Since there hasn’t been an Indiana Jones movie in almost 20 years, it’s understandable that there would be a lot of hoo-ha about it on the internet. One of my sick fascinations are ‘Best Of’ lists. Half of the internet is currently made out of lists, and I think I read them just to get myself angry. Like those AFI’S Top 100 Films programs, they are only interesting by their omissions. The past two weeks have given us an unrelenting parade of Indiana Jones based lists on various websites, in particular, ‘best moment’ lists. That’s fine, IGN has to fill their pages with something, but all of these countdowns seem to miss out one particular moment. Is it because it’s not very P.C? Is it because nobody likes it but me? I’ll never know, but I aim to remedy the situation right here.
Part of the problem might be that this scene occurs in one of the most contentious pictures in the series. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is probably no one’s favourite, nor even mine, but I‘m fond of it. How people can put it on a par with The Last Crusade baffles me, even as a I child I felt the insincerity hanging out of that film. Raiders of the Lost Ark is definitely a revisionist product, looking back at serials, capturing what was important about them while updating the format for modern tastes. The Nazis, for instance, were rarely the enemy in the non-political adventure serials of the 1930s, but they were the real enemies of the 30s and so are put in that role by Spielberg. In this kind of way it’s undoubtedly the smartest film of the three (now four) and sets up all to follow.
Temple of Doom however is in itself a genuine product of the time in which it’s set. Of course it calls to mind in particular George Steven’s classic adventure Gunga Din, with the Indian setting and the battle against the Thuggee cult. Gunga Din (and to a certain extent the real history of the Thuggee) is almost directly alluded to by the presence of the British captain at the dinner table in Doom. When he talks about the British army wiping out the cult fifty years ago, you can imagine he is talking about the events of Gunga Din. The adventure aspects of cults, crocodiles, magic and rope bridges all feel very authentic.
But the moment I like, the one that is left off all the lists, happens before all that. Nick was right to say, in his most recent review of new DVD releases, that Temple of Doom has a great re-introduction to the main character. It’s a reversal of the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s just as effective. The start of Raiders is dark, hot and sweaty, talking place out in the jungle with creepy statues. The scene would be almost silent, but for the jungle noises and nervous chatter. By contrast the introduction in Temple of Doom is bright and cheerful. In fact, it’s funny to see the words of a title so ominous as Temple of Doom splash across the screen while Kate Capshaw sings a Cole Porter song in Chinese, with a high-kicking production number going on around her. The white, bright and ritzy Shanghai nightclub and the appearance of Jones, in a white tuxedo, sets up a different starting point. In the first film, we are introduced to Jones as a rough and ready adventurer, and then later we discover that he is a university professor, and a bit of a goof. In Temple of Doom, he starts out witty and debonair, but by the end of the film, is fighting cultists with a machete and has lost 80% of his shirt.
As you all know, Jones sits down at a table with Shanghai gangster Lao Che to receive payment for an exploit we never see, Indy retrieving the ashes of the first emperor of the Manchu dynasty. Of course, it’s a double cross, and Jones soon ends up in trouble thanks to a poisoned champagne cocktail, real James Bond stuff. As a fight breaks out between a drugged Indy and the Chinese mob, with Jones becoming increasingly disorientated. Then, reeling from a punch, he staggers back into an innocent cigarette girl and socks her in mouth! Down she goes, cigarettes and heels in the air. Even as a child, I could not believe this scene when I watched it. He never stops to see if she is alright or even seems to realise his mistake, he even winds up a little for the punch when he swings for her. Indiana Jones punches some random woman in the face.
I didn’t see Temple of Doom until it was playing on British television. In those days UTV, the local ITV, had a very limited selection of movies, maybe twenty at any one time. This same collection seemed to continue from the late 80s to the late 90s. Then, of course, they solved the problem by basically stopping to show movies at all. But because of the selection of movies during that time period, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen Red Heat and Young Guns II more times than anyone ought to. There was a time when you could switch on UTV at about 9 o’clock every fourth Saturday and be almost guaranteed to see Tango and Cash. That movie is probably best described by it’s IMDB keywods : police, laser sight, framed, bare butt, escape.
Anyway Indiana Jones was not the kind of film that got played every three weeks. It belongs to the group known as Christmas movies, along with things like Star Wars and The Great Escape. These are not movies with a Christmas theme, but rather pictures you are guaranteed will be on TV every Christmas. This gave you one shot every twelve months to watch them or tape them, and if you missed it due to the excitement of Christmas, then too bad. Because of this rather harsh schedule, for years and years my friends did not believe me that Indy punches some helpless woman in the head out of nowhere. It wasn’t until about five years ago, when a friend put the movies on again, that I was able to confirm to myself and the world that he does actually do this!
And I know it’s kind of a sick pleasure to get out of a scene. But I love that it’s in there. It’s random, it’s uncalled for, and it’s a little mean-spirited. Something about this hero of children across the world acting in the most horrible fashion while zonked off his face on blue poison makes this scene unforgettable to me, and is another part of the fallible element that I believe makes Jones such a long-standing popular character. My advice, if you don’t remember this moment, is to watch the film again and look at how casually it’s thrown in there, and try to imagine anything similar finding its way into a modern children’s blockbuster today. At the very least, watch it while you still can, before the older, walkie-talkies-for-weapons Spielberg (who has become more violent in his personal projects and more prudish in his entertainment) replaces the cigarette girl with a Lao Che goon, or replaces Indy with a CGI monkey. It’s only a matter of time. But for now, it’s still there.