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“Anything Goes!” The Curious, Qualified Appeal of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”…

This August, the podcast that I co-host, The 250, is doing a season looking at all four Indiana Jones films as part of our “Indiana Summer.” This week, we’re looking at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and I had some thoughts on the film.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom occupies an interesting space in the cultural consciousness.

Released as a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was generally considered something of a disappointment. Despite a higher profile and a higher budget, the film grossed slightly less than its direct predecessor. The reviews were generally unkind. People Magazine decried the movie as “an astonishing violation of the trust people have in Spielberg and Lucas’ essentially good-natured approach to movies intended primarily for kids.”

A bridge too far?

Many of those involved with the film seem to have accepted this criticism and taken it to heart. Kate Capshaw quipped that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom only really endured because it was packaged as part of trilogy re-releases, joking, “Thank goodness it’s a three-pack, or we wouldn’t have made the cut.” Spielberg was already apologising for the movie in the pre-release publicity for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, admitting, “I wasn’t happy with the second film at all.”

To be clear, there are a lot of valid criticisms of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It would almost be a cheat to concede that the film “has not aged well”, as that would imply that its portrayal of the Indian subcontinent was not horribly dated on its initial release in the mid-eighties. However, accepting and allowing for these very real problems, there is still something interesting and engaging about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not a movie that is appealing in spite of its darkness, but one that is appealing precisely because of it.

Fortune and glory.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a messy and brutal movie. It’s angry and it’s unpleasant. However, it is interesting for precisely that reason. It stood out in the context of Steven Spielberg’s career at the time because Spielberg had cultivated an image of himself as a wholesome and wondrous filmmaker. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom marks the first real challenge to that image, perhaps paving the way for the director’s later forays into darkness and cynicism with movies like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Munich and more.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feels like the work of Steven Spielberg at his most unguarded, cutting completely loose and working through a lot of stuff. It’s a very candid and very explicit film, lacking a lot of the polish and the cleanliness of Spielberg’s other major works from around this time. That’s what makes it such a fascinating artifact.

“Why did it have to be snakes?”


To be clear, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a horrifically racist movie. It is steeped in uncomfortable portrayals of Indian, and layered with colonial subtext that directly evokes the work of Rudyard Kipling. After all, this is a story about children, and it’s notable that the film’s only real explicit reference to the British colonial rule of India comes from Chattar Lal’s aside that “the British worry so about their empire. Makes us all feel like well-cared-for children.”

There is perhaps a reading of that line that transforms the movie’s central horror – the brutal torture and exploitation of children – into a stinging rebuke of colonial attitudes in a sort of gonzo “as above, so below” sort of way, but it’s not convincing. The climax of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom hinges on the heroic return of Captain Philip Blumburtt with his soldiers to brutally murder all of the evil characters, who just so happen to be members of a murderous religious cult.

“Raise your hands if you have a problem about the portrayal of India in Temple of Doom?”

There have been various unconvincing attempts to justify the portrayal of India in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but none of them really work. It is very obvious that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were trying to directly invoke the feeling of classic adventure serials, many of which were horrendously racist. However, nostalgia does not excuse such racism any more than irony might. There are ways of celebrating the best parts of these classic serials without unquestioningly embracing their worst aspects.

Similarly, some of those involved with the film have tried to retroactively argue that the racism in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was ironic. Actor Roshan Seth described the film’s infamous banquet scene as “a joke that went wrong”, which was intended to parody racist attitudes and assumptions about what Indians eat. Instead, it ends up just regurgitating those tropes and playing into them. The film’s joke is simply a repeat of those old clichés about Indians.

A feast of clichés.

Of course, it should be noted that the racism within Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was not purely nostalgic. Two years after the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the movie Short Circuit would cast actor Fisher Stevens in brownface to play an Indian scientist. Three years after that, the year that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released, The Simpsons would introduce the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a caricature voiced by Hank Azaria. This racism was very much alive and unexamined in American (and global) culture at the time.

To be clear, these concerns were raised at the time. George Lucas found himself defending the presentation of India in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom five years later, during the press campaign for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, bluntly insisting, “There are so many special interest groups now that no matter what you make a film about someone is going to be offended.” It is not a particularly flattering argument, given that Lucas would double down on the racism of those old serials in making Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace a decade later.

It’s a lot to chew over.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom now comes with a warning on many streaming services, inviting the viewer to consider that the film’s portrayal of India is outdated and insensitive. It is very similar to the warnings over Gone with the Wind. It’s fascinating how these simple warnings invite a heightened moral panic, despite simply situating the films in their original context. After all, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is still easily available to almost anybody with a few mouseclicks. It is not as if it has vanished from circulation. It just comes with a candid acknowledgement of the film’s problems.

Indeed, there is perhaps something to be said for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as the “sin eater” for the larger Indiana Jones franchise, the movie where recurring issues with the larger series reach critical mass and so get discussed under this umbrella. After all, it’s notable that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the only film in the franchise that ends with Indiana Jones essentially deciding that maybe an indigenous population has the right to possess their own cultural and religious artifacts, returning the Sankara stone to the local village rather than insisting that it “belongs in a museum.”

“It really tied the village together.”

The treatment of indigenous populations in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is egregious, but it is simply a more extreme form of attitudes on display in other films. Raiders of the Lost Ark features stuntman Malcolm Weaver in yellow face, and casts Welsh actor (and accidental British Nationalist Party spokesman) John Rhys-Davies as an Egyptian named Sallah. (In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sallah is reduced to comic relief, referring to a German tank as “that metal beast.”) Raiders of the Lost Ark is about Jones trying to steal artifacts and take them back to the United States for study.

It’s also interesting to consider the backlash to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as “too dark” and “too weird” following on from Raiders of the Lost Ark. After all, Raiders of the Lost Ark was just as violent and odd as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Is Jones feeding a Nazi into an airplane propeller in Raiders of the Lost Ark any less violent than Jones feeding a guard into a rock crusher in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Is the Ark of the Covenant literally melting faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark any less unsettling than hearts being torn out and set aflame in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

To be fair, the mood lighting is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here.

Of course, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arguably only seems like an outlier and oddity because Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would define itself in such stark opposition to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with Spielberg even framing it as “an apology” for the previous entry. Part of this retreat from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is reflected in how much Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade serves to repeat Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is also reflected in how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade tones back the violence and horror, becoming perhaps the gentlest movie in the series.

Similarly, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom attracts a lost of deserved criticism for its treatment of Indiana Jones’ love interest, Willie Scott. She is portrayed as something of a nagging shrew – to quote Jones, “biggest trouble with her is the noise.” However, these criticisms of Willie gloss over the fact that the gender politics of the other films in the series are similarly clumsy and uncomfortable. It occasionally feels like criticising Willie serves to distract from criticisms of the franchise’s other female leads.

Not-so-great Scott.

Raiders of the Lost Ark finds Jones reuniting with Marion Ravenwood, a woman who he seduced when she “was a child.” Lucas wanted that seduction to happen when Marion was eleven, but Spielberg managed to convince him to shift the age upwards slightly. Karen Allen chooses to believe that Marion was sixteen, which still makes the relationship predatory if not strictly illegal at the time. When they are reunited, Jones is decidedly unrepentant, “You knew what you were doing.”

It should be noted that this sort of age-of-consent-blurring older-man-and-younger-woman dynamic was a feature of New Hollywood. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the film tries to build audience sympathy for Randle McMurphy by revealing that he was being charged with statutory rape. Hollywood’s complicated relationship with this dynamic is perhaps best expressed over the community’s long-standing support of Roman Polanski up until relatively recently, with Harrison Ford even collecting Polanski’s Oscar.

Critics really skewered the film.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is less creepy in its treatment of Elsa Schneider, but still uncomfortable. The movie reduces Elsa to a punchline by revealing that both Indiana Jones and his father slept with the beautiful Nazi sleeper agent. “I’m as human as the next man,” Henry Jones concedes. “I was the next man,” Indiana replies. It’s hardly the most flattering of characterisation for the film’s only prominent female character. It’s not as obvious or as egregious as the treatment of Willie in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but it is still quite unpleasant.

None of this is to excuse Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. These criticisms of the film are entirely valid and reasonable. However, it is interesting to wonder whether their relative prominence within the movie allows Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to serve as something of a protective stalking horse for the other films in the franchise. These problems may also be present in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but they are not as obvious as they are in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and so Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom gets to draw that criticism out.

Holding it all together.

These criticisms are all valid and interesting – and it is perfectly reasonable to judge Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom by them. That said, there is something very interesting simmering beneath the surface of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It is a film that deserves considerably more praise and attention than it has received, standing out as an oddity in both the larger franchise and in the career of director Steven Spielberg to this point.

Raiders of the Lost Ark arrived at a point in Spielberg’s career where he really needed a hit. The New Hollywood era was winding down due to the failure of films like New York, New York and Sorcerer and the success of movies like Jaws and Star Wars. Spielberg was fresh off the critical and commercial disappointment of 1941 and Hollywood was only a short distance away from the collapse of United Artists down to the failure of Heaven’s Gate.

He’s certainly got the stones for this job.

It has been argued that the failure of 1941 humbled Spielberg and perhaps even set back his development as director. Throughout his career, Spielberg has always been particularly attuned to failure, often correcting in the films that followed. This is perhaps why Spielberg endured longer than many of his contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola or William Friedkin or Brian daPalma. As such, the disappointment of 1941 clearly stung. New Yorker critic Richard Brody has described 1941 as a Spielberg movie in which he cut loose and argued that its failure inhibited him maybe definitively.”

As such, it is possible to read Raiders of the Lost Ark as an attempt by Spielberg to strip himself down and to prove that he could produce lean and efficient (and cheap) crowdpleasing spectacle. Critic Pauline Kael described Raiders of the Lost Ark as “a workout”, and Spielberg himself conceded, “It was spontaneous combustion, a relay race. We didn’t do 30 or 40 takes — usually only four. It was like silent film — shoot only what you need, no waste. Had I had more time and money, it would have turned out a pretentious movie.”

“I’ll never forget you. Or reference you again.”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arrived at a very different point in Spielberg’s career. Raiders of the Lost Ark had been a massive success, grossing almost twenty times its own budget and becoming the highest grossing film of the year. Spielberg had followed Raiders of the Lost Ark with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was also the highest grossing movie of the year and a genuine cultural phenomenon. If Spielberg had approached Raiders of the Lost Ark from the position of an underdog, he was coming to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a genuine cultural force.

As a result, there’s an endearing looseness to Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Doom. It occasionally even feels like Spielberg trying to reconnect with the energy of 1941. The film features a cameo from Dan Ackroyd, who had starred in 1941. The opening nightclub brawl recalls one of the standout setpieces from 1941. It even begins with a big and incongruous musical number, perhaps reflecting both Spielberg’s long-stated desire to direct a musical and his own thoughts about staging 1941 as a musical with “eight musical song and dance numbers.”

“Anything goes!”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feels like Spielberg having fun and perhaps even attempting reclaim the greatest failure of his career to that point. Raiders of the Lost Ark had famously been conceived by Spielberg and Lucas as a love letter to the adventure serials of their childhood, but the resulting film is an incredibly tight and lean production. Spielberg and Lucas had conceived of Raiders of the Lost Ark as a series of setpieces tied together by a script written by Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan’s script is effective, and lends Raiders of the Lost Ark a polish that is largely lacking from the serials that inspired it.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a much more chaotic affair. Kasdan was unable to return to script the sequel, and so Spielberg and Lucas turned to Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to write the script. The result is a film that feels a lot less cohesive than Raiders of the Lost Ark. This sense of disconnect is compounded by the fact that many of the key beats in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were recycled from ideas that had been rejected from Raiders of the Lost Ark, like the raft escape from the airplane. Even the nightclub opening is built on Lucas’ original plan for Jones to moonlight as a nightclub patron.

Serving more than just looks.

These disparate and random elements thrown together make Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a much less cohesive film than either Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is less of a cohesive movie in the traditional sense, with a clear beginning middle and end. Indeed, it’s notable that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom actually takes place two years prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was such an unusual choice at the time that New York Times critic Vincent Canby struggled to find the right word to describe it before settling on “pre-sequel.”

It’s very hard to fit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom into a larger chronology or arc of the Indiana Jones films. The movie opens with Indiana Jones in Shanghai, trading antiquities – selling mummified remains for a large diamond. This version of Indiana Jones is much rougher around the edges than he seemed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He impales an enemy on a flaming skewer. When he is threatened, his first impulse is to grab an innocent woman and use her as a hostage to protect himself.

There can be Obi Wan.

Of course, Indiana Jones’ arc over the course of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom finds the archeologist learning that there are more important things in life than “fortune and glory.” He goes from pilfering antiquities and trading them for cash to returning sacred objects to the community from whence they were taken. He goes from selfishly looking after his own interests to protecting the enslaved children toiling in the mines beneath Pankot Palace. It works reasonably well within the context of this film, but it doesn’t fit neatly with Raiders of the Lost Ark, where he’s introduced trying to steal an artifact to put it in a museum.

Still, this lack of cohesion has an appeal of itself. In its own way, it feels true to the serials from which Spielberg and Lucas were drawing, a collection of disjointed interconnected adventures designed to be watched in a perpetual present with little real sense of how they are all supposed to fit together as a single entity. Lucas famously pitched the original Star Wars as “Episode IV” of some long lost adventure serial, but the reference was diluted when he returned to the project decades later to make three prequel films to fill in the gap. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark feels more internally cohesive than a series of connected set pieces.

It’s somewhat less than structurally stable.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feels like a collection of adventure serials roughly assembled to fill a two-hour runtime. The film’s opening set piece is “the climax of an unseen Indiana Jones adventure.” (That adventure would eventually be covered in tie-in video game Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb.) The film is often held together by nothing more than Spielberg’s white-knuckle direction. Indeed, Spielberg would concede, “After I showed the film to George at an hour and 55 minutes, we looked at each other, and the first thing out of our mouths was, ‘Too fast.’ We needed to decelerate the action.”

There’s also something appealing in the way that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a major sequel that decline to give audiences more of the same, to repeat the successes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film arrived during a decade when Hollywood was embracing blockbuster sequels, rather than treating sequels as disposable or cheap. Ironically, this shift in approach might have been prompted by the breakaway success of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

Ever the gentleman.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would demonstrate how much the landscape had changed when premiered five years later in a summer dominated by sequels and recycled propertiesStar Trek V, The Karate Kid III, Batman, Lethal Weapon II, License to Kill. There was still some debate about how best to make a sequel to a beloved original. As Spielberg himself conceded:

If you give people the same movie with different scenes, they say ‘Why weren’t you more original?’ But if you give them the same character in another fantastic adventure, but with a different tone, you risk disappointing the other half of the audience who just wanted a carbon copy of the first film with a different girl and a different bad guy. So you win and you lose both ways.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom stands out in contrast to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for avoiding the trap of over-familiarity and dull repetition. It is a sequel but it is also trying something new with the character and the template.

With a hat like that, high-ceiling lairs are essential.

In many places, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feels like a nostalgic retread of Raiders of the Lost Ark: it is another globe-trotting adventure against Nazis and a smooth-talking foreign sympathiser to find a Judeo-Christian artifact. The Ark of the Covenant even makes a cameo in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with Schneider and Jones finding a painting on the wall of a tomb beneath Venice as John Williams’ familiar music cue rises on the soundtrack. There are other familiar echoes, including Jones infiltrating a German facility by wearing an ill-fitting and unconvincing uniform.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom adopts a novel approach to the archeologist. Following the introduction, most of the film takes place within a relatively confined space. Jones and his companions find themselves in India, and then go to Pankot Palace. The bulk of the movie’s second half unfolds within the palace itself or the mines beneath the palace. It is a relatively confined adventure, which exists very much in contrast to the globe-trotting original film. There is something to be said for trying to shift genres slightly, and avoiding repeating what worked the first time.

A chaotic shoot.

It’s an interesting approach to making a sequel to an acclaimed and beloved film. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does not feel beholden to Raiders of the Lost Ark in the way that the later movies in the franchise do. Instead, it takes the core character and concept, and drops them into a completely new setting governed by new rules and with a new structure applied to it. It’s an aspect of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that doesn’t get enough credit, and there’s a sense in which the reaction to that approach scared Spielberg and Lucas away from trying anything so bold again.

As discussed, the plot and structure of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is chaotic and disjointed. However, the film maintains a fascinating thematic throughline. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is essentially a movie about divorce and the dissolution of a family unit. All of this is filtered through the prism of fantasy and horror, but it is the glue that holds the film together. Of course, the break-up of a family unit is a recurring motif within Spielberg’s films, particularly the idea of an emotionally or physically absent father. However, few of Spielberg’s films approach the theme of family dissolution so directly and brutally.

Not kidding around.

It makes sense that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom would be filtered through the lens of familial dissolution. George Lucas announced his divorce from Marcia Lucas in January 1983, a year before Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released. George and Marcia had been married for fourteen years, and Marcia had been a vital creative collaborator for Lucas on projects like Star Wars and even Raiders of the Lost Ark. The two had met in film school. Marcia had been an essential part of George’s life.

The divorce was so devastating that even Spielberg was affected by it. He would confess to 60 Minutes in 1999, “George and Marcia, for me, were the reason you got married, because it was insurance policy that marriages do work… and when that marriage didn’t work, I lost my faith in marriage for a long time.” However, Spielberg was also working through his own issues following the dissolution of his own relationship with Kathleen Carey. Spielberg had apparently been seriously invested in that relationship, telling People in August 1982, “I think we will have kids.”

He only gambles with his life.

George Lucas has been very candid that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was shaped and informed by these break-ups. In retrospectives, Lucas acknowledges, “Part of it was I was going through a divorce, Steven had just broken up and we were not in a good mood, so we decided on something a little more edgy.” He has elaborated, “I was going through a divorce, and I was in a really bad mood. So I really wanted to do dark. And Steve then broke up with his girlfriend, and so he was sort of into it, too.”

For his part, Spielberg has distanced himself from the darkness of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. One of the interesting aspects of the Indiana Jones films is the partnership between Lucas and Spielberg, and how that often allowed Spielberg to insulate himself from criticism of the movies. Commenting on the perceived darkness of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg stated, “I certainly deferred to George’s better judgment because he had seen this three-movie arc and this is what he wanted to do and I was his director for hire.”

“At least I got us good seats.”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a stunningly bleak portrait of dysfunctional familial dynamics framed through the lens of an old-fashioned adventure serial. It’s notable that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is both a prequel to the other films in the series and the only film in the original trilogy to feature a complete nuclear family unit. Jones has love interests in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the only film in the original trilogy to give Jones a surrogate wife and a surrogate child.

The family unit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is thrown together by chance. Jones begins working with a child named Short Round, whose “family were killed when the Japanese bombed Shanghai”, in an interesting foreshadowing of Spielberg’s subsequent work on Empire of the Sun. The opening adventure throws Jones together with a local nightclub singer named Willie Scott, who winds up accompanying Jones on an unlikely adventure across Asia.

Setting your watch by it.

It is very clear that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom wants Jones and Scott to share some old-fashioned screwball comedy chemistry. Jones is the boorish man of the world with little sophistication and class. Scott is a woman used to a life of relative luxury who is afraid to get her hands dirty. It’s a classic “opposites attract” set-up, and it’s very clear that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom wants the pair to bounce off one another and generate sparks. They bicker, they banter, they flirt. They come close to hooking up, only to get into an even more aggressive argument.

What’s striking about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the extent to which Jones and Scott don’t share any chemistry. Scott isn’t a romantic foil for Jones in the same way Ravenwood had been in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Part of this is simply down to the fact that Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw don’t share the same chemistry that Ford enjoyed with Karen Allen. Part of this is also the script, which lacks the same spark. Part of it is also the characterisation of both Jones and Scott. Scott is portrayed as a deeply unpleasant stereotype, while Jones is a lot more aggressive and unpleasant than he was in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Willie was not going to leave a positive Yelp review.

Entirely accidentally, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom becomes a sort of anti-screwball romance. This is a story about two people who are very clearly opposites of one another and who start out hating one another, but who also seem to reject both the conventional arc of two characters learning that opposites attract and the classic Hollywood trope that nothing provides the basis of a stable long-term relationship than low-key mutual resentment. Jones and Scott share the inevitable kiss at the end of the film, but not before an elephant literally sprays cold water all over them.

There is something vaguely refreshing in this. After all, many of these screwball romances inevitably consist of the male and female leads being deeply unpleasant and aggressive towards one another, only for the movie to celebrate how much they really love one another underneath the barbs and insults, the brutishness and the sarcasm. It’s interesting to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom offer a rather cynical take on this – two characters who dislike each other, who should hook up due to the conventions of the genre, but who very obviously don’t fit together.

This family holiday is a scream.

(As noted above, it’s interesting that Willie Scott attracts such criticism. She is the only female lead in the Indiana Jones franchise who first hooks up with Jones as an adult and who doesn’t turn out to be an evil opportunist who also slept with his father. There’s not exactly a huge sample size when it comes to love interests in the larger Indiana Jones series, and while Willie Scott is still an uncomfortable caricature, she still arrives and departs with considerably less baggage than either Marion Ravenwood or Elsa Schneider.)

Audiences intuitively understand that this family unit cannot survive the basic premise of the series. The episodic nature of an adventure serial like the Indiana Jones series means that Jones will inevitably leave Short Round and Willie Scott behind when he goes on to his next adventure. Indeed, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a prequel film, and the audience knows that Jones wasn’t still travelling with these two companions two years later. There’s a weird tragedy in Short Round talks to the elephant about how he’s going to return with Jones to America.

Symbolism!

The divorce imagery runs through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doomit’s arguably even present in Harrison Ford’s efforts to bulk up his body with trainer Jake Steinfeld. The film’s opening sequence finds Jones at a nightclub. He drinks something that doesn’t agree with him, and ends up on the dance-floor with a beautiful woman. Before they know what’s happening, they are getting physical in the back seat of a car together, and then they find themselves acting as caregivers to a young child. They take a trip around the world, but even outside of their familiar settings, the two cannot reconcile with one another.

The bulk of the film’s horror takes place within the confines of Pankot Palace, a domestic environment that is revealed to house monstrous secrets within its foundations. Dinner with the neighbours goes horribly wrong. The pair try to reconnect afterwards, but end up retiring to separate bedrooms. Then the real nightmare begins, with the imagery becoming more abstract. Perhaps reflecting the argument that children are most affected in a divorce, Pankot Palace is built atop the suffering of children. Hearts are ripped out and set aflame. Jones drinks something toxic, becomes a different person, and hits Short Round.

To be fair, it is a very impressive mancave.

This divorce imagery arguably even filters through the cosmology of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The film’s understanding of the Hindu belief system is about as sophisticated as its understanding of other aspects of Indian history and culture – that is to say, extremely shallow. The film misunderstands Hindu gods like Kali and Shiva completely. However, it’s notable that the monstrous cult at the heart of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom appears to be predicated on a cosmological divorce.

The cult beneath Pankot Palace worships Kali. In Hindu theology, Kali is the consort of Shiva. The two exist in balance. They are not oppositional forces like good and evil, but inside forces that exist in relationship to one another. However, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom frames the two as at odds with one another. Jones calls out Mola Ram, stating that he has “betrayed Shiva.” It’s another example of the film’s mishandling and misunderstanding of Indian culture, but it’s very revealing that in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom even the gods go through acrimonious divorces.

Understanding as a child.

All of this is horrific and nightmarish. It’s an impressionistic portrait of what it feels like to see a family fall apart. In some ways, it approximates what the experience might feel like to a child. It is an emotional horror story about what it might be like if the family unit did fall apart. There was a lot of controversy over the horror and brutality in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which famously led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. However, the film’s horror is particularly effective because it’s filtered directly though the eyes of a child. It’s a horrific and heightened snapshot of a very primal emotional response.

In some ways, this all feels like a choice that marks Indiana Jones and the Temple as a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is effectively a story about Indiana Jones running away from his dysfunctional family unit, choosing to be the adventurer with minimal familial attachments as portrayed in Raiders of the Lost Ark and who has to reconcile with his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In some ways, it even prefigures the character’s later arc in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when Jones has to reconstruct a surrogate family unit like the one he rejects here.

Shining a light on the matter.

Of course, it is also impossible to look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom without considering the horrific events that happened on the set of The Twilight Zone in July 1982. Spielberg had been one of the producers on the movie, and a driving force in its development. During the shooting of a segment directed by John Landis, a stunt went horrifically wrong, killing veteran actor Vic Morrows and child performers Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen. It was a moment that changed the industry.

To be clear, Spielberg was in no way involved in the accident. He issued a statement that he had never visited the set where the accident occurred. He was never subpoenaed to testify about the events. However, Spielberg could not entirely escape the tragedy. He was involved in an out-of-court settlement with Morrows’ children. He stepped in to direct another segment of The Twilight Zone feature film to cover the gap left by the horrific loss. Spielberg also completely severed any relationship with Landis.

Whipping up some heroism.

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times in April 1983, the same month that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom started shooting in Sri Lanka, Spielberg confessed that the accident “made [him] grow up a little more.” As such, it’s hard not read something of that into the horror of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is a nightmarish movie about the horrific and brutal exploitation of children. Indeed, it’s arguable that despite the prologue positioning Indiana Jones as more ruthless and brutal than he had been in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom also features the character at his most heroic.

Early on in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the character is presented as selfish and self-interested, primarily driven by his own concerns and his own priorities. He sells artifacts to criminals. He wants the Sankara stones because they promise “fortune and glory.” However, after Short Round brings Jones back to his senses in the caves beneath Pankot Palace, Jones makes a truly selfless choice. “Let’s get out of here,” Scott appeals to him. Jone pauses, considering the children still suffering in the mines. “Right. All of us.”

Hero shot.

Jones spends most of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reacting to circumstances around him and trying to protect himself or the people close to him. There’s the famous argument that he is so passive that he has no real impact on how the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark plays out. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones is drawn into the quest for the Grail to find his father. His father then has to press him to keep the Grail out of the hands of the Nazis. Even at the climax, Walter Donovan motivates Indiana by shooting Henry to force the archeologist to lead him to the Grail.

As such, it’s notable that Indiana Jones makes the active choice to go back and save the children in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. After all, the plot is structured so that Jones could escape then and there with no consequences to him. There is no character like Henry Jones chiding him to do the right thing. Instead, presented with the choice between leaving innocents to suffer and doing the right thing, Jones makes a conscious decision to do the right thing. For all that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the darkest entry in the franchise, it is also the character’s most unambiguously heroic moment.

There’s a lot to unpack in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is perhaps the messiest movie in the larger series. It is undoubted a flawed movie with very serious problems, but it is also a looser and more adventurous movie than the other entries in the franchise. It is, in its own weird way, truer to the serials that inspired it than any other film that George Lucas has ever made. It is also perhaps the most cynical and brutal film that Spielberg has ever made by filtering familial trauma through a fantastical lens.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is many things, but it is never less than fascinating.

One Response

  1. “There have been various unconvincing attempts to justify the portrayal of India in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but none of them really work.”

    The closest thing to a decent headcanon I have for it is that Mola Ram wasn’t *actually* the heir to some longstanding Thuggee tradition, he was just a fanboy who decided to revive them as his own personal cult.

    Only they’d been dead for a hundred years, and by that point, whatever real history there was to the Thuggee had been completely diluted by a century of British pulp fiction and colonial propaganda. So… the cult Mola Ram builds ends up owing more to that than to the people he’s trying to imitate.

    … hey, I said “the *closest* thing to decent,” I never said “actually decent!”

    (Obviously, this me trying to be Watsonian. In a Doylist sense, no, there’s really no justification for it).

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