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Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

By Paul Bullock • January 4th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 3/5

Original release: May 23rd 1984
Running time: 1118 minutes

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Composer: John Williams

Cast: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Jonathan Ke Quan, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Every director has one. A misfire, an odd-one-out, a black sheep. For Steven Spielberg, that film is Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. A wellspring of nostalgic support means the film isn’t without its fans, but Temple Of Doom is undoubtedly a strange beast, a pitch black descent into the bowels of hell from two directors who’d turned light, escapist entertainment into an art-form. Watching its scenes of heart-ripping and child-whipping, it’s hard to believe it’s made by the same men who brought us the throwback thrills of Raiders Of The Lost Ark just three years prior.

Temple Of Doom is not entirely alien from its predecessor – indeed, it ticks many of the boxes Raiders did. There are exotic locations, impossible escapes and a pitch perfect Harrison Ford, whose laconic delivery injects some much-needed humour into even the most harrowing of moments. The dazzling song-and-dance opening is the series’ finest and the climactic mine cart chase is one of best action sequences Spielberg has ever shot. As a popcorn entertainment film, it’s an absolute blast. As a Spielberg film though, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Any discussion of authorship of the Indiana Jones series is treacherous ground for even the most studious of Spielberg scholars. The director’s role in the creation of the character is somewhat hazy, and his involvement non-committal. It was only after the poor performance of zany wartime comedy 1941 that he finally signed on to direct Raiders, after which he vowed to make only one more sequel. Two others would, of course, follow.

Speaking of the most recent film, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Spielberg explained that co-creator George Lucas has always been the driving force of the series, conceiving the character back in the 1970s, and calling on Spielberg and Ford whenever inspiration strikes and another adventure beckons. Indy is, then, a primarily Lucasian hero, and he does feel slightly isolated from other Spielberg leading men, almost all of whom fit his self-described “Mr. Everyday Regular Fella” ideal.
That said, there are undoubtedly Spielbergian traits that emerge throughout the course of the franchise. Raiders Of The Lost Ark channels the director’s anger at the anti-Semitic taunts he was subjected to as a boy, Last Crusade marks a significant development in the tone of his trademark father-son story, and even Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, with its vision of Indy as a man hopelessly out of his time, fits in well with the director’s other Noughties films, which also explored the unease of modern masculinity.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Speaking more generally, one of the most significant themes through all of Spielberg’s films is tolerance. Whether it’s through the alien visitors of Close Encounters or ET, the Holocaust victims of Schindler’s List or the slaves of Amistad and Lincoln, Spielberg’s cinema has always espoused a desire to reach out and communicate with those different from us. Raiders, Last Crusade and Crystal Skull follow a similar path, and to an extent, Temple does too, our hero learning to be less selfish and pursue things greater than “fortune and glory” thanks to his experiences in India.

However, little of the warmth and humanity of Spielberg’s other films is present during Indy’s journey – rather than breaking down barriers, Temple seems to build them up. Take the banquet sequence, for example. Indy, Willie and Short Round are served a selection of disgusting food in a scene that’s played for big broad laughs, but comes off more offensive than humorous. The same can be said for the portrayal of Willie as a helpless damsel in distress with a banshee-like wail. The comic intent is there, but the laughs aren’t. Rather than being funny, she’s simply whiny, crass and annoying – a huge step back after Raiders‘ strong-willed Marion Ravenwood.

Temple‘s surprising negativity can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, Lucas had just come out of a divorce from Star Wars editor Marcia Lucas – the scenes of heart-ripping seem entirely derived from that anguish. Secondly, Spielberg had just emerged from the fallout of Twilight Zone: The Movie, the production of which was marred by the on-set deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doomchildren. Temple‘s child slaves seem inspired by that tragic incident.

Temple therefore is a film by two men who made their names in innocent childhood entertainment trying to come to terms with the anguish of all-too-real adult complexities. It’s a difficult maturity, and one that Spielberg tackles with none of the positivity he normally shows. The boy who was perpetually optimistic as a child because “I was surrounded by so much negativity when I was a kid that I had no recourse but to be positive” and had taken that philosophy into adulthood had suddenly developed a pessimistic streak. Spielberg, it seemed, had let the demons beat him.

That sense of defeat stayed with the director. Harrowing dramas The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun followed, and Temple’s aftertaste influenced the production of Last Crusade, an altogether more light-hearted offering, that was made “to make up for the darkness of the last one.” Temple, Spielberg has explained, “contains not an ounce of my personal feeling.”


  • Joseph McBride Steven Spielberg: A Biography (1997), Faber and Faber

And that, perhaps, is the key. Spielberg has been vocal about other films he doesn’t like, naming 1941 and Hook as two of his least favourites, but those films didn’t work for specifically filmic reasons – bad casting, uneven tones, out-of-control budgets. Temple, however, fails because it goes against everything Spielberg stands for. It’s a film that dwells in the darkness by a director constantly striving for the light, a film of alienation and difference by a man usually focused on community and togetherness.

Temple Of Doom remains the black sheep of the Spielberg canon, and it probably always will. But perhaps that isn’t all bad. Every director has one, but it’s through such failures that we learn more about what makes them tick and what makes their movies so enduring.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Paul Bullock

Paul Bullock

Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.

When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.

Paul can also be found talking nonsense on Twitter and his website Quiet of the Matinee. He works through his addiction to a certain bearded director on From Director Steven Spielberg.

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