When we last left the troubled production of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, nobody was sure what to expect from the film. Expectations were high, and for good reason—Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had a proven track record of excellence, and their Midas touch had worked on films since the 1970s.
When Temple of Doom finally dropped in the United States in late May 1984, it was an unqualified success, making over $45 million in its opening weekend (a record amount at that time) and would be the year’s highest-grossing film worldwide. It continued to be a lucrative pillar of the Indy franchise for years afterward, even being sold as a $5.99 promotional item at McDonald’s during the holiday season of 1991 thanks to an advertising gimmick between the House of Ronald and Paramount Home Video (which is how yours truly first saw Temple of Doom, coincidentally).
But critics were split on the film, and Temple of Doom went through a long sojourn in the analytical wilderness. Parts of the film are silly, racist, sexist, and plain offensive, making it easy for critics and even Spielberg to dunk on the movie over the years. For example:
- The feast at Pankot Palace is a gross-out feast of grilled bugs, “snake surprise” (a pregnant snake cooked with her babies inside, then cut open to release the still-living snakelets), eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains for dessert. These dishes are presented as being normal—an unexpected treat, but nothing shocking—for the people of this fictional raj in Northern India. None of this is true to life or customs of the many cultures found in India. This scene is one of the reasons the Indian government refused to allow Spielberg and Lucas to shoot on location, and why the movie was banned upon its release in India.
- Kali, the goddess to whom the murderous Mola Ram and his Thuggees direct their worship and human sacrifices, is offered a human sacrifice in one of the scariest and most disturbing scenes in the film (a scene which, among others, led to the creation of the PG-13 rating). In real life, Kali is sometimes portrayed with a frightening and warlike countenance, garlanded with a wreath of human skulls and set on the destruction of evil and wrongdoers. But the pulling of human hearts has never been a part of her worship, rituals, or offerings.
- Willie Scott, Indy’s love interest in the film, is a shallow, thin character. She’s constantly screaming, batting her eyes at Dr. Jones (“No time for love!” as Short Round would remind us), or snatching at any likely bauble. After the unforgettably strong Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark, she’s a cardboard cutout. And the way that Indy treats her—belittling her, wrapping her up with his famed whip to force a kiss, generally being a sexist, chauvinistic ass—is problematic at best.
With so many issues, it’s kind of amazing that Temple of Doom succeeded at all. But succeed it did, wildly and over a long period of time. Even more surprisingly, this uneven film is a vital part of Indiana Jones’ story and growth. What does the film tell us about its main character? More than anything, Temple of Doom humanizes its main character. Assuming that Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. exists in some kind of heroic, preformed, static vacuum is unrealistic and boring—giving him some backstory and real character flaws to repair show Indy’s growth as he grows and matures.
- Our Dr. Jones wasn’t always the dashing romantic we see in Raiders and Last Crusade. Aside from the casually tossed aside implication that Indy might just have deflowered the daughter of the Sultan of Madagascar on one of his adventures, his mistreatment of Willie Scott demonstrates how he might have acted toward Marion when he broke her heart some time before Raiders. Since we know that Indy and Marion’s relationship occurred at least ten years before the beginning of that film, which is set in 1936, and that Temple of Doom is set a year before that in 1935, it’s obvious that Dr. Jones’ romantic relationships are a work in progress.
- Indy’s relationship with Short Round is another unexpected pillar of the film. He explains that he found “Mr. er…Round” on the streets of Shanghai after the Japanese bombed the city in 1932. Historically, it connects Temple of Doom to the growing shadow Japan cast over all of Asia in the 1930s, and hints at Jones’ long-lasting hatred of Nazis, fascism, and any of their allies. Shorty also plays a key role in Indy’s metamorphosis, which brings us to my last point…
- Most importantly, the crusade for the missing sivalinga stones of Mayapore village redirects Indiana Jones’ entire life. Based on the opening scene at Lao Che’s Club Obi Wan, he’s nothing more than an educated tomb raider; rather than finding the remains of the famed Manchu emperor Nurhaci for the government of China or some other historical purpose, Indy sells the ruler’s ashes to a Shanghai crime lord. But seeing the effects of the stolen stones upon Mayapore show Jones the unforeseen consequences of stealing precious things. Moreover, the ensuing quest teaches him that people—those he cares about, and those that others care about, too—are much more important than “fortune and glory.”
Despite its production travails and problematic story elements, the Indiana Jones at film’s end is markedly different than he is at the outset. He’s a better person. Indy’s learned the valuable lesson that those in the present matter much more than those who came before, and that helping them is infinitely better than artifacts and riches. Plainly put, Dr. Jones has grown up. It’s for these reasons that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a vital and humanizing part of Indy’s story.