#203: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Initial release: May 23, 1984
Director: Stephen Spielberg
If Lucasfilm understood anything, it was pulp. Like how Star Wars is a big Flash Gordon stroke-off, Indiana Jones is pure 30s-style pulp adventure. Unfortunately with pulp adventure comes pulp racism. After the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was inevitable that George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg would go back to the well. Not wanting to make the Nazis the villains again, Lucas chose to write a prequel, meaning this is the first chronological film. Like Raiders, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is built on the two-fisted pulp adventure stories of Lucas and Spielberg’s youth, and the movie serials that they inspired. Unlike Raiders, however, Temple leans more heavily into ethnic stereotypes to tell a tale of a revived Thuggee cult.
In the 1800s, during the early part of the British empire’s occupation of India, so-called “thuggees” were loosely-connected bands of thieves who robbed and murdered travelers along the roads. The British eventually tried to wipe them out, and by 1870 they were effectively extinct — assuming they were ever real in the first place. However, their legacy has continued on in pulp fiction and exploitative movies, such as 1939’s Gunga Din and 1959’s The Stranglers of Bombay. Often they were depicted as a sinister cult of secretive mass murderers, but this was likely a fabrication of British officials. It is this history that Temple dips into, where Dr. Jones, after a disastrous deal with a Chinese gangster in Shanghai, winds up stranded in India with his 11-year-old sidekick Short Round (the wonderful Ke Huy Quan) and Willie, a ditzy cabaret singer who got dragged along by accident.
They eventually come upon a desolate village full of starving people, who claim that the Thuggee cult of old has returned, stolen a sacred stone, and kidnapped all the children. Realizing he’s not going to get a guide to Delhi unless he helps, Indy agrees to get the stone and kids back. After reaching the ancient palace that was the seat of Thuggee power — which is given an element of foreboding with vampire bats everywhere, making it seem like Dracula’s castle — they find it to be idyllic, feeling more like a sanctuary than a cultist temple. It soon becomes apparent that this is far from any normal Indian religious community; aside from a meal of questionable nutritional value (very little of it actually anything Indians eat, but based on Lucas and Spielberg’s own disgust) there’s also the literal human sacrifices. To be clear: nobody in Hindu actually worships Kali the way the cult does. It’s a mix of Aztec human sacrifice and European Satan worship with a thin veneer of Hindu, all of it spoken in Sinhalese because they had to film in Sri Lanka after India protested the script.
This is the double edged sword of trying to recreate the media of your youth: how do you present the good stuff while avoiding the bad? Can you? Should you? It’s a tough question. But even for a pulp pastiche, Temple is a rope bridge too far.
The main female lead is also aggressively whiny and fussy — and an airhead to boot. To be fair, she never asked to get pulled into this nightmare (she had a nice thing going in Shanghai) but she still upholds sexist stereotypes about female leads in action films. Another pulp element is the sometimes just straight-up goofy writing. Things happen for no reason sometimes; at one point, Indy stops a runaway minecart by using his shoes for brakes, solely so Lucas can make a joke about the rushing mine flood cooling those smoking shoes off.
In spite of all that, though, this is a classic Spielberg film that embodies all of his talent for direction, framing and timing. That talent is evident in everything he does, especially during his heyday of the 1980s and 90s. We can see it in Jurassic Park, and we can see it here. He knows how to make movies fun; they don’t have to be brilliant, but they embody the kind of big-budget funhouse ride we come to expect from Spielberg — all big, flashy special effects, sharp acting, and comedic timing Joss Whedon wishes he had. That’s perhaps why Indiana Jones is such an iconic franchise. It’s not just a love letter to old pulp tales, it (alongside Star Wars) helped create the style that 1980s adventure films would try to adhere to since. Which is why it’s such a shame that Temple was such a caricature.
This film, alongside the first Gremlins movie, is responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating; the sacrificial scenes in particular are right out of Mortal Kombat, and while that’s fine for teenagers who know better, impressionable 4 years like I was the first time I saw this should steer clear. Ever wonder where I got my abject terror of insects? Yep, it was this movie.
Indiana Jones has an uneven career. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a flop for a lot of reasons, but nothing quite reaches the heights of imperialist doggerel as Temple did. (Indy does get called a grave robber, which is honestly pretty fair.) I think I would have liked to see the movie stick with the Shanghai theme as seen in the opening; it’s obvious that there’s a whole movie’s worth of plot that we don’t get to see, and we just so happen to come in just as it’s ending and transitioning into the India adventure. I haven’t seen the newer movies yet so I can’t really say one way or another where I’d rank them, but Temple is easily the weakest of the original trilogy, in spite of its technical triumphs. If nothing else, Short Round deserved his own movie.