bill-swift - August 14, 2013
Kids see the world through eyes full of innocence and hope. They haven't realized yet what a totally s%hitty place the world is. This is why we tend to miss the darker aspects of things. Children watch movies with an uncritical eye. I had this experience growing up with the classic Spielberg film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This movie came out when I was a mere 7 years old and I friggin' loved it. A guy rips out hearts, there is a room full of bugs, and people eat monkey brains and snakes. What's not to like? Then I got older, wiser, and less clueless and I realized...this movie is pretty darn racist. With this in mind, I decided to start a new Egotastic! feature in which I examine how racist our childhood really was.
In Temple of Doom, Indy journeys India and sets out in search of the lost Shankara stones with his sidekick Short Round. To say that Short Round is a Chinese stereotype is an understatement. He talks in a pigdin English that is reminiscent of the culturally insensitive Fu Manchu character from the 40's. Indy clearly loves Short Round...but less like a son and more like a pet. As intelligent as Indy is, he is a man of his times. He has the classic paternalistic "White Man's Burden" attitude to foreigners. Sure, he took Short Round off the streets of Shanghai, but does he send him to school? No. Instead he has him drive his getaway cars and takes him into dungeons where evil cults practice human sacrifice. According to the Indiana Jones mythology, he later sends Short Round away to boarding school. I'm sure that he was treated with as much cultural sensitivity and respect as he was by Indy.
The portrayal of Indians is even worse. In the film they are shown as superstitious, savage, and weak-minded. From the poverty-stricken villagers that worship rocks to the sadistic Thugee cult led by Mola Ram, Indians are basically little more than murderous children. It's like the screenwriter studied up on Indian culture by reading a 19th century treatises on why Indians are inferior because of their skull size or something. There is an entire section of the movie that revolves around how weird Indian food is. Obviously, the writer has never had some nice saag paneer or lamb vindaloo. Indy is the White Man that comes in the nick of time to save the brown people from themselves. The ending is like a love poem to English imperialism when the British colonel shows up to defeat the Thugee. Yikes.
And yet...I love this movie. I can't help it. It's fun, it's exciting, and Harrison Ford tears up the screen with his magnetic charisma. Perhaps it's the nostalgia of youth or maybe it's that the coolness of a mining cart chase scene is more important to me than cultural sensitivity. Still, I have Asian-American friends that have told me that they have a great deal of affection for Short Round. At the time, he was one of the only Asian heroes in American movies, (along with Ke Huy Quan's equal aly iconic Data from The Goonies). I can understand that. I felt the same way about Speedy Gonzalez as the token Latino in cartoons. While not as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, Temple of Doom is like Citizen Kane compared to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It's just a fun movie that is still one of the highest box office earners of all time. Fortune and glory, kid, fortune and glory.