Why I Love… #61: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) strives hard for fortune and glory
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) strives hard for fortune and glory

Year: 1984

Director: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Kate Capshaw (Willie Scott), Ke Huy Quan (Short Round), Amrish Puri (Mola Ram)

Genre: Action / Adventure

Fans of the second Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, must’ve been thankful when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull turned out to be such a turkey. Okay, a bad franchise installment is bad news for anyone with a vested interest, but Crystal Skull‘s sheer staggering suckiness has at least deflected a lot of the flack that Temple of Doom used to get. This was, for a while, the underdog of the series. The problematic one. It’s also my favourite.

Okay, first thing’s first. Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is technically the better film, and you couldn’t hope to find a more thoroughly entertaining slice of action and adventure. Spielberg and Lucas hit gold with their collaboration, and if Star Wars hadn’t already made Harrison Ford one of the biggest stars in history, Raiders certainly cemented his position. I’m not arguing against Raiders being held up as a classic. I merely want to state my case for the much-maligned Temple of Doom and explain why I love it, in spite of its acknowledged flaws.

And it is flawed. Viewing the film again, all of those accusations of sexism and racism are almost impossible to ignore. It’s clear how indebted these movies are to the action serials of the eras they’re set in. What’s troubling is how the attitudes of the early to mid twentieth century have been invoked also. Chiefly, the film receives a lot of criticism for its depiction of Indian culture as Indiana Jones battles against a voodoo cult that has enslaved local children within a mountain.

It’s true that voodoo isn’t known for its practice in India, and the broad cocktail of mysticism that’s been mixed together here smacks of simple ignorance, but the film also takes pains to underline that what is transpiring is not common practice. “Nobody’s seen this in a hundred years,” Indie tells his companions, pointedly suggesting the cult’s practices are extreme and unusual, while the nearby township’s elder is presented as the most respectful character in the whole movie. I’m not saying there aren’t still problems (that dinner menu for instance, which seems to have been included just to shake up the squeamish), but I’m suggesting that, while troublesome, these elements can be countered.

Similarly, Short Round appears to be a character who splits opinion. A child sidekick is always, always a precarious move, especially one who speaks in broken English (another open target for those offended by the racial elements in the movie). I’ve seen him referred to as the franchise’s Jar-Jar Binks equivalent. That’s a little harsh, I feel. Whether he grates or not will likely come down to personal preference. For my part, I have no problem with him, and have always thought fondly of the character.

Then there is Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott, surely the least well served female companion on one of Indiana Jones’ adventures. Lumbered with the part of the ditzy dumb diva, it’s hard to argue that her constant screams and squeals don’t detract from Spielberg’s adventure opus. Again, one feels some of the less palatable attitudes of a bygone era have been resurrected in her creation. She too often simply serves as a quick and easy punchline. Yet her vacuous materialism also feels like a comment on the culture prevalent in the 80’s. Could Spielberg be making a satirical swipe at a society that places the fortune first in ‘fortune and glory’, even as he rakes in ticket sales?

So yes, there are understandable objections to be raised here. What’s harder to counter, however, is the sheer showmanship of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. As thrill rides go, it is the most jam-packed of the series, barely pausing for breath. It’s clear from scene one that the priority here is entertainment over all else as Spielberg opens the movie with a classic musical number, before barnstorming into set-piece after set-piece as the action keeps evolving an elongating. A James Bond-style exchange turns into a frantic barroom shoot-out, which in turn leads straight into a chase followed in short order by a mid-air disaster before a virtuoso sequence in which our characters and a bright yellow dinghy are thoroughly put through the wringer. Temple of Doom refuses to relent.

Spielberg peppers this astonishing opening with the kind of trademark touches that have seemed disappointingly absent from his later films. Touches like Indiana using the gong as a shield to cross the bar (which is named Club Obi Wan in a not-so-subtle nod to Lucas’ other great behemoth). Touches like the revolving table in the Chinese bar becoming integral to the diamond exchange, or the perfectly timed reveal that Indiana’s escape vehicle might itself be just another trap. All of these and more are the kind of elements that lift on-form Spielberg head and shoulders above his pretenders. And if the film’s opening half hour isn’t exhaustingly impressive enough, then the last half hour beats it at its own game.

Temple of Doom is most fondly remembered for the mine-cart ride. Originally intended for Raiders, it is here – as well as in the action that follows on the rickety bridge and vertiginous cliffs – that Spielberg’s knack for excitement is most copiously evident. A masterpiece of suspense and entertainment, it’s a perfect showcase combining the best of the best in stunts and effects work. Time may have aged the appearance of some elements, but it has not weathered their effect.

It’s cinematic gold in a very literal sense. More than any of the other Indiana Jones films, Temple of Doom plays out on a principally visual level, harking back beyond those serials of yore to the greats of the silent era. You could probably get away with removing much of the dialogue from Temple of Doom, so inspired and resourceful is its visual storytelling. A few intertitles (“Indie!” “Keep left!” “Water!”) and you’d be set.

Some people find this movie a little too grim. That’s fair enough. It is the darkest of the four, with much more time given to gruesome creepy-crawlies, demonic punishments and some of the series’ more extended and arduous fight scenes. Didn’t those sickly red titles at the top of the movie tip you off? Temple of Doom is openly indebted to the garish palettes of horror, but as a horror fan myself I can’t say I’m discouraged from the more grave or ghoulish flavours that this installment has to offer. Indeed, it may play in my fondness for it all the more.

So yes, it’s understandable why this movie sometimes suffers in comparison to the films that came before and after. Raiders is pure crowd pleasing fare, while The Last Crusade pushes the pendulum right out the other way, heavy with light-hearted laughs, slapstick and silliness. But for me, in spite of its limitations, Temple Of Doom boasts heart-racing action barely matched anywhere else. A naughty, nasty, dirty and devilish ride through the wilds that continues to leave me both breathless and thoroughly entertained.

Sometimes rooting for the underdog can be a grueling, joyless experience. Swimming against the tide is exhausting. But, for me, the inventiveness and exuberance of Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom far outweighs the awkward and/or embarrassing elements which might otherwise maraude my affections. You wanna watch an Indiana Jones movie? I’ll be voting for this one.

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