Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Was Shaped by Dark Behind-the-Scenes Moments

Many of the ideas George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had for what became Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were even stranger than the finished movie (dinosaurs!). But through it all remained both directors' personal reasons to paint it black...

Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of doom with sword and bridge
Photo: Paramount / Lucasfilm

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom holds a strange place in every Indiana Jones fan’s heart. The awkward middle child, Temple of Doom is a dark, problematic prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, one which takes the series in a weirder, wilder direction—and manages to pull off one of the greatest openings of any action movie ever (Quentin Tarantino’s words, not mine). 

Today there’s often an assumption that contemporary critics weren’t enamored by director Steven Spielberg and writer George Lucas’ second collaboration, but that’s slightly misleading; The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael preferred Temple to Raiders because it fully embraced being “preposterous” and “implausible,” though she also writes that her friends labeled it “heartless” and “overbearing.” Meanwhile Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect four stars while People magazine warned that children may be traumatized by it.

Kael and her friends’ analysis perhaps best sums up why The Temple of Doom really is an odd duck—it lacks the sincerity and feel-good factor that came from watching Indy sticking it to the Nazis and instead focuses on pure action extravagance. The film also somewhat strangely focuses on Harrison Ford’s hero white savior-ing an Indian village. Similarly, Indy’s arc takes two steps backwards for viewers, with the character backtracking on the lessons learned in Raiders thanks to this being a prequel—a move that continues to confuse casual viewers not paying attention to dates and years in each film’s opening title cards. 

Watching Temple of Doom now, there’s no denying its Spielbergian flair, but the subject matter and its depiction of Indian people is somewhat difficult to stomach. As a result, the film ended up being Spielberg’s least favorite installment in the initial Indiana Jones trilogy. “I wasn’t happy with Temple of Doom at all,” he said while promoting its sequel, The Last Crusade. “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.” 

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That last point may be true for Spielberg, but arguably the opposite is true for Lucas. “I think Temple of Doom was ahead of its time for my own sensibility and exactly right on schedule for George’s,” Spielberg told Empire in 2008. “George was going through a dark period. He certainly inspired [Irvin] Kershner to shoot a very dark second act in the first Star Wars trilogy and he wanted the second Indiana Jones to be very, very, dark. And I wasn’t there.”

Lucas was, at the time, going through a divorce from Marcia Lucas, who famously edited the original Star Wars and Return of the Jedi—and was responsible for improving the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark immeasurably—which led George to push the story in a darker direction. Initially, an opening for Indiana Jones 2 saw Indy drive along the Great Wall of China, with the hero discovering a dinosaur-inhabited land inspired by the Lost World subgenre created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The idea was jettisoned in part because the Chinese government did not grant them access to film in the country.  But we were very close to seeing Indy battling dinosaurs a decade before Jurassic Park.

Eventually, Lucas and Spielberg came up with the idea for Temple’s final antagonists: the religious cult dedicated to the goddess Kali that used black magic, enslaved children, and even sacrificed children. The story was hashed out over two days in the summer of 1982. Lucas and Spielberg met Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, the writers of Lucas’ American Graffiti. At one point, Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote Raiders, was asked whether he was interested in scripting the project, which was initially titled Indiana Jones and the Temple of Death. Kasdan declined, later calling it a “horrible,” “ugly,” and “mean-spirited” movie.

Yet, it wasn’t just Lucas’ ongoing divorce that was pushing the creator of a galaxy far, far away and into darker waters—Spielberg, too, was going through relationship issues, having broken up with music executive Kathleen Carey.

“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,” Lucas said in 2008. “It ended up darker than we thought it would be. Once we got out of our bad moods, which went on for a year or two, we kind of looked at it and went, ‘Mmmmm, we certainly took it to the extreme.’ But that’s kind of what we wanted to do, for better or worse.”

“George and Marcia, for me, were the reason you got married,” Spielberg said in an interview for 60 Minutes in 1999. “And when it didn’t work, and when that marriage didn’t work, I lost my faith in marriage for a long time.”

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Some of Spielberg and Lucas’ feelings can perhaps be seen in the portrait Temple of Doom paints of women. Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott has been criticized as a one-dimensional character who’s materialistic and is constantly screaming. “[Lucas and Spielberg] definitely wanted a ditzy kind of Jean Harlow character,” writer Huyck explained. “We took a lot of heat for her screaming all the time, but they wanted her to scream constantly.” 

Of course, one scene in the movie visualizes Lucas and Spielberg’s feelings about their broken relationships better than any other; when Amrish Puri’s Mola Ram calls out his god’s name and tries to extract Indy’s heart from his body. In 2012, Lucas was even asked whether it was a metaphor for his own heart being ripped out. “Yeah,” he replied, though he “insisted the glee with which it was ripped out was Spielberg’s.”

In that same interview, Lucas was asked for his final thoughts on the film: “I like Temple of Doom,” he said. “Is it fun to think back about that stuff emotionally for us? Nooooo.” 

No surprises there—yet for Spielberg, things are slightly different. In 1991, he and Capshaw married. “If I walk into a room and [Temple of Doom]’s on [TV], we both have to sit down as we can both remember it like it was yesterday,” Capshaw told Empire. “We’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, remember that? You weren’t talking to me during that part,’ or, ‘Oh, that was a really big flirt day.’ It was so much fun.”

“The second [Indy] film I could have done a lot better if there had been a different story,” Spielberg added. “It was a good learning exercise for me to really throw myself into a black hole. I came out of the darkness of Temple of Doom and I entered the light of the woman I was eventually going to marry and raise a family with.”

The Temple of Doom may be one of Spielberg’s strangest, darkest films, but it’s one with a happy ending after all.

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