If Temple of Doom is true, then Hindus believe in reincarnation, karma, enlightenment, and pulling out the hearts of their enemies while leaving them alive.
Wait. What? What? That's not even remotely true.
So why does Temple of Doom serve us up a plate of anachronism with a garnish of xenophobia? What gives with the heart-pulling-out scene, which has no basis in Hinduism or Indian mythology?
It's a metaphor. It's a metaphor for heartbreak.
If someone wrote this in your creative writing class, you would accuse them of being too blatantly emo. And we're not just spinning our wheels when we make this metaphorical connection.
Bryan Curtis, a reporter for Grantland, investigated this scene in 2012:
"I was going through a divorce," Lucas said, "and I was in a really bad mood. So I really wanted to do dark. And Steve then broke up with his girlfriend […] For two bummed-out guys, Temple of Doom was a catalog of what it's like to get your heart ripped out.
I had to ask Lucas about the heart. The metaphor seemed too perfect. Is that your heart being ripped out? I asked. "Yeah," Lucas said, but he insisted the glee with which it was ripped out was Spielberg's. (Source)
We're just going to leave you with that info, and let you think about it. But we do want to mention the unintended symbolism of the heart-pulling scene.
The Indiana Jones franchise made a killing making archeology look cool. And it did that by skillfully blending history and movie magic. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we see Nazis drooling over the Ark of the Covenant…which, believe it or not, actually has a historical precedent. Hitler did have a thing for religious artifacts: he wanted to nab the Ghent Alterpiece and the Holy Grail. The more you know, eh? (Source)
And in Temple of Doom, we meet a member of the Thuggee cult—which really existed in India, but was eradicated by the British in the 1870's. (Source)
But that's where the history lesson stops. Rather than being confronted with anything that resembles Thug practices (and these dudes were brutal and strangle-happy), we get heart-ripping.
And while you might say "Hey, in Raiders of the Lost Ark we saw face-melting! What's the big deal?" we want to point out the fact that in Raiders the Ark of the Covenant is responsible for all face-melting…while in Temple of Doom it's the Thuggee leader and that's responsible for the world's worst magical heart transplant.
In fact, The Temple of Doom peppers its portrayal of Indians with cringe-inducing idiosyncrasies: the Maharaja uses a Voodoo doll (which isn't Indian in the slightest), Indy chants in Hindu rather than the ancient language of Sanskrit, and the Dinner of Doom scene includes delicacies that would never show up on an Indian table.
In short, Temple of Doom manages to Other the Indians all the way to the bank…and that bloodless heart extraction is merely the most glaring example of this.
In fact, it's thanks in large part to the anachronistic heart-ripping scene that the Indian government forbade shooting on location in India…and later banned the film from showing in India. (Source)
So there you have it, folks: proof that something can be both symbolic of a) heartbreak and b) using anachronism in a way that is wholly disrespectful. Two symbols in one!
Every Indiana Jones movie needs its own weird mysterious artifact. Raiders has the Ark of the Covenant. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has that refrigerator. And Temple of Doom has the Sankara stones.
Like all these artifacts, the Sankara stones are rooted in real-life lore. The Sankara stones are based on the "shiva linga," sacred symbols of Shiva. (Source)
Temple of Doom adds its own lore, saying that the stones have diamonds inside them. The promise of diamonds is what initially lures Indy and Willie into wanting to retrieve them. But the stones might as well be hollow inside, because they have no real bearing on the plot…unless the plot requires them to.
Indy magically makes the stones catch fire in a moment that makes no sense, which is saying a lot in movie where most of the lore makes no sense. Even George Lucas says they're "too esoteric" a word which here means "obvious plot device."
But hey, they look pretty when they glow.
It's a good thing Indy doesn't have achluophobia (fear of darkness) because this movie is dark. A big part of the movie is about confronting fears, like the fear of insects (entomophobia), fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), or the fear of having your heart ripped out by a crazy cult leader (heartrippedoutophobia).
So it's fitting that Temple of Doom takes place deep underground. It wouldn't be very scary in broad daylight. And for about an hour of the movie, we don't get any sunlight at all. It's a relentless onslaught of gore, mind control, and child slavery.
But it can also be seen as a metaphor for our characters looking inside themselves. Willie, whose eyes sparkle at the thought of diamonds, realizes that some things are more important than jewels. At the end, she doesn't even suggest keeping the diamond-filled Sankara stone for herself…although she does question why Indy gives up his shot at fortune and glory.
And Indy realizes that being an archeologist isn't just about getting the treasure. He helps to save a culture. And maybe after witnessing all that child slavery, he'll reconsider keeping a young boy as his assistant.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We don't really get an "ordinary world" in Temple of Doom, unless being a dance club in Shanghai is your idea of ordinary. Of course, this is ordinary for Indiana Jones, and his adventure is only going to get crazier once he leaves Club Obi-Wan. (Yes, that's really what it's called.)
For anyone else, crashing through the window of a nightclub in Shanghai, bouncing down to the street like a Plinko chip, and escaping with an eleven-year-old driving the getaway, that would be the adventure.
But Indy's just getting started. After diving from a crashing plane in an inflatable raft (just another Tuesday), Indy's taken in by poor villages in the countryside of India. They enlist him to find the Sankara stones.
Oh, and their kids, who are all kidnapped, are tacked on as an afterthought.
Indy's too much of a hero to refuse the call. Willie, on the other hand, has no problem wanting to return to her cushy life in Shanghai. But Indy valiantly accepts and soldiers forward. Or, in this case, elephants forward on the backs of brave pachyderms.
Indy doesn't have a mentor character, although he acts as one for Short Round. However, if we consider where this stage falls in the plot, then the Maharaja could serve as a mentor of sorts. He's at least a person who commands authority at the dinner table. Even though he's only about twelve, when he speaks, everyone shuts up. Even Indy.
In an Indiana Jones movie, you haven't crossed the threshold until something gross happens. The threshold into the glamorous Pankot Palace is impressive. It stands in stark contrast to the terrible poverty of the village nearby.
But the true threshold comes when Indy pushes the statue in Willie's bedroom and enters the secret passage into the Temple of Doom, and it's filled with more bugs than a New York City apartment.
We don't meet the villain of Temple of Doom, Mola Ram, until an hour into the movie. Indy and crew witnesses him pull the beating heart out of a man. Anyone else would run screaming, but Indy doesn't let it faze him (either he's heartless or brave). Short Round and Willie cement themselves as allies by sticking with him.
The inmost cave is quite literal in Temple of Doom : it's a cave filled with child slaves. You can't get much darker than that. Here, Indy realizes that his task won't be as simple as bringing some rocks back to some old dude. He needs to liberate dozens of prisoners.
Have you been brainwashed? Did you try to lower your potential love interest into a pit of flaming lava? And to top it all off, did you backhand your best friend across the face, probably knocking out a few teeth in the process?
If so, you're having a similar ordeal to Indy in Temple of Doom. During this ordeal, the hero becomes the bad guy because of the blood of Kali, which bends its victims to Mola Ram's wishes.
Short Round snaps Indy out of his trance, and together they retrieve the Sankara stones and free the child slaves. Hooray—what are they going to do next?
Ride a mine cart through the catacombs, of course. Fun fact: sound effects for the iconic mine cart ride were recorded from roller coasters at Disneyland. (Source)
The road back is a vertical one. Indy must chop a rope bridge in two on the way back to the village, meaning he has to scale the bridge as if it were a ladder.
You'd think he'd be home free after lava, mine carts, and rushing water, but an archeologist's work is never done.
After Mola Ram falls to his death and his torn apart by crocodiles (yum), Willie and Short Round make it to solid ground on the cliff side. However, there's a beat where they worry that Indy, too, might have fallen to his death and become gator chow. Their fears are unfounded, as Indy's hand appears and he pulls himself to safety.
Indy returns the allegedly magic Sankara stone to the village elder. The elder believes that magic will return to the land. We don't see magic return, but we do see all the kids come back, and people in the 80's loved to remind us that children were the future.
The Temple of Doom opens not in a temple of doom, but in Shanghai. It's glittery. It's glitzy. It's also surprisingly full of white people—wait, is this another anachronism?
Nope. Shanghai was heavily populated by non-Chinese in 1935. The British began trading with Shanghai in 1842, and it was soon populated by British, French, and Americans, and Shanghai itself operated independent of the rest of China. There would have been blonde American women headlining jazz numbers. (Source)
The Maharaja is the 1% of India. He lives in a huge palace filled with jewels (and to be fair, a bit of a bug problem), while the villagers nearby live in abject poverty. Pankot Palace was deserted in 1850, but there's a new Maharaja in town. However, we're not told where he came from. If you've seen the prequel Star Wars trilogy, you know that social structures and politics are not George Lucas's strong suits.
What's important with this setting is the historical background. The Thuggee cult isn't something that Spielberg and Lucas came up with. They are a real group of people responsible for thousands of gruesome murders in India in the 19th Century. (Source)
We find out about them in a moment of pure exposition when the Maharaja gives his speech:
MAHARAJA: I have heard the evil stories of the Thuggee cult. I thought the stories were told to frighten children. Later, I learnt the Thuggee cult was once real and did of unspeakable things. I am ashamed of what happened here so many years ago, and I assure you this will never happen again in my kingdom.
That's a big promise coming from a pre-teen.
The setting is effective because it uses pre-existing fears about a foreign land and capitalizes on them. Aside from the Thuggee, the film has little to no understanding of Hinduism or Indian culture. It fundamentally misunderstands the role of the goddess Kali, although, to be fair, so did the Thuggee themselves.
But the movie features a Voodoo doll, which there's no excuse for. Voodoo is an African/Caribbean spiritual practice, y'all.
The Temple of Doom has a plot that moves like the boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark—fast, and in a straight line. We stick with Indy in every scene, even when he's brainwashed by the evil blood of the Kali Ma.
Critics for the journal Jump Cut describe Doom's narrative structure as a traditional quest romance, a la The Epic of Gilgamesh, complete with a journey to hell and back. And although the plot itself is straightforward and easy to follow, the overall tone takes a 180-degree turn halfway through the film. (Source)
The movie opens with a sparkly music number, full of tap dancing and more sequins than a finale episode of RuPaul's Drag Race. However, once Indy and crew enters the proverbial temple of doom, there isn't an ounce of comic relief to be seen. We imagine if Mola Ram saw a sequin, he'd incinerate with a glare of pure evil.
So if we were to graph the plot, it would be a straight line, but the tone would resemble a horseshoe. It bounces back into light and humor at the end, with the final scene showing Indy and Willie being dowsed by an elephant, comic humor rarely seen outside of classic Looney Tunes cartoons.
Did we say horseshoe? Maybe elephantshoe would be more appropriate.
Indiana Jones is the king of the action/adventure genre. While James Bond is every bit the globetrotter Indy is (and has almost six times the number of movies under his immaculately tailored suit), Bond is a little too neat and debonair to hold the crown. Indy is rough around the edges, and uses his wits more than gadgets to get himself out of, and into, dangerous situations.
The adventure part comes for the sheer spectacle of the film's action sequences. They feel like video games (and have inspired them) and combine action, suspense, and the thrill of discovery.
Indy doesn't just get caught in a trap—it's a trap filled with skulls, spikes, and giant insects. He doesn't flee the bad guy's lair on foot—he does it in a mine cart traveling at breakneck speed.
These movies set the standard for every adventure movie to follow. Nicolas Cage wouldn't hunt for National Treasure and Noah Wyle wouldn't have a post-ER career as the Librarian were the trail not already blazed by Harrison Ford. (Source)
Plus, Temple of Doom has a romantic element. Although, when Indy and Willie embrace at the end, she is less a romance for him than a reward, like the Sankara stones themselves.
Because Temple of Doom is a prequel, we know she'll be replaced by Marion Ravenwood by the time Indy decides to raid the lost ark. Who knows where Willie ended up after the credits? Maybe she married a Hollywood film director…
Maybe George Lucas is a big D&D fan (we can see him roleplaying as Jar-Jar), because this movie was originally titled Indiana Jones and the Temple of Death, which was the title of a Dungeons and Dragons module from the early 1980's.
Whether it's Doom or Death, you know not to expect sunshine and rainbows under Pankot Palace. While the catacombs aren't called the "temple of doom" and the phrase isn't uttered anywhere in the movie, it's an appropriate label for a place where human sacrifices are boiled in lava like lobsters.
If we didn't know better, we'd think Kali was the goddess of deus ex machina. Temple of Doom features one of the most exciting ending sequences of all time. Where else outside of Donkey Kong Country do you get a mine cart chase, a dash across a rope bridge, and man- (or monkey-)eating alligators? Temple of Doom sets a high standard for adventure movie finales.
But as exciting as it is, it doesn't make a lick of sense. We're specifically talking about how Indy dispatches Mola Ram. Unlike the ending to Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indy watches as the bad guy's hubris destroys him, Indy actually invokes a strange power to knock Mola Ram off the bridge.
First, Indy accuses Mola Ram:
INDY: You betrayed Shiva!
He also delivers a good Hollywood one-liner:
INDY: Prepare to meet Kali…in hell!
Hot stuff. It gets even hotter when he performs a weird chant, which causes the stones to burst into flame—something we don't see anywhere else in the film—and they burn Mola Ram, causing him to lose his grip and fall.
As Leah Schnelback of Tor points out, Hinduism has no concept of hell. Kali isn't an evil god, and wouldn't be in hell. Whoops, George Lucas.
Also, Shiva and Kali are two halves of a whole, like Ying and Yang. Mola Ram can't worship Kali and betray Shiva at the same time. Double whoops, George Lucas.
Plus, there is no heresy in Hinduism, so even if they were separate, Mola Ram could not betray Shiva. Triple whoops.
Even if the ending weren't rooted in a total misunderstanding of this religion and its relics, and featuring the problematic occurrence of Indy, a white guy, taking control of another religion's artifacts, it still wouldn't make any sense. It's just a convenient way for the writers to wrap up the story.
We'll call it deus ex Kali Ma.
If you were expecting hugs and cupcakes in The Temple of Doom, we're a little worried about your understanding of the word "doom." This flick is dark.
But if you've never seen this movie before, especially if you're a young'n, it can be super-shocking and very violent. Hearts are ripped out, people are burned alive, children are whipped, and many, many bugs are crushed and eaten.
Because the PG-13 rating didn't exist at the time, Temple of Doom was almost rated R because of the gore. The PG-13 rating was created after Temple of Doom, which is PG, allowing for large quantities of (mostly) bloodless violence to fall into a less-than-R category. (Source)
The American movie industry wouldn't be the same without that rating. Iron Man. Captain America. The dinos in Jurassic Park. They all have Indy to thank.