Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom part 2

So. Moving on:

ACT III (1:00:00-1:27:30)

Chapter 1 (1:00:00-1:10:00) This gripping little reel involves Indy and his family stumbling upon an obscene, terrifying blood-cult ceremony. I myself have never stumbled across an obscene, terrifying blood-cult ceremony so I don’t honestly know if the one depicted here is accurate or not, but I’m going to go ahead and say that for members of blood cults I’m guessing that this sequence is probably pretty cheesy. I mean, lava? Who has lava at their blood-cult ceremony? That’s just stupid.

For the rest of us though, it’s pretty freakin’ dark. The design of the temple, the human skins fluttering in the breeze, the high priest wearing an animal skull on his head, the swaying, groveling celebrants, the sacrificial victim getting his heart ripped out and surviving, it’s all perfectly stupid and utterly intoxicating. Spielberg is a master at taking an assignment and running with it — “Oh, it’s a weird, scary blood-cult ceremony? Well then, let’s make it the weirdest, scariest ever.”

One flaw: we meet our head villain, cult priest Mola Ram, an hour into the movie, and they don’t even tell us he’s the head villain, we just kind of have to figure it out after a while. Plus he’s wearing a weird costume and is hellishly lit — it’s a great entrance, but would have been more effective an hour earlier — you know, like at the point where the head villain of Raiders showed up. Is there some reason Mola Ram couldn’t be one of the guests at the Maharajah’s dinner table? Or for that matter, why couldn’t he be the Prime Minister? The PM is, we eventually learn, one of the cultists, why not make him the head priest?

(I do have one problem with the cult ceremony. The victim has his still-beating heart removed from his body, which is really cool. But then, when Willie is the victim, Mola Ram doesn’t bother ripping out her heart, which is good for Willie, but pulls the villain’s punch. Better, I think, to forgo the cool effect of the first victim’s heart being ripped out than to make it look like the villain is “just kidding” later on in the act. But then, I get the feeling that the architecture of the sacrifice ritual is based on Mola Ram holding the still-beating heart as it bursts into flames. I get the feeling this image came into Spielberg’s head before anything else and he structured the whole ceremony around it.)

Funny thing is, as implausible as the plot of Temple is, Mola Ram is a great villain and his plan, in its weird, twisted way, makes sense. He’s got a solid motive, a decent plan and a logical endgame. This puts him ahead of 80% of Bond villains and even ahead of Belloq, who had huge balls on him to think he could wrest control of the Ark of the Covenant while in the employ of Adolf Hitler, but had no plan for what he was going to do once the Ark was opened.

(That is, Belloq thinks the Ark is a transmitter to God, and that by opening the Ark before handing it over to Hitler will give him the power that Hitler craves. But he doesn’t know what “transmitter to God” actually means, a bit of shortsightedness that turns out to be disastrous. “Hmm, my head is exploding — maybe I should put the lid back on this thing and think this plan through a little more.”)

After the ceremony, the temple immediately empties and Indy goes after the Sankara Stones. Two things: hey, wait, wasn’t this temple just filled with hundreds of zombie celebrants? How did they get out so fast? And doesn’t anybody stay to, you know, clean up? Not a single altar-boy or acolyte to be seen. And, I notice that Indy treats the Temple of Doom with ten times the respect he shows to either the Well of Souls or the Peruvian temple in Raiders — he tiptoes carefully through the rafters, cautious not to upset anything. Well, come to think of it, this isn’t an ancient temple, it’s practically brand new — what’s the point of wrecking it?

In any case, Indy nabs the stones, but as he is heading out of the temple, he discovers the mine, being operated by the kidnapped village children and the movie, in case it wasn’t dark enough yet, takes an even darker turn.

Chapter 2 (1:10:00-1:17:00) Indy might be a fortune hunter, but he can’t just turn his back on a mine full of enslaved children, but before he can do much for them he and his family are nabbed by the bad guys. Indy is tied up, Short Round is whipped, Willie is spirited away somewhere (odd that Spielberg lingers on showing us children being whipped, but shies from showing what might have happened to Willie). Indy is poisoned for the second time in the movie, forced to drink the blood of the whatever. And for some reason the boy Maharajah is on hand with a voodoo doll. What? A voodoo doll? Either Spielberg is just throwing in any creepy thing he can think of at this point, or else the young Maharajah was educated in, um, Haiti? I can imagine a Kali-worshiper watching this scene and finally throwing up his hands and saying “Okay, forget it, I was with this movie up to this point, but voodoo? That’s just insulting.”

In any case, the scene is almost unwatchably brutal and intense, which is great because it is, wouldn’t you know it, another expository scene, where the head villain explains his plot to the protagonist, and we don’t even notice because it’s just so unspeakably ghastly. And yet the movie still hasn’t gotten as dark as it’s going to. Because the next thing you know, there is, yes, another blood-cult ceremony, this time with Willie as the sacrifice and Indy as the priest.

Chapter 3 (1:17:00-1:27:30) Hey, wait a minute! These Kali-worshipers just had a ceremony, like, ten minutes ago! And now they’re having another one! How many of these ceremonies do they have in a day? How are the worshipers supposed to get anything done? What is the rest of their day like? I have this image in my head of a bunch of Kali worshipers getting back to their office jobs after changing out of their Kali-worshiping duds, and they’re filing papers and entering data and playing Minesweeper, and then suddenly one of their co-workers comes along and says “Hey guys! They’re doing a second sacrifice today! Everybody back to the Temple!” and everybody kind of looking at each other like “Hey, you know, Kali is great and all, but I have a life, dude.

Speaking of which, if Mola Ram has a congregation of zombies that are able to drop whatever they’re doing at a moment’s notice to come attend a sacrifice, why doesn’t he use them to help dig for diamonds? Surely they’d be more efficient than child slaves.

Anyway, so Indy is now bad and Willie is now his sacrificial victim. And I suppose there may be a metaphor at work here — if Willie represents the cynical, greedy side of Indy, and Indy himself has now been boiled down to a “true believer,” then there could be a comment in here about the bad side of pure faith.

But something tells me that it’s really just “plot.” I suspect this because, fact is, the rest of the movie from here on out is pretty much just plot. This is a good thing. Movies need plot, and few directors understand plot better than Spielberg, and, as any screenwriter will tell you, plot is hard. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say that Temple of Doom is probably the most tightly plotted movie in Spielberg’s filmography, which is the reason I find it so compulsively watchable.

Oh, and the action/suspense elements of all this are just masterfully presented. The roasting cage bobbing up and down with Willie inside, Indy backhanding Short Round, the fight on the altar, it’s all just incredible.

Anyway, Short Round cures Indy (that is, the son cures the father, a plot turn I attribute to George Lucas, since he made six movies revolving around the idea), driving us into —


ACT IV (1:27:30-1:54)
Here we have another textbook ur-Dreamworks “race to the finish line” final act, a breathless sequence of stupefying, expertly-mounted set pieces, each topping the last.

Chapter 1 (1:27:30-1:35) We begin with the massive slugfest in the mine, as Indy and his family free the enslaved children and beat the crap out of their captors. The chapter climaxes with Indy’s fight with the Enormous Thuggee atop the Rock-Smashing Machine.

Chapter 2 (1:35-1:43) We go straight from the stupefying slugfest into the stupefying mine-car chase, a sequence so mind-bogglingly complex I cannot even begin to imagine how it was planned, much less shot. The chapter ends with a literal cliffhanger, as Indy and his family are left, yes, hanging from a literal cliff as torrents of water blast out of the mine entrance.

(Of course if I slow down long enough to ponder the design of this ridiculous mine, which apparently is inside an active volcano, the whole thing seems kind of silly.)

Chapter 3 (1:43-1:54) The cliffside scene bleeds into the bridge scene, and at this point I’d like to pause to break the fourth wall and tell a personal anecdote:

When I was at Dreamworks working on Antz, I had an idea for a scene that took place on a high, narrow bridge. As it happened, Spielberg was in the room during the pitch meeting and so I pitched the scene and added “you know, like the end of Temple of Doom,” at which point Spielberg closed his eyes like he had a headache and said, with no small amount of anguish, “I hated that scene.” And I could barely think of what I was supposed to say next about my own project, because all I wanted to say was “What? You hated that scene? But, but — you’re Steven Spielberg! And when you shot Temple of Doom you were at the peak of your powers! What power could have compelled you to shoot a scene you hated that much?” This moment bothered me for years, rolling around in my head — how, why, would Spielberg shoot a scene he hated? I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the “making of” DVD and the mystery was solved: Spielberg explains that while shooting Temple of Doom he found out, too late, that he has a fear of heights. This fear kept him from shooting the bridge scene the way he had planned (he literally could not make it more than a third of the way out onto the bridge without breaking out in a cold sweat) and he spent the entire shooting of the sequence in a state of physical discomfort. Needless to say, the bridge scene did not make into the script for Antz.

End of personal anecdote.

Anyway, I think the bridge sequence comes off well enough — the shot of Indy realizing the extremity of his dilemma is probably my favorite of the character, and the action of the climb back up to the cliffside is, again, expertly handled. Although of course I would love to know what Spielberg had intended for the scene to begin with. I imagine the cuts to the alligators below could have been more gracefully integrated — I never believe that anyone is ever actually eaten by an alligator, although it would serve the people right for all the disgusting things that get eaten in this movie — but otherwise I think it all works fine.

Once Indy gets Mola Ram in his sights, he snarls “Prepare to meet Kali — in Hell!” And I just can’t help but think “Jeez, what a lame threat.” Honestly, howis Mola Ram supposed to be scared by a guy who doesn’t even have a token understanding of his faith? Threatening Mola Ram with “prepare to meet Kali — in Hell!” is like threatening a rabbi with “Prepare to meet Jehovah — in Hades!” or threatening a Muslim with “Prepare to meet Mohammad — in Nirvana!” or threatening the Green Goblin with “Prepare to meet  Spiderman — in Gotham City!”  I want Mola Ram to look scared for a second and then pause and say “What? What the hell are you talking about? Why would Kali be in Hell? Who are you?” And then Indy would have to do some hasty backpedaling: “Well, you know what I mean, I mean, you know, whatever bad-place afterworld you guys have — I’m sorry, I haven’t studied Kali blood cults that much.” And then Mola Ram could say “Why not just say ‘Prepare to meet Kali?’ You had me up to that point, my heart was really racing, but then you had to add “in Hell” and all I could think was “Christ, what a douche.”

Indy’s complete ignorance of Mola Ram’s faith is confusing since, mere seconds later, he knows just the magic words that will make the magic rocks ignite into flames. “You betrayed Shiva!” he growls, then helpfully translates the phrase into, I’m guessing, Hindi. Because, apparently, Shiva, up to this point, was unaware that Mola Ram had acquired the Sankara Stones and was using them to amass a power base for himself on Earth. No, it took Indiana Jones pointing that out before Shiva, wherever Shiva hangs out, to look up and say “What’s that? Mola Ram betrayed me? Well, I’ll settle his hash, you just watch! Gimme my rocks back!”

(As with the Ark in Raiders, Indy, the non-believer, is spared the wrath of the god-of-the-moment and allowed to make off with the magic artifact. There is a message in there somewhere.)

The young Maharajah, now transformed into a good colonialist, leads Capt Blumburtt and his troops to the bridge to help save the day. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s necessarily a good thing. There is a troubling thread of colonialism running through all the Indiana Jones movies (and all of George Lucas’s movies too for that matter) but Spielberg breezes past the moment without comment, even though its perfectly obvious that, if not for people like Capt Blumburtt, there wouldn’t be people like Mola Ram in the first place.

(As Walter Sobchak might say, “Say what you want about the tenets of the Kali Ma, at least it’s an ethos.”)

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Comments

25 Responses to “Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom part 2”
  1. “prepare to meet Kali — in Hell!”

    Doesn’t that also tie in to the colonialism theme? Christianity trumping Hinduism?

    “Yeah, you have your Kalis and your Shivas, and that’s adorable, but this is the 20th Century, and everybody knows there’s only one God, and he’s Christian.”

  2. Anonymous says:

    Temple of Doom is my favorite one of the series. As a kid, I probably watched it at least 10 times. It’s an incredibly skilfully constructed roller-coaster of pure entertainment. This movie is also a masterpiece of timing. Spielberg’s genius of delivering pure kinetic (and cinematic) entertainment to the audience shines here like 1000 suns. Some say it’s the darkest of the trilogy. Yeah, so? What’s wrong with that? Besides, here Indy is portrayed as a much more shady guy compared to Raiders, somewhat morally ambiguous, and I happen to find this truer to his nature.

    …and the scene with the mine-chase..when the wagon flies above the abyss, just before landing back on track in a cloud of sparks…the collective GASP that inevitably filled the theater…I’ll never forget that. Movie magic.

    -Dob

  3. pjamesharvey says:

    “Christ, what a douche.”

    ‘Shiva, what a douche’, surely.

  4. curt_holman says:

    “Is there some reason Mola Ram couldn’t be one of the guests at the Maharajah’s dinner table?”

    I saw Temple of Doom with a friend when it came out, and during the movie we were wondering if Mola Ram had already been on-screen — I think my friend briefly thought he WAS the PM.

    At the end, when Indy, Willie et al return to the village and it’s all lush and green and cool again, even though they’re not technically in possession of the returned Shankara Stone, my friend turned to me and said, ‘Oh, we just made another Shankara Stone. Thanks anyway.’

  5. adam_0oo says:

    You know what makes this my least favorite Indy movie? Willie. She is so damn annoying, with the constant yelling and complaining and whining and not contributing anything to the movie. Just damn annoying and at a high decible level at that.

  6. jbacardi says:

    It’s good to know that I have something in common with Spielberg, i.e., acrophobia!

    I saw ToD on the big screen, and let me tell you I was squirming before that scene was over. In fact, unless you suffer from this phobia, you don’t realize how many films, especially action-genre films, feature climaxes set at great heights.

    Drives me nuts sometimes…!

  7. schwa242 says:

    And, I notice that Indy treats the Temple of Doom with ten times the respect he shows to either the Well of Souls or the Peruvian temple in Raiders — he tiptoes carefully through the rafters, cautious not to upset anything. Well, come to think of it, this isn’t an ancient temple, it’s practically brand new — what’s the point of wrecking it?

    Perhaps this was the adventure that Indy decided, “To hell with being reverent, the whole building is probably trying to kill me,” on subsequent adventures.

    Once Indy gets Mola Ram in his sights, he snarls “Prepare to meet Kali — in Hell!” And I just can’t help but think “Jeez, what a lame threat.” Honestly, how is Mola Ram supposed to be scared by a guy who doesn’t even have a token understanding of his faith? Threatening Mola Ram with “prepare to meet Kali — in Hell!” is like threatening a rabbi with “Prepare to meet Jehovah — in Hades!” or threatening a Muslim with “Prepare to meet Mohammad — in Nirvana!” or threatening the Green Goblin with “Prepare to meet Spiderman — in Gotham City!” I want Mola Ram to look scared for a second and then pause and say “What? What the hell are you talking about? Why would Kali be in Hell? Who are you?” And then Indy would have to do some hasty backpedaling: “Well, you know what I mean, I mean, you know, whatever bad-place afterworld you guys have — I’m sorry, I haven’t studied Kali blood cults that much.” And then Mola Ram could say “Why not just say ‘Prepare to meet Kali?’ You had me up to that point, my heart was really racing, but then you had to add “in Hell” and all I could think was “Christ, what a douche.”

    Perhaps Harrison Ford just likes playing characters who damn people to hell when it’s wildly inappropriate. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, there’s a scene of him riding off on his tauntaun to find Luke, a fellow Rebel warns him his ride will freeze to death, and Han says, “Then I’ll see you in Hell” as he rides off. Maybe I’m missing something from the Star Wars mythos or didn’t read the right novelization, but is there any other point where the literal concept of Hell enters the series? Sure, their are elements of various religions sprinkled throughout, but no direct references otherwise that I can think of.

  8. craigjclark says:

    Clerks: The Animated Series had a pretty funny episode that spoofed this movie (along with The Last Starfighter and, umm, the Challenger explosion). Dante plays the coach of a Little League baseball team that is set to play the championship Toms River team and finds that the players have been kidnapped, Temple of Doom-style. Unsurprisingly, this was one of the episodes that ABC chose not to air during the show’s ever-so brief network run.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Two Things: Harrison Ford just really like saying that. He does it in Empire Strikes Back to a random extra who told him not to run off after Luke (“Then, I’ll meet you in hell!”). I always felt it was completely out of place since we have no idea why this random extra would end up in hell with Han.

    It’s always bothered me that this is a prequel… I mean, Indiana kills a guy with magic stones but four years later doesn’t believe in magic?

    • Todd says:

      I had forgotten about that moment in Empire, but you’re right, it bothered me then too — this is, after all, a long time ago in a galaxy not just far away, but far, far away, why would they believe in Hell? Not to mention that on icy Hoth, the idea of an eternal pit of fire would seem quite nice indeed.

      • richaje says:

        That final strange confrontation with Mola Ram just bothered the hell out of me. Not so much the theologically incoherent dialogue from Harrison Ford, but the magical incantation that caused the Sankara Stones to burst into flames. It felt forced – especially since it didn’t fit into anything established in the story (or in the other Indiana Jones stories).

        As a tangent, in both Raiders and Last Crusade, there is something of a “humble before God” theme in Jones’ interactions with divine forces. Indy survives the opening of the Ark by averting his eyes; the same theme gets revisted in Last Crusade. There’s none of that in Temple of Doom – which to me remains the weakest of the trilogy.

  10. swan_tower says:

    I’ve been trawling through your archives and reading back posts; I’m not a screenwriter, but I am a novelist, and it’s fascinating to see underlying structure laid out in this fashion. And I’ll say, this is a noble attempt at making Temple of Doom sound good . . . but unfortunately, all the explication of structure and tight plotting in the world can’t get me past the pervasive racism and sexism of the content. The Indians who are either starving peasants with gross food or corrupt power-hungry lunatics with gross food, the misrepresentation of Hinduism for the purpose of exotic visuals, the plot’s message that a male of any age, no matter how young, is more useful than a woman . . . and there is no chemistry between Indy and Willie, though I could wish for the chemistry of napalm with which to burn her out of the film. When all is said and done, I don’t care if she’s a foil for Indy, because I just want her to SHUT UP ALREADY. I’m glad she’s not Marion redux, because that’s been done, but all she contributes is “comedy” that does not and never has made me laugh.

    Sorry for the rantiness, but I read these posts with great interest because I wanted to see if they would make me like Temple any better. Unfortunately, that movie just gets worse every time I watch it, and I don’t think any analysis, however insightful, can stop that downward slide. Even the well-staged action scenes don’t move me — whereas normally I roll over for a good spectacle — because by then I just want the film to be over.

    • Todd says:

      The sexism/racism of Temple is undeniable and pervasive. For myself, what I’m trying to do is analyze these scripts on their own terms, so that things like philosophical and ethical differences don’t enter into it, but only things like dramatic structure.

      I understand things like Willie shrieking and the ugga-bugga Indians are a deal-breaker for a lot of people, and they greatly offended me the first time I saw the movie too. But then, one day in a motel room in Beaumont, Texas, in the middle of an exhausting road trip, I sat down and turned on HBO “for five minutes” at the end of a particularly hard day of driving, and there was the last hour of Temple of Doom waiting for me and the budding screenwriter in me couldn’t take my eyes off it.

      • swan_tower says:

        The two aren’t entirely separable, though. Willie annoys me not just because she shrieks, but because I can only spot one moment in the entire movie when she is something other than a pawn of the plot or a useless distraction. (Which is when she pulls the lever. With much shrieking.) Now, I’ll admit that it’s a struggle for me to even pay attention to the movie — the exact reverse of your reaction — but when I watched it recently, I didn’t see a single other instance of her exhibiting agency, of her being something other than a means of motivating other people into action. They put on a show of her doing things, but her throwing rocks (to pick one example) has no effect at all on the plot. The ideological weakness is a structural one, too.