Unjustly denigrated by fans, unfairly disowned by its creators, “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” has long had to fend off more than its fair share of criticism. Now, on its 35th Anniversary, it’s time this neglected middle child of the Indiana Jones saga got the praise it’s due.
That rare sequel which doesn’t seek to repeat the successful formula of the first movie (it would leave that to “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade”), it also makes a virtue out of it being a prequel, bringing retrospective depth to the character we first met in “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”. Not that it makes a meal out of being a prequel – there are scant nods to the audience beyond the mind-twisting metatextual reference to the ‘bringing a gun to a sword fight’ gag yet it gives us more character development than arguably any of the other films in the series. “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” is Indy’s hero journey – it shows exactly how he goes from being a glory-hunting fortune seeker to the hero we know and love.
The opening immediately sets out to carve its own path, distinct from its predecessor and Spielberg ticks off an item for his bucket list as he stages a Busby Berkeley musical number to introduce not only our leading lady but reintroduce our suave, sardonic hero in the luxurious Club Obi-Wan as he completes yet another treasure-hunting commission for a villainous Chinese gangster. It’s a knowing homage to the Bond movies’ pre-credits sequences – the good ones that is, where they link to the main story not where they feature throwaway villains offering to buy stainless steel delicatessens. Nightclub singer Willie Scott, played brilliantly by Kate Capshaw is often a lightning rod for many of the criticisms aimed at “Temple Of Doom” but even here, the film is doing something new and different with its leading lady. She’s meant to be vain, superficial and shrilly annoying when we first meet her and the story is as much a journey of growth and character development for her as it is for Indy. By the end of the movie, she’s not the same character she was at the start and she’s helped Indy become a better man too. She’s helped in this by Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), a character who serves to bring a vulnerability to the character of Jones as well as give him some non-MacGuffin stakes worth fighting for when things get dark – and in “Temple Of Doom”, things definitely get dark. After all, it’s responsible for causing the creation of America’s PG-13 rating.
Rather than bringing back the Nazis for another round of biblical Mcguffisticuffs, Spielberg and Lucas leaned harder into the 1930s serial inspiration by taking us to the dense and mysterious jungles of India, an exotic location of hidden fortresses, Thugee cults, dark magic and precarious rope bridges. Yes, it’s a somewhat prejudiced and deeply old-fashioned portrayal of the sub-continent even by 1980s standards, although it remains authentic to the 1930s setting of the adventure itself, conspicuously sidestepping any of the difficult issues brought up by the British Raj. Besides, the story is very keen to draw a distinction between India in general and the occupants of Pankot Palace in particular.
Although the savage Thugees act as de facto stand-ins for the Nazi hordes Jones usually dispenses with, Mola Ram brings something different to the mix. In Mola Ram, played with delightful relish by Amrish Puri, the film gives us an iconic villain, possibly the most evil and ruthless Jones has ever personally faced. He’s the supreme leader of an evil army but he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, quite literally. He wears his evil heart on his sleeve and by his I mean his victim’s and by sleeve I mean in his hand, still beating. He’s vicious, cruel and malevolent in a much more visceral way than the elegantly evil Nazi stooges have been and he makes the stakes of “Temple Of Doom” intensely personal. As the story progresses, unusually for an Indiana Jones movie, it becomes less and less about the story’s McGuffins – the Sankara Stones – and more and more about who Jones is and what he stands for.
Although Indy’s initial motivation to find the stones is a self-declared desire for ‘fortune and glory’, in Mola Ram he meets a foe so malicious and so powerful that he actually manages, albeit temporarily, to corrupt Indiana Jones himself. It’s here that the introduction of Short Round pays true dividends as it’s he who manages to pull Indy back from the dark side, opening Dr Jones’ metaphorical eyes to what’s really important and what he needs to do. Where Jones is often little more than a passive observer of the finales of his adventures, here there are stakes if Indy doesn’t act. The children’s’ lives, the fate of the village he set out from, potentially the entire world under Thugee domination – all are at risk unless Indiana Jones steps up. “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” is Indiana Jones at his most heroic, and he’s had to go through fire and blood to become so. There’s no standing back while the McGuffin melts the bad guys’ faces off, or ages them spectacularly or…does whatever happens at the end of “Kingdom of The Crystal Skull” – here Indy goes toe to toe, fist to fist with Mola Ram and his magic fingers not just for the sake of the village’s sacred stone but for his life, the lives of his friends and the lives of all the children held prisoner by the Thugees as he dangles from a collapsed rope bridge above a river teeming with hungry crocodiles.
I’m not trying to say “Temple Of Doom” is the best Indiana Jones film, an honour I think will always belong to “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” but it is my absolute favourite and my best, and that’s a hill rope bridge I’m prepared to fight and die on.