Happy 30th Birthday Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!


Check out the double fêtes. A handful of popular film series are cutting the cake on both 25 and 30-year anniversaries this summer. Among them, “Ghostbusters” and its only sequel, “Star Trek III” and “V,” that skinny scrapper from New Jersey “The Karate Kid” and its own “Part III,” and only in lieu of a second “Rhinestone,” the highest grossing pair of the lot, “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade.” Pardon the absence of “Indiana Jones and the” before those last two. I suppose after this many years, the above shorthand might finally be going the way of the dodo. In the same way that kids in their generational ignorance once thought of Alec Guinness as that old guy who got his big break with “Star Wars,” our 80s heroes and their heroics are slowly, surely becoming relics of the screen. To some.

“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (at one point “Temple of Death”) was Spielberg’s first sequel and the follow-up to one of film’s most successful actioners. “Raiders” still sits at 20th all-time for inflation adjusted domestic grossers. The expectations on a second film were large but wonderkids George Lucas (the composer), Steven Spielberg (the conductor) and “Raiders” talents Douglas Slocombe (the camera), Michael Kahn (the shuffler) and John Williams (the real composer/conductor) would prevail, depending on who you ask.

“To the contrary, they have noticeably stepped up the pace, amount of incidents, noise level, budget, close calls, violence and everything else, to the point where more is decidedly less.”
Todd McCarthy, Variety

“This is the most cheerfully exciting, bizarre, goofy, romantic adventure movie since “Raiders,” and it is high praise to say that it’s not so much a sequel as an equal.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“Mr Ford can be said to do his stuff, such as it is, and the lady hers, which is to be more than slightly silly, but with the action nonstop there is no time for mere acting, much less for a coherent plot.”
Patrick Gibbs, The Telegraph

Opinions vary, as they should. A recap: Shanghai, 1935. A year before all things Ark, the film opens as another adventure ends, establishing the second official pattern of the series after the Paramount logo dissolve-thing, Indiana’s constant pursuit of….something, here a fat diamond from a plump Lao Che, a Bondian villain right down to the laugh. Get held up behind Mr. Snack at the popcorn stand and you’ll still catch the main tale but miss “Anything Goes” (Spielberg’s first dance number since “1941”), the opening grin from Indy’s orphan side-kick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), and despite one dude’s death by pigeon skewer probably the cheeriest part of the movie. Already the tone is noticeably unRaiders-like, schticky, loopy even with nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) in tow but as entertainment it’s prime. Spielberg is typically mise-en-seaworthy and Ford ruggedly suave in an unexpected tuxedo but the jury is still out on story composer Lucas. A couple of “Holy smoke! Crash landing!”s later and we’re about to find out.

The scene is preposterous, fleeing a doomed prop plane in a rubber raft, slamming into a mountain side, slamming again into a raging river, but do you care? As it turns, memorable pieces of “Temple” were taken from unused “Raiders” script material: the plane escape, the mine car chase and Club Obi Wan’s rolling gong-shield were all previously conceived ideas, Indy’s business in Shanghai among them. It aids the argument of some, that “Temple” often comes off like a disconnected patchwork, but in the words of Spielberg, “The danger in making a sequel is that you can never satisfy everyone.” That certainly applies to its tone. Surviving the long arms of Lao Che brings Indiana and friends to northern India, where they commit to investigating the whereabouts of an impoverished village’s sacred stone, not to mention its entire child populace. They’ve been kidnapped by Lucas’ subsurface stormtroopers, a “Gunga Din” inspired/Aztec cardio-plucking/Hawaiian folklore volcano-sacrificing Thuggee cult, for slave labour, to mine the remaining stones thought to hold rock-em sock-em powers if and when assembled. Elephants, bats, Pankot Palace, bugs…monkey brains, ceiling fan, secret passage, more bugs…spikes, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), open-hand surgery…Jones’ possession, Shorty’s confession, “Indy, I love you!” and so on and so on…which is far from implying the whole affair is dull. For those with the stomach for it, “Temple” was and is a breathless race, one that mixes cliffhanging glee and brutality and gets exactly the reception it deserves. But that’s its own brilliance I suppose, that the filmmakers were able to sustain a high for that long. Shocking or not, the final hour from the bug tunnel on is a single stretch of exhausting ingenuity peppered with Oscar-winning effects. Many of the naysayers even concede to this. What’s missing though is obvious…to the people who think it’s obvious. The relationships are fun but weak, not weak for an action film but for an Indiana Jones film. With Marion, Sallah and even Brody, “Raiders” set the bar high; a world of characters with chemistry was revealed and then put on ice (until parts 3 and 4). But the suggestion that “Temple” is the black sheep of the series, I don’t buy. Indy uncharacteristically absorbed by diamonds, fortune and glory? Yeah…maybe, but he’s younger too.

But most relevant to the movie’s legacy is the question of responsible entertainment, or at least entertainment that is suitably rated. The controversy has to do with kids and hearts (and claims of racial misrepresentation as well), 2 things that ordinarily sit awash in treasured sentiment, not bloodied and beaten (or beating) at the hands of sadistic religionists. But why go that route? The often cited answer from Lucas: “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.” But not all decisions were guided by a break-up. Following the pattern of his “Star Wars” films, Lucas took the second film down a darker path. The concept was supposedly enough to scare “Raiders” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan away from repeating his duties. Spielberg makes no bones today about how he sees the movie. “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.”

Both God and man now know what practical effects the movie had in America. Since the abandonment of the creatively restrictive (like a noose) Hays Code in the late 60s, a voluntary MPAA rating system was set up to guide audiences as to a film’s content. One of the first ratings was M, for mature audiences, where “Temple” would have been slotted if the rating had existed in 1984. By that time however, M and its quasi-implication of severity had been changed to GP, then PG, where it stayed until the summer of ’84. No other rating stood between it and R. An outcry over the nastiness within “youth” films like “Temple” and the Spielberg-produced “Gremlins” eventually urged the creation of the PG-13 rating. That summer’s “Red Dawn” was the first to use it. Spielberg himself suggested the new rating to MPAA president Jack Valenti “…because so many films were falling into a netherworld, you know, of unfairness.” If adventure has a backstory, it must be Indiana Jones.