Indiana Jones revisited: 1984’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom
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Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom is a sequel that doesn’t even acknowledge its predecessor – and there are, of course, reasons. Some thoughts.

When did you first clock that Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom was in fact a prequel?


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Took me a few years, to be honest. I probably noticed it somewhere online. It always struck me as enormously strange. Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom  takes place in 1935, a year before Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but it has absolutely no reason whatsoever to do so. It doesn’t connect the Raiders in any way, shape, or form, besides the presence of our leading man, Indiana Jones.

In an age now of franchises which are driven by continuity and an obsession with calling back to past events (which I suspect Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny will also be guilty of) the idea of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom  existing as a solo adventure divorced from detailed continuity is refreshing, with the benefit of hindsight. It speaks to wanting Indiana Jones available for varying different kinds of adventures without needing the baggage of ongoing narrative necessity.

Not that I think Raiders really establishes a great deal of that. Sure, maybe you could have seen him marry Marion back in the 30s and Karen Allen return in a second film, but Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom could have existed after Raiders without explaining Marion’s absence and audiences probably wouldn’t have had an issue (not then, now some undoubtedly would). Spielberg and Lucas very clearly wanted Indy, however, the freedom to go in a completely different direction for the next film.

And he really does, on numerous levels. Parts of John Williams’ bravura score aside, Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom is incredibly different to Raiders, almost an entirely fresh interpretation. Perhaps following cultural and critical analysis, and to allow the character to better exist within the growing pantheon of 1980s action stars, Indy is far more conventional here than in Raiders. He is the unambiguous hero in this film – from his Bond-esque introduction during the Shanghai club scene via his touching father-son/brother dynamic with Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round, through to the reverence & honour he pays to the villagers of Mayapore. He jokes about “fortune and glory” but you never imagine he will rob the Indian locals.

Indeed, perhaps the most iconic visual image of any Indiana Jones movie takes place toward the end, as Indy heads to rescue the Mayapore children from the mines of Pankot Palace. As Williams’ stunning Temple theme soars, Spielberg pushes into an almost-shadowed Indy standing in the light of the cave entrance – fedora on, whip at his side – before he thwacks a goon who goes sliding across the ground. It’s a glorious visual moment but also entirely encapsulates who Indy is in Temple, in a manner he isn’t in Raiders or Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, in varying different ways.

That said, Spielberg is not afraid to tap into darkness as he did with RaidersIndiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom feels more of a broad adventure, less rooted in the echoes of the American New Wave, but it certainly leans toward horror to a degree no Indiana Jones movie ever did before or since. Indy is genuinely compromised by Mola Ram’s witchery. He isn’t faking until Short Round blasts him with fire. The hero is gone.

If anything reflects the dichotomy at the heart of Temple, it’s this. Indy might in many places be the traditional hero, tossing one liners off amidst danger, swapping barbs with the ‘gal’ dragged along for the ride (Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott, ported right out of the 1930s), but the sinister undercurrent of Temple cannot be underestimated. The Thuggee cult are far more terrifying than any assortment of overblown Nazis, either here or in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. They are zealots channelling true mystical power rather than ignorant fascists seeking to exploit it. Villains such as Belloq or Walter Donovan never manage to genuinely compromise Indy’s very soul.

There are scenes in Temple, too, that are difficult to best in the entire series. The mine car chase is one. Probably the closest anyone has ever come on screen to replicating the feeling of being on a rollercoaster. Accompanied by Williams’ breathtaking, breakneck chords, everything about that chase sequence screams adventure serial while remaining utterly unparalleled in cinema, before or even since I would argue. Aside from the earlier moment with Indy saving the children, there is the whole sequence on the rope bridge which is riven with tension and humour in equal measure.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Where it falls down is the built-in, I would argue unintentional, stereotyping and racism of the Indian ‘other’, visible in sequences such as the palace dinner scene where Willie and Shorty are steadily horrified by a succession of ever more grotesque dining choices involving monkey brains and sheep’s eyes etc… that the Indian elitist diners lap up.

It’s played for comedy but, intriguingly, it’s a vehicle more for slipping exposition through the backdoor, Spielberg using it to lay out via Indy the true historical context for the Thuggee, going back to the Indian Mutiny against the British in the mid 19th century. Ah yes, the British. Perhaps another example here of low-key stereotyping.

Sidebar though – it has taken me 41 years to learn that the officious Brit who puts Indy and co on the plane in Shanghai was an uncredited Dan Ayckroyd. Scanners-style, mind blown there!

The British Empire here are visible through largely the form of Captain Blumburtt, an avatar of confident British authority and righteousness that was already arguably in decline by the 1930s and would come to an end following the Second World War. Played incidentally by Phillip Stone, one of those classically trained British actors who would pop up in small but delicious roles. Remember him as the old caretaker in perhaps the best scene of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? Anyway, Blumburtt’s men naturally come to the aid of Indy against the ‘savages’, which even include Chatter Lal (Roshan Seth), the seemingly cultured & urbane minister under Pankot’s Prince, someone who explains the cultural context to Indy about empire and legacy, but who is revealed later to be just another Thuggee. The impact of the Empire would be presented very differently today.

Personally, I don’t understand some of the revisionist takes that cite Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom as better than either Raiders or Last Crusade. Yes, as I say, it does contain truly iconic images from the series’ history, but there is nothing here that touches greatness akin to the opening set piece of Raiders or any of the Harrison Ford-Sean Connery scenes in Last CrusadeTemple’s best legacy is now to no longer be the unwanted stepchild, its place affirmed as the third best Indy film critically. Third out of fifth isn’t bad, especially given the gulf many would cite between this and Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (unfairly in my view).

For more on many of these points, check out my appearance on The 250 podcast during their ‘Indiana Summer’ two years ago and their excellent episode on Temple of Doom. We very much get to the heart of the matter. Just in a nicer way than Mola Ram.

A J Black’s book, The Cinematic Connery, can be found here.

Also on Film Stories:
Celebrating the music of the Indiana Jones films
Indiana Jones: spoiler-filled thoughts on Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny
Indiana Jones revisited: reconsidering Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones revisited: it’s time for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
Indiana Jones revisited: heading back to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Podcast: In conversation with James Mangold: Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, Girl Interrupted and more
Podcast: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) and The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

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