‘Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom’ Being A Prequel Is Fascinating

Last week it was announced that the long gestating Indiana Jones 5 will move on from Steven Spielberg and find a new director, with reports saying James Mangold is in talks to take over. I actually hope this happens. I am firmly in the camp of wanting to see another Harrison Ford Indiana Jones movie, because I just don’t think anyone can replace what Ford brings to Indy. (And we kind of saw this already when it was tried with Solo. Ford is a one of a kind actor and these characters just aren’t the same without him.)

The real shame with Indiana Jones is that we should have around eight of these movies by now, not four. There should have at least been two Indiana Jones movies made in the ‘90s. The problem was Ford, Speilberg, and George Lucas had a pact that all three of them had to agree on the script. And Lucas was pushing his aliens storyline, while Ford and Spielberg never quite bought in on that direction. Then finally, they all compromised and we got one grand compromise of a movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (You see, they aren’t aliens, but they are interdimensional beings. What a great compromise.)

But, as opposed to Star Wars, Ford loves doing these movies. And it’s crazy this hasn’t been taken advantage of more over the years. For whatever reason, Spielberg just seems to like the idea of doing another one, but not actually committing to doing another one. Disney bought Lucasfilm for two properties: Star Wars and Radioland Murders. (That’s a joke.) But, since the purchase, Disney has pumped out five Star Wars movies and a live-action streaming series. And Disney has, so far, done as much with Indiana Jones as they have Radioland Murders. (I almost said Howard the Duck here, but Howard the Duck made that Guardians of the Galaxy cameo, so technically Howard the Duck has gotten more play than Indiana Jones, which is pretty nuts.)

Anyway, with Spielberg leaving, I thought it was a good excuse to write about what seems to be the least-liked of the original three films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – a movie that I’ve grown to appreciate over the last year or so. (And, yes, I’m well aware of the valid issues that make it “problematic.”) I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a bar I frequent in my New York City neighborhood that plays movies instead of sports. And of all the Indiana Jones films, the one they play, a lot, is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so I’ve seen it quite a few times recently.

Now, the thing I’ve learned to really appreciate about Temple of Doom is the fact it’s a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the past, I’ve kind of almost dismissed this fact as a “strange quirk.” Temple of Doom was the first Indiana Jones movie I saw in theaters* and when “1935” popped up on the screen, I remember being pretty sure Raiders was 1936 and I thought I caught an error, so I when I got home I immediately made a snarky YouTube video about how dumb the filmmakers are. (This is also a lie, there was no YouTube back then.) But the next time we rented Raiders (on Beta!), I did verify that it took place in 1936. But, honestly, I didn’t think continuity mattered that much back then. I had just started watching older James Bond movies and almost literally nothing matched up from film to film. So I just envisioned a scenario where someone asks Lucas, “Hey, George, we need a year for this thing for the opening scene.” And Lucas, not even thinking about it, said, “Oh, yeah, hm. Let’s say 1935.” Because, at the time, it did seem arbitrary that it was a prequel because it wasn’t something that was really advertised.

*My memory of seeing Temple of Doom in theaters was that it was the last week it played. I lived in a small town in Missouri (Eldon) and I went with my dad and my friend Tony. The local paper would advertise when movies were ending their engagements and we saw it on literally the last weekend it played before it was replaced by The Cannonball Run 2. (Somewhat related, I haven’t spoken to Tony since 1986.)

So, I’m at my local bar and Temple of Doom is on and the bartender is bemoaning that he doesn’t like this movie. I ask why. He says, “Because it’s like Indy didn’t learn any of the lessons from Raiders. In this one all he’s talking about is fortune and glory.” I then tell him Temple of Doom takes place before Raiders and, I swear, I could see a lifetime of opinions changing right there on his face. “Wait. Holy shit! Really? This changes everything.”

Now, Lucas and Spielberg have cited the reason it’s a prequel is that they didn’t want to make the villains Nazis again. And I’m sure there’s some truth to that. But they both cite that they were going through dark periods at this point in their lives. I honestly think it’s a prequel because they wanted to make Indiana Jones kind of a dick. And if Temple happens after Raiders, it doesn’t work because, like my bartender said, it’s just Indy not learning the lessons from Raiders. But if it’s before Raiders, we can have this selfish asshole who is in it for “fortune and glory” while constantly putting a child in grave danger.

And this is why Temple of Doom is fascinating. In a way, it’s the only true Indiana Jones movie where he doesn’t learn any grand lesson and makes decisions based on profit. It’s our only chance to see Ford as Jones on a grand adventure before he is softened a bit by the events of Raiders. There’s a scene in the movie where he admits he almost got his penis cut off for a, as Indy puts it, “misunderstanding.” He’s a glorified graverobber. Temple of Doom even opens up (after Kate Capshaw’s killer dance number to “Anything Goes,” which doesn’t get near enough credit for being incredible) with Indy selling an ancient artifact in exchange for a diamond. At one point Indy even threatens to kill (or, at least stab) Capshaw’s Willie Scott. Yeah, he’s not a great guy in this movie. There’s no talk about anything that “needs to be in a museum” here. Indy is in it for the “fortune and glory” and, honestly, it’s pretty entertaining to see him this way – because we already have the knowledge that he would change his ways by the end of Raiders.

(Also, Amrish Puri was pretty incredible as Mola Ram. A truly masterful, villainous performance. Especially when compared to Donavan in Last Crusade. I have nothing against Julian Glover. I’m a big fan of General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back! But Puri’s performance gave me nightmares.)

So, yes, it’s a dark movie. (It is weird that for around 15 minutes the protagonist of the movie is a poisoned zombie.) And, yes, it definitely has some culturally insensitive moments. But, when watched through the lens of, “What was Indiana Jones like before his involvement with the Ark of Covenant?,” it’s a fascinating movie. Lucas and Spielberg created a new hero in Raiders. Then, because of their mindset at the time they decided to deconstruct their hero and make him an asshole looking for “fortune and glory.” But the genius move was to set it just one year before the first movie, so that it didn’t matter. Through this lens, it’s really quite a thing. But, regardless, the one thing that seems pretty clear is that Indiana Jones 5 won’t get to use this prequel trick.

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