Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom part 1

Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has four acts, each lasting about 30 minutes. Each of the acts has three distinct chapters, giving us a twelve-chapter serial drama.

What’s different, structurally, is that Raiders has a restless spirit, jetting (well, prop-planing) about all over the globe, from Peru to the US to Nepal to Cairo to Secret Sub Base Island. Temple gets all the travel out of the way in the first 25 minutes and spends the rest of its time in more or less one place, and an hour of that in one location, underground in a cave. The result is a much differently-shaped narrative than Raiders, one that’s spirited and frantic for the first act, then claustrophobic and inward for the rest of the movie, and dark, dark, dark. It gives us twenty minutes of breathless forward movement, seventy minutes of horror and torture, then thirty minutes of blasting escape.

The movie is often criticized for its unpleasantness and weirdness, as well as its generally heavy attitude, but I find it as compulsively watchable as any of the best of Spielberg and a much meatier experience than either Raiders or Crusade.


Chapter 1 (0:00-10:44) The title sequence, with its Cole Porter song and its 40s-musical production number, automatically pulls the rug out from under the audience’s expectations. “Anything Goes” indeed — Spielberg is letting you know that this is going to be a completely different movie from Raiders. Later he would come to regret the movie for its brutality and darkness, and The Last Crusade shows his desire to retrench, to rein in his darker impulses.

The musical number is followed by the negotiation-poisoning-shootout scene. The interesting thing here, thematically, is that Indiana Jones is negotiating the sale of the remains of Chinese emperor Nurhaci to Shanghai gangster Lao. So it seems that Indy is not, on this adventure at least, working for the university but for his own fortune. The fact that Lao, murderous and unscrupulous as he is, is in pursuit of a valuable nationalist relic makes him, in this instance at least, a more admirable man than Indy, who’s just in it for the diamond.

Willie Scott, I finally figured out, is Lao’s nightclub-singer girlfriend. Pairing her with Indy both gives him a comic foil, as she is not the adventuresome type (although she did come from Missouri to Shanghai to be a gangster’s moll, which indicates at least some level of fearlessness on her part) but also gives him a troubling mirror-image. Just as Belloq in Raiders is Indy’s dark double, Willie in Temple is Indy writ small — he is a treasure hunter, she is a gold-digger. They’re both after the same things, and for reasons more similar than Indy would probably care to admit.

The nightclub slugfest/shootout recalls 1941, of course, and Spielberg inserts a rolling gong to echo the rolling boulder in Raiders — again, following the “stand it on its head” rule. In Raiders the boulder is an endangerment, in Temple the gong is a shield.

The crisis prompting the shootout is, of course, Indy’s consumption of poison supplied by Lao, the first of many eating misadventures in Temple, while the two-pronged pursuit of diamond and antidote form the twin themes of life and fortune that inform both this and Raiders.

Chapter 2 (10:44-17:18) In case the nightclub shootout wasn’t exciting enough, Indy plunges with Willie out a window and down into a waiting car driven by a ten-year-old boy, which then leads to a wild car chase through the streets of Shanhai (which Spielberg would later revisit in Empire of the Sun), a ride on a sabotaged airplane, a plunge through the sky in an inflatable life raft, a toboggan run down the side of a mountain, another plunge off a cliff and into a rapid-filled river.

This is, in the vocabulary of Early Spielberg, the way a man acquires a family: he grabs a woman, dives out a window and into the back of a waiting car. Instant family! Without all the kissing and housework.

(The actor playing Short Round, Indy’s kid pal, was also cast in The Goonies, which I watched recently for no good reason. Temple, the reader will recall, was considered too dark and too icky for kids, and on some level I think The Goonies was intended as a kind of “Indiana Jones for kids” movie. The joke is on the parents — The Goonies has more profanity in any given five minutes than the totality of the Indiana Jones movies, and more adult themes too. Temple may have a playful line referring to “sexual customs,” but The Goonies actually has a child saying “sexual torture devices.” All this and a deformed retarded man! Bring the whole family!)

(For Wilhelm fans, he shows up at 12:15, early on in the Shanghai chase sequence.)

Once Indy is on the plane to — well, I’m not sure where he’s trying to get to, but he’s leaving Shanghai — he changes out of his dinner jacket and into his “Indy costume.” He’s now his “old self” again.

(I admit I’m confused about Lao’s plan. He gets his Remains of Nurhaci, I think he gets the big diamond as well — it’s left in the nightclub — and he gets Indy out of Shanghai. Why does he coach his chicken-transporting airplane crew to fly across China — refueling along the way in Chungking, mind you — only to have them leap out of the plane over the Himalaya? Why doesn’t the crew leap out of the plane as soon as their passengers are asleep? Do they, for some reason, have business somewhere in the Himalaya? Like what? And aren’t Lao’s customers going to be upset when their chickens do not arrive? Why does no one think of the poor chickenless customers, waiting by their chopping blocks and soup cauldrons for tasty poultry? Just how cold-blooded is this Lao fellow, anyway?)

(Oh, and Lao’s chicken-transport crew flies southwest from Shanghai to India by way of the Great Wall, which is like flying from New York to Seattle by way of the Grand Canyon. But geography is obviously not the strong suit of an airplane crew chosen for their ability to transport chickens and their willingness to jump out of the plane into the world’s largest mountain range.)

The chapter ends, as all the best do, with a cliffhanger, as Indy and his ad-hoc family encounter a dark, scary man standing by the river.

Chapter 3 (17:18-28:42) The dark, scary man, of course, turns out to be a local village priest or wise man or something. And he has a problem: some bad guys have come and stolen his town’s magic rock, and also the village children (and, presumably, the able-bodied men as well). Their crops have failed and their women are all miserable. For Spielberg, there are few traumas worse than a boy separated from his mother, and here he asks us to contemplate a whole village of them. (Curiously, none of the missing children are girls.) Indy, with his snappy fedora, instant family and abilities to plunge safely out of the sky, seems like a literal godsend to these simple agrarian people. (Good thing he leaves his leather jacket behind — the cow-wosrhipping Hindus might not see him in such a favorable light.) All this is discussed over the movie’s first disgusting meal, continuing the injestion trauma of Chapter 1.

(There is a Jaws reference (I think Spielberg refers to Jaws more than any other movie in his career) when Indy folds his hands contemplatively and Short Round imitates him in the background.)

So Indy goes from one situation where honor, fortune and life itself are pitted against each other directly into another. What is important? the Indiana Jones movies ask. Is it “fortune and glory,” or family? Spielberg forces Indy to make a choice, while he, of course, figured out how to use sentimental notions of family as a lever to bring himself enormous amounts of fortune and glory.

At night, a child wanders into the village, starving and exhausted. He has escaped, apparently, from the bad guys, which is a good thing of course, but he has brought with him a scrap of cloth, which turns out to be a “valuable clue” as to the nature of the missing rock.

And the screenwriter says “Huh?” I’m willing to buy that the kid escaped, but how did he get the scrap of cloth that happens to illustrate the origin of the town’s magic rock? Wheredid he get it? Why did he bother getting it? Why was it sitting around? What does it actually mean? It would be one thing if the boy wandered into the village with an actual clue, but he’s just got a scrap of cloth with a picture on it — it means nothing and proves nothing. But Indy is sufficiently moved by the boy’s plight and the scrap of cloth to take up the challenge to go get the magic rock back.

(The script blurs the distinction between a Siva Linga, which is a real thing, and the “Sankara Stones,” which are not. Both terms are used seemingly interchangeably by different characters. It seems that many towns in India have Siva Lingas, but only this one village has a Sankara Stone. Why this should be is not explored. Also, I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the Ark of the Covenant is a real thing and the Holy Grail is a real thing, but for Temple they just made up a completely bullshit Hindu artifact. If I were a Hindu I don’t know if I’d be angry or relieved.)


Chapter 1 (28:42-37:38) Indy and his family journey by elephant from the humble village to the evil Pankot Palace, where, it seems, the children disappeared to. Along the way there is much comedy involving animals as Indy tells us where Short Round came from (an orphan refugee from the Japanese bombing of Shanghai), while Willie pines for her easy life as a gangster’s moll. This expository chapter moves along nicely and ends with the team arriving at the palace.

Chapter 2 (37:38-47:00) Indy’s family arrives at Pankot Palace and is greeted by two subtle casting references — the actor playing the Prime Minister (of what I’m not sure) played Nehru in Gandhi (which beat E.T. for the Best Picture Oscar) and the actor standing next to him played the Evil Butler in The Shining (which was filming the next studio over while Spielberg was shooting Raiders). The latter, of course, is there as Capt Blumburtt, the head of a British regiment, in town to keep an eye on his Indian subjects. This Imperial tension, connected to the comment on the Japanese bombing of Shanghai and Willie’s relationship to Lao (not to mention the motherless children of the village, the motherless child maharajah and the zombie followers of the bloodthirsty Kali) weave a subtle theme of the illnesses created by colonialism — one perhaps a little too subtle to have much impact on Temple‘s ultra-pulpy narrative.

Indy and his family are invited to dinner, where Indy, the Prime Minister and Capt Blumburtt discuss the Thuggee cult, which supposedly died out a hundred years earlier but which Indy suspects has taken control of the government. (A government taken over by creepy religious fanatics — what an imagination these people have!) Because Spielberg guesses no one really cares about any of this stuff he diverts our attention with the most appalling meal ever captured on film — live eels, goliath-beetle guts, eyeball soup and chilled monkey brains. I like the gross-out meal as much as anyone, and I think this particular brick of exposition is handled much better than its counterpart in either Raiders or Crusade, but it’s a shame Spielberg couldn’t bring the idea of the Thuggees to life in a cinematic way — it’s a fascinating story (if complete nonsense in a 1934 setting).  The gross-out meal, of course, is meant to underscore the difference between the lush, decadent life of the palace and the starvation-level life of the village.  The thing that ties them together is that Willie can’t stand either of them, but one offers flies and ugly people and the other offers jewels and, perhaps, a wealthy beau.

Chapter 3 (47:00-1:00:00) Indy and his family head for bed, and there is some juvenile sexual banter between Indy and Willie.  (Hmm — and the pirate in The Goonies is called “One-Eyed Willie” — obviously Spielberg has penis on the brain.)  The sexual development, which kind of comes out of nowhere (but makes as much sense as its counterpart in, say, a James Bond movie), wilts as fast as it tumesces as Indy is attacked by a Thuggee assassin (the Thuggee tries to kill him by strangulation, which, it may surprise the reader, is one of the few accurate details included in the screenplay).

Indy’s attempted assassination leads him, for no reason I can discern, to find a secret passageway in Willie’s room, which leads the team to the Temple of Doom.  Now I love secret passageways and I love blood-cult rituals even more, but this is the only flaw in this otherwise expertly-rendered thriller plot I can find.  I can see Indy checking for assassins in Willie’s room, and I can see him investigating a secret passageway once he finds one, but I can’t see assassin + secret passageway = Temple of Doom, where the objects of his search, the Sankara stones, happen to be.  If it was me, I’d check the passageway for assassins, then, once I had figured out that the passageway hadn’t been used in a long time, I’d let it go and move on.  The point is, Indy stumbles upon his goal instead of pursuing it.

Fortunately, the blood-cult ritual is such a mind-blower that we forget about this narrative inconsistency pretty fast, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.


26 Responses to “Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom part 1”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Instead of The Goonies, the Spielberg-produced film from this period you should have watched was Gremlins, which — along with Temple of Doom — forced the MPAA’s hand and doublehandedly led to the creation of the PG-13 rating.

    • Todd says:

      I saw both movies dozens of times when they came out. I was working at a twin cinema showing Gremlins every hour on the hour, and you could set your watch by the parents coming out of the theaters half-way through the movie with their terrified, sobbing children

      • Gremlins was one of the first movies I ever saw. I was, like, 5. Scarred for life. Watched it last year (for the first time since the eighties) and it was very entertaining.

        When my wife and I watched Temple a couple weeks back, it kind of left us both cold, except for the thrilling opening and the last half-hour. The middle is jumbled, nonsensical, and special-effects-centered. But it does have the strongest images… everything in that movie is burned into your brain forever, and I find myself wanting to watch it again and again, even though I find much of it boring.

        We also saw The Goonies last week at the brew n’ view. It struck me as “temple of doom for kids” too, but I didn’t think about the fact that it was way raunchier than the whole Indy series. (Just lamented that a movie like that would be toned way way down these days. My wife got trouble from her editors for even using the word “nipple” in a book for young teens…)

        • Todd says:

          You don’t even have to go back as far as The Goonies. I’ve been watching the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles with my son Sam and my God! There’s trench warfare, soldiers talking like soldiers, people getting blown up and mowed down by machine-gun fire, and Indiana Jones having sex with Mata Hari! And that’s just one episode!

          (Sam, halfway through the Mata Hari episode, piped up: “When is he going to get back to the war“?)

          • I worry about mainstream conservative-type kids these days.

            Or maybe it’s the parents I should feel sorry for, ’cause we know the kids are going to find all the sex, swearing and violence they need, no matter how carefully it’s walled off from them.

  2. chrispiers says:

    I’m glad you addressed how shallow Indy is in the beginning of this movie, willingly parting with archaeological treasure in exchange for “fortune and glory.” It’s probably important to note that Temple of Doom is a prequel to Raiders. Maybe Indy hasn’t obtained his teaching position yet, working for the university to obtain antiquities. He’s in the game for himself only.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I rewatched this movie after you had your earlier posts about it. I, too, was struck by the sudden shift in Indy and Willie’s relationship from resent to sexual. It was odd because until the moment right before they go to bed they’re still sniping at each other and not in an altogether “I like you so I’ll gently poke fun at you” way.

  4. I saw both movies dozens of times when they came out. I was working at a twin cinema showing Gremlins every hour on the hour, and you could set your watch by the parents coming out of the theaters half-way through the movie with their terrified, sobbing children

    It’s funny that you mention Gremlins, as I wrote here about my Gremlins artwork for Hasbro ( http://www.thebaboonbellows.com/?p=1560) because so many toy companies had missed out on E.T. products and toys they wanted to make the tons of money they’d missed out on.

    So they sunk a lot of money into Spielberg’s next big summer movie blockbuster that featured a “lovable” creature……. Gremlins!


    • Todd says:

      I loved Gremlins, specifically because it was such a dirty trick to pull on the newly-established “Spielberg audience.” I bought a 12″ Spike at Alexanders in NY and kept it for 24 years.

  5. curt_holman says:

    The way I heard it?

    Remember the scene after they go rafting and are dying off by a riverbank, and Willie is running back and forth in their camp screaming her head off because she keeps seeing an animal? I heard that wasn’t in the original script.

    Apparently at that point, there was a scene in which Willie took a bath in the river and a boa constrictor coiled around her, but Indy was unable to rescue her because of his fear of snakes, so he instructed her, from a distance, to tickle the snake under its chin so it would relax and release her. (At least, that’s how I recall the scene from the Temple of Doom comic book adaptation.)

    But supposedly on the set, Kate Capshaw saw the big snake, freaked out and couldn’t do it (I remember her saying as much in an interview), so one can only infer they wrote the running-back-and-forth scene in haste.

    You could do a compendium of Spielberg dinner table scenes: the mashed potato sculpture in CE3K, the bugs and monkey brains in Temple of Doom, the “imaginary food-turned-food-fight” in Hook, etc.

    • curt_holman says:

      Re: Duh

      Of course, I meant “drying off by a riverbank.” If they’d died off there, the film would have been a lot shorter.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Re: The way I heard it?

      I just watched Temple the other night, and when it got to this scene, I thought, “So this is why people didn’t like this movie”. (And, more particularly, Willie.)

      I think it would have played better if Willie were running around in the background and the card game would have been more in the foreground.

      And maybe they figured a giant snake entwined with a naked Willie (and Indy telling her how to make it feel more comfortable) might have blown their PG rating right out of the water, so to speak.

  6. rxgreene says:

    The nightclub slugfest/shootout recalls 1941, of course, and Spielberg inserts a rolling gong to echo the rolling boulder in Raiders — again, following the “stand it on its head” rule. In Raiders the boulder is an endangerment, in Temple the gong is a shield.

    Back in 1941, the Ferris Wheel is a wonder – rolling down the pier.

  7. serizawa3000 says:

    but for Temple they just made up a completely bullshit Hindu artifact. If I were a Hindu I don’t know if I’d be angry or relieved.

    I think this was why the India sequences for Temple of Doom were actually filmed in Sri Lanka instead (apparently the villagers are NOT speaking Hindi).

    Temple of Doom was my favorite of the Indiana Jones movies for quite a while, probably because it was so dark, dark, dark. Creepy statues! Human sacrifice! And so on…

    The nightclub shootout is especially memorable for me because of the sound effects… the glassy tinkle-tinkle of the diamond and the antidote bottle as they get sent skittering all over the place, the whiz of throwing knives, the bullets spanging off the gong…

  8. I was like 13 when this movie came out, and at the height of my obsession with all things Indiana Jones (yes, I bought a whip)…and yet I still couldn’t escape a certain feeling of disappointment when I first saw it. It felt like an Indiana Jones movie written by the #1 Indiana Jones fan instead of the people who brought you Raiders of the Lost Ark. The gruesome meal, the secret passageway full of bugs, Indy turning bad and almost getting his heart ripped out–these seemed like extrapolations of all the biggest thrills from the first movie, rehashed over-the-top. Most kids my age hated Short Round, but I didn’t (even though I was predisposed to be suspicious of the inclusion of gratitously target-audience-aged characters in my entertainment). My problem was Kate Capshaw’s crap performance and her shamelessly period-inappropriate 80’s hair.

    I also distinctly remember the airplane/raft/himalayas escape scene marking the exact moment when Hollywood gave up completely on the idea of making action sequences even vaguely plausible. It wasn’t until years later that Die Hard briefly re-humanized the action hero, and then believability went back out the window, where it’s stayed ever since.

    (…and for the record, the exposition scene in Raiders never bored me. I always thought it fused the academic and adventurer sides of Indy well, the way he gets caught up in his own explanation–dry at first, then more excited as he goes on. The only thing I found suspicious was that he had a gigantic bible on hand, bookmarked to the exact page with an engraving of the ark of the covenant!)

    • Todd says:

      Well, they are in a chapel after all, there’s always a giant antique bible sitting around those places. The thing that troubles me is the illustration in the bible, which looks not at all authentic — not even the right century.

  9. My quotes fail me….

    (ever notice how your comments cut across your titles???)

    “Spielberg is letting you know that this is going to be a completely different movie from Raiders. Later he would come to regret the movie for its brutality and darkness, and The Last Crusade shows his desire to retrench, to rein in his darker impulses.”

    According to Empire magazine, this was always meant to be a trilogy, and George Lucas was the one with the idea about making it dark and sinister, as was, supposedly, The Empire Strikes Back.

    Harrison Ford apparently is near-crippled for much of the shoot, and needed his back fixed, so the stunt man did a lot of the action scenes.

    As a teenager at the time, I hated Short Round and felt that Willie did not come close to the dynamics of the relationship with Marion in the first one.

    For the record, I liked the Goonies a lot better than either Temple or Gremlins, as I guess I can associate with the nerdy kids (it does have overlaps with Stand By Me, but that is another story). Temple is not a kids film, just like Harry Potter is best left for younguns until they’re slightly older, if you know what I mean..

    • Todd says:

      Re: My quotes fail me….

      (ever notice how your comments cut across your titles???)

      Guh? I haven’t. What does that mean?

      Regarding Willie vs Marion, I think it’s a good thing that Willie is different from Marion. Sure, I prefer Marion, but so what? Even with Willie’s annoying qualities, she’s still a more vivid character than, say, any ten Bond girls.

      • Re: My quotes fail me….

        Maybe it is my computer, but the first couple of lines press up into the title block for a number of the comments on your page. I guess if you are asking, it must be my computer…

        (Was in the middle of having no luck finding the Temple reference in Clerks Animated on YouTube, but they do have a funny reference to Lucas and Spielberg in the courtroom one…)

        You are right of course, because, as in Bond, we are not really supposed to take the women seriously…they are drunks or whiney or eye candy, and when they do show some brains (see Last Crusade) they turn out to be evil or need to be put in their place (under the sheets…)

        Thanks for your screenwriting insights, and I look forward to your next installment.

        • Todd says:

          Re: My quotes fail me….

          I think we’re supposed to take the women in the Indiana Jones movies seriously, but that doesn’t mean they are meant to be interchangeable. And I think the signal quality of Willie is that she is not a copy of Marion — she’s vain, whiny, hysterical, etc. This makes her an unpleasant character for some, but I think she functions well as a comic foil/dark mirror for Indy.

          • Re: My quotes fail me….

            I wondered after I wrote it if I really believed that about Marion (or the female archaeologist in Last Crusade). Perhaps I have gender problems with female comic foils, but I can’t think of one that I instantly know of that works in another movie…

            I also wondered if there were racial undertones that added to the discomfort and I can think of one Indian friend of mine who hates his country to be pigeon-holed on the poverty aspect. It is hard to make things dark if you have to set it in somebodies world – nobody felt this conflicting darkness in Empire Strikes Back through empathising with Imperial Troopers…

            Now that I have thought so much about it, I regret missing it on TV a couple of weeks ago when it was shown again (but I watched the other two). How many years ago did this come out…? It feels like it has been a long old while since I have seen it, and maybe I am ready to overcome my voodoo/hindu/christknows anxiety I felt when I first watched it.

            • Todd says:

              Re: My quotes fail me….

              Oh, I would encourage you to go ahead and feel bad about the racism inherent in not just Temple but all the Indiana Jones movies — and the rest of Lucas’s work for that matter. My wife and I cringe every time this kind of thing comes up in a movie our kids are watching, most recently in the King Kong remake, but our kids seem unfazed, they know it’s a fantasy. My son has an Indian friend his age who closely resembles the kids in the mine, and for him it only helped him get more involved in the story.

              • Anonymous says:

                Re: My quotes fail me….

                I’m not sure if I can find any racism in American Graffiti.

  10. wordwill says:

    As I understand it, both the gong and the mine-car chase are pieces left over from the longer, original Raiders script.

  11. noumignon says:

    Did you ever do Raiders of the Lost Ark? Google can find Temple, Crusade, and Crystal Skull, but not Raiders. LJ’s Spielberg tag can’t find any of them.