Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The return of the repressed

by Moishe Postone and Elizabeth Traube

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 12-14
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have emerged in recent years as masters of Hollywood entertainment cinema. They specialize in slick, technically sophisticated science fiction and adventure films, modeled on the popular culture of the 1930s and 1940s and promising a way to recover the innocent pleasures of childhood movie-viewing. Yet Lucas and Spielberg's high-tech, traditionalist mythology lacks innocence, and this is nowhere so apparent as in their latest blockbuster, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

Although much of the critical debate on this film revolved around its entertainment value and its suitability for children, some critics observed that the film projects a worldview. For instance David Denby noted,

"… it is clear that Lucas and Spielberg do not intend any 'commentary' on the pop junk of their youth. On the contrary, they have simply found the world they want to live in" (New York Magazine, June 4, 1984).

Denby, however, did not proceed to examine the parameters of that world. J. Hoberman went further and scathingly characterized the film's assumptions as racist and sexist (The Village Voice, June 5, 1984). Yet he stopped short of examining the process by which those ideologies are produced and transmitted in the film. Our purpose in this essay is to examine that process of ideology production in INDIANA JONES.

Serious analysis of "entertainment" films encounters widespread resistance in the United States today. Such a stance is itself ideological. It obscures the political significance of mass entertainment and hinders processes of social and cultural self-reflection, By turning to the popular culture of the 1930s and 1940s, Lucas/Spielberg are expressing and helping to shape a widespread U.S. yearning, ascendant since the mid-1970s and embodied in the Reagan Presidency. It is a longing to return to earlier, presumably simpler times, a longing provoked by an increasingly complex world in which the very basis of U.S. self-understanding — the upward political, social and economic trajectory of the U.S. relative to the rest of the world began to crumble. The resultant cultural disorientation has led to a desire to escape the complexities of the present, reinforced by a reluctance to understand social problems in social terms, which is so deeply embedded in U.S. popular consciousness. This desire to avoid life's complexities is a basic motif in the Lucas-Spielberg films. Hollywood's young super-bards take no delight in any heroism that operates within society or in mastering life's ordinary and extraordinary trials. Rather, they celebrate a desire to flee from all such complications, and they disguise their avoidance of society as manful adventure.

It is not simply the desire to escape into the past, however, that marks INDIANA JONES; it is also the content of that return. Under cover of a playful nostalgia for earlier exotic adventure films, comics and movie serials, Lucas/Spielberg have magnified and given new power to two major themes of earlier mass culture, namely imperialist and patriarchal domination. These themes are drawn together in INDIANA JONES through what appear to be loosely connected plotlines, the adventure story and the love story. Both plotlines unfold to structurally similar resolutions, in which a light-hearted reaffirmation of old-fashioned sexism and racism appears as the necessary alternative to the forces of darkness.

Not only the film's ideological project but also its latent mode of operation need to be analyzed. It is by arousing and playing upon deeply rooted fears that the film solicits our acquiescence in the "rightness" of the order which the resolution depicts. The adventure story and the love story are integrated by projecting onto a cultural Other a fantasy of female sexuality as an evil, destructive, archaic power of death. The subordination of this power then becomes the precondition of civilization.

The opening episode in a Shanghai nightclub in 1935 brings together the archaeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones, a showgirl and singer named Willie Scott, and Jones' sidekick, Short Round. The latter is a little Chinese orphan, rescued by Jones from a life of small-time urban crime, who worships his surrogate father and at first treats Willie as a potential rival. Following a rapid series of adventures, the three of them end up in an impoverished village somewhere in Northern India. The villagers are starving, and their dignified headman links his people's plight to the "power of dark night," which has once more arisen in the palace of Pankot. This evil power is embodied in the nefarious Thugs, historically a group of professional assassins. The Thugs have stolen the magic stone of the village, the Shivalinga, which is a phallic shaped ritual object representing the god Shiva. The loss of this stone has brought famine upon the village and, to complete the attack on the life-principle, the villagers' children have been kidnapped and enslaved in the palace. Jones agrees to recover the ritual stone for the villagers. He and his companions proceed to the palace, where foul shrines and vampire bats foreshadow sinister activities. This premonition is swiftly fulfilled at a repulsive banquet attended by various Hindu dignitaries and a visiting British colonial officer.

That same night, immediately after an interrupted sexual encounter with Willie, Jones discovers a secret passageway that leads to a chamber deep below the palace. There they watch the evil priest perform a human sacrifice to the goddess Kali, who represents the destructive manifestations of the Mother Goddess and consort to Shiva. After the sacrifice, Jones seizes the villagers' stone and discovers the abducted village children who are toiling in the palace mines. But Jones and his companions are captured. He is forced to drink the "blood of Kali," which robs him of his soul and enslaves him to the goddess. As a test of his loyalty, Jones is ordered to sacrifice Willie, but in the very nick of time Short Round breaks the evil spell by singeing Jones with a flaming torch. Restored to himself, Jones rescues Willie from the pit of lava over which she is dangling, liberates the children, and leads his companions out of the mines. The final victory over the Thugs takes place high up on a bridge.

The film has the narrative structure of a quest romance, in this case a journey to hell and back again, a move from light into darkness followed by a return to light. The story as a whole thus consists of a bracket around a central part, which is the quest proper. Rhythm and tone together reflect and express the sequential structure of the narrative. As many reviewers have noted, the energetic, action-packed pace and playful humor of the framing sequences contrast sharply with the increasingly oppressive, constricted atmosphere and total absence of comic relief that characterize the film's central sequence. For many reviewers, the film "goes wrong" when it abandons its breakneck, cunningly crafted pacing and loses its sense of humor. Where it is that the film goes remains to be seen.

It is not difficult to detect the film's overt ideological implications. Like one of its models, GUNGA DIN, INDIANA JONES is a cinematic variant on the theme of the "white man's burden." It seeks to represent imperialism as a civilizing, socially progressive force and so to legitimize Western domination of others. It does so by identifying oppression with the indigenous system of rule. For if the suffering of indigenous peoples is the product of their own institutions, then those institutions may be rightfully supplanted. Hence the film does not present a blanket condemnation of Indian otherness, but rather it divides that otherness into two categories, which correspond to an oppressed peasantry and an oppressive, exploitative ruling class.

At the same time, the film constructs imperialist and indigenous forms of domination as polar opposites, thereby denying the possibility that these forms might have anything in common. The film unambiguously differentiates "legitimate" from "illegitimate" rule. One way in which it effects this split is by using the gender categories of male and female to express the difference between Western and Indian rulers. This strategy implicitly weds the film's political content to its psycho-sexual content. It powerfully reinforces the depiction of the white man as the paternalistic defender of justice against oppression and of the civilized order against primordial female chaos.

The film's gender model of political domination places the villagers in the position of children, dependent on the paternal West for protection. Within this framework, the villagers are sympathetically represented, and indeed a sign of Jones status is his interest in their affairs. Jones treats the simple, downtrodden villagers with great courtesy. He is portrayed here as an enlightened man, with a healthy, relativistic respect for alternative cultural traditions, a sort of anthropological Mr. Wizard. He lectures Willie (and indirectly the audience) for recoiling from the unappetizing guest-food, which is all that the starving villagers have to offer. He provides a model of manly conduct for Short Round who politely accepts the food. In these scenes Jones acts as all-knowing scientist, ego ideal for little boys, and champion of helpless villagers, all rolled into one. The paternalistic relation of the white scientist to his object of research underscores the more general paternalism of Jones relation to his needy charges.

The Indian aristocrats, however, are represented as radically alien and monstrously evil. Lucas and Spielberg seek to show how what appears beautiful and gracefully opulent is really hideous and depraved. This tactic partly accounts for the film's loss of pace. Many films use a convention of maintaining a tension between the enemy's refined exterior and his true inner nature, thereby increasing a suspenseful sense of foreboding. Lucas/Spielberg only briefly acknowledge that convention. The Maharaja's Minister who greets Jones and company as they enter the palace seems a cultivated, knowledgeable, Oxford-educated man. Before the assembled guests and dignitaries are seated at the luxuriously appointed table, we get a quick glimpse of an indigenous courtly culture. This is practically the last aesthetically pleasing image that the film offers us. There are musicians, dancers and singers, not to mention Willie herself, who appears bedecked in Indian finery, so radiant that Jones verbally acknowledges her attractiveness for the first time. What is emphasized in this scene is the seductive, alluring, sensual character of Indian court culture with its beauty, charm and graceful opulence.

But these images of the seductive, alluring Other are hastily and irreversibly reversed in the banquet scene. At the table, Jones, the child Maharaja, his Minister, and a visiting British colonel discuss the palace's political history. It had been a center of the murderous Thugee cult that was later suppressed by the British. Jones is assured that in spite of what the villagers may have told him, the cult no longer exists. Yet in counterpoint to all this talk, we have before us the visual evidence that the bad past has indeed returned. We are bombarded by culinary images of snakes, live eels, beetles, eyeball soup, and monkey brains on the half-skull. Lucas/Spielberg evidently enjoy playing with their food, but the game is not innocent. It evokes our disgust, not only for the feast, but also for the lascivious pleasure with which the Indians consume the loathsome food. The banquet scene does not so much reveal to us the depravity behind exotic sensuality as it impresses upon us the identity of sensuality and depravity.

Although the scene may have been designed to be grossly humorous, that humor serves to displace the viewer's attention from the content of the conversation to the vile feast. It had been a conversation that provided at least shreds of material for an historical understanding of the present conflict as a moment in a history of struggle. That sort of understanding becomes implicitly negated by the scene's emphasis on the culinary representation of Otherness. This displacement suggests that the bad past that has returned is not to be understood through discourse and is not interpretable in socio-historical terms. Rather the badness is inherent in the very nature of the Other, a nature that is graphically embodied in the food the Other consumes. Such a depiction implies that historical circumstances are ultimately irrelevant to an understanding of the world. The film presents culturally different forms of resistance and rebellion. But then it does not treat them as socially rooted, intelligible phenomena related to existing forms of exploitation, injustice and social insult. Consistent with a strong tendency in the U.S. today, the film seeks to explain the world in terms of the Other's evil nature rather than in historical terms.

The film subsequently treats depraved sensuality as the sign of the evil emanating from Kali. The bloodthirsty Mother Goddess is depicted as lusting after human flesh and worshipped by adoring throngs of entranced, arm-waving, dehumanized followers. We see the living heart torn from a sacrificial victim who, mysteriously still alive, is then lowered into a whirling pool of lava, accompanied by a crescendo of drum beats and chants. What we suspected at the dinner scene becomes confirmed by the scene of human sacrifice. Indian aristocratic culture is not merely decadent but savagely regressive. And within the Western tradition, an unmistakable sign of that regression is the triumph of the female principle over the male: Shiva, the Lord, has been lain low by the Mother, at whose feet the linga now sits.

The scene that unfolds within the Temple of Doom is a lavish amalgamation of countless Hollywood renditions of sinister primitive cults. But this film unmasks the enemy's true nature in a specific way. From sensuous depravity it moves to depicting savage evil. Then it reveals how savagery is manipulated by a brutally oppressive class. The cult leaders have not only impoverished the villages, but they also exploit child labor. The abducted children must toil endlessly in the mines in search of two sacred stones which were hidden from the British. The real goal of this labor is not natural riches but pure power for their masters because the missing stones are the key to having Kali's forces dominate the world.

The narrative construction of the Indian rulers evokes in the viewer a strong desire for their destruction. As the rulers' evil nature is revealed in ever more hideous terms, expectations arise to see a resolution that absolutely eradicates such absolute evil. This longed for resolution, moreover, would serve social justice by saving the peasants from the tyranny of their lords. Yet the film's representation of that tyranny inadvertently calls attention to another mechanism of ideology production. The images of children working indicate that the film not only represents the Indian ruling classes as negatively alien and other; it also projects onto them attributes of the western ruling classes. Forced child labor on a massive scale has far more to do with 19th century capitalism domestically and 20th century capitalism abroad than with traditional India. Moreover, there is indeed a form of production where the real goal is not the things produced but the abstract social power they embody. Yet that form, the production of surplus value, is not to be found in the mysterious darkness of other cultures but in the light of our own. The film transposes a critique of the capitalist ruling class onto the Indian ruling classes and fuses such a critique with a depiction of the cultural alien's depravity and evil. Its project is to deflect onto the Other that frustration and anger which are domestically engendered. And to project anger in this way has an ideological product. It legitimates imperialism as apparently progressive, as a channel of action and a civilizing mission for the white man who cannot change things at home.

As exploitative rulers, the Indians bear a mystified resemblance to the Western ruling classes. The film, however, goes to great lengths to associate the Indian enemy with femaleness, which is fleetingly depicted as seductive opulence and then, in greater detail, as sensual depravity and primordial chaos. Constituted in opposition to a savage, corrupt, female evil, imperialism appears as a civilizing, purifying, male force. Jones and the British function in the film as bestowers of law, order, and reason upon a helpless peasantry, who are as childlike in their dependency on Western paternalism as in their vulnerability to the evil Mother's forces.

Altogether absent from these representations is any mention of the darker side of imperialist domination. Yet whatever gifts of "civilization" colonial rulers may have bestowed, the motivating force behind imperialist expansion was to exploit colonized societies of their labor, material products and needs, On such matters, the film remains significantly silent.

But then, the film would hardly represent Western exploitation, since the film is itself a form of exploitation. Its vivid portrayal of the Other as a violent and dangerous enemy constitutes a violent and dangerous act. Such a portrayal both reflects and produces conceptions of the world "out there" as the place of evil.

Specific characteristics of the film's self-validating condemnation of the Other point toward a psychosexual dimension of ideological processes. Not unlike many British colonial officers, to judge by their reports, the film seems fixated on the sensual depravity of the feminized Indian rulers, whereas it presents the contrasting masculinity of the Western civilizers" in a sublimated form. Jones and the British reject perverse sensual pleasure and seek gratification in the moral exercise of power. The psychosexual dynamics here emerge more clearly in the context of the love story.

In many of the older exotic adventure films, the "love interest" is manifestly subsidiary and peripheral to the adventure story, but this is only an apparent structure. INDIANA JONES brings the latent structure of adventure-romance very close to its surface, and so it discloses the psychosexual desires and fears which lie at the very core of the genre.

Other reviewers have called attention to the film's sexist characterization of the heroine. Willie is portrayed as a brainless, whining, incompetent gold-digger, a dumb blonde who contrasts sharply with the spunky heroine of RAIDERS. In our reading, however, the film inadvertently reveals its sexist portrayal of the woman as superficial, a defense against a deeply rooted fear of female sexuality. We have already noted that the temple episode breaks in rhythm and tone with the surrounding sequences, and it elicits a pervasive sense of horror. That horror, we argue below, is structurally conditioned. Its force derives from the thinly masked nature of the quest as a flight from sexuality, which becomes a fantasized encounter with primeval femaleness.

This trajectory is implied at the very beginning of the film in an apparently trivial exchange. When Willie first hears that Jones is an archaeologist, she says,

"Archaeologists — I thought they were funny little men searching for their Mommies."

"That's 'mummies'," Jones snaps and thinks that he has corrected her. Shortly thereafter, he is poisoned, and the vial with the antidote winds up in Willie's bosom. Jones, understandably enough, has no time to waste in supplication. When Willie delays in handing over the precious antidote, he takes it from her by force. Mistaking his state of desperation for passion, she protests that she's not that kind of girl. The scene is playful, yet it sets up the tension between male and female that organizes the entire film. Underlying that tension is a deep ambivalence towards the female. Either the woman appears to the man, as she does in this scene, as a desirable, life-giving figure who, however, must be forcibly subjugated. Or embodied in Kali, she manifests herself as a deadly threat.

This threat informs the love story, with its stereotyped progression from initial antagonism to desire. Jones and Willie do not openly acknowledge their mutual attraction until they have come within the palace, where Willie (whom we first saw emerging from a paper dragon's mouth) is metamorphosed back into an exotic seductress. After the banquet scene, Jones parts company with Short Round and solicitously offers Willie an apple, from which he takes the first bite. Predictably this initiates a sexual encounter, which subsequently founders over the issue of control. She insists that her aphrodisiac charms will make him forget all other women. He demurs, characterizing himself as a scientific investigator of female sexuality who will not prejudge the results of his research. The outcome is that their mutual desire goes unsatisfied, and he returns to his bedroom.

She has a temper-tantrum, whereas he discharges his frustrated arousal by other means — by engaging in a struggle to the death with an enormous Thug who suddenly appears out of nowhere. Upon disposing of his assailant, Jones rushes into Willie's chamber, apparently to see if any Thugs are molesting her. In the film's terms, she betrays the limitations of her nature in assuming that he has returned to consummate their sexual relationship. Reality and fantasy are here reversed. Willie's assumption that Jones has returned to continue where they had left off is made to appear silly. She fails to comprehend that his desire has been subordinated to the "reality principle," i.e., the struggle with the Thugs who are under every bed. Jones now has more important business than sex. His search of the room leads him to a voluptuous female statue; when he touches its breasts a hidden passageway opens. Willie looks on, puzzled and exasperated, and tries to draw his attention to her breasts.

Within the sequential logic of the plot what follows is a direct consequence of Jones' having avoided sex with Willie. After all, had he chosen her breasts over the statue's, the passageway would never have opened. At another level, however, what ensues is a fantasy realization of that sexual encounter, expressed as a nightmarish anxiety dream. The fantasy moves from the erotic to the anti-erotic, from distorted desire to the utter negation of desire, Ultimately, this fantasy realization of sex vindicates the avoidance of sexuality.

Consider first what awaits them in this passageway that opens wide upon his touching the stone breasts. Inside it is not only moist and dank, but teeming with hideous life, millions of insects, creeping and crawling, many-legged things of all shapes and sizes. There is no adventuresome rhythm to this episode. The viewer is not excited or thrilled but almost unbearably disgusted and repelled by the imagery. Lucas and Spielberg follow this scene with an alternative fantasy of the dangers that lurk in dark enclosed places. Jones and Short Round get trapped in a chamber, which promptly starts to close in upon them. Huge spikes emerge from the floor and ceiling, creating the effect of terrible, ravenous jaws, a graphic variant of the common motif of the "toothed vagina."

Disturbing as these images may be, they remain within the bounds of fear of female eroticism. But the passage further inward is also a passage backward, a regression from the woman as seductress to Kali, the primordial mother in whom life and death are merged. Deep below the earth, between the legs of the hideous idol, is a pool of lava with a whirlpool vortex that opens and closes to receive and consume its victims. To return to the womb of Kali is to meet one's death; the "Mommy" has indeed become the "mummy."

When Jones is captured and forced to drink the black blood of Kali, there is a symmetric inversion of his earlier relationship to a female breast (i.e., Willie's). Now the breast is not the object but rather the agent of violence, and the liquid that the man is forced to swallow is not an antidote but a poison. This poison subjugates men to the female, and its cure is phallic.

The dry fire of Short Round's torch, the surrogate son's love of the father, frees Jones from Kali's spell and averts the threat of her wet fire. Gradually now the film reacquires its upbeat, masculine rhythm of adventure and conquest. The return journey has begun, out from darkness and up into the light where proper order is rapidly restored. The evil priest and his followers are defeated by Jones and the British, with a little help from the phallic power of Shiva's linga. The stone and the children are restored to the village. Last of all, Jones playfully lashes out with his whip to draw in the outwardly recalcitrant but inwardly yielding Willie as Short Round appears on an elephant which squirts a stream of water at the happy pair. In abruptly shifting to Short Round's perspective, the film reminds us of its overt purpose, to take us back to those childhood years that Spielberg has elsewhere rhapsodically depicted as happy, carefree, and sexless.

What the film presents as its resolution is the reinstitution of the phallocentric Law-of-the-Father, gaily packaged as kid-stuff. Adventure and love, the two apparently independent plotlines, have come to structurally similar resolutions based on domination and submission. The light adventuresome spirit of the beginning and end of the film, together with their carefree sexism and racism, are supposed to be legitimated by the central sequence in the Temple of Doom.

The film itself, however, points to a resolution of a very different nature, a resolution that, while unrealized, is obliquely alluded to by a small, but critical gap in the plot. To locate this absent presence, we must return briefly to the temple, and to the scene in which the entranced Jones prepares to sacrifice Willie. As the moment of doom approaches, the audience anticipates, because of the previous sacrifice, that he will be required to tear out her heart. We know that our hero can do no irreversible evil and so we eagerly await the moment of his release, expecting it to come through the woman. Yet neither Jones nor the priest reaches for her heart, and she is lowered into the pit with her breast untouched. Why? Here at this juncture, where the plot misses a step, the film betrays its ideological project by unintentionally allowing us a glimpse of an alternative resolution.

Jones is saved in the film by phallic fire and boyish solidarity. It is left to us to reconstruct the implications of the unselected path. Breaking the evil spell by touching the woman's breast would have meant overcoming the dominion of Kali by separating the erotic, life-bringing woman from the consuming, death-bringing one, separating desire from death, Eros from Thanatos. This in turn could have been the basis for a radically new masculinity, a masculinity no longer compelled to ally with little boys, to flee from women in adventures, or to perceive sensuality as depraved. But as the masculinity that is constituted in the film is never transformed. It necessitates the continued phallocentric domination of everything female, and necessitates the exclusion of sensuality. Western civilization's political victory over the Indian ruling class, together with Jones' romantic conquest of Willie stand for the triumph of this undifferentiating form of masculinity over the fantasized threat of the female principle.

By including a latent alternate resolution, the film makes it clear that the values it seeks to legitimate are no longer securely grounded. Those values may once have been taken for granted but not any longer. In spite of itself, the film indicates the impossibility of returning to the past as if the present did not exist. Although the film is compelled to deny the present, its attempted return to the past requires the quasi-violent psychic repression of newer possibilities and sensibilities. What is repressed then reappears in projected form and seems all the more threatening. The inherent instability of such a resolution presages a future return of the repressed, which in turn would have to be denied and rejected all the more strongly. Whatever may be the film's self-understanding, the neo-American "heroic" ideals it clings to are not innocently nostalgic. Rooted as those values are in a sense of threat and vulnerability, they become dangerous in their anachronism. The "newly-won confidence" of Reagan's United States is threadbare. This way back is not the way out.