This poster grabbed my imagination back in '84
[Editor's Note: I wrote this as a submission to an online film magazine asking for pieces on reconsidering films we once loved. It didn't get accepted, but I still want to share it with you, dear reader.]
I was born in 1975, meaning that I am of a certain cinematic generation that grew up repeatedly watching certain movies that were taped off of television broadcasts onto VHS. It is hard even to recall now the state of home video in the first two-thirds of the 1980s when VHS copies of movies were priced at about a hundred bucks in 1980s money. In those dark days movie studios figured most of their films were being sold to video stores, so they needed to make sure that they got their due and proper.
Being a kid at this time meant that your parents got ultimate veto power over the films rented from said video stores, and parents were not too keen on renting films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom over and over again, no matter how much the kids liked it. That’s where taping movies off television became a lifesaver. I became an expert at timing the pause button so that I could cut out the commercials while not shaving any time off of the movie. It is a now useless skill that many of my fellow Gen Xers possess.
I would watch the weekly TV listings in the local newspaper like a hawk, always ready to add a new favorite to my collection. I was especially delighted when I got to tape Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which at that time I (now embarrassingly) considered to be better than Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Some context is order. Temple of Doom came out in the summer of 1984, and I never got to see it in the theater. It seemed, like Ghostbusters, to stay at the mall threeplex in my rural Nebraska hometown for the entire summer. I would walk by a poster for it at the mall for weeks, tantalized by my hero Harrison Ford holding a sword and a whip, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a muscular chest. Perhaps my mom considered it too mature. After all, it is the film (along with Gremlins) credited with bringing on the PG-13 rating.
What made matters worse, when I got back to school in late August, Temple of Doom was the only thing anybody wanted to talk about. My friends talked wide-eyed with wonder about monkey brains, baby snakes, and eyeball soup. The banquet scene was the kind of epic gross-out fest that prepubescent boys find unassailably awesome. But that wasn’t all. I heard that there was a scene where the villain ripped the heart right out of someone’s chest. How could such a thing even be possible? One of my friends had a novelization of the movie (remember those?) and the color photos inside tantalized me like little else. I felt like I had missed one of the greatest events of my lifetime.
Of course, once it came out on VHS, an eternity in those days, all of my high hopes were more than fulfilled. No one had told me about the spiked floor and ceiling almost crushing Indy, or the insane shootout at the nightclub, or the river raft sledding down the Himalayas, or Indy cutting the rope bridge over the gorge with his sword. There was a little kid sidekick to identify with, and the coal car chase, one of the most thrilling things I had ever seen. Taping it off of television meant that I could watch it as many times as I wanted to, and I am still not sure of the number. In those times of langorous, long summer days full of hours waiting to be filled, there was plenty of opportunity to dive into the VHS tapes and dig out Temple of Doom.
Temple of Doom soon got eclipsed by Last Crusade, which I saw in the theater on the last day of school in 1989. It was almost a religious experience, seeing an amazing Indiana Jones film with the entirety of the summer just stretched out and lying there before me. I doubt that I will ever leave a movie theater in greater ecstasy than I did that evening.
My viewings of Temple of Doom began to drop off after that point, but it still had a warm place in my heart. Years and years passed, and sometime in my early 30s, while talking with friends about ranking movies, one of them said that Temple of Doom was obviously the worst Indiana Jones movie. Could that actually be? Evidently a lot of people felt this way. Perhaps spurred by that conversation I sat down and watched the trilogy of Indiana Jones films, and realized that my friend was absolutely right.
It was a shattering experience, the adult equivalent of realizing there is no Santa Claus or that American history is a depressing litany of horror. Between my childhood and my early 30s not only had grown older, I had gone to graduate school in the humanities. There is little else that can turn someone into a hypercritical buzzkill than this life path. Watching Temple of Doom I realized that it was, in the dreaded parlance of grad school, “problematic.”
Lucas and Spielberg modeled the Indiana Jones films off of action serials that were old when they saw them re-run on TV in their youth. Those serials, which often featured sinister “oriental” villains like Fu Manchu, were super-racist. So was Gunga Din, the 1939 action hit featuring the title character played by a white guy in brown greasepaint. That tale, set in India, was supposedly one of the influences on Temple of Doom. Both films featured a bloody Kali cult, portraying Hinduism as a religion promoting ritual murder. For this reason, among others, India’s government did not grant Spielberg permission to film there.
In that context the banquet scene horrified me, but in an entirely different and not fun fashion. The monkey brains, eyeball soup, and baby snakes fit into long-standing tropes portraying Asians as barbaric, twisted, “other.” As someone who would gladly eat his weight in lamb saag and nan, I knew that this scene had nothing to do with actual Indian food. (I had regrettably never had any Indian cuisine in rural Nebraska in the 1980s.)
As in Gunga-Din, the British empire comes off as necessary and essentially benevolent. At the end of the film it is the British imperial troops and their red-coated officers who come in and help save Indy. The educated Indian official who challenges the British army officer at the banquet is ultimately weak and easily dominated by the Kali cult. The implicit support of imperialism is pretty clear, but probably so unquestioned that George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg did not really think much about it.
Beyond celebrating an empire whose policies led millions to die in multiple deadly famines in India, there are things that make watching Temple of Doom difficult that have nothing to do with its politics. There’s also the screeching. Oh the screeching! In this movie Indy has not just one, but two sidekicks, and they love to screech. There’s Short Round, the Shanghai street kid, and Willie Scott, the American nightclub singer.
Jonathan Ke Quan as Short Round must have been auditioning for his role The Goonies, which has got to be the screechiest movie of the 1980s. A lot of his response to dangerous situations is just to yell out really loud. Of course, the viewer almost forgets that when confronted by the constant, hurricane-force caterwauling from Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott. Practically every scene involves her shrieking and screaming, a walking parody of male stereotypes of femininity.
It would be easy to blame Capshaw for this performance, but I won’t. Her character was written in a two-dimensional fashion, and Capshaw is simply playing that character to the hilt. When she yells out “AND I BROKE A NAIL!” after a litany of complaints it’s effectively silly and expresses a thirteen year old boy’s understanding of women’s emotions, but she gives the line a reading with much more conviction and humor than it deserves. For that reason my sister (who also loved this movie and watched it on tape with me) would repeat it with a cackle.
In the writing of Willie Scott and Short Round and in the impossibly over-the-top moments, such as the banquet, Indy and Willie falling through several canvas overhangs in Shangai, and to somehow surviving a fall out of an airplane in an inflatable raft I see signs of Lucas and Spielberg’s problems with comedy. Spielberg had previously tried to turn complete outlandishness into jokes in 1979’s 1941, his first failure. That movie is monumentally unfunny. While Temple of Doom’s jokes have a higher batting average, the worst moments have parallels in that earlier film (which also treats women horribly.)
George Lucas’ funnybone, as we all should be well aware by now, goes in some odd directions when he is left unsupervised. Just witness Howard the Duck or the Star Wars prequels. The droid factory scene in Attack Of The Clones might be the most unwatchable snippet in all of the Star Wars films, and it was inserted late in production as comic relief. It’s less reviled than Jar Jar –himself a horrible attempt at comedy- but probably a bigger offense because at least Jar Jar is memorable in his awfulness.
In Temple of Doom, made when both Spielberg and Lucas were under the stress of divorce, some of their biggest flaws as filmmakers are exposed. A lot of the same things dragging this film down are what made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so forgettable and put “nuking the fridge” into the cinematic lexicon. No child today is craving to watch that film over and over again, VHS tape or not.
That said, Lucas and Spielberg were still young and inventive in 1984, and despite changing my mind about Temple of Doom, there’s still things I love. The coal car chase is an absolutely thrilling bit of action filmmaking, all amazingly done without the use of CGI. The very beginning, with the lush old Hollywood musical touches as Kate Capshaw sings “Anything Goes” is a wonderful Busby Berkely throwback. The shootout in Club Obi-Wan (groan) is a master class in action film-making.
And, truth be told, when I watch it I am transformed a little into that kid who once loved Temple of Doom. For me I guess it holds the same place those old adventure serials did for Lucas and Spielberg: a trashy bit of fun wrapped in the gauze of nostalgia. Maybe that was their point all along.