It’s hard to watch “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” today and not be stunned by her portrayal of the horror-mongering Indian, but if you’re familiar with the two films that inspired her, at least you know how Spielberg was. Here.
Screenplay by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (“Raiders of the Lost Ark” didn’t want to be in this movie) throws the adventurous archaeologist into a Native American village robbed of his children. They were kidnapped and forced to hard labor by a Thuggee sect that had seized power in a nearby palace. The Thuggee exudes grace and hospitality, but we soon learn that they have performed gruesome ritualized sacrifices in the bowels of the vast land. Bad guys who literally rip your heart out of your chest.
Spielberg openly quotes Howard Hawks’ 1939 classic “Gunga Religion”; Here, three British soldiers are given a lesson in courage from their Indian water-carrying comrades. In this movie, Thuggee are the oppressive villains who must be eradicated by the civilizing power of the British military – and your rooted interest is guaranteed when the greatest movie star of all time, Cary Grant, sided with the British.
But Spielberg also draws on Terence Fisher’s “The Stranglers of Bombay,” a Hammer-produced horror-adventure film that depicts Thuggee in all his (alleged) brutal glory. There is an afterword with a quote from the very real Major General William Sleeman, who justified the torture, dismemberment, and colonial conquest of the British empire by saying, “If we have nothing else for India, we did it a good thing.”
“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” may have the exuberance of “Gunga Din”, but it’s filled with the filth of “The Stranglers of Bombay.” And that, surprisingly, did not work out well in India.