My first memory of Temple of Doom isn’t actually a memory of Temple of Doom at all. But I thought it was. You see, it took me a few years during my childhood to actually get around to seeing an Indiana Jones film in its entirety. For some reason, I had only seen the second halves of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade and one sequence from Temple of Doom. Or at least, I thought it was from Temple of Doom. I mean, there was a temple and plenty of things I would consider to be doom-ish.
So you can imagine my surprise when I finally sat down to watch what I thought was Temple of Doom only to discover that what I had previously thought was part of that movie wasn’t actually a part of it at all, but rather the opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I bring this up because a.) I needed to start this article somehow, and b.) because like a lot of other people, there’s always been a sense of disappointment when it comes to Temple of Doom. It doesn’t have the easy-going charm ofRaiders or the emotional resonance of Last Crusade, or even the nostalgic anticipation of Crystal Skull. It’s maybe-kind-of-unintentionally-racist and full of comedic stereotypes, features a shrilling love interest and a ten-year-old sidekick, has some ham-fisted dialogue, and dramatically shifts tones between heroic adventuring, slapstick humor, and full on horror.
That being said, Temple of Doom isn’t a bad movie. An action packed, tonal jumping, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of movie? Sure, I’ll give you that. But it’s also a far more interesting and entertaining film than any of the other sequels. It’s never boring and somehow manages to keep its accelerated tension and excitement running through a forty minute finale that features not one, not two, not three, but four different action beats. Seriously, has any movie ever piled one action sequence on top of another quite as successfully as Steven Spielberg does here?
Yet, somehow this film has maintained the stigma that it’s just not that good. Even the arrival of the much derided Crystal Skull didn’t do much to elevate its reputation. I actually remember going to see Crystal Skull when it was released and telling people that as long as it was better than Temple of Doom, it would be a good movie. To this day, it’s probably the one Indiana Jones film I’ve watched the least. Prior to this week, I couldn’t even tell you the last time watched it the whole way through.
But then something happened. I got this strange cinematic craving to rewatch it. This doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, it’s hard to ignore. A film won’t leave my head until I’ve satisfied that desire to watch it. So I sat down and threw Temple of Doom on. And you know what? I kind of fell in love with it. It’s pure pulp fiction through and through, more so than even Raiders. It’s also a breathless style of storytelling that Spielberg has rarely matched since, and has more going on than I’d previously given it credit for.
So, in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary (it was first released on May 23, 1984), I’ve decided to reevaluate Temple of Doom and make my case for why we should all appreciate it a little more and stop treating it like the proverbial red-headed step child of the franchise.
But first, let’s give it a little context. A general consensus of the Indiana Jones series might go something like this:Raiders is a classic, Last Crusade is the personal favorite, Crystal Skull the worst, and then Temple of Doom is the wild card. People either love it or hate it. Rarely is there any sort of middle ground. Why is that?
You see, Temple of Doom is different. It’s a one-off, an adventure Dr. Jones wasn’t suppose to have. There are no academic institutions or archeological aspirations to be found here. Instead of traversing the world on an exotic road trip, the film mostly takes place in one location. It’s also mean, ugly, and balls-to-the-wall crazy. The opening musical number lets the audience know right up front that “Anything Goes,” and that’s what’s so great about it. It’s very much its own thing without caring what anyone else thinks.
In fact, if anything, Last Crusade and Crystal Skull’s adherence to the Raiders formula have only helped reinforce what was “wrong” with Temple of Doom. Had they ventured off road even just a bit, or if the franchise had truly gone the James Bond route and given us a more numerous and diverse series of films, we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation. People went in expecting Raiders 2 and instead got Gunga Din.
Raiders was inspired by the Saturday matinee serials of the 30’s and 40’s, cliff-hanging adventures that traveled across the globe. Temple of Doom on the other hand belongs more to the grand tradition of what film critic Roger Ebert likes to call “the Impregnable Fortress Impregnated.” These cinematic fortresses are usually located deep underground or on the side of a volcano, involve secret chambers and booby traps, and are ruled by megalomaniac zealots who dream of world domination. Thus it’s the hero’s job to enter this fortress, steal the prize, and get out all in one piece.
But the titular Temple of Doom (or Temple of Death as it was referred to in early drafts) is not like most other fortresses. Within its walls are witch doctors and pagan rituals, human sacrifices and slave children. It’s a literal journey to hell and back again that features a man’s heart being ripped from his chest and our hero getting possessed by dark forces. And by possessed, I don’t mean in the dull, zombie kind of way. Indy actually revels in the cult after drinking the blood of Kali. It’s as if it somehow tapped into another, darker part of his soul that was always there. Considering all that, Temple of Doom’s closest cinematic relative is not Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s Evil Dead II.
So it should come as no surprise that people left theaters that summer screaming and just a little bit confused. This wasn’t the film they were expecting (although considering what happens at the end of Raiders, they really should’ve had some idea). Despite box office success, the film was plagued by mixed to negative reviews. It was too violent. Willie screamed too much. Short Round’s annoying. The magic stones are dumb. Indiana Jones is kind of an asshole. And that’s pretty much what the movie is remembered for. Aside from the mine cart chase, there’s not much in terms of praise. It didn’t help that both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would later throw the film under the bus while making The Last Crusade.
Watching it again, I can’t really blame people who don’t care for this movie, or maybe don’t think of it on the same level as the other films. It’s not for everyone, just as a roller coaster that goes 100 miles an hour and drops 200 feet while also looping upside down five different times isn’t for everyone. I happen to love roller coasters, so I guess that makes me the target audience.
Temple of Doom takes this idea of movies as “rides” to the furthest extreme possible to the point where I would consider it to be more than just a film. It’s an experience. One minute you’re screaming, the next you’re gasping. One moment you’re covering your eyes, the next you’re howling with laughter. You can just imagine Spielberg sitting behind the camera and giggling to himself that he’s getting paid to do this.
It’s also the last time he seemed truly unhinged in his filmmaking. With movies like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Schindler’s List soon to follow, Spielberg was preparing to enter a new phase in his career. Sure, he would go on to make The Last Crusade five years later, but even that film feels more restrained and workmanlike in comparison to Temple of Doom, as if that spark of inspiration just wasn’t there in the way it used to be.
Re-watching the film this time around reminded me of a conversation between Alfred Hitchcock and his North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman.
“The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie – there’llbe electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaah’ and we’ll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won’t that be wonderful?”
It kind of speaks to why we go to the movies in the first place: to feel. On a very basic level, a movie is successful if it does just that. A good drama will always pull you in and make you invest in the characters, while an action film should put you on the edge of your seat. Comedies and horror films are almost critic proof because the only barometer that really matters is whether or not we laughed and cried.
And that’s exactly what makes the Indiana Jones films so great: they can make us laugh, cry, and cheer all within the span of two hours. But none of the films pull this off quite like Temple of Doom. Sure, some of its attempts are juvenile, cheap, and over the top, but then again, the Indiana Jones films are not exactly high art. It’s like Pauline Kael once wrote, “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy about them has little to do with what we think of as art.”
That being said, Temple of Doom features what I believe to be one of the most subtle character arcs in blockbuster history. Much has been made of the development of the Indiana Jones character over the course of Last Crusadeand Crystal Skull, specifically in terms of father/son dynamics, but Temple of Doom does something a little more daring.
The film is actually a prequel to Raiders, not just because it takes place in 1935 (Raiders is set in 1936), but because we are shown a very different Indy. He’s a mercenary willing to sell priceless artifacts for “fortune and glory,” a far cry from his eventual call of “It belongs in museum!” Dressed in a fancy white tux, he shares more in common with franchise villains like Belloq and White Hat than he does with his fellow archaeological adventurers.
Indy’s arc in the film is basically to get him to be the person he is at the opening of Raiders. There’s literally a subplot about how bad guy Indiana Jones turns into good guy Indiana Jones, and that’s even without him drinking the Blood of Kali. He’s a straight up villain at the beginning of the third act who is only brought back by the love of his sidekick and surrogate son, Short Round. Their relationship is the true heart of the film and I get super emotional every time I hear his sorrowful cry of “Indy, I love you!” just before torching him in the stomach.
The Indiana Jones as we know him in the rest of the franchise is born in Temple of Doom. This arc extends over the whole film, but there’s one moment you can point to where Indy starts to make his turn. After claiming the Sankara Stone, Indy prepares to leave the temple with his companions. But then he hears the anguished cries of a small child. He has his fortune and glory, but decides to investigate anyway. He discovers a series of tunnels being mined by slave children, and upon seeing one of the Thuggee guards whip a fallen boy, Indy tosses a rock at the guard’s head. It’s a rare moment when Indy appears to have lost control and acts out of passion, one that ultimately causes him and his companions to be imprisoned. The sentiment is further cemented later on when Indy is given yet another chance to escape, but decides to free all of the slave children first. In Raiders, Belloq says he was but a shadowy reflection of Indy. But what separates the two men is a small sliver of empathy and selflessness that Indy earns here.
As far as pulpy adventure films go, you really can’t do much better than Temple of Doom. It has everything you want in a movie like this: action, suspense, romance, comedy, horror… You want it, this one’s got it, and with barely enough room to breathe.
Raiders may be the undisputed classic, but Temple of Doom is the only one of its sequels that feels truly inspired. I’m glad it doesn’t copy the formula of the first film in the same way that Last Crusade and Crystal Skull do. And that isn’t a slight against those films either. I’d like to think we live in a world where we can like each of the Indiana Jones films equally and for different reasons. I just wish more sequels would dare to break the mold instead of repeating things that have already worked.
All I’m asking is next time to you feel like watching an Indiana Jones film, maybe consider throwing on Temple of Doom instead of Raiders or Last Crusade. Then just sit back and prepare yourself for the ride.