BFI Steven Spielberg Season – Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom (1984)
Otherwise known as the sequel with the annoying sidekicks. It was inevitable that Raiders Of The Lost Ark would return as a franchise given its box office obliteration and its origins in serial cinematic storytelling, with Harrison Ford’s imimic inhabitation of the distressed jacket and battered fedora ensuring that Indy would return for further swashbuckling adventures. Three years on however and George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s domestic arrangements had simultaneously soured, and wounded through the process of scathing divorces both their pessimism allegedly bled through to the DNA of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, the so-called ‘dark’ film of the quartet. ‘Dark’ is a subjective term, and for Spielberg during this period ‘dark’ isn’t exactly a trawl through the visceral horrors of the D-Day landings or the Eastern European holocaust, its more akin to some shadowy photography, an emphasis on claustrophobic interiors and the odd glimpse of PG sanitized violence, but for an ostensive Children’s adventure movie this is quite a sobering affair. Of all the films in the franchise I remember being quite fond of the film, as a kid who tended to cheer the Stormtroopers and boo the Ewoks I embraced the darkness, giggling along to a plot which orbits industrial child kidnapping, ritualised religious abuse and live human sacrifice – perfect for a child. Infamously Tarantino has argued that it’s the strongest picture in the series, frequently airing his personal 35mm print at the New Beverley in Los Angeles, while other voices such as Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish seem to have joined their voice to the contrarian chorus. During this double bill I have to say I did find the picture lacking during some of its mid-peak longueurs and the cringe worthily Orientalism and bumbling racism is all quite despondent, with the addition of Kate Capshaw as Indy’s screeching love interest hardly equates to a Bechtel balance. But like any Spielberg film it has its moments, the glittering jewels scattered amidst the swine, if we take a very careful scalpel to the Temple’s trembling exo-skeleton…
Like Raiders before it I’m guessing you know the film intimately through numerous TV screenings, even if you weren’t treated to a big screen banquet back in those ancient Orwellian days of 1984. We’ll come into the structure and style shortly but the most glaring garments of the film some thirty years hence is the rather high racism threshold, as if this film was released today you could be sure of a storm controversy. You can’t avoid the white savior elements, with Indy literally falling from the skies in order to bring Western civilization and leadership to those poverty-stricken peasants, apart from the ruling caste of the colony who just happen to be heathen child sacrificing maniacs. The banquet scene is distasteful on a number of levels, with some exaggerated baiting of foreign cuisine and customs, although Spielberg plays it as affectionate romp it oozes from the screen like inebriated uncle lecturing you on how Brexit has given him his country back. – not even the effusive Delbert Grady can provide some much-needed decorum. Maybe this makes me sound like a hypersensitive member of the SJW brigade who is reading too much into a film of three decades vintage which in turn was playing on the common social perspectives of the 1930’s, but by any standards Doom has some cringe worthy contours, which isn’t exactly suppressed by the appearance of Indy’s love interest as a haughty, ditzy, shrieking blonde, a perpetual one-dimensional damsel in distress played by Spielberg’s second wife Kate Capeshaw. It’s a dramatic reversal of Karen Allen’s strident strength in Raiders, so you can’t help suspect that both George and Steven’s dark opinions of the opposite sex may have been bleeding in from the real world. Or, y’know, they’ve always been sexist jerks…..
As a villain Molar Ram, despite sounding like a particularly agonizing dental procedure is given short characteristic shrift, he’s quite clearly just a foreign devil with his unchristian heathen ways, and you never really get a sense of his motivations or ultimate purpose. So he’s stolen the mystical stones from the village and is sacrificing to appease Kali but to what end? It’s never particular clear nor why he has enlisted his child slave army to dig for…well, what? For all these diminutions the film like all of Spielberg’s superficial yarns has a pneumatic pace and energy, cribbing from the holistic cliché rulebook of good American guys and bad outsider guys, of swashbuckling swerve and exotic locales. It’s a fine technical achievement for the era, with a reasonable mixture of stunt, design and location work, moving down to the microscopic level with the miniature and model work not overwhelmed with CGI conjurations which had just started to emerge in the industry. I’ve never quite understood why some of the key and high-profile films of this period, including the Star Wars pictures for example were soundstage shot in the UK rather than in Hollywood. Sure the craftsmanship of the British crews was and remains legendary in the business, but it still seems rather expensive to house, feed and shift your entire crew across an ocean, so are the UK’s tax incentives just as attractive then as they apparently are now? If so then why wasn’t Blade Runner for example shot at Pinewood or Elstree? Alien was, so did specific studios have specific resources and deals embedded here? Answers on a postcard please…..
After thirty years of intervening on-screen adrenaline the calm construction of Temple Of Doom seems almost quaint, as it etches the contours of modern action blockbuster model just like Raiders before it, with a setting that is just a little more confined and constrictive. The open Club Obi-Wan sequence – jeez I wonder where that bludgeoning reference is culled from – is a lot of fun with the poison antidote / diamond / double crosses diptych, the inflatable dinghy escape from the abandoned plane as ludicrous as say, squatting inside a lead-lined fridge to survive a thermonuclear obliteration. The film does drag for a little as it desperately tries to force some slapstick romance on Indy and Kate, before the discovery of the Kali crypt and possession sleight of hand. I was dozing a little here, even during the PG perverting beating heart evisceration, but then a step on the accelerator spurned me to action as Steve does manage to set the film back on track with the mine-car chase and the rope-bridge gambit affecting a fine end to a intermittently successful picture. He’s on record as viewing the film as his least favorite of the franchise, citing it as being ‘too subterranean’ is an interesting turn of phrase, but perhaps it also raises the specter of a difficult period in his life which founds its way through into the eaves of the finished adventure. It does feel rote, as I said the banquet sequence is embarrassing and it has little of the charm of its predecessor, but Capshaw isn’t as quite irritating as I suspected, and Short Round does get one good line. So that’s two more key Spielberg’s finally covered, with one more slightly left field effort to examine which has become one of his most challenging curio’s, I don’t think any regular readers will have much difficult in predicting what intellectual and interpretative Matterhorn I decided to scale next. So until those oft-mooted rumors of Indy V coalesce into something more concrete we’ll let our weather-beaten hero ride off into the sunset, the unruly depraved runt of the frenetic franchise;