These notes on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Temple of Doom will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series tribute to composer John Williams on March 12 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art. Admission is free!
Despite all its success, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom still rankles some, its creators especially. “It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific,” Spielberg said five years after its release. “There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom.” (He was promoting Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, a much more uplifting film, at the time.) Co-writer and executive producer George Lucas has similar misgivings, but contrary to Spielberg, he blames the film’s intensity entirely on their personal states: “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. That’s where we were at that point in time.”
These tensions potentially inform the film’s most disturbing passages, like when the Thuggee cult brainwashes Indy (Harrison Ford) into punching his young sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and—remember this?—nearly sacrificing Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) to a ceremonial pyre. Outside of what critic Dave Kehr identified as some “blunt Freudian” significance, this darkness seizes our attention for being so extraneous to the plot, which after all harkens back to the light programmers of yore. Critic Filipe Furtado jokingly notes how the film “somehow [doubles] down on the racism and sexism inherent to that [serial] tradition,” which in the end may be Temple of Doom’s most awkward legacy. Curiously, Roshan Seth (who plays the Maharaja’s Prime Minister, Chattar Lal) has since insisted that Spielberg knew the pitfalls and tried to avoid them. With the infamous Pankot Palace banquet scene, for instance, Seth said, “Steven intended it as a joke, the joke being that Indians were so f’ing smart that they knew all Westerners think that Indians eat cockroaches, so they served them what they expected.” “That joke was too subtle for that film,” Seth concluded.
If we accept Temple of Doom, then, as an incongruous and often nasty piece of work, it becomes easier to admire the filmmaking brio on display as well as the audacity with which it clashes genres and remixes film history. A litmus test for this approach comes early on, when Lao Che’s pilot henchmen try to kill our heroes by ditching their airplane: Are you bothered that Spielberg decided to stock this doomed flight with cages full of live, clucking chickens? Or is their presence justified by the cool, snow-like effect their white feathers make as they blow about the cabin? And doesn’t this also work as some frayed riff on Only Angels Have Wings? The more agreeable you find the latter two options, the more fun you will have watching (and especially rewatching) Temple of Doom.
It begins, after all, with perhaps the most jaw-dropping 15 minutes of Spielberg’s career. Apropos of nothing, Temple of Doom introduces itself as a Busby Berkeley-style musical, with high-kicking tap dancers, door-wide hand fans, and Capshaw’s Willie singing the Cole Porter song “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. A lower third title, “Shanghai, 1935,” sets the action, without fanfare, one year before Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy enters the nightclub (its name, an in-joke, is hard to miss), where he is promptly poisoned by kingpin Lao Che. All hell breaks loose, starting with Indy spearing one of Lao Che’s sons with a flambé shishkebab and then punching a waitress for some reason. Two shiny, kickable items — the antidote vial and a golf ball-size diamond — fly about the dance floor, where Willie grovels beneath panicking diners, falling ice buckets, hundreds of balloons, and cool-headed dancers shaking to “Anything Goes” in cut time. Kung fu, throwing knives, and a tommy gun all besiege Indy before he grabs Willie, ducks behind a rolling gong, jumps out of the window, and falls into a Duesenberg Auburn convertible driven by Short Round. One rear-ended rickshaw and another Wilhelm scream later, the three pull up to an airport where Dan Aykroyd, in a cameo, escorts them to Lao Che’s aircraft while speaking the King’s English.
The opening, which is a nightmare on paper, works flawlessly, and nothing subsequent can quite match it. But plenty of other scenes possess comparable integrity and imagination, like when Indy, Willie, and Short Round set up camp at a forest clearing. Short Round argues with Indy over their card game, accusing him of cheating — Ke Quan improvised this dialogue in auditions and won himself the role. Parallel to this, Willie loses her mind as she encounters a series of large jungle animals: a bat, a baboon, two lizards, an owl, a leopard roaring off-screen. Willie collapses by the fire, where an elephant batters her with its trunk and Indy begins to hit on her. She responds, “I’d rather sleep with a snake.” On cue, a python slithers down her shoulder, and thinking it’s the elephant, she hurls it across the clearing. The sight, of course, stuns Indy to silence, capping the scene with the tables turned.
A great screwball comedy hides between the cracks of this movie, and the much-maligned Willie Scott is its star. Her screaming, “I hate the water, and I hate being wet, and I hate you!” while careening down whitewater rapids basically takes Katherine Hepburn from The African Queen and turns it up to 11. Though the screaming can indeed go overboard, especially in the second half, her vanity fits the scenario perfectly and is furthermore matched, coif for coif, by Indy’s. In another great scene rife with puns seen and spoken, Indy slides into Willie’s palace bedroom roleplaying as a scientist in need of some “research,” before she casts the “conceited ape” into the hallway. “I’m not that easy either,” he responds, and thanks to the 1000-situps regimen Ford underwent with personal trainer Jake Steinfeld, he is right.
Lacking the usual inhibitions, Spielberg let his stars in the Temple of Doom be sexy and taunt one another like autonomous adults, which is frankly a rarity for him even to this day. This playful attention to surfaces turns out to be the unexpected flipside to the film’s more prominent Sturm und Drang. While every minute remains a master class in craft, Temple of Doom’s fissures offer rare evidence that an “id film” could possibly exist. That Spielberg and Capshaw got hitched after, and that the same carnality has been largely absent from his films since, further teases at the possibility.