Steven Spielberg can make all the tributes to the nobility of man he wants; underneath that, the man’s a closet sadist. Exhibit A: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Not that sadism in the service of cinematic thrills is a bad thing. Some part of an entertainer has to enjoy putting his/her characters, and audience, through the wringer. In Temple of Doom, easily the disreputable skunk of the Indiana Jones series*, Spielberg runs his heroes ragged and beats up the audience while screaming in our faces (in the voice of John Williams’ bombastic score) for close to two hours. A lot of people loathe it, and not just because it feels at times as if Mola Ram had directed it; there are stereotypes racist and sexist, the hero (Harrison Ford) is sort of a prick here, and the adventure is marred for many by two Jar Jar Binkses — the spunky child sidekick Short Round (“Hold onto your potatoes!”) and the shrieking, gold-digging Willie Scott (“Ohhh, I broke a naiiiil”).
Despite all this, and perhaps because of it, I love the movie dearly. Raiders of the Lost Ark is still and ever shall remain my all-time sentimental favorite film, but when I want Spielberg in his manic I’ll-entertain-you-to-death mode, I pop in Temple of Doom. That so many people despise it only endears it to me all the more. As pure adrenaline cinema, it’s just about unimpeachable.
Even the film’s detractors have to give it up for the opening sequence, which sets the tone for this outing: Willie (Kate Capshaw, the future Mrs. Spielberg) singing “Anything Goes” in Club Obi-Wan while the dancers do things dancers can’t do. Woe to anyone who expects Temple of Doom to have, as Harlan Ellison put it in his review, anything more than an elephant’s fart to do with reality. Raiders pushed physical plausibility, but only a little; Temple of Doom muscles rudely past plausibility within minutes and keeps going.
The movie is technically a “prequel” to Raiders, set the year before, so Indy is still after “fortune and glory, kid.” In that respect he’s little better than Willie, who loves shiny things. By the time Raiders starts, Indy has been literally beaten out of his mercenary stance in Temple of Doom and seen true human suffering, perhaps for the first time. The quest for the Sankara Stones, whose disappearance has doomed an entire village, leads Indy and company to a vast cavern of horrors underneath an Indian palace. A boy runs the place upstairs, while downstairs poor boys anguish in the rubble. Indy is about to abscond smugly with the Stones when he notices the underage slave labor and decides to get involved. And this is after the infamous Temple of Doom sequence, in which a man has his heart ripped out by Thuggee leader Mola Ram and, still alive, is lowered into a pit of lava.
Reportedly George Lucas, going through a divorce, and Spielberg were not in the best of moods when making Temple of Doom. It shows. The movie is easily the darkest, dingiest, and murkiest of what I’ll now call the Original Trilogy. Its reception by legions of appalled parents (despite the ads’ disclaimer, reminiscent of Jaws, “Some material may be too intense for younger viewers”) almost single-handedly ushered in the PG-13 rating (that and Gremlins, another Spielberg production in the summer of ’84). Yet there’s joy in the movie, albeit dark joy. Temple of Doom stands nearly alone as a multimillion-dollar mainstream Hollywood experimental film: There’s very little plot, just one apocalyptic set piece after another. The movie was also a dumping ground for all the stuff Lucas and Spielberg wanted to put in Raiders but couldn’t, and so it’s a towering case of self-indulgence. Spielberg reigns here with a very heavy hand, lightened somewhat by Michael Kahn’s usual so-sharp-it-draws-blood editing.
Other movies, including Raiders and the 007 series, had used a story as a clothesline for thrills. But Temple of Doom, especially once it hits Sri Lanka, is close to a porn movie in structure and emphasis: build, climax, satiation; build, climax, satiation; over and over again. Spielberg’s specialty here is the danger averted, only to encounter a greater or equal danger. I can sympathize with those who find the movie exhausting. Its very hammering relentlessness singles it out as the most personal of the Indy films. Now garlanded with Oscars and credibility, Spielberg prefers to dismiss Temple of Doom as unpleasant juvenalia. The next Indy film was considerably softer, with added father-son sentimentality, but Temple was actually the closest to the remorseless, politically incorrect adventure serials that sparked this series in the first place.
It’s also the closest Harrison Ford has come to playing a bona fide villain (if you don’t count the rigid asshole he played in The Mosquito Coast and the husband in What Lies Beneath). When Indy is forced to drink the black blood of Kali, he’s deformed into a grinning, simian brute who seems to take psychotic amusement in pain. Ford doesn’t just play it as zombie-like subservience; as Alexandra Dupont pointed out, he “looks like he’s really into all the sadism and blood, like he’s actually tapped into some dark part of his personality that was there all along.” Indy becomes Mola Ram’s apt pupil for a while, and Spielberg goes right along with him. The editing, the score (“Gho-ram, gho-ram, gho-ram sundaram”), the dried-blood photography — Spielberg is playing for keeps here; he wants the movie to hurt. That first sacrifice sequence is top-notch horror directing; I still get chills when Mola Ram moves slowly into frame to face his human sacrifice. I’m sorry to say I’m unfamiliar with Amrish Puri’s many other performances, but this one is a definitive portrait of the higher evil.
The whippings are near-constant — even Short Round is whipped — as if Spielberg wanted us to feel what Indy’s weapon of choice really does to people. At one point, while up against a big bruiser, Indy gets punched in the nipple and gasps; I’d love to know who thought of that painful little detail. So, with all this darkness and blood and agony, why do I have so much fun with Temple of Doom? Because it’s cathartic as hell, for Spielberg and for those of us who go for the ride. The mayhem is transporting, inspired, exultant. Spielberg has nothing to apologize for, and I wish he wouldn’t. The script by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz does get a bit cheesy — okay, a lot cheesy (“Your friend has seen. And she has heard. Now she will not talk”) — but Spielberg uses it as an excuse for gags. That whole sequence in the bug tomb with the spiked floor and ceiling has a magical virtuosity that can’t be scripted. Storyboarded, yes. Temple of Doom, like Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, is like a comic book drawn by a little boy with a bottomless bucket of Magic Markers. That so many geeks and fanboys bring such hate for the movie only recommends it more highly. The racism, the sexism, the fear of sex inherent in these boy’s-book adventures are amplified to a near-hysterical pitch here, turning a black mirror on the desires stoked and satisfied by summer entertainment. If what you want is bad-ass action, Temple of Doom gives you that plus a hard punch in the nipple.
* At least until Crystal Skull came along. And I loved that. Suck it, haters.