Released on May 23, 1984, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary and the fighting still hasn’t died down. At the time, “Return of the Jedi” was just one year old, and “E.T.” wasn’t even two years old, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” that first collaboration between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was just then approaching its third anniversary. To say that the two men were on top of the showbiz mountain almost feels like an understatement. ‘Temple of Doom’ was a huge hit when released—really, there was no way it wasn’t going to be—but didn’t match the box office of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and was the subject of a surprising amount of controversy.
Once audiences got a look at the further adventures of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), this time accompanied by nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and trusty pre-teen companion Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) as they stumble across the horrors of a Thugee cult somewhere in India, some people were shocked at what occurred and maybe people were expecting something else from the director of “E.T.” but considering what happened in the famous climax of ‘Raiders’ it’s almost a little surprising just how surprised they were. With a screenplay by Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz (also co-writers on “American Grafitti” and uncredited script doctors on “Star Wars”) from an original story by Lucas, the film has aged in an interesting way almost more due to what people think about the film more than the film itself. Its supporters are fervent, feeling that it’s the strongest example of the pure amusement park feel that the likes of Lucas and Spielberg ever pulled off. The detractors are there too with some still going on about the violence along with the plot involving enslaved children but also complaining about the thin story and female lead who doesn’t quite match up to the role model that Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood was in ‘Raiders.’
This array of darkness caused controversy, just as the Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-directed “Gremlins” did when released just a few weeks later, sending the MPAA into action immediately, and by the time the summer was over the PG-13 rating had been created. As time went on both Spielberg and Lucas seemed to act sheepish about the whole thing in interviews with Lucas blaming the tone on his own bad mood from the divorce he was going through at the time which actually makes one wonder why the main bad guy Mola Ram wasn’t made a woman to take the heart-ripped-out concept even further. When “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade,” the third film in the series, finally arrived five years, later its intentional plot similarities to ‘Raiders’ made it seem like an attempt to set things right and flat-out give the people what they had already loved before.
Set in 1935 and therefore a prequel to ‘Raiders’ for reasons no one has ever understood, ‘Temple of Doom’ is dark at times—to be frank, one screening a few years back made me think, “I can see why this may have been a little much for some people”— but is very much its own thing and, without any awareness of what people were going to think, seemingly unapologetic of that. The opening musical number featuring “Anything Goes” mostly sung in Chinese is still dynamite, making me wish we could get this sort of scene in a summer tentpole now.
Because for all its flaws and lack of maturity, ‘Temple of Doom’ represents the last sight of classic-era Spielberg showmanship as effortless and joyful as possible. Maybe that he moved on from this was for the best and inevitable; “Empire of the Sun” is about the end of childhood, after all. But even the action sequences in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (which I don’t dislike at all) feel considerably more workmanlike in comparison, as if that true spark of inspiration just wasn’t there in the way it used to be. Maybe by that point Spielberg was ready for adulthood.
The Hawksian vibe of ‘Raiders’ gave us Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood and at times a genuine bookish curiosity of what lay within the Ark of the Covenant Indiana Jones was seeking out. ‘Temple of Doom,’ in addition to having a slightly more screwball feel appropriate for the nightclub setting of its opening, is much more of a pre-teen boys-adventure—co-written by a woman, yet—set in a world where girls are icky, exotic places are scary and it’s all just one big playground for the likes of Short Round as he follows Indy wherever things will lead them (what did ever happen to Short Round, anyway? Not Ke Huy Quan, I mean the character. Did he make it out of WWII ok?).
Without a Denholm Elliot equivalent around this time to ground things, if only for a few minutes, there a certain sober quality that ‘Raiders’ had which is missing this time out and also is somewhat underpopulated in comparison—Philip Stone, memorable as Delbert Grady in “The Shining,” appears as Captain Blumburtt but it’s easy to forget that he’s even in the movie. And yet the action scenes, particularly in the second half, are extraordinary, some of the model work in the visual effects by ILM is particularly good while John Williams’ score brings a stirringly memorable mix of excitement and exoticism. Plus Harrison Ford is of course Indiana Jones, behaving like he’s finally recovered from the post-carbon freeze thaw he was going through in ‘Jedi’ and approaches the character with absolute joy that he has the chance to pull off what we’re getting to see.
As Spielberg excess goes, I suppose I’ll take “1941” if given the choice, but much of ‘Temple of Doom’ remains memorable—along with the imagery of the heart being ripped out, the very nature of the Temple of Doom setting became a somewhat recurring setpiece over the next few years in Hollywood films from the Spielberg-produced “Young Sherlock Holmes” to John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” and even to the big screen comedy version of “Dragnet,” starring Dan Aykroyd who even cameos here (since he doesn’t even get a close-up most people have probably never noticed him either). Hyuck and Katz were responsible for the big screen version of “Howard the Duck” which you could argue takes some of the excess of ‘Temple of Doom’ to its most unfortunate extreme.
Going along with the jokey vibe of having the opening nightclub sequence take place at Club Obi Wan, the name Short Round is presumably taken from a similar character who befriends the lead in Sam Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet” and during the climax this film even references itself with both a callback to the most famous joke in the original. It even brings back Pat Roach, the giant auto mechanic in ‘Raiders,’ who here has a similar end-of-act-two fight with Indiana Jones as the chief guard in the mines. Admittedly, just by itself “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” doesn’t stay with me the way ‘Raiders’ does. It’s hard to live up to that giant boulder, the truck chase, the answer to what lies within the Ark of the Covenant. And I can never come up with all that good an argument for the people who dislike ‘Temple Of Doom’ so much. Yet it feels essential for Spielberg and Lucas, for all those summer blockbusters in the ’80s, for what all those things mean to me deep down. On Memorial Day this year the New Beverly in L.A. is running ‘Doom’ on a double bill with “Raiders.” No promises, but I may have to be there.