Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the darkest and most controversial of the franchise’s four entries. Taking the adventurer into more violent territory than he’d been before or has been since, the film received its share of criticism for perceived racism and misogyny upon release and was somewhat disowned by Steven Spielberg, who said it “contains not an ounce of my personal feeling”. One element of the film that is universally beloved, however, is the cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. Slocombe worked on the first three Indiana Jones films, always delivering rich and striking images that helped give the series its unique look. Temple of Doom is arguably his masterpiece.
The strength of Slocombe’s work rests in his versatility and how he uses it in his application of colour. Temple of Doom takes its heroes a Shanghai nightclub, the peaks of the Himalayas, a desolate Indian village, dense jungles and finally the subterranean hideout of the villainous Thugee cult. This journey generates a range of emotions and tones: the classic Hollywood musical of the Shanghai sequence, the screwball comedy of the Pankot Palace scenes between Indy and Willie Scott, and the brutal horror of third act in the Thugee’s lair. Slocombe brings a fresh approach to each one, and in an interview with American Cinematographer (quoted by Ain’t It Cool News) Spielberg was effusive in praise of his cinematographer’s talents:
“The reason I like working with Dougie is that he’s a glamour photographer. He can shoot any woman and put her on the cover of any magazine in the world. Yet when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and getting dirty and down into the nitty gritty of ancient tombs, he can create impressions of foreboding and mystery.
“I witnessed his skill one day when he was shooting little children, filthy and a dirty, digging for the lost Sankara Stone in this huge quarry cavern with very bizarre lighting. There were lights hidden under rocks shining up at their faces, lights out of the little holes in the walls just giving them enough face light to accentuate their pathos. The very next day he shot the love tease and lit Kate Capshaw as James Wong Howe might have lit Greta Garbo.
“That to me is skill. Skill and real creative talent means doing many things well, not just one. And Dougie has variety. He’s like the Laurence Olivier of cameramen because he’s able to put a different mask on when the scene requires a different style of lighting.”
Nowhere is this ability more apparent than in his use of red and white lighting to denote Indy’s moral journey. Like everything in Temple of Doom, these colours are hardly used subtly, but just because they’re obvious doesn’t mean they’re not implemented smartly and meaningfully. Watch for them in significant moments and you’ll find that red denotes danger and evil, while white marks virtue. Just as Indy’s moral quest is to reject evil and embrace good, his physical quest is to move away from the red light and into the white.
Slocombe and Spielberg set out their stall early. The opening sequence begins with a flash of red: hellish smoke emanating from the mouth of a dragon at Club Obi Wan. Emerging from this cloud is Willie Scott, who wears a dress of gold and red sequins. Once she’s done giving her performance, she meets Indy, who’s dressed in a white tuxedo with a red carnation on the lapel. Spielberg and Slocombe are here gently introducing the colour coding and in doing so, building a sense of threat and tension.
As the film progresses and our heroes edge closer to Pankot Palace, red begins to dominate. Skylines are laced with a bloody hue and the set decoration during the banquet sequence is filled with imposing shades. With John Williams’ music getting grander, the audience comes to appreciate a real sense of dread from sound and images alone. The Temple of Doom beckons…
Once inside the temple, red consumes everything. The visuals serve to create a disturbing and oppressive atmosphere, but also they remind us of the battle between good and evil that rages at the film’s heart. This is underlined when Indy falls under the Black Sleep of the Kali and turns against Willie and Short Round. Now, the beige-and-brown earth tones we’ve come to associate with him disappear; his clothes torn, he’s pink flesh illuminated by hellish red. As he’s strapping Willie into the cage that will drop her down into a fiery sacrificial pit, Indy pauses in front of the camera, his face lit entirely in red.
Of course, our hero is ultimately redeemed and Spielberg and Slocombe use white light to illuminate the development. Snapped out of his trance by Short Round, Indy escapes the cult and vows to free the children it’s holding as slaves. With hope emerging and our hero back to his old self, white light floods the frame and Spielberg pushes his camera in to capture Indy in a defining heroic image.
As if to put a final cap on their colour coding, Slocombe and Spielberg add a final flourish during the mine car chase. Indy is faced with a fork in the track and has to make a choice: go down the left tunnel, where safety lies, or the right, where danger lurks. Shorty begs him to go down the left tunnel, but Indy doesn’t hear him and makes a right. The left tunnel is lit in white, while the right one is red.
Safety and danger, morality and glory, good and evil. These are choices that define Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom, and they’re laid out to us as plainly as black and white through Spielberg and Slocombe’s use of red and white.