When George Lucas captivated Steven Spielberg with his concept for the action-packed Raiders of the Lost Ark on the beach in Hawaii, Lucas also told his friend that he hoped it would be the first installment of a trilogy. The subsequent success of Raiders ensured that Indiana Jones would have another big-screen adventure and, once again, Spielberg stepped behind the camera as director. It was the first time in his career that he made a sequel to one of his own movies (he had been offered Jaws 2 but declined). What the two ended up creating was certainly a very different--though no less exciting or commercially successful--product than Raiders , but it also turned out to be a rather controversial--not to mention divisive--entry into Spielberg's body of work.
One thing that Lucas was adamant about was that he wanted this second Indiana Jones adventure to be much darker than its predecessor (just as Empire Strikes Back was darker than the original Star Wars). Although Spielberg agreed, he was never fully comfortable with the lengths to which the story went. It has been observed that the clashing visions of producer and director on this project (as opposed to how “in sync” they were with the first one) contributed to its schizophrenic nature. Spielberg has described himself as basically a “hired hand” on this particular film, using his technical skills to help make it as good as it could be but ending up ultimately "less-than-pleased" with the final result. As for why Lucas was pushing for a much darker, stronger tone to this movie (with strong, graphic violence and a narrative involving black magic, torture and slavery), he was going through a divorce at the time and has said that he just simply “wasn’t in a very good mood.” Without indulging in too much Freudian psycho-analysis here, it is interesting to me that at a point in his life when Lucas’ wife was leaving him, he felt compelled to include a scene in the film where a man has his heart ripped out of his chest.
The first thing the filmmakers did in conceiving of the story, that would come to be known as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was to re-insert the set pieces that they were forced to cut from Raiders due to time and budget. To write the script Lucas approached Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (whom he had worked with on American Graffiti and who would later write the Lucas-produced Howard the Duck) in all likelihood because the two had a fascination for India, where this adventure was primarily to be set. Once again religion featured prominently into the film’s story but it was a different religion this time around. The Judaism of Raiders was set aside in favor of Hinduism (with nods to Voodoo). Again, Spielberg planned to put his comfort in telling metaphysical stories to good use.
Most of the original crew from Raiders returned (cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, second unit-director Mick Moore, casting directors Judy Feinberg, Mike Fenton, Mary Selway and, of course, regular Spielberg collaborators Michael Kahn, John Williams, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy). Notably absent were writers Lawrence Kasdan and Phillip Kauffman and replacing Norman Reynolds as production designer was Elliott Scott. The cast was composed almost entirely of new faces. Harrison Ford returned as Indiana Jones but John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah, Denholm Elliot’s Marcus Brody and, probably most heartbreaking of all, Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood are all absent. A whole series of new characters were created for Temple of Doom. Some of them appealed to audiences, some of them didn’t and, through the experience, Spielberg learned the inherent difficulty of making a sequel “is that you can never satisfy everyone. If you give people the same movie with different scenes, they say: ‘Why weren’t you more original?’ But if you give them the same character in a fantastic new adventure, but with a different tone, you risk disappointing the other half of the audience who just wanted a carbon copy of the first film...” Regardless of what we may think of the final product, credit at least has to be given to Spielberg and Lucas for trying to be original.
Spielberg shot the film in Sri Lanka, Macao and in soundstages at London. Once again, Spielberg came in under schedule and on budget. At one point during principal photography, though, a rather scary problem arose. During a fight scene, Ford severely injured his back to the degree that he could barely work (having to lie on a bed in between takes). He was quickly flown to America where he had a controversial papaya enzyme back surgery performed. Fortunately, it was successful and Ford’s recovery was swift (helped by the fact that the actor was in ridiculously good shape to begin with). Nevertheless, Spielberg did not have Ford for three weeks and since the character of Indiana Jones is in practically every scene in the film, continuing shooting was very tricky. Spielberg basically ended up using famed stuntman Vic Armstrong during that time, shooting mostly in "wide shot" or from the back of the head (when looking at the film carefully, one can tell when it’s truly Indy and when it isn’t) and simply inserting Harrison’s close-ups later. The sequence that most relied on this practice was the fight between Indy and the large Thuggee guard on the conveyor belt. As a result the editing of the sequence is not quite up to the usual Michael Kahn standards. This is understandable given the limitations, but other portions of the film also seem rushed and sloppily put together. Despite several brilliantly cut scenes, Temple of Doom is not edited nearly as well as Raiders.
Although the film did very well at the box office, the critics were not terribly kind to Temple of Doom. David Denby of the New York magazine wrote that it was “heavy-spirited and grating. The frivolous treatment of child slavery makes you slightly sick. This lurid and gloomy trash goes on and on, without a joke anywhere, and it’s not only sadistic and dumb, it’s oppressively ugly. That Spielberg should devote himself to anything so debased in imagination is unbearably depressing.” While it is perhaps a rather apt observation about the sadism and ugliness present in the film, Denby’s passionate critique is still somewhat harsh. It is inaccurate, for example, to suggest the film has no humor. In fact, the film is loaded with humor, albeit arch humor (including corny slapstick gags, sophmoric "gross-out" jokes and cartoonish wide-eyed facial reactions) as Spielberg was desperately trying to counter-act the “opressive darkness” of the film. The problem with the Temple of Doom is not in the lack of humor but in the balancing of the contradictory elements. The perfect blending of scares, thrills and laughs that Spielberg achieved in Raiders becomes simply a matter of excess in Temple of Doom.
The same can be said of the film’s structure and pacing. Spielberg once commented that his worst fear was boring his audience. The breakneck speed and dizzying array of incredible stunts in Temple of Doom displays Spielberg’s desire to avoid such a cinematic "sin." Unfortunately, in attempting to keep from falling off one side of the horse, Spielberg falls off the other. Roger Ebert once wrote: "There is a theory that action is exciting and dialogue is boring. My theory is that variety is exciting and sameness is boring." This phenomenon is demonstrated in Temple of Doom where, once the film starts running from one action sequence into the next without stopping for so much as a breath in between, the effect is disorienting and ultimately uninteresting. Indiana Jones becomes less of a character and more of a prop or stuntman (in some cases literally) simply being pulled from one direction to the other. As Author Douglas Brode writes: “It’s as if he and Lucas convinced themselves that most people would have enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark far more if all the human intrerludes had been taken out.”
Another major source of criticism was the film's main female character: the spoiled, gold-digging American nightclub singer Willie Scott (played by Kate Capshaw). In attempting to do something different from Raiders, Lucas and Spielberg decided to pair Indy with a woman who is not only far from his equal but really does not even belong in an Indiana Jones adventure (hoping, I guess, that the dynamic might provide humor). Throughout the film much of the intended comedy surrounding Willie's character comes from "fish out of water" scenarios. Willie's reactions to these situations, unfortunately, had the effect of not only getting on the nerves of the other characters (as she spends much of the film whining and getting scared by/screaming at just about everything she comes into contact with) but apparently grated on audiences as well. Some criticism came not just from a place of annoyance but from an offended perspective, a contention that Willie was a stereotypically weak and frivolous (always worried about her clothes and her nails) "male-fantasy" version of a woman: beautiful and sexy but with no real mind of her own. This reality was only aggrevated by the fact that the previous heroine was such a strong, independant character. Being a male, I don't pretend to fully understand or appreciate the concerns of the feminists who found much to dislike in Willie Scott. I will say (whether it to be to my credit or shame, I don't know) that I actually thought a fair amount of what she did in the film was pretty funny. I don't necessarily see Capshaw as "representing" anything--I always just took it all as a complete work of fiction and her wildly exaggerated character as just that--and while I absolutely agree that she is not the fleshed-out, interesting and engaging leading lady that Marion Ravenwood was (nor nearly as able a "partner" for Indy), I still prefer Willie to the extremely bland "heroine" of the third film (a woman who, as near as I could tell, had no character whatsoever but simply changed due to the needs of the screenplay). I'd take an obnoxious personality over no personality anyday.
Finally, one of the film’s most lasting impacts on the motion picture industry today is that (along with the Spielberg-produced, Dante-directed Gremlins, released that same summer) it was responsible for the creation of another movie rating. Parents with small children were particularly displeased with Spielberg, whom many saw as a sort of “Walt Disney for the 80’s.” The level of violence and horror in Temple of Doom seemed extreme to many, even coming from the man responsible for Jaws and Poltergeist. Although the movie was given a PG, it was becoming clear that the gap between “family” fare and so-called “adult” entertainment was wider than had been anticipated (Spielberg’s previous clashes over the ratings of his films proved this). Spielberg himself said that he didn’t think Temple of Doom was for anyone under the age of ten and he approached Jack Valenti (then head of the MPAA) asking if there could be another rating designated as midway between PG and R. Valenti acquiesced and, for the first time in decades, a new classification was added. Thus, PG-13 was created and to this day it’s is the rating that most studio executives aim for with their films (“grown-up” enough to appeal to young kids but not too “childish” to turn off teenagers and adults).
An interesting facet of Temple of Doom which I discovered recently (Thank you, Dennis Cozzalio!), is that it's yet another Spielberg film that seems to split people into two almost proportional and equally passionate groups (whereas something like Jaws is almost universally loved). Many regard it as the “black sheep” of the Indy family, not only the worst of the trilogy but perhaps even the worst of all Spielberg’s films (surpassing even the horrendous 1941, which it does bear some resemblance to at times). Still others--who oftentimes seem to be fans of 1941--find it an immensely exciting and thoroughly visceral piece of entertainment, the purest incarnation of Spielberg and Lucas’ desire to re-create the thrill-a-minute action serials upon which the Indiana Jones movies are based. Well, this may sound like a very diplomatic response, but I tend to fall about in the middle. I do agree that it is the least of the three (with Raiders being far-and-away the best and Last Crusade coming in second) but I do not think it is by any means Spielberg's worst film, nor even really a “bad” film. In fact, I think it's quite good and certainly superior to most movies made by Hollywood, either then or now. It may be rather dark and violent but that doesn't in itself bother me. I may not watch it with the same frequency as I do Raiders but every now and again I get a hankerin’ to revisit it (as I do with Last Crusade) and whenever I do, in spite of its many flaws, I always have a good time, which is (of course) all that the movie was ever intended for.
As Raiders of the Lost Ark did, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with the old-fashioned Paramount logo. When it subsequently dissolves to a shot of an engraving of a similar mountain on a large gong, Spielberg is accomplishing two things. First, he is signaling to the audience that this truly is a sibling to the first film by opening it in the same fashion.
Second, he is sharing his usual affection for classic movies by referencing the opening sequence of George Steven's 1939 epic Gunga Din, which was in itself a parody of the J. Arthur Rank films that opened with an image of a gong being struck. Spielberg is essentially doing a "riff on a riff" while simultanesouly setting the stage for what will follow (like Gunga Din, the trio if heroes will battle India's Thugee insurgents, likewise taking place in a forbidden temple where the devil goddess Kali is worshipped).
The camera pans to a the head of large wooden dragon, out of whose gaping mouth a beautiful blonde woman in a red-sequined dress emerges. The main title appears behind her and the woman starts to sing a Mandarin-English version of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" (whose title more or less sums up the attitude of the film). The camera follows her back into the dragon's mouth and the opening credits roll over an elaborate Busby Berkley-style number featuring dozens of dancing women.
While Spielberg once again demonstrates his fervent desire to direct a full-scale musical one day, he is also establishing the "rules" by which this adventure will operate: namely, that there are none. What started out as a believable nightclub act has turned into a fantasy which can only exist in the movies. This is another difference between Raiders and Temple. While Raiders' story did contain impossible events, there was always a consistent logic or plausibility to them. This film will sacrifice verisimilitude in the name visceral impact.
When the number is finished we learn that we are in Shanghai in the year 1935 (which the astute viewer will realize makes this a prequel: a story that actually takes place BEFORE Raiders, though there is no good reason for it to) and we are introduced again to Indiana Jones, this time wearing garb we've not yet seen on him: a tuxedo (an image which emphasizes the kinship between Indiana Jones and James Bond). Indy sits at a table and starts conversing with a Chinese hood named Lao Che--as with Raiders we are dropped right into the middle of an adventure already in progress and which ultimately has nothing to do with the film's main plot--in which they negotiate an exchange of the remains of the gangster's ancestor. The singer, whom we learn is named Willie Scott and is Lao Che's girlfriend, finishes her act and comes over to meet Dr. Jones and immediately a contentious relationship is set up as Indy uses her for a hostage to avoid getting shot by one of Lao's two sons. Eventually Lao receives his reward while Indy is paid with a large diamond and unwittingly drinks a glass of poisoned champagne to which Lao flaunts the antidote.
Soon pandemonium breaks out and in a typically Spielbergian sequence, Indy tries to recover the antidote as Lao's men try to kill him and Willie scampers after the diamond. At one point Williams actually works the "Anything Goes" melody into the score creating an association between the earlier musical number and this elaborately choreographed action scene (the connection is a very appropriate one; in many ways Spielberg's set pieces are like immense dance numbers). Finally, in the commotion Indy manages to escape out the window with Willie (who has stuffed the antidote down the front of her dress). The two manage to land in a car that just happens to pull up to the right place at the right time and we meet Indy's other companion for the film: 12-year-old Chinese orphan Short Round played by newcomer Ke Huy Quan (who, as it turns out, was a lucky find since he didn't come in to audition himself but accompanied his brother who was auditioning; I wonder what Thanksgiving is like at that household).
After we get a glimpse of the name of the club we were just in ("Club Obi Wan!"), Shorty speeds away through the streets of Shanghai (i.e. a studio backlot) and ends up at an airport where Dan Aykroyd, in a quick cameo, tells Dr. Jones that he managed to secure three seats for them on "a cargo plane full of live poultry." As he boards the plane Indy smiles triumphantly at Lao Che, but fails to notice the name on the door he is closing. Lao nods at his employee pilots and the plane takes off to the music of the heroic "Raiders March." Inside, Indy has changed into his "real" outfit (the jacket, bullwhip and hat) and--after telling Willie, since he's allowing here to "tag along," to try giving her mouth a rest--goes to sleep. Spielberg then re-uses the red line seen in Raiders to track the course of the plane.
While over India, the two pilots dump the fuel and jump out of the plane wearing parachutes. A groggy Willie finds the cockpit empty and wakes Indy up. Discovering that there is no fuel left and they are rapidly descending toward a snowy mountain range, Indy (straining credulity) convinces his two fellow travelers to jump out of the plane in an inflatable life raft. As The plane crashes into the side of the mountain, the three adventurers toboggan down the steep slope, over a cliff and into some rapids. Finally, tired, wet and cranky, they slow to a halt where they find an elderly Indian shaman standing on the riverbank, almost as if he were waiting for them.
He takes them to his village, an ominous, uninviting place where the inhabitants touch Indy and chant over him as if he were a savior sent to help them. Indy learns that the village has been under a curse since the maharajah of Pankot confiscated the sacred stone that protects the village. Ever since then the crops have died, the river has dried up and the children have all disappeared. Although familiar with the Sankra stone, Indy is skeptical a mere rock could have the kind of effect this fellow is describing. Indy is sympathetic to their problems but ultimately decides to travel to Pankot Palace not to help them restore their village to its former state but to retreive the stone--as he tells Shorty in a scene that features the trademark Spielbergian shooting star--for "fortune and glory." Again, the mercenary aspect of Indy's personality is brought to the fore.
After a long trek through the jungle via elephants--during which, Spielberg references a moment in David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (a film shot near the same locations as Temple of Doom) with an image of thousands of bats sailing through the air--Indy, Willie and Short Round arrive at Pankot Palace and are greeted by the friendly well-dressed and well-spoken Chater Lal, prime minister to his highness. Lal is played by Roshan Seth, an Indian actor who appeared in Passage to India and Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, the film that beat out E.T. for Best Picture Oscar two years earlier (the fact that Spielberg not only cast Seth in this movie but later used Attenborough himself in Jurassic Park shows that clearly there were no hard feelings).
That night at dinner, a feast of unusual and rather unappetizing foods are served (including baked beetles, eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains). This oddly adolescent episode--noted by reviwers as typical of Lucas and Spielberg but extreme even for them--jumpstarts the film's habit of pushing the situations to disgusting levels. Slowly the film is moving into "overkill" zone. Afterwards, the romance between Indy and Willie heats up. Unlike the relationship between Indy and Marion, there is no depth, sweetness or substance to this one (even Williams' love theme lacks the lyricism of the first one). It's difficult to believe that Indy is interested in Willie for any other reason besides sex. Still, as in Raiders, Spielberg never allows them the opportunity to consummate it. Their "affair" is interrupted by an attacker whom Indy dispatches with the help of his bullwhip and a ceiling fan. He then discovers a secret passageway in Willie's room which he and Short Round decide to explore.
It is here that the film's best sequence occurs. Like the various booby traps seen in Raiders, Indy and Shorty get trapped in a small chamber where the ceiling begins to lower on them. Soon spikes emerge from the ceiling and the floor and the two are forced to call out to Willie for help. It is a classic "race-against-time" adventure serial situation but Spielberg infuses it with a freshness and excitment that makes it seem new. He also, with the help of his editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, manages to perfectly balance the suspense and the humor. We are gasping practically at the same time that we are laughing. It is a masterpiece of timing; another example of a self-contained "mini-movie" existing in a bigger movie. At the last possible second, Willie manages to pull the lever that reverses the mechanism and save the day, getting completely covered with bugs in the process (the equivalent of the snakes from the first film). She runs into the now open chamber yelling to get them off her and Spielberg can't help but add a hysterical coda where, in her distress, Willie accidentally trips the wrong apparatus and the whole thing starts all over again (with John Williams' suspenseful music returning). This time, however, the three of them manage to escape the room before they are sealed inside and, in what has now become a legendary moment, Indy loses his hat but retreives it seconds before the door closes. It is the perfect capper to what I consider to be the most perfect scene in the entire film.
In the following scenes the occultish elements of the story are introduced and we see the main villain of the film for the first time: the Kali cult leader Mola Ram (Amrish Puri). Indy, Willie and Shorty all hide in a small enclave looking out over the Thuggee's underground temple (a hugely impressive indoor set lit very evocatively by Doug Slocombe with deep, sinister reds) and witness a horrific sacrifice. This is also where the film's most notorious moment occurs. Mola Ram casts some sort of spell over the victim, reaches into his chest with his bare hand and removes his beating heart. Impossibly, the man is still alive (once again demonstrating that this film bears no relation whatsoever to the actual world in which we live) and as he is lowered screaming into a fiery pit of molten lava where is burned alive, Mola Ram holds the man's heart aloft for the amusment of the crowd and laughs manically as it spontansouely bursts into flame. What makes this whole event particularly disturbing is that it is gratuitous. The sacrifice could easily have occurred without this extra added element and still been as potent. The "heart" scene, aside perhaps from revealing how evil the character of Mola Ram is, contributes nothing whatever to the plot or story and seems to serve simply as an exercise in sadism and ugliness for it's own sake.
When the worshippers vacate the temple, Indy emerges from his "hiding place" and starts to collect the three Sankra stones being displayed on the altar. As Indy holds them in his hands, Williams' music reaches intensely operatic (almost self-consciously so) levels. The look on Indy's face seems to indicate that he is himself under the "spell" of these rocks, thinking only of the power and glory they can bring him. He is about to leave but upon hearing a noise decides to follow it into another cavern--leaving Willie and Shorty behind to get captured by Thugee guards--where he learns the fate of the village children. They have been turned into slaves digging for the other two stones that the high priest Mola Ram needs in order to "rule the world." Seeing a guard beat a child, Indy angrily throws a rock at him. In doing so, Indy gets himself captured and thrown into a cell with Short Round where he learns from another young boy that he will be forced to drink the "blood of Kali," a magic elixir that will essentially turn him into a mindless zombie doing the bidding of his newly adopted deity. In what I think may be the darkest sequence in the film, Short Round is forced to watch helplessly as a reluctant Indy has the blood poured (from the mouth of a skull no less) into his throat and made to swallow. Gradually he gets "taken over" by the evil spirit and, with typical horror movie underlighting, starts to laugh sinisterly.
Short Round is put to work digging with the other children in the caves but while his captors aren't looking he hammers away at his own chains. Meanwhile, Indy stands idly by as Willie is prepared as the next sacrificial victim. Eventually Shorty manages to escape and make his way to Indy, but his pleading with him to wake up doesn't work. Indy strikes Shorty and causes him to cry. Soon Shorty emotionally sobs "Indy, I love you!" and shoves a lit torch against his bare skin thus breaking him from his slumber (how precisely Shorty knew to do this is never made clear). Awakened from the trance, Indy saves Willie, kills Chattar Lal, grabs the three stones and tenderly apologizes to Shorty (at this point Spielberg's "family" theme becomes apparent in the film; the trio have now essentially become their own little varaiation on a nuclear family). He then resolves to get the three of them out of there right after liberating all the children.
This would prove to be the last plot moment in the film. From the end of this scene to the finale, Temple of Doom literally jumps from one action scene to the next. First, Indy, Willie and Shorty free all of the children (who flee the cave in a mass exodus not unlike the Hebrews leaving their bondage in Egypt) before Indy "squares off" with the same large guard he encountered earlier, ultimately killing him with the aid of a rock crusher, and then escaping in a mine car. The ensuing chase was one of the sequences originally planned for Raiders but which the filmmakers were forced to excise. Through this sequence the film's identity as a metaphorical "roller coaster ride" finally becomes literal and it is a thrilling escapade indeed combining marvelous minature effects shots with actual footage shot on a full-size railway system constructed at Elstree Studios. At one point, near the end of the scene, the mine car leaps across a chasm and lands safely on the tracks on the other side proving, once again, that in this universe anything is possible. The laws of physics have no more reality than in a Warner Bros. cartoon.
The climactic scene of Temple of Doom involves a suspended rope bridge, to which Indy cuts the ropes causing most of the villians to fall into crocodile-infested waters below. This sequence is particularly spectacular as there are no miniature shots used at all (though there is some animation). The rope bridge was an actual bridge built over a real gorge (across which, incidentally, Spielberg could not go due to his tearrible fear of heights) and which the filmmakers had to actually destroy for the movie. Eight cameras ensured that the one-time stunt was properly captured on film. Eventually Indy defeats Mola Ram (with a little supernatural help from the stones themselves), retrieves one stone and climbs to safety. He then returns to the village with Willie, Shorty and a horde of children who are happy to be reuinted with their parents. Once again, Indy has beaten the bad guys, gotten the girl and lived to fight another day.
Although Spielberg has always expressed dissatisfaction with the film, calling it his least favorite of the three, he is nonetheless extremely grateful to have had the experience to work on it because of one supremely significant effect it had on his personal life. At the time of filming, Spielberg was with actress Amy Irving, who would soon become his wife, but before the end of the decade they would separate (bringing the painful reality of divorce into Spielberg’s life once again) and Spielberg would eventually fall in love and commit himself to someone else: actress Kate Capshaw, whom he met on Temple of Doom. When looking at the behind-the-scenes footage shot at the time, one can clearly see the two establishing a comfortable connection with one another and their enduring marriage (now approaching sixteen years) seems to be one of the precious few lasting relationships left in Hollywood. As Spielberg himself has said: “That’s the reason why I think I was fated to directed Temple of Doom. And so even though Indiana Jones wound up getting the girl... I really did."
TOMORROW: Spielberg's return to television