CBS is re-showing some of the Indiana Jones films ahead of production finally beginning for Indiana Jones 5. With Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we’re taking a look back at Lucasfilm’s other giant franchise and the ways it shaped the modern blockbuster.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Victory, the old saying goes, has many parents but failure is an orphan. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (buy at Amazon), the most complicated of the various sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark, belies that koan as several people have jointly taken credit for what has been deemed its faults (but perhaps more accurately it’s excesses). That alone suggests Temple of Doom is not in fact the failure it was long considered to be. That’s not the same thing as being a success but it’s something.
The biggest and most obvious element to it is the same as every other sequel to a popular film – the unanswerable question of ‘what do we do next?’ While the Star Wars films at least had some leftover plot dynamics which could serve as the bones of a follow-up, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had little beyond some set pieces which Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t have room for. [The mine car chase and the escape from the crashing airplane were both originally conceived for Raiders but were cut well into the planning process as there was nowhere to put them]. It’s a relationship which symbolized much of the response to the film for decades after its release, the unloved younger sibling gifted with nothing but it’s older brother’s castoffs.
Was that fair? To an extent. The creators involved all knew, by the end of Raiders, what kind of man Indiana Jones was and what kind of adventures he had. But how to do it again without succumbing to the temptation of easy repetition (a temptation which could and would produce the worst film in the series)? This openness allowed for a lot of opportunity with experimentation in plot, in character motivation and in character types. Much like its brethren series, Indiana Jones refused to sit on its laurels and recreate its early excesses (except when it did), and as with all experimentation there are hits and there are misses.
There are few singular misses larger in either Lucas’ or Spielberg’s career than Willie Scott. On the one hand, once it became clear that Indy would have a different supporting cast each time the desire was to make all of the new characters as different and distinctive as possible, which is good. Unfortunately, the opposite of Karen Allen’s spunky, unyielding Marion Ravenwood is Kate Capshaw’s shrieking, pampered ideation of every feminist’s worst nightmare. It’s not just that Willie is obnoxious, it’s that she requires all attention and action from others and initiates little herself unless it deals specifically with material gain. It’s not Molo Ram and his burning idols who symbolize the pitfalls of fortune and glory Indy must traverse, it’s Willie. It’s a thin line between a character being funny and a character being a joke and unfortunately Willie pushes well past that line.
On the other hand, she also gives Spielberg the chance to stage a flat-out Busby Berkley musical number for the opening, so maybe it’s all worthwhile.
Much as with Indiana the character, Temple of Doom is a transition film for its director as well, as he moves from focusing on expert staging of the story from Raiders to putting more and more of his own personality and ideas into the series as it goes along. And still while delivering on the staging front, with Temple of Doom offering one of the best sequences not only in the entire series but in Spielberg’s entire oeuvre with the mine car chase.
Sadly, Willie is far from the only stereotype the film embraces, a choice which greatly complicates its analysis. On the one hand, films need to be viewed within the time in which they were made. While not the existing in the colonial framework of the films which inspired it (Gunga Din chief among them), the 1980s was still a time frame when ex-colonial states could be seen as exotic locales for internal discovery from a strictly western viewpoint such as David Lean’s Passage to India (which was quite comfortable casting Alec Guinness as an Indian professor) or 1985 Best Picture winner Out of Africa. On the other hand, 1983 wasn’t that long ago and it’s impossible to ignore how cultural perceptions have shifted in the time since. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s India is a hodge podge of clichés and stereotypes which the filmmakers may not have been able to understand when they were made, but probably should have.
And that may be the best way to look at Temple of Doom, as an artifact of the 1980s which speaks specifically to that time (even though it is set in the 1930s) alongside Wall Street or Top Gun. Moreso than any other Indiana Jones film (potentially as response to this one, long seen as the black sheep of the family), Temple of Doom exhibits the most anti-hero version of Jones we ever got. He’s not interested in teaching (he’s never seen doing so) or in preserving the past for future generations to learn from. He is a corporate raider in period form, looking for gems and diamonds and viewing the past as something he can gain fortune and glory from as opposed to knowledge. His greed is so great it has even developed into stories and fables around him, to the point where everyone knows he was threatened by a previous host he may have tried to steal from.
Which is the inner heart of Temple of Doom, a story of temptation and how it can warp even the most heroic souls. Much as with Star Wars, the Jones series suggests the appropriate action with riches is to let go of it, not try and hang on to it. Being an action movie, this is made startlingly literal when Indiana is brainwashed by the ‘Blood of Kali’ and turned into one of Mola Ram’s goons. Being a Spielberg film, it is a reality which can only be seen through by the innocence of a child (Indiana’s precocious sidekick Short Round). The crowning feature of Adulthood is the acceptance of temptation and corruption.
It is, to say the least, a very strange place to find Indiana Jones after the rousing heroics / knight errantry of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s only possible because Temple of Doom is a prequel, the events unfolding several years earlier than the recent Raiders. The conceit of non-linearity was one Lucas embraced more and more in his storytelling, bouncing in and out of a narrative at different points to focus on one specific moment in time as opposed focusing on the form and shape of the overall plot much as Star Wars begins with Episode IV or his later Clone Wars work would tell the end of a story before it told the beginning.
It’s a bold technique (which unfortunately had to go by the wayside as Ford got too old to do anything but exist in the future), which speaks to Lucas’ editing and experimentalist background. In his student work like Look at Life, images were blank material to be spliced next to one another with meaning coming from the nature of the montage as opposed to any given beat, any given image capable of being moved around and re-inserted without upending the whole. His storytelling tends to work in similar fashion, with cause and effect reversed or delayed and classic storytelling ideas like rising action leading to climax being experimented with if not outright ignored.
It’s certainly not the only specifically Lucas touch in Temple of Doom, just the most obvious one to pick out as much of the rest is subsumed within the general studio film development process which takes some ideas, throws out others and mashes the remainder up hopefully into something appetizing. Temple of Doom, unfortunately, suffers from exactly what made the first film work so well (but damaged all future ones); a lack of singular vision.
Raider of the Lost Ark is a jointly conceived and executed film in a classic studio mold with producer, director, writer and star all on the same page and all working as a gestalt to make something greater than the sum of its parts. This is a rare thing in any artform and would never replicate itself again in the series. Though there is no out and out conflict, there is definite tension between the needs and desires of the various creatives involved in Temple of Doom which keeps it eternally searching for balance.
That tension is most apparent in Temple of Doom’s look – descending from sterile black and white of Shanghai to the molten blood-red demesne of the villainous Mola Ram. Like so much Lucas works on, the path of the characters and themes are frequently spelled out in the art direction and color schemes of the film. Jones starts out in a literal black and white world (where he notably dresses in white to offset the dark tuxedos of those around him) while living in a much more morally grey world; it’s only when he descends into the chaotic underworld of the Thugee that (muddy but alive – all red clay and lava) that he finds his own inner purity.
It’s both the most active the art design will ever get in any of the Indiana Jones films and the most the visual design of the film will intersect with its thematic elements and growth. That’s at least in part because this is the most Jones is ever allowed to grow and change within a film. In most of his other incarnations he is generally fixed and unchanging. In most other films he also spending most of his time dealing with his own past (as much as the past he sifts through), while in Temple of Doom he is focused firmly on what is in front of him, trying to decide who he is going to be.
As goes Indiana Jones, so goes Temple of Doom, which struggles with the same growing pains its titular character does. Unfortunately, the answers the series comes up with are very different from Indiana, with a regressive return to what has worked before in future installments instead of further growth.
That, more than anything else, is what makes Temple of Doom the second-best film in the series. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, and maybe it is, but it also speaks to a bravery to experiment which Temple of Doom embraced one last time. That may have been forgotten for the rest of the series, but it shouldn’t be forgotten by us.