Revisiting Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Simon takes another look at arguably the most brutal blockbuster movie of the 1980s: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom...

This feature contains spoilers for Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

One of the pleasures I’ve found of being a parent is being able to introduce my offspring to some of the classic films of my own youth. My now ten-year old son worked his way through the Back To The Future trilogy last year, loving them all (with a special soft spot for the third), and for every modern release he watches, I try and introduce him to something a little older.

For some time, he’s been asking about Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. I showed him, to his delight, Raiders Of The Lost Ark last year, and he’s been keen to see more of Indy’s adventures. But I couldn’t put out of my head how I felt when I first watched Temple Of Doom. Bluntly, I was terrified, even more so than when the RoboCop-prototype stepped out of Evil Robert Vaughn’s supercomputer come the end of Superman III (we discussed her in this piece, here). Still, he persisted, and over the weekend, we settled down to watch the film.

My son is made of stern stuff, barely flinching at things that would have crept under my skin at his age. He’s had an early schooling in Doctor Who, which helped. But the film that’s had him flinching, covering his eyes, and looking more uncomfortable than any I’ve ever shown him, was this one. When the credits finally rolled, as Indy and Willie return the (exclusively male) children to the village from whence they came, he almost breathed out with relief. He liked the film, he consequently reported. It just scared him.

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Fear in family movies isn’t a bad emotion, I’ve always believed (and I wrote about it here). Terror? Different story, but feeling a bit scared, and a bit uncomfortable, isn’t a bad thing for me. That said, on a couple of occasions, he pretty much jumped – proverbially, you’ll be pleased to hear – out of his skin. And the scenes of child torture I confidently expect him to be relating to his counsellor in 20 years time. I half expected him to ring Childline.

Thing is, I’ve always been on the same page as him where this particular film is concerned. Unlike the cycle of The Goonies, Back To The Future, Short Circuit and RoboCop (come on, we all had an underage copy), it wasn’t a film I ever rewatched in my childhood. In fact, it was only five years ago that I saw it again, and was pleasantly surprised that it was more interesting, darker and better than I remembered. Watching it again, I still think that. I think it’s a muddy film, and one that gets in a few logic muddles. I’m also not convinced its core narrative is that strong (although next to Crystal Skull? Well, you know). It’s hardly dripping too in what we now come to regard as Indiana Jones DNA.

But there’s nonetheless plenty to enjoy and like, even if it is sometimes from behind the nearest cushion. This is very much a follow-up made in an era where the focus group wasn’t prevalent, and you can tell. Say what you like about the film, but it’s uncompromising and unflinching in its approach.

In fact, the story goes that it was Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, along with Gremlins, that led to the creation of the, er, ‘beloved’ PG-13 rating in the US. Temple Of Doom remains a PG in the UK, as it was on its original US release. I’d argue it makes the likes of The Wolverine, The Lone Ranger and World War Z look tame in comparison.

So how did it come about? Well, before he agreed to direct Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Steven Spielberg had never helmed a sequel. Jaws had seen follow-ups, but Spielberg wasn’t behind the camera for them. And outside of the Indiana Jones movies, one further Jurassic Park would be as far as Spielberg the director would go into sequel land. But then George Lucas’ plan from the start here was a trilogy of films, and he got his wish when Raiders Of The Lost Ark hit box office gold.

The problem? There was no story in place. This wasn’t a trilogy where the path was mapped out, and as such, Lucas and Spielberg were starting almost from scratch. As always with the Indy films, Lucas came up with the story, and that was enough to scare Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan away. Lucas told Kasdan that he wanted a story encapsulating child slavery, religion and human sacrifice. Kasdan passed, leaving scripting duties in the hands of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Kasdan did not come to regret his decision.

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Katz and Huyck have talked about the film since, and relayed that basically what they wrote in the script made it to the screen. There were moments, as has been revealed since, that Spielberg tried to lighten, aware that the film he was making was quite harsh. But those moments are not in bountiful supply.

What’s also come to light since though is the circumstances facing the main three players in the Temple Of Doom production. Both Lucas and Spielberg have expressed regret as to how dark they allowed Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom to go, but then both were in dark places themselves. Lucas was going through a divorce at the time the film was being put together, and Spielberg himself had seen a long term relationship of his own fall apart (interestingly Lucas, Ford and Spielberg had become fathers not long before embarking on Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade).

Those weren’t the only reasons for the harsher tone of the film – Lucas was trying to follow the path he’d successfully followed with The Empire Strikes Back – but both have admitted that it didn’t help. As Spielberg told the Sun-Sentinel back in 1989, “I wasn’t happy with the second film at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific. I thought it out-poltered Poltergeist. There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom“.

On top of that then, there was Harrison Ford, who was in agony for much of the production. Ford was found to have slipped discs in his back, which put him out of action for over a month. As such, stunt double Vic Armstrong plays Indy on screen for much more of the film than you may think (Armstrong recounts his Indiana Jones tales in his entertaining autobiography). Spielberg shot around Ford’s absence for weeks, and it clearly added another challenge to a film facing high expectations, and no shortage of other problems.

Furthermore, if Temple Of Doom feels a bit cobbled together narratively, then that’s arguably because it was. The opening scenes were originally in the script for Raiders Of The Lost Ark (as Harrison Ford drinks the slowest-acting poison known to movie audiences ever), whilst the film shoots off around the world for the best part of half an hour, before going underground – pretty much literally – for most of the remaining running time.

That it hangs together as well as it does then is no small achievement. But there are a few moments that really, really strike.

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Take the whole opening 20 minutes or so. Paul Greengrass was rightly praised for his approach to the Bourne movies, and the feeling that you were watching a non-stop action movie, with one scene effortlessly blending into the next. The opening of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom is very much like that. We go from Club Obi Wan, with a song, dance and antidote chase that instantly sets a very different tone to Raiders, to a chase, to a plane, to the plane crashing, to Indy, Short Round and Willie improbably surviving by, er, sitting in a life dinghy (that someone manages to absorb the impact of a massive fall, in a way a fridge in the future will take inspiration from). Then said dinghy goes over a waterfall. Then its three occupants survive with barely a scratch. And then, finally, they’re where they need to be. Then you can breathe out.

It’s an exhilarating, improbable, illogical opening, but chaotically good fun. It’s also one of Spielberg’s most fluid action sequences, one that he touched on the flow of in The Adventures Of Tintin.

Even back in 1984 when the film was first released though, it was stung by accusations of racism in its portrayal of a deprived village in North India. Indeed, the Indian government refused permission to film in the country, partly on racism grounds. Rewatching the film now, it’s hard to feel comfortable with some of the scenes, and you can see the reasons for the accusations.

Then, though, Indy, Short Round and Willie head off on their quest, and the gloom soon descends. There’s no way round this: this is where the film gets really brutal. The clues are in the meal they ‘enjoy’. It’s played partly for laughs, but eyeballs in the soup, snakes coming out of a bigger snake and the infamous chilled monkey brains generate as many winces as chuckles.

It’s just a proverbial taste of what’s to come. Yet the more I think about it, the more I admire Spielberg for not shirking the cruelty in his story. For even though there’s the odd trick used to cloud the visual impact here and there, you see the child slaves been treated badly. You see a man being lowered to his burning death. And, most memorably perhaps, you see someone’s heart being taken out of their body. By the time the voodoo doll comes out, it looks like small change. But there’s no playing any of it for cartoon violence.

The heart moment in particular has parallels in last summer’s The Lone Ranger and The Wolverine, but there’s something harsher, nastier about it here (and that’s saying something). It’s bloodless, which presumably got it under the ratings guideline, but shocking. Spielberg does not pull his punches. It’s as if he’s got this far, he’s not going to duck at the last minute.

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That the movie eventually results in a frantic mine car chase fails to lighten what’s gone before, no matter how well it’s done. And in fact, the only sequence from that point on that feels like it bore much relation to Raiders Of The Lost Ark is the rope bridge (which was filmed in three different countries, I’ve since learned). That’s proper Indy: a slow-ish sequence, where you see the before middle and after.

It’s interesting just how little the famous Indiana Jones fanfare is used in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, but perhaps not too surprising. Because set against the other two films in the trilogy (we don’t count the 2008 travesty), it’s lost the sense of fun, the feel of an old style serial. But that’s no reason to write the film off: far from it. There’s a lot to like here, and it feels like a stark, strong antidote to cookie-cutter modern blockbuster cinema.

Is it suitable for a ten year old? That question hasn’t changed since 1984 in truth, and the sanitisation of some areas of blockbuster cinema if anything makes it even more pertinent. My ten year old remains glad he watched it certainly, but I suspect it may be a decade or so until he works out exactly what he’s got from it. It’s certainly clear that he’s felt, as I did, that he’s watched something far different from what he was expecting. But he was just a little relieved when I told him Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was a lot lighter, and a lot funnier…

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