In the second part of our trilogy of articles, VHS Revival revisits darker pastures, racial prejudice and monkey brain entrées.
The beauty of coming up with a character who was originally conceived as James Bond without the gadgets is that you can treat him like Bond.
As long as you can come up with a situation, a new location, some new characters and a new dilemma within which to place your hero, then you have the grounding for a new film, and there is no need to reference a previous instalment in order for the formula to be effective. That is clearly what Spielberg and Lucas had in mind with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
I’ve always found it interesting that they chose to use the character’s name in the title for both this and the third instalment, fully realising they had created a marquee hero. The plot of each film is pretty much incidental to the situations and set pieces in which they place their action packed archaeologist, and it was the original brainstorming for Raiders of the Lost Ark that proved to be the inspiration behind much of the opening act here.
That being the case, the opening sequences of these first two films couldn’t be more different. Whereas ‘Raiders’ plunged us into the jungle through dusty, cobwebbed caves, to be attacked by indigenous tribesmen dressed in rags, here we begin with a lush musical number as the rich and aimless fight over diamonds in white tuxedos. The aim of this sequence is to introduce us to our new love interest, Willie, and usher in another wonderfully choreographed action sequence, including Indiana Jones shielding himself from machine gun fire by running alongside a giant gong – the first of two sequences from the original brainstorming session that they couldn’t shoehorn into ‘Raiders’, the second being the daring escape from a pilotless plane via an inflatable raft, ushering us headlong into a plot centred on the search for three sacred stones. With the stones missing, the featured village is in poverty as long held superstitious beliefs lead the villagers’ to conclude that the rivers have dried up and the children have disappeared because the stones are not there to protect them.
The Indy series adopts the trend of producing a sequel that is darker than the original, a precedent set by Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back. Make no mistake, this is a substantial departure from the carefree Indiana Jones of ‘Raiders’ and has received a fair amount of criticism for its tone. Not only was it partly responsible for the American PG-13 rating, but was also heavily cut by the BBFC. The UK censors removed more than a minute of violence, reduced the severity of screams, and even toned down the language. In a letter to the studio, the BBFC indicated that the film would require a ‘15’ classification and was borderline ‘18’, such was their concern in regards to the violence and tone of the film, and for the young audience at which it was aimed. The movie has an undeniable intensity, particularly once our intrepid trio enter the realm of Mola Ram, surely one of the most terrifying characters ever to grace a family picture, both visually and physically, particularly with his ability to rip out a man’s heart.
Sinister antagonists aside, it is also the character of Jones himself that helps to establish a darker tone. In the opening scene he punches a woman – although accidentally and seemingly for comic effect given the context of the situation. Later, he becomes possessed by Mola Ram and under his control beats his young companion, even slapping love interest Willie around, before sending her down into the fiery pit to her apparent doom. The fact that Spielberg and Lucas seem to revel in scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film are indicative of the fact that neither of them were in a particularly happy place at the time as reports suggested. The two of them seem to relish in the intensity of these scenes, which are dwelt upon in depth and detail (unlike the face melting and head exploding climax of ‘Raiders’) and include depictions of child slave-labour, and a particularly nightmarish dinner scene (albeit played largely for laughs) that would surely disturb its younger target audience.
‘Temple’ also came under fire for its depiction of India, and more specifically the financial disparity that exists between the rich and poor parts of the nation’s society. The meal scene came in for particular criticism, and the movie was even banned in India for a short time in protest of what it saw as racial prejudice and stereotyping of their culture, its content portraying Indian culture as savage or uncivilised at best. The religious side of things was also considered derogatory, with the God Kali portrayed as evil and destructive instead of ushering in change. Meanwhile, the poorer classes of India are portrayed as excessively primitive, a civilisation who are barely able to function beyond their religious beliefs, and, in spite of their wisdom and knowledge, do absolutely nothing beyond waiting for the great white American hope to rescue the situation.
That’s not to say we’re talking about a terrible film here. At the end of the day we’re looking at an explosive and riotous blockbuster, not an historical epic grounded in realism, and Spielberg and Lucas once again deliver a true spectacle. Either side of the scenes involving a possessed Indiana, we have some breathtaking action including the trio’s journey through the trap filled underground corridors (‘The Goonies’ clearly took inspiration from that, with Christopher Columbus basing an entire movie upon it); their wonderful escape through the mines – a fairground ride waiting to happen – and the freeing of the children, right up to the confrontation with Mola Ram on the cliff edges and rope bridge. This is all classic Spielberg, dragging the film out of its depression and right back into ‘Raiders’ territory, ultimately allowing us a final hurrah and happy ending.
Spielberg has stated on a few occasions that this is his least favourite of the original trilogy, that his true feelings weren’t channelled into it, and that the third film was made almost as an apology for ‘Temple of Doom’. I think he’s being a bit harsh and perhaps taking it all too personally, because despite being pretty frightening and intense and culturally offensive in places, it maintains the pace and tension that the original was praised for. The movie gallops along, only pausing for for moments of comic relief and occasions where romance threatens to stop play (I always hated ‘kissy-kissy’ scenes in films as a child, give me chilled monkey brains any day!), and on the whole the movie does enough to satisfy even the most demanding of action fans. It does lack some of the boyish good nature of the first film, as well as a worthy female foil (Kate Capshaw’s Willie is certainly no match for Karen Allen’s Marion, unless we’re talking about a screaming match), giving us even more cause to believe that Indiana Jones has his flaws and vulnerabilities, just like you and I.
With two blockbusters under his belt it was only inevitable that Indiana Jones would be given the trilogy treatment, and in our final part I will be looking back at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which would introduce none other than James Bond’s Sean Connery as Indy’s disapproving father. Setting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a year before events in ‘Raiders’ gave Spielberg the chance to move away from the Nazis, but he just couldn’t resist one final grudge match it seemed, fast forwarding to 1938 in what would become a Nazi led race for the Holy Grail, and a return to the lighthearted Indy of old.