Jason believes that Temple of Doom is a masterpiece. Hey, he can't be wrong about everything.
The best and the favorite aren’t always the same horse. I myself would rank the Indiana Jones movies in order of release, but when it comes to the original trilogy, the contestants are close enough in quality that I don’t begrudge anyone their favorite of the three. Nor am I provoked by those who would argue that Raiders never really had a worthy follow-up on film, as Bill Eaken believes. One could make a convincing case that Fate of Atlantis is the only sequel that actually succeeds at capturing the spirit of Raiders.
We all have our preferences, and varying tastes should be respected. That is to the exclusion, of course, of anyone who would try to rank Crystal Skull anything ahead of distant last. Some things are a matter of opinion, but not the fact that the Earth is round. I mean, for crying out loud, Remi.
While my brain assures me that Raiders is the best Indy film, Temple is my favorite, and possibly the best side effect the institution of divorce has ever produced. This is not an uncommon sentiment, and in fact it has become outright trendy to proudly declare one’s undying love for Indy’s second cinematic outing, often with a weird undertone of self-congratulatory martyrdom. Few things herald the arrival of the uncourageous take more accurately than the opener “This might be an unpopular opinion, but...”
Indeed, the notion that Temple is being “reappraised” in a positive light in recent years is a bit of a false narrative. If we look back at the contemporary reviews, we’ll find that the film wasn’t merely tolerated on release but outright acclaimed by some heavy hitters. Siskel and Ebert more or less adored the movie, with Ebert’s four-star review calling it “not so much a sequel as an equal.” The famously hostile Pauline Kael actually preferred Temple to Raiders, which she dismissed in 1981 as the cynical product of film-makers operating as marketing departments. She felt that the unfettered sequel had more velocity and confidence, in the process casting off what she saw in Raiders as a false sincerity.
Obviously, critical reaction should carry only so much weight - consider the astonishing down payment of goodwill Crystal Skull enjoyed from critics out of sheer gratitude for its beloved character’s relieved hiatus of nineteen years - but it’s worth pointing out that this idea of Temple as a maligned entry in need of redeeming is largely a construct.
The aforementioned clutch of articles probably makes the tossing of my own fedora into the ring an act of redundancy. But I had the opportunity to see Temple of Doom on the big screen this past summer, so the film is fresh on mind and is, anyway, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The elderly among you will recall that Mojo actually reviewed all the Indy films when Gabez and The Tingler seized on the release of Crystal Skull as an excuse to do so, but eleven years between evaluations should blunt some of the accusations of opportunism. Plus, Remi assured me that content is something to be generated for the thinnest of justifications at Mixnmojo amidst this hospice era in which we find it.
Temple of Doom is interesting enough to examine in the context of its own series, but its place amongst its director’s filmography is perhaps more illuminating. It is the final film contributed by what I call Spielberg 1.0. By the time the populist Hollywood wunderkind delivered E.T. he was as much a brand name, a marketing hook unto himself, as a movie director. That brand would become synonymous with big budget family entertainment in the 80s, with the Executive Producer credit serving as a more recognizable marquee and draw than the actual directors or casts of movies like Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, Young Sherlock Holmes and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
This doesn’t feel like overstatement, and after all the four-quadrant summer blockbuster wasn’t merely a sandbox Spielberg played in, but an institution that he and George Lucas more or less founded. Temple of Doom is a useful transition point in Spielberg’s trajectory, because it showcases him acting at the height of his powers in the genre he all but created before a desire to break out into other types of film began to complicate matters. The Spielberg of the early 80s wasn’t just the Spielberg who made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was the Spielberg who made 1941, which whatever its defects showcased a youthful, manic energy that got put to bed for good when Indy returned the Shankara stones to its village. Maybe that last howl came with a degree of self-awareness, which would explain the sense in Temple of everything being left on the field.
Spielberg’s very next film, The Color Purple, represented his first step in pursuit of a more “mature” and diversified portfolio. Obviously, he didn’t abandon the summer blockbuster (or even Indiana Jones) altogether. But from then on he would toggle between escapist entertainment and “substantial” fare, with his legendary efficiency resulting in deliveries from both poles in the same year of release, most notably 1993 (which saw both Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park) and 2005 (which saw both Munich and War of the Worlds). When it comes to the tentpoles, Spielberg still did and does deliver, but what he doesn’t do anymore is incaution; he doesn’t dive headfirst without a helmet with a recklessness that risks major failure and/or something truly special. Temple of Doom demonstrates the distinction. There’s a purity to its mayhem. It is certainly Spielberg’s most id-driven movie, and the perfect vessel for the sustained, unchecked exuberance he was capable of in his prime.
This movie is indulgent, heedless, restless, brazen, undisciplined and without shame – to which I say, what’s the bad news? If there was ever a context in which a film maker should let his hair down, it’s a project called Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Which is why it’s so frustrating that Spielberg has made a point over the years of heaping shade on what remains some sort of criterion of popcorn entertainment. This annoying apology tour began with the excellent Last Crusade, which for all its many qualities is more of a reaction to the previous sequel (which it retroactively renders a black sheep by formulizing Raiders), than something that exists on its own terms.
With the ammunition of some of the director’s own words, a number of explanations for Spielberg’s evident desire to distance himself from Temple have been proposed – that he regrets the darker tone of the film (which along with Gremlins is credited as the inspiration for the PG-13 rating), sometimes ascribed to the marital dissolutions both Beards were going through at the time; that he’s embarrassed by the culturally insensitive elements (as if the colonialist disposition and adolescent view of other cultures, a direct inheritance from Indy’s pulp influences, isn’t plenty evident in Raiders); that it’s too subterranean - but I’ve long suspected that what Spielberg is really embarrassed about is its transparency. Perhaps more than anything else in his filmography, this movie is his boyish impulses lay naked. He is not normally a director to indulge so unapologetically, but Temple of Doom is loudly and proudly Spielberg uncut and unleashed. And that’s what makes it wonderful.
Temple of Doom is the Kill Bill of the 1980s. Spielberg and Lucas were taking the pulp cinema they loved from their childhoods – mainly Republic serials and the broader genre of square-jawed adventurers (as opposed to Tarantino’s preferred menu of martial arts, spaghetti western, and exploitation films) – blowing them to atoms and rebuilding them in their own image, in the process shooting them up full of octane and production values and ultimately transcending their inspirations. The end result is something altogether new in spite of the familiarity of individual elements, and indeed Indiana Jones has been held up as the default blueprint for the adventure film thereafter.
Of course, what I’m describing is the concept of Raiders of the Lost Ark as well, but with Temple every last support beam is disconnected and all pretension is abandoned, resulting in something that arguably gets closer to the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire spirit of its original inspirations than any of the other Indy movies. The sublimely silly “Nice try, Lao Che!” sight gag is, to me, a summation of the series’ very identity, and Exhibit A in my contention that some of the most iconic moments of all the installments come from the first sequel.
As he’s made a point of doing, Spielberg can swear up and down that his heart was not in the story that Lucas cooked up with American Graffiti collaborators Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, a darker yarn that takes broad inspiration from RKO’s 1939 adventure film Gunga Din, and he makes sure to redirect acclaim for the film to Lucas when confronted with it, but the enthusiasm and tireless invention the end result is brimming with betrays that he was invested in the production. People wrongheadedly criticize Crystal Skull for its goofy elements, as if that is somehow off-brand for a series whose most “dignified” entry features a sieg heiling monkey, when the fourth installment’s real disease is surely its indifference and low energy; comparing the set pieces in Crystal Skull to Temple of Doom is like comparing chalk with cheese. In the 2008 movie, the set pieces are perfectly, dispassionately competent and operational, but there’s no juice there, no spark or liveliness, which is pretty much the most damning possible defect an Indiana Jones movie can suffer from.
What do we make of the madcap propulsion of Temple of Doom given Spielberg’s at least retrospectively claimed misgivings? Was the breathless execution compensatory -- his method of making up for the fact that he wasn’t big on the material itself? Was he simply operating at such a high level in those days that he was bracingly engaged by default, no matter his uncertainty about the content? There comes a point where the reasons do not matter. What’s on screen makes its own argument.