Temple of Doom: An Indiana Jones Retrospective (Part 2)

“Fortune and glory kid. Fortune and glory.”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with a thesis statement by way of song and dance. A large lavish and splashy musical number performed by Kate Capshaw, proclaiming that “anything goes.” Those two words are the setup for all else to follow. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas, Spielberg, and Harrison Ford had found enormous success, guaranteeing an exciting new franchise. But where do you take this character next? What adventures do you take him on? Will you be able to recapture that magic or was Indiana Jones simply lightning in a bottle? 

Temple of Doom began post-production more or less immediately after the success of Raiders, with Paramount itching to see what Lucas and Spielberg could cook up for the second of their three films. First, Lucas and Spielberg realized that sequelising a film on the eve of World War 2 would be difficult, especially as they didn’t want to reuse the Nazis as villains. So the decision was made to make this sequel a prequel, set a year prior to the events of Raiders

From the start, Lucas knew he wanted this story to be darker than Raiders. He wanted Indy to explore a dark inner sanctum filled with terror and untold mysteries, that of a haunted Scottish castle. Spielberg resisted this, having just made Poltergeist with Tobe Hooper. So instead, the Scottish castle became an Indian temple.

Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The goal was to pivot entirely from Raiders: to do something totally different. To not rehash what had been done, but to reach for different influences and to achieve a different tone. To do this, the film that would become Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom was handed off to the husband and wife screenwriting duo of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who wrote American Graffiti with Lucas and would later write Howard the Duck. The couple was hired in large part because they had recently traveled to India and had enjoyed and explored its various cultures, seemingly giving them a more authentic starting point. Lucas, Spielberg, Katz, and Huyck would meet up and plot out the story of this new adventure, reusing several set pieces conceived of for Raiders but which were removed. Namely the opening in Shanghai, the escape from the plane on the life raft, and the mine cart chase. Around these set pieces, an entirely new story, tone, and style would be formed.

This new story would be painted with a different brush, with older influences and a new wellspring of previous media to draw upon. If Raiders was a combination of serials and early 40s cinema, Temple of Doom would be a combination of serials and 30s cinema. It’s aiming less for Casablanca and Secret of the Incas and instead for screwball comedies like His Girl Friday and horror films like The Old Dark House. The RKO adventure comedy Gunga Din is the clearest influence, with Temple of Doom’s villainous Thuggee Cult being lifted directly from here. 

Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Unfortunately, one cannot talk about Temple of Doom without also discussing the controversial and rightly derided racism that came with these influences.

Taking from the films of this era and hiring writers simply because they had BEEN to India meant there was a real and prevalent ignorance of Indian cultures and the Hindu religion. Temple of Doom is a deeply racist movie, built off of an era of film where colonial soldiers were unambiguously heroic, not something to be interrogated at all. So while Raiders of the Lost Ark sought to have some foundation in Jewish history and mythology, Temple of Doom instead chose to build entirely off the racist stories and narratives of the early 20th century. 

The film’s Thuggee Cult may have been thought of as a real threat in Indian history – but historians have noted that this was likely a narrative concocted by the British to justify further force and brutality against the population. What makes this worse is how carelessly Temple of Doom mixes cultural iconography. The Thuggee Cult worships Kali, a deity who in the world is likened to Satan, a gross misunderstanding of Hindu mythology and religion. But even beyond this, the cult uses Voodoo magic, and the villainous Thuggee leader Mola Ram wears the headdress of a bull, drawing some parallels to Native Americans. It all just rolls into one big evil group, the purest distillation of ‘the other,’ the colonial boogeymen. The basic story is that of Indy helping the weak and ineffectual Indians save their children from a villainous Hindu cult, saved at the end by the all-powerful and all-good British colonial army. It’s obviously not very culturally sensitive.   

One could say it was just a different time; Temple of Doom was simply a product of an era where these kinds of narratives were completely normalized, but the truth is that Temple of Doom was seen as racist even in 1984 and these depictions have been genuinely harmful for many. I’ve known and heard of several Indian folks who’ve been asked if they really eat chilled monkey brains. I’m definitely not the person to speak to these experiences or to adequately discuss this film’s issues in representation, and there is plenty of great writing elsewhere that delves into this if you’re interested in reading those perspectives.It’s an unfortunate reality and a real blight on this franchise, which is already not particularly well known for thoughtful depictions of other cultures. 

It’s always been something I have struggled with because, despite all of this, I still find things to enjoy here, and I still think it kind of kicks ass. So know that this racism is there, it’s prevalent, and that my love for the movie doesn’t justify or excuse it.

Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I mentioned earlier that Temple of Doom opens with a musical number announcing that Anything Goes. I think, even beyond this mission statement, this moment sums up what I love about Temple of Doom, it’s go-for-broke audaciousness. Raiders starts with a cold open in a deadly jungle, the emphasis on mystery, and its pace is slow, building and building until that big old boulder comes tumbling down. Temple of Doom, meanwhile, puts the pedal to the metal from the very start with a straight-up Busby Berkley number, completely breaking the reality of the world to bring a pretty accurate depiction of that style of film. It’s got a different sensibility to Raiders; its loud, colorful, and sparkly. Immediately we know this is a very different movie.

Everything afterward follows in this tradition. Temple of Doom is a movie that just throws everything it can at the wall to see if it’ll stick. Its only ambition is to be as crazy and entertaining as possible, and it does so by completely subverting the first movie at every turn.

That opening musical number introduces us to Willie Scott, a night club dancer in Shanghai’s Club Obi-Wan, played by Kate Capshaw (who would become Steven Spielberg’s future wife). Willie is one of the most commonly derided parts of the Temple of Doom. She’s loud, bratty, spoiled, and seemingly trying to shatter the glass in the lens with her scream alone. Many point to this as misogynistic and a byproduct of Lucas going through a recent divorce. And this is probably fair. I’m not the one to speak to this. But I’ve always loved Willie because she completely inverts the leading lady of the first Indy picture, Marion Ravenwood. If Marion was an independent, feisty ball of spunk, refusing to let Indiana Jones take over the picture, Willie is the exact opposite. She’s shrill and loud and complains about cracking a nail whilst being shot at. But that’s because she’s a nightclub dancer, she’s way out of her element. She’s Fay Wray and all the distressed damsels of the 30s tossed into a blender and spat into her worst nightmare. But she also gains more agency than Marion did. 

I noted in my article for Raiders that Marion becomes more and more of a damsel as the film progresses, and Willie is the opposite. She learns to stand up for herself, actively helps, and knocks out a cultist with a single punch. She’s got a genuine arc. Her relationship with Indy is also very different. Marion and Indy had a past, a real sincere old Hollywood romance. Willie and Indy, meanwhile, are purely physical. You never get the sense that anything is underlying their kisses than pure sexual attraction. But I never saw any of this as cruel – she’s just not at all cut out for this kind of adventure. I’d probably handle it worse than she did. She may be annoying, but I dunno, I kinda love that, and I’ve always admired the audacity to go with such a frustrating character. And say what you want, but Kate Capshaw plays the role brilliantly, believably, and with a very high decibel count.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indy’s new sidekick, the lovable Short Round, played by the even more loveable Ke Huy Quan, is also an example of this inversion. Indy’s main sidekick in Raiders is Sallah, a big burly friend of Indy’s – Short Round, meanwhile, is a tiny orphan boy craving adventure. He’s Sallah’s opposite as much as Willie is Marion’s. If anything is unanimously loved in Temple of Doom, it’s Shorty, and rightfully so. Ke Huy Quan has such exceptional chemistry with Harrison Ford, and this dynamic is both the film’s beating heart and its great source of comedy. He may be a kid, and he may look up to Indy, but he doesn’t always take his crap. They squabble and bicker, but when something needs to get done, they always pull together. Shorty calling out Indy for cheating, only for Indy to reveal that Short Round was also cheating, is just one of my favorite little moments in this whole franchise. Quan plays him like a boy who’s been forced to grow up more than he should have but still gives him a playfulness and innocence that serves the story’s themes and emotional center. He’s the heart and soul of Temple of Doom and its clearest highlight. 

This inversion of Raiders is seen in Indy himself. This is, at this point, our first time meeting Indy chronologically, and where do we meet him? Selling an artifact to gangsters for money – before then holding a woman hostage when the deal goes south. Yet another example of Indy’s greatest weakness: trusting too easily. From the very start, it’s clear that this Indiana Jones is very different from the lovable rogue we met in 1981. He’s more mercenary than a hero. He’s mean, rude, and largely self-interested. Temple of Doom Indy just kinda sucks. Something he makes very clear when he outlines his mission statement, “fortune and glory.” This is an Indy out for treasure and profit, not to attain knowledge or to further his archeological studies like in Raiders, but to further his own agenda, to make himself rich. There’s a great visual parallel used when Indy grabs the Sankara stones and when he’s entranced by drinking the blood of Kali Ma, showing how Indy has become, in a way, possessed by greed. 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

This Indy is more in line with the character first outlined by Lucas, Kasdan, and Spielberg, a character who sought treasure to fund his high society playboy lifestyle. In many ways, Temple of Doom’s Indiana Jones is closer to Belloq in Raiders, seeking treasure no matter the cost. 

But what’s interesting about Temple of Doom is how it seeks to grow this Indy from a fortune-seeking maverick to a genuine hero. In his search for his fortune and glory, Indy is put under the mind control of the Thuggee, becoming a sadistic tool for evil, even using his own whip for evil, a new shade of the character that Harrison Ford plays brilliantly. What’s even worse is that this new Indy strikes his own surrogate son, Short Round. In his search for fortune and glory, Indy has endangered the people closest to him, dragging them down to hell with him. So in this way, Temple of Doom is a story about confronting your dark side, about looking inwards and choosing to be better. 

What follows Indy’s reawakening is the character’s most unambiguously heroic moment, saving the children who have been forced into slavery by the Thuggee. John Williams’ rousing score coming in, Spielberg’s dramatic push-in, and the heightened totemic lighting of Douglas Slocombe, it’s just a perfect moment and one of the most satisfying I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s a wonderful moment and feels like a completely earned piece of character growth. Now we finally see the Indiana Jones we met in Raiders. What’s even more interesting though is that Temple of Doom ends with Indy returning the surviving Sankara stone to the village instead of taking it for himself, showing that he’s learned to respect the cultural importance of these artifacts. But this isn’t something that really comes up in Raiders, so while there is a clear arc to lead into that film, it doesn’t all click seamlessly. But that is the fun of these movies, they’re serial adventures. There’s an ongoing story but it does kind of reset. 

For me, this arc highlights the real darkness and mean spirit of Temple of Doom – it doesn’t ever hold back. There’s a shot where Indy looks over to the bodies of two dead children, hanging high above like flags: it’s bleak. As a kid, this was the film I never watched all the way through. I got to the scene where Mola Ram rips a still-beating heart out of a man before dipping him into a volcano, and that was enough for me. It’s genuinely terrifying, and it’s no wonder why it and Gremlins were the reason we have the PG-13 rating. But I think that darkness really is crucial. Temple of Doom’s opening half hour is all a rip-roaring adventure, among the most exciting of Spielberg’s entire career, starting with a Night Club brawl and culminating in an escape from a crashing airplane. It really moves. The first act is all glitz and glamour, sparkling colors, and vibrant texture. Spielberg wanted to have the feel of 1930s musicals, bright, decadent, and sexy, and it totally works.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

But once we get to the titular Temple, the second act slows it down significantly, stewing in the darkness. Suddenly the film is flooded with deep reds and pits of black shadows. Director of Photography Douglas Slocombe brilliantly uses minimal but expertly placed light sources to indicate a sole subterranean light. It feels claustrophobic and primally evil, like something we were never meant to see. This darkness is made all the better in the film’s third act, where our heroes tear it all down, literally fleeing into the sunlight.

And OH MAN, that third act. I would argue that the final 40 minutes of Temple of Doom are the finest 40 minutes of action filmmaking in the medium of cinema. It’s like Spielberg has been pulling back a slingshot since the film got to India, only to release it once Indy decides to save the kids. Because from there, it’s the purest form of a cinematic rollercoaster there is – quite literally, in the case of the Mine Cart chase, utilizing actual sounds from Disney coasters. This final stretch of the film is staggeringly directed and breathlessly exciting. The cathartic release of the children, the excruciatingly brutal brawl with the main Thuggee guard, the captivatingly frantic mine cart chase, and the final nail-bitingly tense bridge standoff. It just builds and builds and builds, and Spielberg never loses sight of his characters in all the mayhem. By the end of it, you’re just exhausted in the best possible way. 

And I haven’t even talked about the breathtaking effects and production value of this thing. If Raiders was all about on-location shooting, Temple of Doom is really emphasizing these massive expansive sets. The set of the Temple is still just so incredibly impressive. All of the effects by ILM are at their peak here as well. The mine cart chase especially is a wonderful showcase of their abilities. This sequence is such an effective combination of live-action footage with the actors and stunt doubles, miniature work, models, and stop motion. Every bit of footage comes from so many different sources, but it never once feels jarring or disconnected. It’s a masterful piece of editing by Michael Kahn. In the hands of anyone else, this sequence could have been a mess, but ILM, Kahn, and Spielberg pull it off like it’s nothing.  

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

In many ways, Temple of Doom feels like the ultimate form of Lucas’s initial vision, a roller coaster ride in the garb of the serial adventure. Much like how Raiders every 10-minute chunk can be its own little adventure, with each set piece standing on its own. It lacks the complete cohesion of Raiders and feels far more like a collection of set pieces. The Night Club sequence may as well be from a different movie than the Bridge showdown. But that’s always been its appeal to me. All of the set pieces are just so enjoyable to me; the chase through Shanghai, the tunnel full of bugs and spike trap, the inexplicable volcanic lair, it’s all so imaginative and so confidently directed. It’s a completely bug-nuts movie, something I’ve termed a Screwball Horror movie. 

Steven Spielberg once called Temple of Doom a “popcorn adventure with a lot of butter” and I think that’s the perfect descriptor. Because while Temple of Doom might not be the BEST Indiana Jones movie, it sure is the MOST Indiana Jones movie. Temple of Doom is a LOT of movie; it’s big, broad, and crazy, with no subtlety whatsoever. It’s easy to see why it’s so polarising, and I guess that really depends on how much butter you like with your popcorn. 

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