Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has four acts, each lasting about 30 minutes. Each of the acts has three distinct chapters, giving us a twelve-chapter serial drama.
What's different, structurally, is that Raiders has a restless spirit, jetting (well, prop-planing) about all over the globe, from Peru to the US to Nepal to Cairo to Secret Sub Base Island. Temple gets all the travel out of the way in the first 25 minutes and spends the rest of its time in more or less one place, and an hour of that in one location, underground in a cave. The result is a much differently-shaped narrative than Raiders, one that's spirited and frantic for the first act, then claustrophobic and inward for the rest of the movie, and dark, dark, dark. It gives us twenty minutes of breathless forward movement, seventy minutes of horror and torture, then thirty minutes of blasting escape.
The movie is often criticized for its unpleasantness and weirdness, as well as its generally heavy attitude, but I find it as compulsively watchable as any of the best of Spielberg and a much meatier experience than either Raiders or Crusade.
Chapter 1 (0:00-10:44) The title sequence, with its Cole Porter song and its 40s-musical production number, automatically pulls the rug out from under the audience's expectations. "Anything Goes" indeed -- Spielberg is letting you know that this is going to be a completely different movie from Raiders. Later he would come to regret the movie for its brutality and darkness, and The Last Crusade shows his desire to retrench, to rein in his darker impulses.
The musical number is followed by the negotiation-poisoning-shootout scene. The interesting thing here, thematically, is that Indiana Jones is negotiating the sale of the remains of Chinese emperor Nurhaci to Shanghai gangster Lao. So it seems that Indy is not, on this adventure at least, working for the university but for his own fortune. The fact that Lao, murderous and unscrupulous as he is, is in pursuit of a valuable nationalist relic makes him, in this instance at least, a more admirable man than Indy, who's just in it for the diamond.
Willie Scott, I finally figured out, is Lao's nightclub-singer girlfriend. Pairing her with Indy both gives him a comic foil, as she is not the adventuresome type (although she did come from Missouri to Shanghai to be a gangster's moll, which indicates at least some level of fearlessness on her part) but also gives him a troubling mirror-image. Just as Belloq in Raiders is Indy's dark double, Willie in Temple is Indy writ small -- he is a treasure hunter, she is a gold-digger. They're both after the same things, and for reasons more similar than Indy would probably care to admit.
The nightclub slugfest/shootout recalls 1941, of course, and Spielberg inserts a rolling gong to echo the rolling boulder in Raiders -- again, following the "stand it on its head" rule. In Raiders the boulder is an endangerment, in Temple the gong is a shield.
The crisis prompting the shootout is, of course, Indy's consumption of poison supplied by Lao, the first of many eating misadventures in Temple, while the two-pronged pursuit of diamond and antidote form the twin themes of life and fortune that inform both this and Raiders.
Chapter 2 (10:44-17:18) In case the nightclub shootout wasn't exciting enough, Indy plunges with Willie out a window and down into a waiting car driven by a ten-year-old boy, which then leads to a wild car chase through the streets of Shanhai (which Spielberg would later revisit in Empire of the Sun), a ride on a sabotaged airplane, a plunge through the sky in an inflatable life raft, a toboggan run down the side of a mountain, another plunge off a cliff and into a rapid-filled river.
This is, in the vocabulary of Early Spielberg, the way a man acquires a family: he grabs a woman, dives out a window and into the back of a waiting car. Instant family! Without all the kissing and housework.
(The actor playing Short Round, Indy's kid pal, was also cast in The Goonies, which I watched recently for no good reason. Temple, the reader will recall, was considered too dark and too icky for kids, and on some level I think The Goonies was intended as a kind of "Indiana Jones for kids" movie. The joke is on the parents -- The Goonies has more profanity in any given five minutes than the totality of the Indiana Jones movies, and more adult themes too. Temple may have a playful line referring to "sexual customs," but The Goonies actually has a child saying "sexual torture devices." All this and a deformed retarded man! Bring the whole family!)
(For Wilhelm fans, he shows up at 12:15, early on in the Shanghai chase sequence.)
Once Indy is on the plane to -- well, I'm not sure where he's trying to get to, but he's leaving Shanghai -- he changes out of his dinner jacket and into his "Indy costume." He's now his "old self" again.
(I admit I'm confused about Lao's plan. He gets his Remains of Nurhaci, I think he gets the big diamond as well -- it's left in the nightclub -- and he gets Indy out of Shanghai. Why does he coach his chicken-transporting airplane crew to fly across China -- refueling along the way in Chungking, mind you -- only to have them leap out of the plane over the Himalaya? Why doesn't the crew leap out of the plane as soon as their passengers are asleep? Do they, for some reason, have business somewhere in the Himalaya? Like what? And aren't Lao's customers going to be upset when their chickens do not arrive? Why does no one think of the poor chickenless customers, waiting by their chopping blocks and soup cauldrons for tasty poultry? Just how cold-blooded is this Lao fellow, anyway?)
(Oh, and Lao's chicken-transport crew flies southwest from Shanghai to India by way of the Great Wall, which is like flying from New York to Seattle by way of the Grand Canyon. But geography is obviously not the strong suit of an airplane crew chosen for their ability to transport chickens and their willingness to jump out of the plane into the world's largest mountain range.)
The chapter ends, as all the best do, with a cliffhanger, as Indy and his ad-hoc family encounter a dark, scary man standing by the river.
Chapter 3 (17:18-28:42) The dark, scary man, of course, turns out to be a local village priest or wise man or something. And he has a problem: some bad guys have come and stolen his town's magic rock, and also the village children (and, presumably, the able-bodied men as well). Their crops have failed and their women are all miserable. For Spielberg, there are few traumas worse than a boy separated from his mother, and here he asks us to contemplate a whole village of them. (Curiously, none of the missing children are girls.) Indy, with his snappy fedora, instant family and abilities to plunge safely out of the sky, seems like a literal godsend to these simple agrarian people. (Good thing he leaves his leather jacket behind -- the cow-wosrhipping Hindus might not see him in such a favorable light.) All this is discussed over the movie's first disgusting meal, continuing the injestion trauma of Chapter 1.
(There is a Jaws reference (I think Spielberg refers to Jaws more than any other movie in his career) when Indy folds his hands contemplatively and Short Round imitates him in the background.)
So Indy goes from one situation where honor, fortune and life itself are pitted against each other directly into another. What is important? the Indiana Jones movies ask. Is it "fortune and glory," or family? Spielberg forces Indy to make a choice, while he, of course, figured out how to use sentimental notions of family as a lever to bring himself enormous amounts of fortune and glory.
At night, a child wanders into the village, starving and exhausted. He has escaped, apparently, from the bad guys, which is a good thing of course, but he has brought with him a scrap of cloth, which turns out to be a "valuable clue" as to the nature of the missing rock.
And the screenwriter says "Huh?" I'm willing to buy that the kid escaped, but how did he get the scrap of cloth that happens to illustrate the origin of the town's magic rock? Where did he get it? Why did he bother getting it? Why was it sitting around? What does it actually mean? It would be one thing if the boy wandered into the village with an actual clue, but he's just got a scrap of cloth with a picture on it -- it means nothing and proves nothing. But Indy is sufficiently moved by the boy's plight and the scrap of cloth to take up the challenge to go get the magic rock back.
(The script blurs the distinction between a Siva Linga, which is a real thing, and the "Sankara Stones," which are not. Both terms are used seemingly interchangeably by different characters. It seems that many towns in India have Siva Lingas, but only this one village has a Sankara Stone. Why this should be is not explored. Also, I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that the Ark of the Covenant is a real thing and the Holy Grail is a real thing, but for Temple they just made up a completely bullshit Hindu artifact. If I were a Hindu I don't know if I'd be angry or relieved.)
Chapter 1 (28:42-37:38) Indy and his family journey by elephant from the humble village to the evil Pankot Palace, where, it seems, the children disappeared to. Along the way there is much comedy involving animals as Indy tells us where Short Round came from (an orphan refugee from the Japanese bombing of Shanghai), while Willie pines for her easy life as a gangster's moll. This expository chapter moves along nicely and ends with the team arriving at the palace.
Chapter 2 (37:38-47:00) Indy's family arrives at Pankot Palace and is greeted by two subtle casting references -- the actor playing the Prime Minister (of what I'm not sure) played Nehru in Gandhi (which beat E.T. for the Best Picture Oscar) and the actor standing next to him played the Evil Butler in The Shining (which was filming the next studio over while Spielberg was shooting Raiders). The latter, of course, is there as Capt Blumburtt, the head of a British regiment, in town to keep an eye on his Indian subjects. This Imperial tension, connected to the comment on the Japanese bombing of Shanghai and Willie's relationship to Lao (not to mention the motherless children of the village, the motherless child maharajah and the zombie followers of the bloodthirsty Kali) weave a subtle theme of the illnesses created by colonialism -- one perhaps a little too subtle to have much impact on Temple's ultra-pulpy narrative.
Indy and his family are invited to dinner, where Indy, the Prime Minister and Capt Blumburtt discuss the Thuggee cult, which supposedly died out a hundred years earlier but which Indy suspects has taken control of the government. (A government taken over by creepy religious fanatics -- what an imagination these people have!) Because Spielberg guesses no one really cares about any of this stuff he diverts our attention with the most appalling meal ever captured on film -- live eels, goliath-beetle guts, eyeball soup and chilled monkey brains. I like the gross-out meal as much as anyone, and I think this particular brick of exposition is handled much better than its counterpart in either Raiders or Crusade, but it's a shame Spielberg couldn't bring the idea of the Thuggees to life in a cinematic way -- it's a fascinating story (if complete nonsense in a 1934 setting). The gross-out meal, of course, is meant to underscore the difference between the lush, decadent life of the palace and the starvation-level life of the village. The thing that ties them together is that Willie can't stand either of them, but one offers flies and ugly people and the other offers jewels and, perhaps, a wealthy beau.
Chapter 3 (47:00-1:00:00) Indy and his family head for bed, and there is some juvenile sexual banter between Indy and Willie. (Hmm -- and the pirate in The Goonies is called "One-Eyed Willie" -- obviously Spielberg has penis on the brain.) The sexual development, which kind of comes out of nowhere (but makes as much sense as its counterpart in, say, a James Bond movie), wilts as fast as it tumesces as Indy is attacked by a Thuggee assassin (the Thuggee tries to kill him by strangulation, which, it may surprise the reader, is one of the few accurate details included in the screenplay).
Indy's attempted assassination leads him, for no reason I can discern, to find a secret passageway in Willie's room, which leads the team to the Temple of Doom. Now I love secret passageways and I love blood-cult rituals even more, but this is the only flaw in this otherwise expertly-rendered thriller plot I can find. I can see Indy checking for assassins in Willie's room, and I can see him investigating a secret passageway once he finds one, but I can't see assassin + secret passageway = Temple of Doom, where the objects of his search, the Sankara stones, happen to be. If it was me, I'd check the passageway for assassins, then, once I had figured out that the passageway hadn't been used in a long time, I'd let it go and move on. The point is, Indy stumbles upon his goal instead of pursuing it.
Fortunately, the blood-cult ritual is such a mind-blower that we forget about this narrative inconsistency pretty fast, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.