Raiding the Temple of Doom

Earlier this summer, I had the great pleasure of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in a theater. In promotion for the Indiana Jones series’ release on Blu Ray, “they” re-released the first of the four films in IMAX for one-then-two weeks. I went with my then-fiancee-now-wife and her brother. I wrote about my experience with the movie for Reel Spirituality shortly thereafter.

A couple of months later, I ran across this interview with George Lucas, former head of Lucasfilm, on the subject of the Indy franchise’s second installment, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The film is much maligned for being darker and less fun than the other Indy films, and the article explores why from a historical perspective, grave robbing Lucas’ soul of the pain he’d buried there from a period in his life that included a divorce from his first wife.

I had seen Temple of Doom only once all the way through in addition to picking up pieces of it here and there on television over the years. My parents allowed us to watch The Last Crusade to our hearts’ content, and Raiders wasn’t off-limits either (though I had an aversion to it because of my childhood trauma associated with it). We were discouraged from watching Doom though. My parents saw in it the same darkness that most film critics see.

Unlike most film critics though, my parents attributed that darkness to a spiritual darkness associated with all the occult imagery integral to the plot. Raiders and Crusade deal with explicitly Judeo-Christian objects, and Indy both learns to fear God and faces a test of faith in procuring his historical tokens. Doom’s talisman is Hindi, and Indy has to overcome Thug devotees to get back the precious Shiva stones. In his moment of triumph, he even quotes a Thug incantation, guaranteeing his foe’s demise.

Many people would fault me for this, but I do believe my parents make a good and often overlooked point. The reliance on an Eastern sect famed for its violent rituals grants the film much of its darkness. Furthermore, I do believe that there are spiritual forces at work in the world, beings with personalities who either faithful to or oppose Christ. The Thug god Kali is probably one such personality. (To be sure, there are others with names like Consumerism and Individualism and still others without names at all, whose presence one can only feel when one enters physical places where their power is established.) Temple of Doom appeals to a god other than the One True God, and I believe this grants the movie much of its atmosphere of death.

Even if you reject the idea of a spiritual realm, considering it all simple myth (as I would argue the writers and director do), Doom’s reliance on an Eastern, and therefore to Western audiences, foreign religious system adds to the movie’s opaqueness. The West is largely Judeo-Christian. Even if a person does not recognize Biblical authority, he or she comes from a culture drenched in Judeo-Christian ideas. The god of Raiders and Crusade is therefore more familiar and comforting than the foreign god of Doom.

Furthermore, while Doom is considered unlikeable because of its brutality and “darkness,” the series’ fourth installment, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is openly mocked. Part of this widespread derision has to be accredited to Skull’s appeal to a literally alien god. While Western culture may view Eastern gods with suspicion, it considers the worship of extraterrestrials simply silly.

Watching Doom again recently, I was surprised to find that it isn’t a bad film at all. It’s actually very effective. Many of its action sequences (and make no mistake, Indiana Jones movies are composed almost entirely of action sequences), are as thrilling as anything in any of the other movies. In many ways, Doom’s action sequences are exactly what one would expect to see in a movie about a grave-robbing archeologist – spike-filled collapsing rooms, runaway mine carts, and perilously hung rope bridges hewn in half by our sword-wielding hero. Some might deride these scenes as being like a simulacrum of an Indian Jones movie (“the things one expects”), but really, Indiana Jones movies themselves are simulacrums of earlier Republic serials realized on a blockbuster scale. These kinds of scenes are what Indiana Jones “is.”

When Lucas and Spielberg created the Indiana Jones character, they were trying to make a James Bond-like character whom they could continually put in harrowing situations from which he could escape in cinematically thrilling if physically impossible ways. Indy comes out of the era that gave audiences the Roger Moore Bond flicks, in which Bond escapes peril by running across the backs of living alligators and falling from space, and disposes of his enemies by dropping them, wheel-chair bound, from helicopters down smokestacks.

So, when Indy escapes a pilot-less plane by air-surfing on an inflatable raft and then sledding in it down the Himalayas, it’s ridiculous, but it’s not unprecedented. (And when audiences complained about “nuking the fridge” in Skull, they should have consulted their source material. I also think we can excuse Cate Blanchet’s “laughable” Russian accent for the same reason.) Screeching Wilie, though grating, is a marginally better character than most Bond girls.

All that being said, Doom is much more dark and brutal than any of the other Indiana Jones films. It is truly a “descent into hell” (as the formerly mentioned writer put it) both thematically and visually. The movie begins with a Ziegfeld Follies-like dance number and a Casablanca-clad hero, but before we know it, Indy has been poisoned, his friend has been shot, a greedy, silly girl girl (unlike Raiders’ tough Marion) won’t leave him alone, bugs, eyeballs, and brains are eaten, two adults are sexually frustrated, Indy climbs down into the lava-lit earth, a heart is ripped out, a child watches, that child is whipped by a Thug and beaten by a brain-washed Indy, and the only smile we ever see through all of this is on the face of another child gleefully mutilating an Indiana Jones doll. That’s bleak.

Once again, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not a bad movie. It is simply merciless and mirthless. I’ve already explicated the terror its protagonists experience, but the movie’s lack of humor is noteworthy as well. In Raiders and Crusade, there are plenty of shots of Indy smirking after disposing of a Nazi (“Nazis” – society’s universally accepted pariah, kill at will). In Raiders and Crusade, Indy’s companions – Marion, Sallah, Indy’s father, and Brody – area all likable and provide many comedic moments. Doom lacks likable side characters. It’s one pleasure is Short Round, the child with no back story who has to witness all this horror and is eventually whipped and beaten.

Watching it again recently, I actually enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the cinematic thrills it continually delivers. It’s a great B-horror movie, showing with unflinching frankness the terror that a person like Indiana Jones would encounter as he raids the dark depths of human experience with the supernatural.

Allowing Doom its overwhelming sense of, well, doom, the movie’s one fault is that, in the end, as a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, it undermines the lesson Indiana Jones learns in Raiders that there is a supernatural realm worth taking seriously. Why, one must ask, having encountered the Thugs and Kali does Indy doubt the power of a god in Raiders?

As he says to Brody in Raiders, “Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? We’ve known each other a long time. I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance. You’re talking about the boogie man. Beside, you know what a cautious fellow I am,” as he throws a revolver in his suitcase (cribbing, of course, from Ford’s other famous character created by Lucas – “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”).

If, as Doom would have us believe, Indy meets the boogie man in India, why does he still doubt the supernatural in his later adventure? This is one thing Crusade at least (I only saw Skull once and don’t remember well how Indy is caricatured there) gets right. In Crusade, Indy respects the power of the supernatural. It’s essential to the reason he survives while the Nazi’s are consumed by the god in question. Indy’s arc in the third film is about reconciliation with the authority of his father – a particularly Spielbergian theme as opposed to Raiders’ and Doom’s Lucasian wrestling with the unknown – as he has already reconciled with the authority of god. He grows as a person in different ways through the first and third film. The second film has him going on an already completed, or rather, already to-be completed personal journey.

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the stakes are much lower in Doom than in either Raiders or Crusade. A village is certainly worth saving, but in the first and third films, Indy is also trying to save the world from the Nazis as he is growing as a person.

While Spielberg and Lucas were wildly successful in creating one of cinema’s most loved heroes, I think they failed to create another version of James Bond. But they failed in the best possible way, because they created a character with real emotions who genuinely learns and grows as he is shaped by his adventures. With the exception of one brief, quickly glossed-over exceptional exception and the most recent Bond films, Bond never learns anything. He simply saves the world. Indy, in his best incarnations, saves both the world and another piece of his soul in the process.

Now that Lucas has handed over control of Indiana Jones to another empire (Disney), it will be interesting to see where Indy’s story goes. What other psychological and relational adventures will the Mouse send Indy on as they no doubt capitalize on his enduring popularity? Or will Indy finally become the Bond-like hero he was created to be, a man without issues and, arguably, without a heart who simply saves the world from some mythologically themed threat?