We are all (shudder) Willie Scott

On this day in 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first spilled its guts to the world. I was ten years old, and the movie stole my heart, as it were — and I can’t decide, to this day, if that’s a good thing or not.

It’s a tremendously ugly movie, and I say this as a more-or-less fan. The first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was of course fraught with peril and casual cruelty, and it had its gross-out moments. But it’s relevant to the spirit of Raiders that, as the avenging spirits stream out of the ark and melt the bad guys’ faces off, Indy shouts, “Marion, don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens!”

There’s no such warning in Temple of Doom. The audience is caged face-down and lowered with fiendish leisure into a pit of grossness and visual torment, from bugs galore, to chilled monkey brains, eyeball soup, and snake surprise:

to the turbaned thug getting bloodily squashed between the belt and the crushing wheel, to, of course, the terrified victim screaming as his heart is torn from his chest before he’s slowly lowered, alive, spreadeagled, and face down in a cage to meet his death by lava.

Good grief, really dark stuff. The central plot revolves around child slavery (because that’s entertaining) and dwells extensively in a truly hellish underground nightmare world, where children toil and scream under the whips of the brutal guards in an endless midnight of sweat, fumes, and torchlight.

A Mentalfloss article from the movie’s 30th anniversary explains:

In retrospect, [Lucas] and Spielberg attributed the extremely dark themes in Temple of Doom to their respective marriages that had broken up . . .

What they had in mind was so dark, in fact, that Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan turned down their offer to pen the second film. “I just thought it was horrible. It’s so mean,” Kasdan said later. “There’s nothing pleasant about it. I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives, and the movie is very ugly and mean-spirited.”

The movie is all the more painful because it offers no likeable characters — no breezy Marion, no heartily faithful Sallah, no endearing Dr. Jones Sr., and only the cringeworthy Short Round as a foil, giving Indy no supporting friendships to highlight his more human side. The minimally talented Kate Capshaw as Willie is the squeamish, sequined, shrieking heroine you love to hate, except they forgot to put in the part where you love her.

Which makes the movie all the more more painful when, as a kid, I pondered over and over what I would do if I were in Willie’s pointy-toed shoes. She’s so spectacularly unsympathetic; and yet, good grief, it would be hard to stick your hand into that crevice crawling with oversized, squirming bugs. That scene became a kind of touchstone for my developing conscience, and I constantly interrogated myself, “Could I do the right thing if I had to? Even if it was covered with bugs???

Not gonna lie: When she picks her way through the nameless slime and cobwebs of the tunnel and groans to herself, “Ooooooh, gawd, what is thissss?” — Willie c’est moi, even unto this day, like when I’m trying to figure out what is clogging up the car seat so the buckle won’t buckle. I also feel sorry for her, against my will, when Indy and Short Round are heartlessly playing cards and assume she’s just being hysterical, when she’s actually being haunted and tormented by all the terrors of the jungle. Running back and forth and shrieking like an idiot, and nobody will even turn around? I’ve been there. Boy, do I resent being made to sympathize with this flossy-haired nothing doll.

It was Spielberg who suggested the creation of the PG-13 rating specifically for this movie, because it was too rough and gross for kids, but it’s no adult film, either. It set the standard for a certain type of film which has threatened to overwhelm the movie industry ever since: Appealing to the vanity of young teenagers (I’m old enough to watch some really grown-up stuff! Like evisceration, and boobies!) while satisfying the basest instincts of that same crowd, larding the story with scenes that genuinely adult audiences have no use for.

Nevertheless. This supremely exploitative film that continually punishes its audience and which positively glitters with insults against Indians, the Chinese, women, and even elephants is entirely bought and paid for by one of the most glorious scenes of homecoming ever put to film. Feast your eyes as every last child comes home and is folded in his parents’ loving arms:

It’s not that, as a viewer, I really want to be reeled in with a whip like that. I’d rather be treated with a little more respect throughout, thanks, instead of being jerked around for an hour and half and then getting a giant smooch at the end.

Oh, well. I guess I sympathize with Willie after all. Dammit. I don’t know if Indy redeems himself, but the movie sure does; and at this point, I stop complaining.

1 thought on “We are all (shudder) Willie Scott”

  1. I thought Willie was supposed to be a metaphor for women and mothers everywhere, and the constant struggle for self-actualization and finding an identity within a man’s world.

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