The second Indiana Jones film from 1984 was my favorite as a child. It’s violent, exciting, and the only film of the original trilogy not dealing with Christian mythology. On this adventure Jones, accompanied by singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and the adolescent Chinese street urchin Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), travel from Shanghai to India, landing in a desolate village. Here they learn the Thugee cult – a secret Hindu cult worshipping Kali – has kidnapped the village’s children and taken their religious Sankara stones. The trio head to Pankot palace, the suspected site of Thugee activity, and engage in an action-packed adventure. Eventually Indy and company save the day, liberate the enslaved children, and return one of the stones to the remote village. Indy kisses the girl and they all live happily ever after.
Although I can sum up Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in a paragraph that doesn’t mean it’s not a great film. Taking a cue from legitimate religious happenings, Spielberg’s Jones adventure once again grounds itself in religious history. However, like the other two films in the original trilogy, Temple of Doom takes liberties with the facts, distorting them for entertainment purposes. I’m not an expert in any sense when it comes to Hinduism so other than a cursory look at various Wikipedia pages I don’t really have much to go on. Nevertheless, just like the fantasies Spielberg and Lucas created with the other two films (based on Christian mythology), many liberties were taken. The chances Sankara stones, the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant actually exists is zip, but isn’t this the point of films? Creating a fantasy world, even if basing it on actual spiritual concepts is what Hollywood does. I personally believe basing the Indiana Jones films (at least the first three) on actual religious texts or ideas adds a layer of authenticity to a completely ludicrous story, imparting a small amount of knowledge wrapped in well crafted, yet mindless, action and adventure.
Maybe I was a sick kid, but I thought Mola Ram removing the beating heart from a victim was really cool. It was violent and eerie – something that should’ve scared me as a child. Unfortunately this isn’t what happened. The visual aesthetic of the sacrifice scenes – dark orange/reds, lots of shadows, and the creepy ritual music relying heavily on percussion – fascinated me and although I ultimately desired Indy’s victory, I felt more attention should’ve been paid to the Thugee cult’s activities. Maybe this is something I should speak to an analyst about, but watching a Hindu cult sacrificing people was awesome; ripping out a victim’s beating heart and dropping them into lava while their heart smoldered was exciting, not something scary. Its possible this harrowing scene made Indy’s battles all the more intense since the antagonists were much more frightening than the Nazi’s from the first film (which are probably less scary because we won World War II). I read on Wikipedia that both Spielberg and Lucas were going through difficult divorces at the time, explaining the film’s bleak plot and sets, and personally I’m glad. Their loss is our gain.
After watching a few moments of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull last night on USA the original trilogy is even more impressive. There are a few awkward moments – the Thugee thugs (I love the unintentional alliteration) falling towards the alligators, the flying mine car – that appear horribly phony, but for the most part the effects are very impressive. Unlike the overtly fake looking computer effects of today, the blue screens and actual stunts are much better. Of course traditional effects and stunts have limitations, but I think that’s ok. Many times CGI effects look out of place, standing out like a sore thumb instead of looking like part of the scene. Sometimes the rendering is too perfect, too sterile and when placed next to a corporeal individual or set it appears horribly disingenuous. The miniatures crafted by ILM for Temple of Doom are spectacular, revealing natural shadows when photographed; the stunts are impressive and I couldn’t see the difference between the actors and their stunt doubles; the sets were quite impressive, looking genuine instead of like soundstage decorum. I’ve never been to India but I felt Spielberg’s film captured the atmosphere I’ve seen in Indian films and books I’ve perused about the subject.
As with all the films in this series, Temple of Doom is a bit corny. There’s a certain sentiment in all these movies – a feel similar to Hollywood movies of old. It’s not exactly tangible but comes across in the dialogue and situations. It’s also possible placing the films in the 1930s is responsible, giving the movies the atmosphere of old serials. The clothing seems quite accurate (although I can’t say with certainty since I was born over 40 years later), looking like a color version of old detective serials or film noir. Like film noir, which always features a femme fatale or damsel in distress, the Indiana Jones movies, especially Temple of Doom, adheres to this stereotype well. It doesn’t feature a fatal enchantress but Capshaw portrays the helpless female correctly, even incorporating brashness into the character. Whether this is intentional or because she’s a mediocre actor is uncertain, but I feel she plays her part perfectly – she’s attractive, helpless, and obnoxious.
Quan’s portrayal of Short Round is fun but exudes a superior American attitude towards Asians. Short Round, a Shanghai pickpocket Indy saves from the streets, becomes his ward and is interestingly never seen again after this film. Did Indy ditch him at some Midwest orphanage or did he adopt him, sending him off to a boarding school or with a distant relative? Essentially Jones takes a child from his homeland and brings him to America only to ditch him. Although Indy introduces Short Round to various aspects of American culture, the kid’s in for a culture shock when he arrives stateside. Not only that, but considering the attitude most Americans held towards Asians at the time (Charlie Chan films give a good representation along with the Japanese internment camps during World War II), I’m sure Short Round was in for some harsh treatment upon arrival – being both Chinese and an orphan. Although Jones’ benevolence towards the kid reveals a kind streak in the character, he doesn’t really consider all the challenges awaiting him in America. Maybe Spielberg or Angelina Jolie will add him to their collection of third world nation children.
My other complaint about the film is its approval of colonialism. Chattar Lal, the Maharajá of Pankot’s Prime Minister, subversively critiques the British and their imperialism at the dinner scene: “The British worry so about their Emprie — it makes us feel like well-cared-for children.” He also refers to his countrymen as “natives,” in the presence of Captain Philip Blumburtt, using the language of subjection. Here is the only evaluation of the British Empire’s imperialism, which was thwarted about a decade later. Lal’s attitude reflects many living under colonial rule; a rule where one’s national character is defined by an invading force. There were many more repressive colonial forces during the period (the Dutch and French come to mind), but regardless of the benevolence offered by the British, it’s still offered under armed occupation. Lal mentions he studied at Oxford, reaping one of the few benefits offered under British rule, but even still, all his achievements in his native land reward their conquerors first and their nation second.
Spielberg’s film doesn’t offer any other criticism of colonial practices, instead portraying Mola Ram and his followers as backwards, primitive, bloodthirsty goons. Ram’s actions aren’t praiseworthy, but it’s a response to occupation. His desire for the demise of other religions seems rooted in anti-colonialism, even mentioning the barbarity experienced under British imperatives. It’s interesting that Mola Ram’s sentiment reflects those of contemporary Muslim extremists, whose actions are the result of Western influence in their region. Once again, I don’t condone their actions but understand where they come from. At the end of the film when the British arrive, saving the day, the camera features Blumburtt in a very dignified pose. He looks like a conqueror, satisfied with his intervention in the situation and the death of many Thugees. This moment denotes the passivity towards colonial oppression, furthering the Western belief that Asians are exotic, backwards, and need a dignified and cultured civilization to regulate theirs.
Also, I’m sure all Indians eat Monkey Brains and “Snake Surprise.”
Regardless of my criticism of Spielberg’s passive approach towards Indian culture and British colonialism, I still think his insubordinate criticism (via Lal) deserves praise. I’m willing to overlook this portrayal of Indian culture because I’m an American, a product of Western culture and ideology. Overall I believe Temple of Doom is a fun film, regardless of its politics. I’m sure if I hadn’t read a great deal about colonialism and post-colonialism I wouldn’t even consider these issues but going back to this childhood film after so many years I can’t help noticing. The film’s still really exciting, filled with great characters, and extremely well crafted.
Here’s the trailer