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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Concord / 75m

Long trailing in popularity behind the two movies either side of it in the original Indiana Jones trilogy, I think time has been very kind to The Temple of Doom, which is a first-rate piece of entertainment full of the action thrills you’d expect and no shortage of humour alongside what at the time were considered to be pretty gory scenes. This time, Indy winds up with Kate Capshaw’s cabaret entertainer and his young Chinese friend Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) and the trio find themselves in India where they rescue enslaved children from the clutches of an evil cult.

John Williams wrote what was at the time, and very much still is, considered to be one of the all-time-great action/adventure scores for the first film in this series, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not for the first time, he found himself having to somehow follow that up with a sequel score that could live up to almost impossibly-high expectations; and not for the first time, he did just that. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a masterpiece of film music, perfect from first note till last.

John Williams

The film and score open with Williams’s delightful Cantonese take on Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, sung with some gusto by Capshaw, before a couple of tense cues “Indy Negotiates” and “Nightclub Brawl”. Then the fun and games really begin in the first of the score’s remarkable action pieces, “Fast Streets of Shanghai”, with frenetic brassy writing dominating. The cue also introduces Short Round’s theme (on which, more later) and concludes with an heroic take on the Raiders March.

In “Map / Out of Fuel”, we open with the requisite travel music, Indy’s theme in all its glory, and then hear the first glimpse of the wonderful love theme for Willie before things take a tense, dark turn and Williams pulls out some delightful comic book action/suspense material. Then it’s time for another of those blistering action cues, the frantic scherzo “Slalom on Mt. Humol” – it’s so delightful the way Williams manages to convey dangerous thrills while keeping a light-hearted edge, something he did so many times in this series.

“Short Round’s Theme” (which is an actual film cue, not a concert arrangement) presents his theme in extended form – with cod-Chinese stylings and a comical air it fits the character perfectly (and is used in the film slightly more broadly, for other lighthearted moments). In the middle of the cue Williams also offers the score’s first glimpse at its most significant new theme, later called “Parade of the Slave Children” when he gave it a concert version.

In “The Scroll / To Pankot Palace” there’s a clever movement as romance (with Willie’s Theme) morphs into mystery, retaining the same violin-heavy orchestration, and finally the last (and least-used) of the score’s new themes, for the palace itself, an ominous little brass motif that has a certain grandeur to it in its opening form. Things take a sinister turn towards the end of the cue, with percussive tension emerging and leading up to another grand performance of the Pankot theme.

“Nocturnal Activities” is very much a cue of two halves – we start with the score’s most sweeping statement of its wonderful love theme before hearing some very light-hearted material written to accompany a wonderful scene of classic bedroom farce; then dramatic action takes over for the second half, and I love the way Williams builds it up gradually underneath the romantic and comic material before it all erupts into its frenetic conclusion.

After this we reach the darkest section of the film and therefore score, starting in “Bug Tunnel / Death Trap” which has a great, twisted variant on Short Round’s Theme from the horns before a classic Williams action motif takes over as the situation becomes desperate (and then wittily reprised much faster at just the right moment in the film), being released into a brief but glorious blast of Indy’s theme. Tension runs right through “Approaching the Stones”, a desperately macabre choir being added to the orchestra as the composer ratchets up the suspense, concluding the cue with a bleak version of the slave children theme.

“Children in Chains” continues the darkness, with a series of tense variants on the slave children theme surrounding various ominous brassy outbursts. “Temple of Doom” is one of the most gruesome pieces Williams has ever written, a twisted piece of source music for choir and percussion for the diabolical ceremony being performed on-screen, the intensity reaching fever-pitch at the end. (It’s great!) Then finally comes a bit of relief as “Short Round Escapes”, with the cue’s early continuation of the dark sound ultimately being overtaken by Short Round’s theme and then a triumphant little nugget of the slave children theme. “Saving Willie” is another frantic cue, as fast-paced blasts of Indy’s theme alternate with dramatic action and suspense before a rapturous version of Willie’s theme, a warm version of Indy’s and (just to complete the set) Short Round’s too.

I can’t overstate how much I love the slave children theme and it finally gets unleashed in all its glory in “Slave Children’s Crusade”. Vintage John Williams, it is so big and grand, so instantly memorable – he did later record his concert arrangement of it, which is one of the first picks whenever I create a “best of Williams” playlist. (As a brief aside, what a shame he didn’t record concert arrangements of the big themes for the Indy albums, the way he did for Star Wars – all of this score’s great new themes would sound so good that way.)

You think “Short Round Helps” is exciting – and that’s because it is – and then you come to “The Mine Car Chase”, which blows everything out of the water and is one of the great action pieces of this composer’s storied career. Again he does that deft juggle of making it light-hearted yet serious at the same time (I know that doesn’t make sense, but I don’t know how else to describe it) – he builds it all up from a great little motif, injects unbelievable pace into it (with some grand performance from the LA orchestra) and it’s just a complete treat.

The thrills continue in “Water!” which is another great track (with some more wonderful music for the brass in particular); then after the brief “The Sword Fight” we have one last action blow-out in “The Broken Bridge / British Relief” which offers a reprise of the choral ceremonial music built into it alongside all the orchestral histrionics – a desperate take on Willie’s Theme leads into some thrilling action before a grand take on the slave children theme and finally an heroic fanfare as – as is customary whenever it happens around the world – the day is saved when the British arrive.

Of all the big franchise movies where Williams has collected a set of themes together for the end titles, this one might just be my favourite of all. Indy’s theme bookends it of course, and in between we get brilliant takes on the slave children theme, Short Round’s and Willie’s. I understand of course why it is the Raiders March that always gets played in concert, but this one would blow the house down as well (and it sounds stunning in this recording).

This 75-minute expanded album doesn’t include the complete score – a few extra cues were included on the bonus fifth disc when the Indy scores were put out as a boxed set by Concord, but still by no means everything – I’m sure one day the whole thing will be released. Until then, we can enjoy what we’ve been given – which is 75 minutes of some of the finest music John Williams has ever written. I know I’m probably in the minority but this is my favourite Indy score – indeed, it might just be my favourite John Williams score. It’s frantically exciting, it’s got a great love theme, genuine wit – of course, the legendary composer’s trademark technique – and it’s got fortune and glory.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. LUC VAN DER EEKEN (Reply) on Saturday 8 May, 2021 at 18:20

    I completely agree, James. So happy there’s another person who thinks this is the best Indy score. Williams at the top of his game!

  2. dominique (Reply) on Sunday 9 May, 2021 at 08:10

    thank you, james! great review of a great and highly entertaining score!

    and i´m so glad having you back again!!!

  3. WillGoldNewtonBarryGrusin (Reply) on Monday 10 May, 2021 at 10:30

    Welcome Back, Mr. Southall!

    You were severely missed – and this review is the perfect one to come back with.

  4. Alexander (Reply) on Tuesday 11 May, 2021 at 16:54

    It seems we’re in the same minority on this. Best Indy score ever, I’d even say best Williams score to date. Perfect in every regard.