It’s impossible to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom without thinking about the deeper, subconscious meanings behind the creation of this crazy opus. There isn’t a movie more “weird” that Spielberg has done than this. Sure, it is a simple action movie, but the decisions people make when they are trying to tell an action movie is worth noting. There are infinite ways a person can create. It is interesting and gratifying to think about why Temple of Doom exists as it does. And, since all writing needs a proper thesis, mine is short and specific. Temple of Doom is a xenophobic nightmare that begins with countless prejudices and ends with some enlightenment. Even though the movie understands that it holds true to countless racist tropes, it still functions and works with these tropes, mainly because it’s all that it knows.
Before we begin, let’s get the language right. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, screen writers and others wrote and directed this movie, but Harrison Ford and hundreds of others created this movie together. Thus, we should say that Temple of Doom was a collaboration. So we’ll just say “They” over and over, referring to the creators as a group. Second, everything you read here is debatable because everything is debatable. If you disagree, that’s a good thing, and I’m curious if this sparks a conversation. Third, this is pointless to read if you haven’t watched the movie. I’m actually concerned about you if you haven’t watched this flick. You should rectify that problem straight away.
If you look at this movie as if it were a dream, then the beginning is properly vague. Indiana Jones is in China. We don’t know specifics about what he’s doing there or why. We have a White woman singing in Mandarin, chinese women dressed as Americans behind her. We can’t over analysis this. A white woman is singing an American song to Chinese people in their language. It reeks of American imperialism and globalization. Instead of enjoying the local customs, they are changing the local customs so they can enjoy it. And Indiana Jones reveals himself as a grave robber. Where, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was an archeologist, working to find hidden artifacts so that he can protect them from “evil”, he’s become nothing more than a thief in the night in Temple of Doom. It’s worth noting that, chronologically, Temple of Doom happens before Raiders, thus opening it up as a “This is how I was a Devil before I became an Angel” narrative. It makes sense, if you think about it like this. Anyway, Indiana is betrayed for his treasure, and he has to fight his way out of if. He does this by having Asian “servants” to assist his escape. One of them dies for him, the other is a child. The only people that die in the beginning scenes are Asians, even though the offender is Indiana Jones. And the white woman who worked for the Asian men is forced to side with the white man when he is in trouble, thus showing how there is an “Us versus them” scenario. “Short Round” working with Indiana Jones isn’t a mistake. He’s subservient, basically a slave, but Short Round views Indiana more as a father or a friend, like the slave who believes his master is better than the other masters, and that the slave is actually in a great position considering. Indiana Jones could have sent Short Round to America, sent him to school, etc. Having a child in such a dangerous position is irresponsible, but we never think about it because Short Round is humorous, with his broken English and funny Asian mannerisms.
The real racism comes into play when the trio arrives in India. The Indian village Indiana comes to is starving, in need of his help. Someone has taken their children and their sacred Stone. Without the Stone and without Indiana’s help, the village is lost. Indiana decides to help them, not because he is altruistic, but for “Fortune and Glory,” the riches that will come from taken advantage of a domestic struggle. The very concept of Indian people asking Indiana for help, and not helping themselves, is insulting to the point of atrocious. How Indiana and his gang eat as the Indian people starve. How the Indian people speak English as opposed to Indiana speaking their language (which he is fluent in). How Indiana and his gang ride on elephants while the Indian people are on foot. It’s racist, even though it’s entertaining and interesting.
It gets worse when they get to the palace. The dinner scene is hilarious and ridiculous, implying that the Indian people eat bugs, brains, live snakes and eye-ball soup. Of course, Indiana is attacked, justifying his investigation. He finds the Thuggee ceremony, the sacrifice and the worship of one of many of the Hindu gods. This is a dark god, hungry for the flesh of man. We don’t get to compare the Thuggee tradition to the other Hindu traditions, or the food they eat with other food. This is all we get to see, and we are allowed to believe that it is all that India has to offer. However, the movie takes a turn once Indiana steals the Sacred Stones. Indiana Jones hears the screams of the the abused Indian children. He sacrifices his treasure in order to try and help them. In a palace full of Indian men and women, he’s the only one who understands that slave labor is wrong. Thus, the white man delivers unto them the wisdom that only he processes.
He’s caught, indoctrinated and almost kills his companion. I haven’t touched how amazingly trite and contrived “Willy” is in the movie, a woman who’s sole purpose is to be rescued and scream, her cleavage hanging out and her blonde hair swinging around. An interesting situation occurs when the Priest asks Indiana Jones to sacrifice Willy. Think of it as The Priest showing Indiana how to possess the powers and ability that he possesses. What will you sacrifice? What will you give up? The Priest asks Indiana to sacrifice the pretty white woman and, of course, she’s offended. It’s not really fair to say that this situation represents the white man’s determination to achieve power, even if it means the destruction of women and their rights. Still, there it is.
Short Round saves him. The Asian Child, using the teachings of Indiana Jones, saves Indiana and shows the world the value of the teaching. The gang saves the slaves, Kills the Thuggee priest, is helped by the British, saves the Stone and saves the village. The part on the hanging bridge is the best, with Indiana Jones and the Priest fighting on the Stones and Indiana using the very skills that the Priest used (You betrayed Shiva!), beating the Priest with his own knowledge.
The movie ends with Indiana Jones becoming a better person, giving the Stone back to the village instead of selling it. This is supposed to absolve him from his greed at the beginning of the movie, and it does, somewhat. Still, he never would have gone to the palace in the first place if it weren’t for his greed. It’s a typical cliche, the hero overcoming himself and diversity to become more than what he was before. Still, it took a long time to get to this place. “They took our children,” should have been enough of a motivator at the beginning.
I don’t want to say that I dislike the film. It’s actually one of my favorite Spielberg flicks. But I watch the movie with a “How did they think this stuff up” type of glare, a man who is intrigued with creation looking at creation and amazed by it, even with all the horrible imperialistic impressions.