not in our stars, but in ourselves
Spielberg isn’t a filmmaker. He’s a confectioner.
– Alex Cox
The television gods have been kind (?) enough to bring me Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) tonight, and it is a trip. This is a movie, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), that I’ve seen innumerable times in my life. When I was a kid, I loved Temple of Doom so much that I’d watch it while I did my homework at night – every day, until I was able to imitate the Mandarin version of “Anything Goes” at the beginning. (More on that opening number in a moment.) It had everything appealing to an eight-year-old: bright colors, action, adventure, a spunky sidekick, lots of kids, and a banquet of chilled monkey brains.
Now, twenty or so years later, I am slightly less enchanted. It’s a great movie for drinking games, but that is the only context in which I would call this a “great movie.” In my Raiders review, I believe I mentioned that Spielberg is only really good when he’s fighting Nazis. There are no Nazis here. There’s some casual racism and some unanswered plot holes, but no Nazis.
Where to begin. In 1935, our friend Indy (Harrison Ford) is in Shanghai. He is meeting Lao Che (Roy Chiao), a nefarious underworld boss who hired Jones to find the remains of Nurhaci, an emperor from some years ago. They meet at Club Obi Wan. Ha! Haha! Get it? George Lucas is the producer, just in case you didn’t get it. Moving on. The star of the floorshow at Club Obi Wan is Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), who sings what I believe is meant to be a spectacular, Busby Berkeley-style version of the aforementioned Cole Porter song.
After the show, and after a lot of shooting and Chinese stereotypes, Jones and Willie escape – thanks to the additional Chinese stereotype, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), a wiseacre who speaks broken English and stands about four feet tall. Somehow or other, the three end up plummeting down the Himalayas into a destitute Indian village, and Jones lets the village elders talk him into rescuing the village’s children from a black magic/child labor palace nearby. You know, one of those. Then we move from Chinese stereotypes to Indian stereotypes, and after a lot of exoticism that was probably last seen in about 1935, the British Indian Army – that bastion of colonialism – saves the day.
Let’s just start with the plot holes, shall we? Then we can get into the racism. The biggest plot hole, as far as I’m concerned, is Short Round. This film takes place in 1935; Raiders, although it was the first in the series, takes place in 1936. By the end of Temple, it seems like Indy and Willie and Shorty are all going to be one big happy family. I can’t fault him for wanting to get rid of Willie, because she is just terrible, but where did Short Round go? According to Jones, he and Shorty “met” when the little urchin – an orphan whose parents had been killed when the Japanese bombed China (sometime in 1928, I think) – tried to pick our intrepid archaeologist’s pocket. From then on, they became inseparable. Until…one year later. No Shorty, no Willie, nothing. All Jones cares about in Raiders is Marion, as he should: she is fabulous. But neither of the later additions to the Indiana Jones series bother to mention Short Round, either. Did Indy just leave him behind? Did Willie steal him? What the hell happened? We’ll never know.
Now the racism. While I don’t doubt that it was intended in the spirit of 1930s adventure films – that is to say, “harmless” fun – it was not produced in the 1930s. It was produced in the 1980s. By then, you’d have thought that a director as interested in freedom and equality as Spielberg would have reconsidered a film whose action hinged on stereotypes of yellow and brown people; alas. Not the case. There are the treacherous Chinese mobsters, who seem to squint for additional effect as they suavely inform Jones that he’s just imbibed poison. Sneaky! Untrustworthy! Inscrutable! There’s Shorty, who insists over and over, “You listen Short Round! You live longer!” Now, I don’t know about you, but most of the kids from Asian countries that I’ve met spoke pretty flawless English after a short time immersed in Anglophone culture. If Indy were Shorty’s guardian, Shorty would probably speak American English with only the faintest trace of an accent, and with correct syntax and all. But hey, what’s a cheap laugh among friends?
As for the Indians, they are either poor and ignorant – like the villagers – or rich, cruel, and mystical – like the palace-dwellers. The good people are, like their sacred cows, too dumb and passive to consider saving their children themselves. The evil people are cunning, but committed only to the black arts. More stereotypes, hooray hurrah. It’s ultimately up to the calming and civilizing influence of the U.S. (Indy) and the British Empire (the army) to save the day. What a nice message for the kids!
I make it sound like a chore to watch, but only if you’re sober while you do so. Have a couple of drinks while you watch, and you’ll probably be as taken in by the flashy, whizz-bang nature of the whole thing that you’ll almost forget how ugly and outdated Temple is at its core.
P.S. It is hysterically funny to me that Spielberg, responsible for this among other cinematic monstrosities, is the president of the jury at Cannes. I give most actors a free pass on their terrible movies, because they may simply need the money, and they may have signed on for a much different film than the final product ended up being, and they may have done their best with a bad script; but directors are, ultimately, responsible for the messes we have to sit through. President Spielberg – god help us all.
P.P.S. Thankfully, you do not have to sit through the whole film to watch my favorite part.