Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
An essay ostensibly arguing that Temple of Doom is the best Indiana Jones movie, but which veers into a larger analysis of the trilogy and the Indiana Jones character
Let’s talk theme. Ideally, a great movie should be about something great, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — like Aliens — is a sequel that tops the original, and it tops Raiders of the Lost Ark not because it’s a bigger, grander movie, but because it goes to a dark, scary and different place to explore a worthy theme: parenthood.
Temple of Doom (TOD) and Aliens are also blood cousins in how both introduce a great theme (parenthood) into movie series that, for all their excellence, lacked heart in their first chapters. Ellen Ripley just happened to survive the haunted house/slasher movie that was Alien, and it was James Cameron who had the good sense to turn Ripley into an action-movie-uber-mom — Rambo with a long-lost daughter. Pauline Kael called Raiders of the Lost Ark an “impersonal” movie; a lesser movie sandwiched between two of Spielberg’s greatest works (Close Encounters and E.T.). Now, having cited Kael’s quote as evidence that Raiders is somehow a lesser movie than TOD, I’ll admit that I’m not sure what the hell she was talking about. Perhaps Kael found Spielberg’s loving and exact recreation of the old, swashbuckling, Allen Quatermain-style serials too exact for her taste; too assiduous in its adherence to the images needed to fulfill its pastiche quota. And maybe I’m too taken with the movie’s nonstop ass-kicking to look at it critically enough. Roger Ebert, though, hit on a great point that gives Raiders more heart than Kael gives it credit for. He says Spielberg wants to do two things in Raiders: “make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.” And I agree, though I still place it below TOD.
(Another 80s action movie classic deserves mention for having a parental theme (this one in spite of its low-brow roots): Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In it, Schwarzenegger plays a former Delta Force badass who comes out of retirement to rescue his kidnapped daughter, single-handedly killing more than 100 men along the way and inspiring slack-jawed awe in all the raised-by-women Gen-X sons who saw it. Side note: did you know that Schwarzenegger used to be a world-champion bodybuilder and is now the governor of California?)
First, a concession: TOD has never been known for its sympathetic portrayals of minorities, what with its wacky Chinese sidekick, leering Chinese gangsters, and crazy Hindu-Indian-Devil-worshipping-human-sacrificers. Indeed, between Mola Ram and his gog-eyed acolytes, the movie does more to sully the image of middle-easterners than a 24-hour marathon of Fox News.
What mitigates these indiscretions somewhat, though, are not only the two movies bracketing TOD — in which the bad guys are the whitest, most evilest motherfuckers this side of Mordor (the Nazis) — but also the strong, well-executed relationship between Indy (Harrison Ford) and Short Round (Ke Huy Quan).
Let commence the radical shift in topic for no apparent reason
But before we analyze Indy’s relationship with Short Round — the chief reason why TOD reigns supreme over Raiders and Last Crusade — let’s break down Indy’s transformation from greedy, skeptical mercenary to museum-friendly man of faith. In doing this, I plan to focus on problems in consistency that arise from the odd chronology of the series (TOD takes place before Raiders) and some flat-out bad writing — most of which is in the third movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Spiritually, Indy’s character follows a steadier course over the release order of the movies (Raiders, TOD, Last Crusade), so let’s examine the movies in that order first, focusing on Indy’s progression from hard-core atheist to a man of outright religion. In Raiders, Indy treats all matters metaphysical with skeptical kid gloves. When the two government reps ask Indy what’s going on in that freaky illustration of the Ark of the Covenant he shows them, Indy steps away from the table, averts his eyes, shrugs and mumbles (uncomfortably?), “Lightning. Fire. Power of God.” It’s Marcus who tries to freak out the Army guys by taking such pleasure in language like, “Wiped clean, by the wrath of God”; and it’s Marcus (and later Sallah) who honestly gets a little freaked out about actually, literally finding this deadly fucking thing called the Ark. In the first example, when Marcus says that the Ark is like nothing Indy has “ever gone after before,”Indy hits him with one of the great dismissive quips from the canon of atheistic thought: “I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance. You’re talking about the boogeyman” [italics mine].
But Indy, good Biblical scholar that he is, remembers from his Old Testament studies that only a high Jewish priest can look at the Ark (whereupon God, as the story goes, resides). So when the Nazis open it, and freaky, boogeyman-like weirdness starts happening, Indy instantly shuts his eyes and tells Marian to do the same. Whether or not being an aural witness to the divine slaughter of a few dozen Nazis (and the head-detonation of one French Nazi stooge) turns Indy into a believer (I don’t think so), Indy joins Marcus in a joint freak-out over what the Army plans to do with the Ark — they’d rather have it in a concrete bunker than a museum.
On to TOD. Again, I know this movie is set before Raiders, but in many ways it’s still a sequel to Raiders. One superficial example: the callback to the famous scene in Raiders where Indy just shoots the big guy with the big sword. In TOD, Indy encounters two bad guys with big swords, finds that he doesn’t have his gun, and has to kick their asses the old-fashioned way. A great bit, but Indy the atheist also continues to develop in the minds of Spielberg and Lucas. Near the beginning of the movie, when the village mystic — where did they find this guy?! — tells Indy that Shiva made them all fall from the sky, Indy assumes the wide-eyed, patient posture of a parent explaining to their kid that Santa Claus is a myth: “We’re weren’t brought here. Our plane crashed.” Soon after, when Short Round asks Indy if something indeed made their plane crash, Indy once again dismisses it: “No, shorty, it’s just a ghost story, don’t worry about it.”
However, Indy’s large-hearted outrage over the Thugee cult’s enslavement of the village’s children not only drives him to destroy the titular temple and free all the kids, but it also leads Indy to one of his most religious — and patently bizarre — moments in the trilogy. Dangling from a severed rope bridge and fighting for his life against the evil Mola Ram, Indy, who had earlier referred to one of the sacred Sankara stones as a “good luck rock,” starts speaking in tongues. I’d quote his lines here if I could tell what the fuck he was saying (besides “you’ve betrayed Shiva”), but even after more than 50 screenings of this classic, I still can’t decipher the Hindu litany that Indy growls at Mola Ram through tight, pursed lips and accompanied by the flinty, glinty gleam of his eyes. (I still consider this one of Ford’s best moments of pure acting because it’s so damn out there.) Again, as far as Indy’s change from atheist to agnostic (at least), I place this movie after Raiders because in Raiders, Indy only had to acknowledge religion by closing his eyes; here he actually channels it to save the day — and it works! Indy’s chant causes the Sankana stones to glow red-hot and burn through a burlap knapsack. For an atheist, Dr. Jones knows his Hindu mysticism well enough to command the ear of Shiva at the moment of truth.
Ha! Another great moment of religiosity for Indy: When he, right before chopping down an old rope suspension bridge he’s trapped on, says to Mola Ram (with righteous fury), “Mola Ram, prepare to meet Kali in HELL!” (The idea of Hell of course being anathema to any upstanding atheist.) OK, that’s a not a really great example, but that line always cracks me up.
Oh, Indy also has a by-the-numbers religious softie moment with the aforementioned village mystic at the very end when he returns their “good luck rock” and says, “Yes. I understand its power now.” It’s a solidly performed and necessary scene, but it lacks the what-the-fuck quality of the speaking-in-tongues bit.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.