An Encomium of Pankot – In Defense of Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom

I’ve written on the Indiana Jones series before, explaining the problem I had with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A lot of people complained about the tiredness of that movie, the strain of it, and they were right to do so. But for me the problem was theological:

So sure, say the movies, Indiana Jones, may be a swinging adventurer and more of a graverobber than an archaeologist, but even he knows how to deal with something man was not made to covet. This provides a moral undertone to the films that allows them to rise above all the blunt violence; even to put that violence into some kind of context where the blood matters and makes sense. When at the very end of Last Crusade, the Knight of the Temple salutes Indiana, the gestures doesn’t feel hokey or out of place. Our modern Hero Adventurer has proven worthy of his ancestors.

Now compare that to the latest film, which was about…aliens.

Yeah.

Part of the problem is the shift from an interwar adventure to a Cold War struggle. The Nazis made good foils for Indy, because they really were the sort of people who would have liked getting their hands on the Ark and the Grail and the Holy Lance and such. Nazism was occultist and Nietszchean. But Soviet Communism was brutally athiest. No KGB officer, however dashing with a saber, would do make any effort to obtain an ancient artifact, save to blow it up. The idea that a sacred object could actually do anything undermines dialectical materalism. So the idea that KGB would spend a rouble chasing Native American legends simply doesn’t work.

Indiana Jones and the Blah of Whatever“, Contentblues.com

It wouldn’t be overstating matters to say that the Indiana Jones movies are the last pulp films in which mystery and sacredness actually exist, and matter to the plot. Certainly the last notable ones.

But I’m not interested in talking about Crystal Skull, any more than I am in discussing the new film, still in production, which I have already abused. Which is to say, I abused Harrison Ford for doing it. And understandably so, for reasons I don’t feel the need to repeat. However, I will add a caveat, which is that Indiana Jones is without question the best character that Harrison Ford ever created (yes, actors create characters. Writers only provide the limits), a mix of adventurer and scholar, rogue and saint, who genuinely deserves the name of “hero”.

And I’m going to argue that much of his heroism was first brought to light in the second film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom is no one’s favorite. General normie opinion has Raiders in front, with Last Crusade a close second (some contrarians like me enjoy reversing these), and Temple of Doom fun but inferior, but at least better than Crystal Skull. There are good reasons for this. Raiders was the first one, which always has the virtues of originality and narrative freedom, establishing the canon as it goes. Plus, the love-interest in Raiders is everyone’s favorite, because she’s actually given space to be a character, rather than simply a foil (Aesthetically, however, who wouldn’t prefer Elsa Schneider from Last Crusade?).

I’m sorry, but Karen Allen cannot compete with this.

However, having watched ToD for the first time in a long time over the weekend, it has risen in my estimates. And I’m well familiar with it: my dad taped it off of HBO back in the 80’s, and I watched it a lot. It’s still not my favorite, that’s still Last Crusade, but it’s virtues are clearer, and it’s vices to my mind overstated. Like Back to the Future, Part II, and The Empire Strikes Back, it has the benefits of being the trilogy’s odd man out.

Two things need to be said about this film, both of them obvious. First, this is a dark movie, both literally and figuratively. Most of the second half of it takes place underground, in mines and corridors and pits, where they only light is torches and the Hadean glow of lava. The characters are routinely hemmed in, pressed on, squeezed, and nearly dropped into the center of the earth. So long do we spend in the belly of the beast that when the freed slaves emerge into sunlight for the first time in forever, we feel it with them. Like Gollum, we almost forget that the sun exists.

This matches the theme of it, which is largely about slavery; both physical, literal slavery, and spiritual slavery. The cultists force people to drink “the black blood of Kali” which makes them brainwashed drones. Indiana Jones himself becomes victim to this, and is freed only by the cleansing pain of fire (a subtle reference to Lord Agni? Perhaps). There’s an irony there, as the cultists sacrifice people to the lava pit after magically ripping their living heart out, a savagery that seems more Aztec than Hindu (then again, Hindus were somewhat devoted to the suttee, or widow-burning). Around all this, there is an army of child slaves, emaciated and beaten, digging in the earth for precious gems and sacred Shankara stones, the film’s maguffins.

These stones do not actually exist, nor is there any tradition of them existing. Shankara is another name for Shiva, one of the principle deities of Hinduism, who is invoked as the force of goodness, as against Kali, the cultists’ butchering cthonian goddess. In reality, of course, Shiva and Kali are consorts, but let’s just acknowledge that the Hinduism of this film is Movie Hinduism, bearing little resemblance to the reality (yes, the Thuggee did exist, yes they were murderous. They did not rip people’s hearts out and dump them in lava pits, and they had no megalomaniacal plans for world domination. They were criminals who preyed on travelers).

Indiana Jones takes the legend of Shankara Stones about as seriously as we do. The sacredness of these rocks is nothing to him but a chance at “Fortune and Glory”. He wants the stones, so he throws himself into the bowels of the earth to take them. He is already enslaved by the lust for them, casting aside a chance to spend a night in Willie Scott’s bed to hunt for them. Becoming a brainless devotee of Kali, ready to cast Willie into the lava at Mola Ram’s command, is but an intensification of what is already going on.

There is nothing in Raiders or Last Crusade that equates to the horror this film inflicts on its viewers. Watching Nazi faces melted by the wrath of God, or Donovan withering into dust for drinking from the false Grail, is one thing: those men were villains and they deserved their comuppance. Watching an innocent, unnamed man tortured and burned into nothing, his beating heart bursting into flames in a cruel priest’s hands, is altogether different. Indy was beaten by Nazis, buried by Nazis, nearly blown up by Nazis, but the Nazis never enscorcelled his soul. This film is dark, a vision of hell and sin against which the other two are but madcap journeys.

The second thing to say is that this film Does. Not. Stop. From the opening table confrontation between Indy and a Chinese gangster in Shanghai, the movie rolls from spectacle to spectacle, stopping for breath only to set the scene for the next rush. We do not have learned discussions among academics pourring over dusty tomes in libraries. We do not see Indy teaching a class. This movie has no time for that. Car chase, shootouts, bailing out of planes, whitewater-rapids, escaping from locked rooms, armed combat with temple guards while Willie sinks into the flames, roller-coastering over the fiery abyss, fleeing an underground flood, all culminating in a battle over a collapsed rope-bridge while hungry crocodiles writhe in a feeding frenzy in a river at the bottom of a canyon.

This dizzying pace benefits the film, but also has drawbacks. On the one hand, the movie is never boring, never wallowing in arcana or any more expository dialogue than it absolutely needs. Even on the journey from the village to Pankot Palace, there’s always something happening.

On the other hand, the pace can make the film, despite its savage vision, seem strangely light and unreal, half a joke. I suspect that’s the purpose of the song-and-dance number that opens the movie: Willie Scott singing “Anything Goes” in Chinese in the Shanghai nightclub, before our hero even appears. Bizzarely, the camera goes back into the Lion’s mouth from which Willie first emerges, where there’s an entire sound stage featuring two kick lines of dancing girls, tapping away to the heart of the song. Willie emerges again to sing the song’s final line, and everyone applauds.

However, the audience in the nightclub had no way of seeing the dancers. What’s on the other side of the lion’s mouth is walled off entirely. Only the movie audience saw it.

It’s tempting to think of this as just a meaningless continuity error, but this is Spielberg we’re talking about. He knows what he’s doing. This scene, so utterly discordant from the rest of the movie, is the director winking at us. “All of this is unreal, a dream. Don’t get lost in the details,” the movie is telling us. The song isn’t “Anything Goes” for no reason.

Does this cut against the film’s darkness? Yes, and I think that’s deliberate. One needs comedy and fantasy to relieve the grim horror. Which is why the other two characters of Temple of Doom’s heroic Trimurti are as important as Indiana Jones.

Everyone loves to hate Willie Scott. She lacks Marion Ravenwood’s chutzpah and Elsa Schneider’s wry humor. She, like the scene introducing her, is entirely out of her element in this rollicking adventure. Indiana Jones calls her “doll” and apart from her physical attractions finds her mostly irritating. The audience agrees. Nor she doesn’t have much in the way of redeeming characteristics: she’s shallow, arrogant, and doesn’t do much to get us on her side.

And that’s kind of the point of her. Of all the leading ladies in these movies, Willie is most like a classic damsel-in-distress. Not entirely so, she has a core of toughness that the movies busts down to, but she’s dressed up like a princess for a reason. Sacrifices in ancient religions were all about offering up what was precious. Willie Scott is precious, not least because she doesn’t deserve anything that’s happening to her, and everything that’s happening to her is entirely Indy’s fault. He dragged her away from her life in Shanghai for his own reasons, pulled her down into the depths beneath Pankot for his own reasons, and got her captured by the Thuggee. She’s as much his victim as Mola Ram’s. He has to pull her out of the hell he’s sent her to, quite literally. Only then can he be redeemed.

During the escape from Pankot she casts aside all her pretense and is finally a Team Player, freeing slaves and throwing rocks and keeping an eye on Short Round as much as he keeps an eye on her. She’s no warrior, but she does her best. Who among us, stuck in this gorge of peril, would do better?

Given that the movie is set in 1935, the year before the events of Raiders, continuity suggests that their association was brief. The movie doesn’t give us any reason to think otherwise. Willie’s attraction to Indy is as shallow as his attraction to her, and she knows it. She never becomes a devoted, wide-eyed school girl, because she isn’t. Good for her. Go in peace, Willie. You’ll never have to eat snakes again.

{No one in India eats chilled monkey brains! Yeah, that’s the point: what’s going on at Pankot appears to be civilized and orderly, but is actually twisted and cruel. While Indy is getting stonewalled by the Maharajah’s vizier, Willie is trying to eat normal food and can’t. Even the British Captain, an old India Hand, is quietly disturbed by what’s going on. Only Indy seems not to notice.}

That brings us to Short Round, whom everyone enjoyed, and whom has now been condemned by the Priests of Intersctionality. The character is an echo of Gunga Din, of colonial associations of native assistants to the white interloper. Let’s just acknowledge that the character bears shallow resemblance to such, and then get right back to ignoring it. Short Round, or Shorty, is a chinese orphan boy, a victim of the Japanese, whom Indy has taken under his wing. Unlike Willie, Shorty has all but imprinted on Indy like a baby duck, parroting his speech patterns and serving him devotedly.

I say “all but” because in reality, the two are more like junior and senior partners than servant and master. The scene on the road to Panko in which they play cards while Willie freaks out at the local fauna shows us something closer to real friendship: they commiserate about what a pain Willie is, accuse each other of cheating, and start arguing with each other in Chinese. Throughout the film, Short Round has no problem telling Indy what’s what. There’s more equality in their association than their seems at first glance.

Willie, and the rest of us, meet Short Round for the first time and see a Kid. Indy knows different: he sees that Shorty is resourceful and tough as nails. It’s Shorty who has to rescue Indy from the spell the Thuggee have him under, so that he can rescue Willie. It’s Shorty who has do the same to the Maharajah, to stop him from using his voodoo doll on Indy (voodoo in India? Forget it, they’re rolling), saving him not once but twice. Nobody rescues Shorty from slavery. He breaks his own chains.

Of course, Current Year find Short Round to be absolute Cringe. A modern adaptation would do away with his accent and have him say something like “actually, I’m from Stockton. I don’t even like Chinese food. Where’s the hamburgers?”, because the safest way to have Asians in modern movies is to make them whiter than white men. Only in the 80’s could a boy from Shanghai actually be Chinese.

None of this really matters, because in Pankot, Shorty is just as much a stranger as the white people. So if the White SaviorTM narrative bothers you all that much, just remind yourself that a good bit of the work was done by the Chinese boy.

Of course, you’ll be missing the entire point of the movie, which is that Indy becomes heroic, in a classic sense, by restoring to the people of the unnamed Village not only their sacred stones but their children. Hero is he who restores justice and order under the gods, and nothing that happened in Raiders approximates this. The first Indiana Jones movie is a Maguffin Hunt, in which the maguffin becomes a literal deus ex machina. You might find that movie superior on points, but the sight of lost children running into the arms of their parents has a satisfaction to it that Top Men boxing up the Ark just doesn’t. At the end of the first film, Indy is furious that they aren’t doing metallurgy on the Ark, despite being a (blind) eyewitness to what happens when the unworthy touch it. In this movie, he recognizes that the Shankara Stone means much more as the sacred center of a community than as rock collecting dust in a museum. Whatever else he ever may have done, casting aside his own interests to save a village of strangers is more heroic than most of us will ever be.

Oh Good, a New Indiana Jones Movie

Time for Low-Rent Clint Eastwood to Ride Again.

Am I actually supposed to care theat John Williams is doing the score? Is this what they’re reaching for now to put butts in seats?

The only question is Why, and there’s only one answer. No one is going to enjoy this. Harrison Ford is too old for this. He was too old for it in the last movie. It’s going to be regurgitated trash, that will almost but not quite pay homage to the movies that were actually good because they were made by artists in their prime. Nerds will fight about it on the internet, but enough dopes will buy tickets that it will cover expenses.

Shia LaBoeuf won’t be in it, you see. It’s all Shia LaBoeuf’s fault that Crystal Skull was bad. It’s all Hayden Christensen’s fault the Prequels were bad. It’s all Emilia Clarke’s fault Terminator: Genysis was bad. There’s always enough stupid people to keep these creaky franchises afloat.

What will the plot be? Who cares? Fighting Neo-Nazis for control of some maguffin. Throw a Boys From Brazil surprise in there, why not? Have some zombie ninjas, some drug dealers, some hippie alien cultists. DO IT. Indiana Jones has never been anything but a glorified B-Movie. Go all the way, so the real entertainment will be watching Harrison Ford looking around utterly bewildered, trying to glare his way through the existential crisis that his career has become.

You thought you were different, didn’t you, Harry? You thought you were special. You thought you were a Thesbian, you absolute chump. Have you seen any of your movies?

You thought that if you played a megalomaniac sweating in the tropics, or a disabled lawyer, you might get an Oscar. You don’t even have a Golden Globe, do you? You couldn’t even play Jack Ryan convincingly. That’s right, you got out-acted by a Baldwin. A Baldwin, you putz. How does it feel?

You should have done cowboy movies. You should have done a pirate movie with Cary Elwes. Or some cop movies that didn’t suck (Witness is good. I will give you Witness). You should have embraced your success, not run away from it, acting like you were above it. Because guess what? Here you are, 40 years later, and you’re still Han Solo and Indiana Jones. No one cares about anything else. Now, some of this isn’t precisely your fault. But you’d have done yourself a favor and played every kind of adventuring rogue there was. Not only would that mean there would be a bunch more franchises for Disney to feed off of, it would mean you’d have built an oeuvre everyone would remember fondly. Get yourself some producer credits and you could be profiting off the inevitable remakes instead of dragging your geriatric ass around the back end of the world trying not to lose your hat.

Yeah, I get it. Hollywood has its own rules. You’re just a player, not a power. Like I said, not fully your fault. But is this really how you wanna spend your Golden Years, squeezing one last drop out of a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since its target audience was in grade-school? There’s a reason you didn’t do one of these for a long time. Stop. They won’t do one without you. They don’t dare. You don’t need the money, do you? Go direct something. Go produce something. Hell, run for governor of California. You’d win in a walk. Do anything else but this. This is a waste of everyone’s time.