Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Looking Back on Spielberg’s Relic With A Bad Rep

Indy's second adventure was a huge hit, but remains increasingly divisive. Now Adam Solomons asks... is it possible to enjoy Temple of Doom in spite of its problems?

In Backlash, we explore the films that were originally beloved by critics and audiences alike, only to face heavy scrutiny or a notable decrease in popularity as time went on. But how do these films fare now – and was the backlash deserved or unwarranted?

In the spring of 1989, while Steven Spielberg should have been promoting third Indiana Jones adventure The Last Crusade, he was a little busy doing something else: apologising for the second instalment, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released five years previously. With uncharacteristic fortitude, the director commented: “Temple of Doom contains not an ounce of my personal feeling,” adding that The Last Crusade, a broadly drawn return to the themes and characters of Raiders of the Lost Ark, served as an “apology” for the perceived failings of the second film.

It wasn’t immediately easy to see why Spielberg felt so strongly: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which saw Harrison Ford reprising his role as the eminent archaeologist, had debuted to decent – if not glowing – reviews, plus a solid commercial reception that exceeded $300 million globally. Yet there was indignation in India, where the government had prevented its filming and would later ban the film’s release, and a growing distaste among commentators who pointed to the film’s backward social attitudes. But thirty-six years after it first hit cinemas – and despite its numerous controversies – Temple of Doom is in some ways the logical conclusion of the playful action-epics Spielberg and his collaborators sought to master in the nineteen-eighties: the ultimate Indiana Jones adventure.

If only it weren’t for the eyeball soup. That famous dinner scene at the boy Maharajah’s palace served more than any other element to provoke the derision of India’s film censors, who swiftly banned the film from public release. Even before we know of the fictional Thuggee cult’s bloodthirsty intentions, pernicious caricatures from the helpless, starving Mayapore villagers to a farcically greedy meat-eater at Pankot Palace tarred the film’s reputation among the people it sought to represent.

In fact, Temple of Doom remains a subject of controversy on the subcontinent; it’s well-known among industry observers that India’s film industry produces more films than anywhere else, and a disappointment in the country’s representation by films originating elsewhere goes some way to explain why. Temple of Doom has similarly gained genuine academic attention in the US as a harmful stereotype of Asian communities that had lasting effects on American audiences, further contributing to the film’s frequent placement on “Most dated movies…” lists.

However, the story behind that notorious dinner scene might go some way to assuage some of that bitter feeling. According to a recent oral history of the movie, Chattar Lal actor Roshan Seth recalled that the infamous banquet scene was in fact supposed to outline the strangeness of this particular sect of Indians outright. In fact, one sentence in the original script included the line: “Even if they were trying to scare us away, a devout Hindu would never touch meat. Makes you wonder what these people are…”

Due to a ruthless filming schedule and an already-packed script, the line was cut and the misunderstanding of the Thuggee cult as denoting the ways of Indians at large became widespread. Although its intentions were never cynical, any major blockbuster today would be more careful not to offend its overseas audience. Spielberg’s films – and mainstream epics in the Indiana Jones style – have been careful not to do so ever since.

Even still, the damage was done. Temple of Doom can’t compete on its nuanced characters, nor its skilful negotiation of subject matter. It’s even more unfortunate, then, that almost everything else about it is exceptional. From the dazzling “Anything Goes” opening to the Club Obi-Wan fight scene to the Lao Che Air Freight gag, Temple of Doom’s breathless opener contains some of the best action of the decade. John Williams effortlessly introduces new motifs to an already-unforgettable Indiana Jones soundtrack, with “The Scroll / To Pankot Palace” serving as a memorable accompaniment to the Lawrence of Arabia-inspired journeying sequences.

Then there's Jonathan Ke Quan’s performance as sidekick Short Round, which stands up as a strikingly good child actor performance in a movie that does less well for its grownup characters. That’s not to speak of the brilliantly funny Willie-versus-Indy tête-à-tête (“He’s not coming”/“She’s not coming”), the spiked room, the mine cart chase, the rope bridge fight… the list goes on, and these scenes need no description; they’re as good as they always were.

And as far as the notion of Indy as a male, white saviour goes, the adventurer is saved many times from certain death, usually by Short Round and later (albeit perhaps a little too late) by Willie. Temple of Doom doesn’t by any means glorify Indy as an all-knowing master of his surroundings: he memorably learns that his initial scepticism of the Mayaporans’ spirituality is misplaced, and that their stories mean every bit as much as he is told. To quote Han Solo, another roguish Harrison Ford hero: “A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light…? Crazy thing is, it’s true.”

Of course, The Last Crusade, although a similarly effective action-adventure caper, returned to the Raiders playbook and Temple of Doom was left even by its makers to gather dust. Spielberg’s apology tour would result in The Colour Purple and, with the exception of the third Indy instalment and the 1991 flop Hook, a streak of similarly mature dramas that culminated in Schindler’s List and, finally, an Oscar for best director. The same year, Jurassic Park smashed Spielberg’s own box-office record (held by E.T.), but the horror-inspired magical ritualism of Temple of Doom would never be seen in his filmmaking again.

With the film by then carrying such well-documented baggage, perhaps it was for the better. But that doesn't mean Temple of Doom is a relic worth discarding, or ignoring. Still a cinematic pearl of many fans’ childhoods and in a number of ways Indy’s grandest adventure, the politics of Temple of Doom shrink on close analysis. But the lesson learned on behalf of Temple of Doom’s creators was simple: “Anything Goes” only gets you so far.

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