The first Indiana Jones movie is often considered up there with the greatest adventure movies of all-time. Its prequel, The Temple of Doom, has its own unique impact on the cinematic industry. It’s one of two movies largely responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating, the other being Gremlins. Both of these movies were directed by Steven Spielberg, and no, that’s actually not a coincidence.
Spielberg had been pushing the MPAA for a rating between PG and R for years at that point. Before that, the PG rating generally suggested “Parental guidance” for viewers under 6, while R meant that anyone under 17 must be accompanied with a parent or guardian. Considering people in their early teens can handle a lot more than the average 6-year-old, that’s quite the gap. Both The Temple of Doom and Gremlins pushed the PG rating much further than normal, Temple of Doom being by far the darkest and most violent of the Indiana Jones movies. A lot of parents complained about their kids being terrified by several scenes in particular, which I’ll mention later on in this post. Less than two months after Temple of Doom’s release, the MPAA added the PG-13 rating.
When George Lucas first approached Spielberg for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he convinced his friend to agree to a trilogy, but only because he said he wrote all three of them. “It turned out George did not have three stories in mind and we had to make up subsequent stories.” Both of them later attributed the prequel’s darker tone to their personal moods, as they both suffered bad breakups around the time. Even without that, Lucas felt it should be darker than the second, the same way that Empire Strikes Back was darker than the original Star Wars.
They also decided early on that they wanted a prequel to avoid reusing the Nazis as villains. Spielberg originally wanted to bring Marion back from the first movie, and also including her father, Abner, as a possible character. Abner was mentioned in Raiders of the Lost Ark as a mentor of Indiana Jones’s. There were a number of other attempts to bring Abner into the series, whether in the flashbacks in The Last Crusade, the cancelled third season of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series, the cancelled Dark Horse comics limited series, and the Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb video game (they eventually decided to cut the character completely). Thus, he remains an unseen character.
Lawrence Kasdan was approached to write the movie’s script, but he didn’t want anything to do with it. “I just thought it was horrible. It’s so mean. There’s nothing pleasant about it. I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives, and the movie is ugly and mean spirited.” Instead, Lucas hired husband and wife writing team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz for the script, both having worked with him before on his breakthrough film, American Graffiti (Huyck also helped out with Star Wars). The fact that they had knowledge of Indian culture also helped. Before writing the script, they spent four days at Skywalker Ranch discussing ideas with Lucas and Spielberg. Of the meetings, they later said that Lucas was insisted that Indy would recover something stolen from a village, and that the movie would start in China and make its way to India. Apparently Lucas was very single-minded in the meetings, while “Steve would always stop and think about visual stuff.”
The opening musical number stemmed from a mutual desire from Lucas and Spielberg, as Lucas wanted to start with a musical number similar to box office bomb Radioland Murders, and Spielberg had always wanted to try a musical at some point in his career.
One challenge the filmmakers saw was how to keep the audience interested while explaining the history of the Thuggee cult. The writers suggested a tiger hunt, but Spielberg said “There’s no way I’m going to stay in India long enough to shoot a tiger hunt.” They instead decided on a dinner scene involving eating bugs, monkey brains and similar gross food. Katz said of the scene, “Steve and George both still react like children, so their idea was to make it as gross as possible.”
Because the Indian government found the script offensive, they were denied filming rights in India. Instead, the film is mostly shot in Sri Lanka, with matte paintings and scale models for the Indian village, the temple, and Pankot Palace. Budgetary inflation increased the production costs to $28 million, a full $10 million more than Raiders. Also, the initial cut was actually too fast for the movie’s sake, so Spielberg filmed some additional matte shots to slow the pacing down.
New cast members for the movie include Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott, an American nightclub singer working in Shanghai who ends up getting stuck in an adventure with Indiana Jones. She was supposed to be a complete contrast to Marion from the start. She and Spielberg ended up getting married in 1991, and they’re still married today. Famed Indian actor Amrish Puri plays Mola Ram, the Thuggee priest who leads human sacrifice ceremonies. Spielberg wanted Mola Ram to be terrifying, so they added elements of Aztec and Hawaiian human sacrifices, and European devil worship.
And of course you’ve got Ke Huy Quan as Short Round, an 11-year-old Chinese sidekick of Jones’s. Around 6,000 different actors auditioned for the role, including Quan’s brother. Ke, born Jonathan, is Vietnamese born, but his family fled to the United States when the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was defeated. Although he hasn’t acted in a while, he sometimes works as a stunt choreographer, including the first X-Men movie.
Temple of Doom received mixed critical reception upon its release. Roger Ebert gave it a perfect score, calling it “the most cheerfully exciting, bizarre, goofy, romantic adventure movie since Raiders, and it is high praise to say that it’s not so much a sequel as an equal. It’s quite the experience.” The Star Tribune review called the movie “Sillier, darkly violent and a bit dumbed down, but still fun.” The People magazine review on the other hand complained “The ads that say ‘this film may be too intense for younger children’ are fraudulent. No parent should allow a young child to see this traumatizing movie; it would be a cinematic form of child abuse.
The movie also caused a bit of controversy with its portrayal of India and Hinduism. This is especially so with the movie’s portrayal of the goddess Kali as a representative of the underworld and evil. In reality, she’s usually depicted as a goddess of change and empowerment; while she does sometimes destroy things, it is to bring positive change. The dinner scene was particularly blasted, as live snakes, bugs, eyeball soup and monkey brains are not actual Indian foods. In fact, vegetarianism is very common in India, and certain parts of Indian culture love their spices.
Even Spielberg didn’t enjoy the movie all that much in hindsight. “I wasn’t happy with Temple of Doom at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific.” He did however say that the greatest thing about the movie was “I met Kate Capshaw. We married years later and that to me was the reason I was fated to make Temple of Doom.” Capshaw called her character “not much more than a dumb screaming blonde.”
That said, critical reception of Temple of Doom has improved since the movie’s release. It also broke records on its opening week with $45.7 million. That sounds tiny to the current record of $1.2 billion in five days, achieved by Avengers: Endgame, but 1984 was a very different time in movie profits. It ended up earning $331 million. That makes Temple of Doom the third most profitable movie of 1984, behind Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop.
I have vivid memories of seeing Temple of Doom for the first time. During the cult worship scene, my youngest brother was terrified and had to leave. It would be years before he watched another Indiana Jones movie at all. My other brother and I on the other hand loved it. At the time, we enjoyed it more than the original. These days I don’t enjoy the movie quite that much. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy this movie, but there are several moments I can’t help but roll my eyes at. The scene where Indiana and Short Round are playing cards was almost entirely improvised by the actors, and while the card game on its own is fun, it’s interrupted by Willie constantly screaming in what is overall the dumbest scene in the quadrilogy. Yes, I’m including all the dumb moments in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in this.
Raiders had its fair share of slapstick comedy in one of its action scenes, but this movie goes a bit over the top with it. The worst example is Indiana’s fight scene with the very tough slaver (played by the same actor who played the tough guy in the first movie, actor/wrestler Pat Roach). It’s a scene where the slaver is first portrayed as invincible, yet over time, Indiana starts wrecking him. Well … any time he’s not given intense pain by a voodoo doll. It’s this clash of tones that affects this movie the most, when a tiger hunt would probably have worked better as a backdrop for the Thuggee history scene than an over the top gross dinner. At least when Raiders got zany, it didn’t clash with the movie’s serious moments.
While the darker scenes don’t bother me, I get why they would bother other people. The cult worship scene in particular is intense. You see Mola Ram pull someone’s still beating heart out of their chest, yet they’re somehow still alive. Even for a scene involving human sacrifice, that seems a bit unnecessarily dark. The mine with all the child slaves is rough too.
I get why they wanted to go with a completely different love interest than Marion, but they went a bit too far with Willie. She is almost useless in this movie, and there are times when her constant screaming and wining get annoying. That said, even though Short Round is arguably too young to be tagging along with Indiana in this dark of an adventure, he is a fun character and he proves to be useful, without going too far over the top. He also gets to showcase his real life martial arts skills in a couple of fight scenes.
Of the first three Indiana Jones movies, Temple of Doom is easily the weakest. It’s still a fun adventure movie, but it’s loaded with problems. It’s a bit too dark for its own good. Some of the action scenes make no sense when you think about them. The pacing, while overall fast, is a bit inconsistent. The romance between Indiana and Willie is not the least bit convincing. I would recommend Raiders of the Lost Ark to anyone, but with Temple of Doom, I would say it’s a cautionary recommendation at best. I personally know people who consider this their favourite Indiana Jones movie, and it is no doubt a very memorable movie, but it’s also a polarizing one. It also arguably has the best soundtrack of the first three movies, and that’s saying a lot.
I like how this movie found a way to include the fight scene with a “sword guy” like the one Indiana Jones shot in the first movie.
Next up is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which happens to be the first Indiana Jones movie I saw. Then we’ll finish this month with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, released a full 19 years later. It’s been around 6 years since I’ve watched these movies, and I’m enjoying going through them again.