Monday, October 28, 2013

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom... in 1940

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is something of a divisive film in the franchise. Though most agree it's an entertaining romp jam-packed with classic sequences, some viewers are put off by the subjectively grating supporting characters, while others claim it's a little too dark and different for their tastes. Still others - myself included - love it for that very reason. It's a unique entry in the series with plenty of memorable moments.

One thing, however, has always struck me about Temple of Doom. It's not so much how different it is from the other two films in the series, but instead how similar it is to another story... Namely a story-line from the classic old time radio serial I Love a Mystery entitled "Temple of Vampires."

This is going to take some explanation...

I Love a Mystery (ILAM to fans) was an absolutely fantastic adventure series written by OTR genius Carlton E. Morse. It featured rough-and-tumble action, memorable characters, great dialogue, some truly bizarre exotic locales, and stories ranging from haunted house chillers to high seas treasure hunts. It was great! The show's protagonists were Jack (the stone-faced and level-headed leader of the group), Doc (a girl-chasing, hot-tempered Texan), and Reggie (a jovial Englishman with unmatched fighting skills), three soldiers of fortune trotting the globe looking for adventure and hopefully a sizable paycheck wherever they went. Together they battled hostile pirates, wildcats, mobsters, evil cults, ghosts, and, yes, dinosaurs in every corner of the globe. It was adventure writing at its pulpiest and most entertaining, and the serialized tales (typically consisting of 20 15-minute episodes per story) had some truly epic novelistic scope. Unfortunately very few complete serials survive today, with many episodes lost to the ravages of time. Some are thankfully still kicking around to this day in the public domain, readily available for your listening pleasure at any number of Internet sites.

Anyway, I should probably explain what this has to do with Indiana Jones. Well, one of the surviving serials (and, to my knowledge, the only one distributed for home listening on vinyl) was "Temple of Vampires," a story with some heavy similarities to the second Indiana Jones adventure. Aside from the title, the plots themselves are quite similar. In the ILAM story, the boys land their plane in a shady South American airstrip to fill up their gas tank. Unfortunately, the locals con the boys by selling them watered down gasoline, which causes them to crash-land in the middle of the jungle. Getting out of their plane, they discover an ancient temple and, thinking it's abandoned, seek shelter in the structure and explore its endless passageways, only to discover a powerful cult who worship vampire bats the size of men while keeping the natives clenched in their power.

A copy of the 2-disc vinyl set from my collection

Though almost half of the serial's episodes are now missing, it's a great listen, full of all the trademarks that made the show a classic. Now, if you've seen Temple of Doom, that plot summary I just gave you is probably ringing a few bells. In both stories, the protagonists crash their planes due to fuel trouble near temples holding natives in their power.

The characters also have some interesting similarities. Though Jack, Doc, and Reggie often journeyed with other characters, this story is unique in featuring two other main heroes. The first is a millionaire with a troubled past named Sunny Richards (fun fact: she is voiced by fantastic actress and part-time demon Mercedes McCambridge). The second is a little boy named Hermie, a stowaway onboard the heroes' plane. This seemed prosaic enough to me until I realized that this is basically the only surviving ILAM story to feature a significant child role. Kind of like a certain entry in a certain series of adventure movies...

There's also a villainous high priest named Manuel, but I won't go on drawing comparisons to Mola Ram because frankly, in a story with a weird cult, of course there's going to be an evil cult leader. Plus there's an awesomely terrifying high priestess in ILAM which has no equivalent in Doom, so yeah.

While I'm certainly not suggesting that Temple of Doom is a rip-off of this earlier story (no more than Star Wars is a rip-off of Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress), I am definitely convinced that "Temple of Vampires" was an inspiration. Temple of Doom borrows just enough of the story to be a loving homage without actually seeming like plagiarism. It's a perfect balance, and I, for one, love to think that Spielberg and Lucas could have been fans of the original I Love a Mystery series, big enough fans to reference it in the Indiana Jones franchise.

And, if you still think I'm stretching with regards to Spielberg and Lucas being influenced by I Love a Mystery, then let's go back to the very beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember the part where Indy escapes some dangerous natives only to discover his greatest phobia aboard the getaway plane? If not, here's the scene.

So, Indiana Jones gets picked up by a pilot named Jock who also happens to own a pet snake named Reggie. What were the names of I Love a Mystery's three protagonists again?

I rest my case.

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