the film again I was surprised to realize how little screen-time Mola Ram actually has in the film, but he’s a terrific villain. Loud and over-the top (did I mention he pulls a beating heart out of someone’s chest??), Mola Ram is the complete opposite of Beloq, but Amrish Puri creates a spectacularly memorable, menacing foe for Indy. (Just watch Mr. Puri’s eyes in the film — this dude is scary!!) Mola Ram is an imposing, very credible threat for Indiana Jones, and he has a supremely memorable look in the film.
Then, of course, there’s the whole mine-car chase, a triumph of old-school model-work and compositing visual effects. It’s a literal roller-coaster ride, and you really don’t get the full effect of the sequence unless you’re watching the movie on the big screen.
I mentioned John Williams’ music before, and while nothing can quite match the perfection of his score for Raiders of the Lost Ark, his score for Temple of Doom is also one of my very favorite movie scores of all time. Mr. Williams makes great use of the Indiana Jones theme he composed for Raiders, but he creates an entirely new heroic march theme for The Temple of Doom that I absolutely adore. I bet most of you reading this would recognize that theme if you heard it.
Next to Raiders and Last Crusade, The Temple of Doom suffers. But there is more energy and excitement in this film than in ten other action movies combined. Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas might have taken the Indiana Jones series into a direction that I, and many fans, didn’t quite care for, but I respect their bravery in making a sequel that is a VERY different type of movie than the original film. Temple of Doom might not be the type of sequel I would have ideally liked to see, but I can’t deny that the film is extraordinarily well made, and that it is still a rip-roaring, exciting pulp adventure from start to finish. It was extraordinary fun watching it on the big screen.
I’ll be back on Friday with my thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!