This past Wednesday was Steven Spielberg’s birthday. I’m not gonna go on here and ramble about how this gentleman has affected my life, because I think that, for any aspiring filmmaker, that need not be explained. The guy turned 67. Sixty-seven! Yet, I stop myself from calling him old, because to have that kind of body of work at 67 is just ridiculous, even for Steven Spielberg; the kind of body of work that makes 67 continue to feel like 27. I guess a sizable bank account helps, too.
As a birthday gift to Mr. Spielberg, I thought I’d write a piece defending one of his most divisive of films: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. This is one of those films that the internet likes to tear apart. The General Internet Consensus (GIC) tends to be: “Temple of Doom” is a weak film with silly, non-believable action sequences, annoying characters and weird, racist, imperialistic undertones.
I don’t buy into that. I love “Temple of Doom”. It is one of my favorite films of all time and I am here today to stand and defend it. It’s great. It’s dark and it’s scary and it takes a hero we love to places and depths we didn’t know he could go. I will never forget the first time I saw it. I had been a big fan of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for some time, but I never got around to watching its sequel. One day, my brother, my father and my brother’s friend rented “Gladiator”. I, of course, wanted to watch with them, but my mother and father wouldn’t allow it. The compromise? They would rent me the second Indy flick. I’ll never forget sitting there watching it with my mother: as Mola Ram rips a heart out a man’s chest, I know she was thinking: this is better than “Gladiator”?
So—let’s defend the film that brought along the PG-13 rating.
Combating Common Criticisms
Let’s start with setting up where this film comes from. Production began just after “Return of the Jedi” and just after George Lucas broke up with his wife, Marcia, and Steven Spielberg broke up with his girlfriend Kathleen Carey. “Jedi” was more than too much for George Lucas’ soul. He had more of an involvement in its production than he ever wanted, and, as many recall, in his mind, said involvement led to the growing distance between him and his wife.
These are important facts to know when dissecting “Temple of Doom”. I mean, this is a flick where people’s hearts are literally ripped out of their chests. Not a coincidence. Symbolism, guys. Symbolism.
I’d also like to preface with saying that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is probably a top 10 screenplay of all time, in my mind. And “The Last Crusade” is a film that has two of the greatest actors of our generation playing the most perfect, heartfelt father-son duo to dawn a film screen. There may never also be a film from start to finish that has as exciting, believable and intricate action scenes as that of “The Last Crusade”. That being said, “Temple of Doom” has the tough job of being the meat of a trilogy sandwich where the bread is almost too tasty for its own good.
I truly believe that “Temple of Doom” is a good film. It’s really as good of a film as its two other counterparts. The screenplay might not be sprinkled with immaculate, Kasdanian dialogue. And some of its action scenes are a bit far-fetched and imperfect. But, at its heart it still possess all of the necessary attributes that made us fall in love with the mine cart rollercoaster ride of an adventure that is an Indiana Jones movie.
“Temple of Doom” also owes a lot of its style, plot and design to another one of my favorite films of all time, George Stevens’ 1939 classic: “Gunga Din” (was 1939 not the best year ever for movies? I dare you to find a better calendar year of films). Based very loosely on the poem by Rudyard Kipling, “Gunga Din” tells the story of three British soldiers in India that leave their regiment for fortune and glory. Searching for a hidden treasure, the three soldiers find themselves pitted against the Thuggee cult (the same bad guys in “Temple of Doom”). “Temple of Doom” takes much from George Stevens’ adventure flick; which, to me, was the first solid adventure movie. It made Cary Grant a star, as it should have—the guy is fantastic in it.
When you have the time, check out “Gunga Din”. Surprisingly, it still holds up very well. It’s a lot of fun. It was the “Star Wars” before “Star Wars”:
Anywho, what do the internet folk say whilst complaining about the second Indiana Jones spectacular?
WHAT THEY SAY…
“Short Round is useless and loud and annoying. Why have a 13 year old character in an Indiana Jones movie?”
WHAT I SAY…
Short Round is awesome. If you don’t like Short Round, I don’t like you. I once heard Spielberg say that, looking back on it, he doesn’t see any of his personal touch in “Temple of Doom”. Children—solid children characters—are Spielberg’s bread and butter, so I don’t know what he’s talking about. Coming off of the success with Henry Thomas in “E.T.”, it made sense to make a main character of the next Indiana Jones film a child hero, especially since these films are, really, for children and especially since this film is so dark, it needed the child perspective.
When the “Jaws”-“Star Wars” duo teamed up to create the character of Indiana Jones, they set out to make another throwback to the serial days of the 1930s and 40s, but they also wanted to invoke a little James Bond and comic book superhero to the character of Indy. Where Sallah was Indy’s Felix Leiter in “Raiders”, Short Round is most definitely Indy’s Robin. But, he’s more than just a sidekick. Short Round plays a necessarily role in the character development of Indiana Jones. Let’s remember that “Temple of Doom”—in typical George Lucas fashion—is actually a prequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The events in the second film take place a year before the events of “Raiders”, so it has to set up the character of Indy that we see battling Nazis.
“Temple of Doom” validates Indy’s comment to Marion Ravenwood in the first film that it’s not the years, it’s the mileage, because Indy gets his ass whooped in “Temple of Doom”. And he goes through loss and sees real suffering and strife. In the beginning of “Temple of Doom”, Indy loses one of his old friends, Wu Han, to the gunfire of one of Lao Che’s henchman. Indy’s revenge? A flaming kebab through said henchman’s chest. The point here is: we see early on that Indy values friendship and his companions. This is very much a theme seen in “Gunga Din”, which is a film all about friends and the sacrifices they will make for each other.
Back to Short Round. He is Indy’s sidekick, yes, but he’s also one of his best friends. It’s Indy’s compassion for Short Round, probably, that makes him feel for the rest of the Indian slave children that he later decides are worth saving. Seeing Short Round being put through the same horrors makes Indy understand that there is more to his “Temple of Doom” mission than taking, or returning, the Sankara stones.
And does Jonathan Ke Quan not kill it in this film? What was it about the 8os that had fantastic child actors? Ke Quan really makes you believe that he has a history with Indiana Jones, and a friendship that cannot be broken. (And if lines like, “Okey dokey, Dr. Jones” make your skin crawl, then, I don’t know what to say. That stuff is fun. The scene where they are playing poker and start yelling at each other in Chinese only to find out that Short Round is cheating? Perfection).
The scene that does it for me is when Indiana Jones is under the spell of Kali magic, doing the bidding for Mola Ram and his bad guys. He is drugged, and nothing can bring him back to normal. Well, nothing except the love for a friend—and some hot fire.
If that isn’t super compelling, I don’t know what is…
That’s my Short Round argument. Then there’s Willie.
WHAT THEY SAY…
“Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott is an offensive, ditsy, one-dimensional female damsel in distress. Her role in the film serves almost no purpose, except to scream a lot, and get intro trouble so that she can be saved by her much stronger and more capable male counterparts. Most of the time, it seems as though Willie is only there to be an object for Indiana Jones.”
WHAT I SAY…
Well—they have a point. But, the reason for Willie Scott’s being maybe different than everyone sees it. I don’t think that the weak, stereotypical 1940’s damsel in distress character of Willie Scott is a product misogynistic/chauvinistic writing and directing, however. Let’s remember how this film came about. You’re talking about two filmmakers who were terribly heartbroken. Look, we’ve all been there: there are times where you’re just straight up frustrated with the opposite sex, and when you are in a powerful position of character creation, you might take that opportunity to create a character who doesn’t paint the people who broke your heart in a good light.
Is that right? Probably not. Making Willie a weak female character probably isn’t the right way to go about your heartbreak. But my point here is that this isn’t BAD filmmaking. Willie’s character isn’t like she is on account of sexism or the inability to create a worthwhile character. These are the guys that created Princess Leia and Marion Ravenwood: two of the most iconic female protagonists of all time, who paved the way for the Ripley’s and the Sarah Connor’s and the Alias’s of the world.
So, do Lucas and Spielberg take a step back, socially, with the character of Willie Scott? Probably. But it’s straight up, heartfelt pain being expressed there. Willie is very much nothing more than an object—who nags a lot. We are first introduced to her as this beautiful, dancing American in a Chinese night club, who does a 1930s-sexy, international version of “Anything Goes”. From then on, she is basically the polar-opposite of Marion Ravenwood. She can’t do much for herself, she’s always dressed in something revealing, and she has to stop in the middle of a fight to yell at Indy that she broke a nail.
Again, it doesn’t get worse than that as far as female representation goes, but it is interesting to take it into the context of our filmmakers’ then-heartbroken love life.
Also, Willie is named after Spielberg’s 1980s dog. Now, I know that Indiana is named after George Lucas’ dog, but I think it goes deeper than that—
—yeah, I went there.
WHAT THEY SAY…
“Why did they stray away from the wonders of Judeo-Christian mythology? The Eastern mythology explored in ‘Temple of Doom’ is not familiar enough and the stakes don’t seem as high for the rest of the world. Also, it’s a tad racist.”
WHAT I SAY…
If you have a gripe with the fact that Indiana Jones is uncovering artifacts that aren’t from the Bible or that he is battling bad guys that aren’t Nazis, it’s time for you to get off of your Western high-horse and come back down here to Earth where there is more to history and archaeology than World War II and Jesus. If you can suspend your disbelief that a god can fly out of an ancient wardrobe trunk and destroy the souls of Nazis, then you should probably be able to live with the idea of a voodoo doll.
The film has some weird, imperialistic undertones, sure. I don’t have a problem with most of it. I mean, if you think that the film paints Indian people and Indian culture in a bad light because the bad guys are Indian, well, that probably makes you a racist more than anything.
It is weird, though, at the end how the British come in and save the day. It’s very much like the end of “Gunga Din”, unfortunately. Because while “Gunga Din” holds up as a good adventure film, it’s social commentary, pro-British imperialism and Indian black-face are frustrating realities of the time it was created in. If you think “Temple of Doom” is racist, check out Sam Jaffe’s Gunga Din…
More Than Fortune and Glory
“Temple of Doom” is great because it adds much depth to a character that we already think we know so well. It sends our character to hell and back, and he learns a few lessons along the way. At the beginning of Indy, Willie and Short Round’s trek, we are led to believe that Indiana Jones is in it for the fortune and glory of finding the sacred Sankara stones; that maybe he can take one stone back to the village and keep the other two for himself, being written in history and making some money while he’s at it. But “Temple of Doom” and Indiana Jones decided to do more than that. In this film, we find that Indy is more than just a Western grave robber. There is more to him.
The scene in the film where he whips down to Mola Ram’s evil Kali perch is a moment of true character development for the professor in the fedora. It is here that he sees the awe and power of the Sankara stones. The look in his eyes as the glow of the stones illuminate his soul is the look of someone who has seriously stumbled upon something great. But just before he is ready to take the stones and escape with Willie and Short Round to a prize of great wealth, he hears the sounds of crying children.
Here, Indy sees the horrors of Mola Ram and the Thuggee. He sees that the stones he is about to steal for his own, personal fortune are the work of that of slave children; hundreds of children being worked to death for the gain and greed of others. This moment in the film is all too real for Indy as well as the audience. For Indy, he knows he can escape right then and there, but his impulsive, goodhearted decision to strike the slavemaster is a turning point in Indy’s character. It’s here we (and possibly Indy himself) learn that there is more to Indiana Jones than fortune and glory, as Willie constantly suggests. In this particular adventure, there is one or the other for Indiana. He can’t have the fortune without leaving children to be held as archaeological slaves. But he can have the glory of saving the children and restoring order to their villages, while taking out Mola Ram and his evil empire in the process.
Better Than He Thinks
It’s been pretty well-covered that Steven Spielberg basically regrets “Temple of Doom”. He thinks it’s by far the weakest in the trilogy and, like I stated above, he doesn’t see as much of the Spielberg touch in this film as the rest of us do.
And I think that’s all quite a shame.
There is so much to his film that is quite fantastic. Maybe Steven has so much expectation for himself and his films, that if it has a few flaws, it isn’t a good film in his eyes (that wouldn’t explain much of the last decade of Spielberg films, though). It’s deeper and it’s darker than “Raiders”, yet it still has the fun and excitement that we love. The film is riddled with moments that will forever be etched in 80s pop culture lore. The “trash compactor”-esque scene where Willie reluctantly saves the day will always stick in my mind as a very Indiana Jones moment, for example.
Needless to say, the film’s score is incredible. Whenever Spielberg or Lucas miss the mark (not that they do with “Temple of Doom”), John Williams never does. His music continues to be the glue that pieces the film together in “Temple of Doom”. Short Round’s theme, the Slave Children’s March and the “Raider’s” march all work together perfectly. There are parts in the film, when all seems lost, and then the crack of a whip, followed by the “bum ba dump dah!” brass sounds make you want to jump up and cheer for Indy and Short Round. The true sounds of heroes.
If none of that does it for Steven Spielberg, though, surely the last action scene of the film can convince even the most self-deprecating of filmmakers that they’ve done something good. What I mean is: the scene on the bridge, where Indy, Willie and Short Round are flanked from both ends by Mola Ram and his men, is one of my favorite scenes in film history. It’s one of those how-are-they-gonna-get-out-of-this-one? moments that, upon first viewing, when you figure out how they are going to escape, is one of the coolest realizations you’ll ever have as a film-goer.
This is another scene that needs to give credit to “Gunga Din”, but it takes it even further. Indiana Jones makes himself the most badass character of all time in this scene. It’s better than “shoot the hostage” from “Speed” or that time James Bond escaped a Soviet Compound by driving a tank through its walls.
This is action cinema at its finest and it’s why “Temple of Doom” is more than good.
I couldn’t find the scene online, so here it is in German, but you should go watch the whole film on your own, anyway:
So, that’s that. If someone would like to defend that other Indiana Jones film that I refuse to mention, I’d love to see it, but that’s not something I can do.
Also, I wanted to include this but I couldn’t figure out where to put it, so here:
What do you think of “Temple of Doom”? Were any of you around to see it in theaters? And what was the general reaction back then, especially to the newly created PG-13 rating? Comment below!