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Temple of Gloom

Why is the second Indiana Jones movie so dark?

It’s strange when two filmmakers can hardly stand to look at one of their movies. Especially when that film was as lucrative — and, for me, as beautifully sinister — as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. So when I met George Lucas in December, in advance of the release of Red Tails, I asked why he and Steven Spielberg always seemed to be renouncing it.

“Oh, I’m not renouncing it,” Lucas said. Which is fair enough. Lucas mostly sounds sad when he talks about Temple of Doom. It’s Spielberg who recoils from its heart extraction, its human sacrifice, its monkey-brain buffet. He once told a journalist that Temple of Doom was “too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific.”

“People say, ‘Why’s it so dark?'” Lucas said. Then he began to explain.

“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, and so he was sort of into it, too. That’s where we were at that point in time.”

That’s the reason Temple of Doom, which comes out as a part of the Blu-ray boxed set September 18, is difficult for its creators — and lots of Indy fans — to love. It’s a breakup movie. It’s a record of gloomy images that were scrolling through its creators’ heads. “Sometimes,” Lucas told me, “you go to the dark side.” For two bummed-out guys, Temple of Doom was a catalog of what it’s like to get your heart ripped out.

As the 1970s became the ’80s, Lucas and Spielberg found the grown-up world creeping into their lives. What a bummer. The movies they’d made starting with Jaws and Star Wars hadn’t just sidestepped adult stuff; they’d made an implicit case that an extended childhood was OK, even preferable. Lucas liked to call his work “effervescent giddiness.”

Now, Lucas saw his personal life crumbling. He’d married Marcia Griffin, a crack film editor, in 1969. She’d been with him for every milestone, every box office record; they’d once celebrated her birthday at the Raiders of the Lost Ark wrap party. But Lucas was, by his own account, a famously disciplined workaholic — he refused to take a vacation from 1973 to 1977. In June 1983, less than three weeks after the release of Return of the Jedi, he and Marcia announced their divorce.

Lucas never betrayed his emotions in front of colleagues. Instead, he threw himself deeper into his work. “It’s not that he’s glum,” says Sid Ganis, who was a senior vice-president at Lucasfilm at the time. “He’s emphatic. When he’s onto an idea, or not liking something, or wanting something, or railing against the way the industry does its business, he does it with intensity. In those days, double the intensity.”

Spielberg, who’s two years younger than Lucas, was poleaxed by his friends’ divorce. “George and Marcia, for me, were the reason you got married … ” he told 60 Minutes in 1999. “And when it didn’t work, and when that marriage didn’t work, I lost my faith in marriage for a long time.” Spielberg had his own problems. He’d just split with Kathleen Carey, a girlfriend of three years. A few months earlier, Spielberg had told People, “I think Kathleen and I will have kids.”

Suddenly, the two most successful moviemakers on the planet were under-40 bachelors. Spielberg played video games. Lucas took guitar lessons. Harrison Ford, their star, acquired the ultimate ’80s power symbol: a personal trainer. He hired Jake Steinfeld, the Long Island muscle man who would go on to found the fitness line Body by Jake.

Indy was going to take off his shirt a lot more in Temple of Doom, so Ford and Steinfeld hit the weights. “In the first one he was all closed up, baby,” Steinfeld tells me. “In Temple of Doom, he was looking like Adonis Jones.” Lots of movie stars get into shape before a picture. But even when Temple of Doom was shooting, Ford and Steinfeld rose at 5 a.m. to plow through Steinfeld’s regimen of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and dips. “I’m not kidding you, man, he’d get down and bang out a thousand sit-ups,” Steinfeld says.

Pretty soon, Steinfeld was training Lucas and Spielberg, too. “I was given to Wheels [Steinfeld’s nickname for Spielberg] as a birthday present in 1983 and we hit it off,” Steinfeld says. “His first workout was at his house in Coldwater Canyon. He said to me, ‘I haven’t exercised since eighth-grade gym class.’ I think he was wearing sneakers with black socks.”

Steinfeld guided Spielberg through push-ups and pull-ups — the same workout as Ford. A few hours later, Spielberg was in pain. “He called me afterward,” Steinfeld remembers, “and said, ‘I had a lot of fun, but I can’t move my body. Should I go to the hospital?'”

The darkness Lucas brought to Indiana Jones solved a nagging problem of success. Let’s call it The Empire Strikes Back Problem. With Raiders, as with Star Wars, Lucas had created something almost everyone loved. Now he had to deliver the same product in a slightly different package.

Lucas first pictured Indy driving a motorcycle atop the Great Wall of China.1 He would run among dinosaurs, like in one of Lucas’s favorite novels, The Lost World. But the Chinese government wouldn’t grant him permission to shoot there.

So Lucas hit on India. Temple of Doom would revive Rudyard Kipling just as Raiders revived serials like Commando Cody. The Sankara stones, which were given to a Hindu priest on a mountaintop by Shiva, were the new Ark of the Covenant. In the summer of 1982, Lucas and Spielberg met Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, the husband-and-wife team who’d written American Graffiti, in Lucas’s backyard. They spent two days hashing out the movie.

The filmmakers were perfect complements. “George was very interested in story,” Huyck remembers, “and Steven was very interested in visual.” Katz and Huyck supplied details about India: They’d traveled the subcontinent, collected Indian art,2 and even had photographs of the Thuggee demonstrating their strangling technique. Pretty soon, the four of them had a rough outline of what was then called Temple of Death. It would start with a Shanghai melee (a leftover from the original Raiders script), then drop its heroes from a plane (ditto), before beginning the journey into hell that would comprise the bulk of the movie.

Spielberg was slightly baffled. “The Sankara stones, the Eastern religion, a lot of the stuff in there — he didn’t fully grasp what it was,” Lucas said. “So it was harder for him to sort of interpret that into something we have a stake in. And let’s face it: It’s my fault.”

We often think of the Indy movies as the perfect collaboration between director and executive producer. But it’s more interesting to look at where the two men split. Raiders of the Lost Ark was made after Spielberg went way over budget on his World War II comedy 1941 and blew much of the cachet he’d earned in Hollywood. Lucas set out to teach Spielberg not to be a slave to art. “I said, ‘You don’t want to be these kinds of things [big, giant movies] anymore,'” Lucas remembers telling Spielberg. “‘This is like a useless exercise.’

He says, ‘I don’t. I don’t like making these big, giant movies.'”

Lucas continued: “I said, ‘Let’s do a TV show. Let’s do an old Republic serial, do it the old-fashioned way, do it really fast. Just have fun.

“He says, ‘Yeah, I can do that!'”

Raiders, unlike 1941, came in early and under its final budget. “Steve has always now lived by that,” Lucas said. “He’s gone over on a few things. But at the same time, most of the movies are really budgeted tightly, they’re really well done, fast, professional.”

If Lucas helped mold Spielberg into a thrifty, moviemaking machine, then Spielberg reserved a little intellectual autonomy for himself. He not only turned down several of Lucas’s proposed Indy stories, he maintained a bit of distance from the whole enterprise. He liked to say he was just a “director for hire” — more loudly when the films flopped. After Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg explained, “When [Lucas] writes a story he believes in — even if I don’t believe in it — I’m going to shoot the movie the way he envisaged it.”

But during the making of Temple of Doom, the two men were walking the same dark path. When Spielberg heard of the Thuggee plot, he imagined torchlight and bubbling lava. “As I think you can see in the movie,” producer Frank Marshall says with a laugh, “there’s a lot of darkness being worked out.”

The menacing tone solved The Empire Strikes Back Problem. The filmmakers had a second issue. We’ll call this The Prequels Problem: When you tinker with what works, you risk upsetting your first fans.

With Temple of Doom, the government of India responded before the fans. The filmmakers had submitted the script and asked to shoot in Jaipur. The Indian government read the stuff Lucas and Spielberg had come up with and told Lucasfilm — in their own bureaucratic way — to get lost.

“We were rejected for having the word ‘maharaja’ in the script,” Marshall says. “It was too late for us to try and change things. So we went to Sri Lanka and did a matte painting of the palace. We never shot in India.”

Vic Armstrong always got told he looked like Harrison Ford. He was 6 feet tall, Ford was 6-foot-1. When the stunt double put on a fedora and, say, leaped from a horse onto a moving tank — one of the great stunts in The Last Crusade — few viewers could tell the difference. Only Armstrong’s lilting British accent gives him away. Using clever camera angles, Spielberg was able to shoot about the majority of the fight with Armstrong.

As Temple of Doom began shooting, the stuntman-doppelgänger took the resemblance to a new level. After Harrison Ford injured himself on the set, Armstrong played Indy for large chunks of the film.

It started in Sri Lanka, where the crew had gone when India turned them down. “At night, you’d see the sky go black with big fruit bats going into their caves,” Armstrong remembers.3 Sri Lanka turned out to be an inspired choice. The crew found British engineers to build the rope bridge that figured in the movie’s finale. Spielberg grooved on the fact that David Lean had shot The Bridge on the River Kwai nearby, and Ford and Steinfeld found a decrepit YMCA where they could work out.

The problem was the elephants. Ford and Kate Capshaw (playing the cabaret singer Willie Scott) and Jonathan Huy Quan (the Chinese orphan Short Round) spent days on them, evoking an old-fashioned jungle trek. “First one leg, then the other is pulled forward,” Ford once told a biographer, “which tends to spread you apart — like being stretched on a medieval rack, I imagine.”

By the time the production moved to England’s Elstree Studios, Ford’s back was a mess. Lucas found Ford lying on a gurney between takes. While filming a fight with a Thuggee assassin, he let out a wail of pain. When Lucas saw that, he told Ford to fly home for treatment. Ford was diagnosed with two ruptured disks in his back, and suddenly Temple of Doom looked like it was falling apart.

That’s when Spielberg took over. “Steven did something not many other people could do,” Marshall said. “He shot around Harrison for five weeks.” Armstrong donned the fedora. Working without storyboards, he and Spielberg created a fight between Indy and another Thuggee on a rock-crushing conveyor belt, one of the most ingenious action scenes in any of the movies. It ends, appropriately enough for Temple of Doom, with the Thuggee getting smushed. Using clever camera angles, Spielberg was able to shoot about 80 percent of the fight with Armstrong.

Part of the darkness of Temple of Doom comes from Indy himself. When he’s onscreen, Ford smiles less than he does in Raiders, and his jokes are delivered with less panache. Some of that must have been due to his physical condition. Ford seems to be manifesting the pain that Lucas and Spielberg were feeling.

In Los Angeles, Ford opted for a controversial procedure in which the papaya enzyme was injected into his spine. It worked, and six weeks later, Ford replaced his stunt double on the set. “He didn’t even baby the back at all,” Armstrong said. “He went straight into that fight on the conveyor belt.”

What’s really so dark about Temple of Doom? What is it that makes us, like Ford, smile less than we do in Raiders?

For one thing, it’s a much crueler movie. In Raiders, the Nazis are melted by the power of God. In Temple of Doom, Mola Ram falls a dozen stories to his death … and then is eaten by alligators.4 But even back in 1984, Temple of Doom had been out-ghouled by Halloween and Friday the 13th and other new-wave gorefests. We Indy fans aren’t that delicate.

Another theory is that Temple of Doom seems disturbing because of its colonialist brio. For Lucas and Spielberg’s professed love of serials, Temple of Doom owes more to the 1939 movie version of Gunga Din, with its bald Thuggee priest, its swashbuckling heroes, and its depiction of India as a place where evil lurks behind every British sentry.

However, I’m not sure this worldview is much more retrograde than the one in Raiders, with its loinclothed Hovitos and scheming Egyptians and an American grave-robber looting two continents. It wasn’t until Last Crusade, which came out in 1989, that Indy starts saying enlightened things like, “That belongs in a museum!” And, even then, I’m pretty sure he means a Western one.

Another theory: We flinch at Temple of Doom because of the way it treats women. Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott shrieks in a way that Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood never did. “They definitely wanted a ditzy kind of Jean Harlow character,” Huyck said. “We took a lot of heat for her screaming all the time, but they wanted her to scream constantly.” When the reviews came out, Capshaw was taken aback. She was a single mom with a graduate degree, hardly a helpless bimbo.

No, here’s what disturbs us about Temple of Doom: It’s the straight-faced way the rough stuff is handled. The other Indy movies are spritely even when they’re eliminating Nazis. But in the middle section of Doom, it’s like the sense of humor switches off. The film goes into a trance. We become Willie, asking, How could this be happening?

Gloria Katz says the final script was almost exactly what appeared in the movie, except Spielberg took the references to child slavery and human sacrifice and made them visceral, real. “Steven took those scenes very, very seriously,” Huyck says. “The kids were being whipped. It was very, very dark. Which was great — but, I mean, we were a little surprised by how seriously he took them.”

Spielberg gave us a merciless close-up of Willie Scott as she descends toward the lava; Thuggee masters whip child slaves; we see Indy slug Short Round, probably the cruelest scene in any of the Jones movies. What’s shocking is that Spielberg, that guy who later erased the rifles from E.T., seems to be enjoying it. Like Lucas, he had gone over to the dark side.

Who came up with the idea to rip out a man’s heart?

“I don’t remember,” says Huyck.

“It was your idea,” Katz replies.

So that’s settled. But lost to history is the story of the man whose heart was ripped. The role of “Sacrifice Victim” was played by Nizwar Karanj. I call him one afternoon in Mumbai.

“What’s happening?” he says.

Karanj was a 25-year-old theater actor, a veteran of the Arts Educational School, when he was cast in Temple of Doom. “I was doing a play in London,” he says. “It was a Hanif Kureishi play called Borderline. It was at the Royal Court. Mary Selway, the casting director, came and saw it. She called my agent up and said would I like to come meet Steven Spielberg. I met him at Elstree Studios.”

Some weeks passed after the interview. “I was in Covent Garden with a friend,” Karanj says. “I rang up my agent. He said, ‘You got the part.’ I immediately rushed to the off-licence and bought champagne. We sat on a park bench in Covent Garden drinking it.”

The funny thing is, no one actually told Karanj what he’d be doing in Temple of Doom. “When I got to the set,” he continues, “Steven said to me, ‘You’re going to be brought to the pit by these Kalis, you’re going to be put in a cage, and you’re going to be sacrificed.'” Karanj said that would be fine.

Mola Ram, the evil priest, was played by the Indian actor Amrish Puri. Puri, who died in 2005, was in such high demand that he left England on weekends to fly back to India and shoot other movies concurrently. He was a terrifying presence, with a shaved head and a barrel chest. He and Karanj didn’t talk much. “He asked me if I knew any women around,” Karanj says.

When it came time to film the heart-plucking scene, Karanj was locked in a cage. He told Spielberg that a poor schmuck in his situation would be praying to Shiva, and Spielberg told him to go with that. As the cameras rolled, Puri began to stroke Karanj’s face and chant. Karanj couldn’t move his body, so his acting consisted of making his eyes as big as saucers. Then Puri began to reach for Karanj’s heart and …

We cut to Northern California. David Sosalla, an effects artist at Industrial Light & Magic, was having a conversation with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had returned from England and asked for an effect that wasn’t in his storyboards. He wanted to see Mola Ram reach into Karanj’s chest.

Sosalla was a little surprised. ILM mostly turned out cool puppets and stop-motion creatures. Sosalla had just helped make Klingon dogs for Star Trek III and the Rancor for Return of the Jedi.5 Organ removal sounded like something for the sickos down at Rick Baker’s shop, the guys that collected pictures of skin diseases so that their makeup jobs would look extra gross.

Sosalla never met Nizwar Karanj. He glimpsed him only in the edited scenes Spielberg brought back from England. Over three weeks, Sosalla made a latex foam torso that matched Karanj’s. It was sent to the makeup department, where the torso acquired skin and hair. Sosalla installed a mechanism inside. In the shot in the movie, the hand of “Mola Ram” (now played by an ILM effects artist) reaches into the chest. Sosalla worked the mechanism so that as the hand entered, the victim’s skin was pulled back. When the hand withdraws, Sosalla worked the mechanism again so Karanj — at least, his torso — seemed to heal.

The interesting thing about the heart-ripping, one of the most notorious special effects of its time, is that it’s completely bloodless. This was Spielberg’s request — a rare moment of restraint. “He was very pleased,” Sosalla says of the finished shot, “and liked the fact that there wasn’t too much blood.”

Nizwar Karanj hadn’t been given the rest of the script, so he had to see Temple of Doom in the theater to find out what happened after he met his maker. “After seeing the film,” he says, “I went to the restaurant opposite the cinema, in Leicester Square. There were quite a few people in there who’d seen the film. I got these glances … It was in the typical British way. They won’t come up and say, ‘Were you in the film?” Karanj says he still gets fan mail, much of which comes from the Midwest.

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.

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opened on May 23, 1984, critics saw the contents of Lucas and Spielberg’s psyches. They didn’t understand the context, the genuine pain, and a few of them wigged out. New York‘s David Denby compared Spielberg to Mola Ram, casting spells on his audience. People said the movie’s middle sequence “may be the most unconscionable 45 minutes in movie history.” Taking kids to Temple of Doom, the magazine said, was a “cinematic form of child abuse.”6

Spielberg was horrified. “The reviews were awful,” he lamented on a DVD documentary.7 Part of the problem was that the MPAA still funneled most movies into either a PG or R rating. Temple of Doom had earned a PG. Paramount put a warning for parents in newspapers, but it didn’t help much.

On July 1, 1984, just five weeks after Temple of Doom was released, the MPAA christened a new rating: PG-13. On August 10, Red Dawn became the first movie released with a PG-13 rating. “It was Indy that was the catalyst,” says Lucasfilm’s Sid Ganis, “the film that pushed the MPAA to create the PG-13 category.”

Before the new rating, Lucas and Spielberg were already making movies for 13-year-olds. Their world was one where the innocence of childhood is left behind but the complexities of adulthood aren’t fully revealed. PG-13 merely codified the formula. A PG-13 film might have a little nudity but no sex; its violence would be bloodless; it would have only a “single use of one of the harsher sexually derived words” — a.k.a., two fucks and you’re out.

At first, PG-13 was just a rating like any other. But lately it has become the rating — the key to box-office gold — and the MPAA’s strictures have become the guiding aesthetic of the movies. With a few exceptions like Prometheus, studios mold movies for the pimply hordes that turn out on opening weekend. Seven of the last decade’s 10 highest-grossing films were rated PG-13; this year, the number is four of the top five.

I don’t go for the geezer’s lament that “all movies these days are made for teenagers.” (See the 1940s, which had plenty of juvenile crap.) But thanks to the rise of PG-13, in some sense this has become true. These days, you’d rarely see a summer movie as rough around the edges, as happily ignoble, as Temple of Doom. It’s ironic that PG-13 should be part of its legacy. By letting adulthood into the summer blockbuster, we became teenagers forever.

Lucas and Spielberg made two more Indy movies, but after Temple of Doom their careers took different tracks. Spielberg continued be a frenetic director (almost always under budget), while Lucas became a semi-retired single dad. The two lovelorn guys split thematically, too. The next big-budget movie Lucas produced was Labyrinth. The next movie Spielberg directed was The Color Purple.

“I like Temple of Doom,” Lucas told me. But since revisiting the movie conjures up sad memories, takes him and Spielberg to a hell they wish they never visited, I doubt they’ll ever quite love it. I doubt he’ll ever quite love it. “Is it fun to think back about that stuff emotionally for us?” Lucas said. “Nooooo.” His quotation of Darth Vader’s pain howl is probably not coincidental.

Filed Under: Indiana Jones, Movies, Teams

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast