May 1984, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes to theaters with Mola Rom (Amrish Puri) pulling a guy's beating heart out of his chest. Also some guy's getting eaten by alligators, a guy getting crushed by a big stone wheel, the stewed monkey brains, but it's not like we see anyone's face melting. June 1984, Gremlins arrives in theaters with at least one Gremlin getting killed in a blender, one exploding in a microwave overnight, one getting shot at close range in the head, at least one melting/boiling into nothing. These two films are generally credited with the birth of the PG-13 rating. Director Stephen Spielberg helped birth the new rating--he told Vanity Fair in 2008,
I had come under criticism, personal criticism, for both Temple of Doom [which he directed] and, you know, Gremlins [which he executive produced], in the same year. I remember calling Jack Valenti [then the president of the Motion Picture Association] and suggesting to him that we need a rating between R and PG, because so many films were falling into a netherworld, you know, of unfairness. Unfair that certain kids were exposed to Jaws, but also unfair that certain films were restricted, that kids who were 13, 14, 15 should be allowed to see. I suggested, "Let's call it PG-13 or PG-14, depending on how you want to design the slide rule," and Jack came back to me and said, "We've determined that PG-13 would be the right age for that temperature of movie." So I've always been very proud that I had something to do with that rating.
I was eight. I got to see these movies and worse ones (worse according to some, anyway). I barely cared.
(In fact, I had a children's book version of the film that had Indy bound to that skull-topped statue on its cover.
Because, that's how you market a film tie-in to children; put the hero at his lowest on the cover.)
But, I did take notice. An AV Club piece on MPAA screw-ups, takes issue with the vagueness of the rating system. For example,
In early summer of 2007, two films were released with R ratings. One features a scene where a naked woman is suspended form a ceiling while another naked woman slashes her with a scythe and bathes in her blood. The other featured two Dublin musicians singing songs together, falling in love, and opting not to act on it. In spite of their comically vast discrepancy in content, Hostel 2 and Once both required a parent or guardian to accompany minors under 18 years of age, and the contrast between them underscored the vagaries of the R rating.
I was thinking of looking back at articles from 1984 for not necessarily the MPAA reasoning for the new rating but the impression that people got. Regardless of rating, out of the top ten films at the box office that year, I saw nine in the theater. (The tenth one was just because my family wasn't much for Star Trek... Though we would see Star Trek IV on the big screen a couple years later, III wasn't doing it for us, I guess.) Looking back now, trying to compare the melting Nazis at the end of Raiders versus the beating heart scene here, I wonder how it felt then. Looking back from 2018, SJW that I am, I wonder if watching evil folks like Nazis melt--especially when it is God Himself doing that melting--was just more acceptable to a popular American audience (and the folks at the MPAA) than watching a helpless Indian having his heart ripped out. I noticed, looking at Roger Ebert's original review as I often do with older movies, that he makes no specific mention of the heart scene; he mentions "Human victims... Lowered into a subterranean volcano in a steel cage" but the heart bit amounts to, maybe, this phrasing: "weird rituals are celebrated". For a guy who didn't care much for slasher films, maybe Roger still wanted there to be some mystery to the specifics of the violence and death in a movie, give the audience something to look forward to. But, he describes the mine car chase in great detail, so it's hard to be sure.
I wonder if it wasn't some mildly racist double standard, the white man's burden to look out for the poor Indian, but we can't possibly care about Nazis. But, then again, writing from 2018, maybe the racist angle would have worked in the opposite direction. Maybe it is simpler; maybe violence aimed at the bad guys just looks better on ratings board paperwork, or in the hearts and minds of the theater audience, than violence against helpless extras. The first film to receive a PG-13 was The Flamingo Kid--for language--but its release was delayed until December. The first film to be released with a PG-13 rating was Red Dawn, which had plenty of violence against characters good and bad.
If I was spending more than a couple days with Temple of Doom, I could do some serious research, find more than a handful of contemporary sources. But, one review that I did find--Todd McCarthy, Variety--surprised me not for its commentary on the violence/gore--
(McCarthy says, "Kids 10-12 will eat it all up, of course, but many of the images, particularly those involving a gruesome feast of live snakes, fried beetles, eyeball soup and monkey brains, and those in the sacrificial ceremony, might prove extraordinarily frightening to younger children who, indeed, are being catered to in this film by the presence of the adorable 12-year-old Ke Huy Quan [playing Short Round].")
--but for his opinion on the film versus the first one. A common opinion, at the time, I'm fairly sure, but looking back at the films today, I must disagree with the popular opinion. McCarthy concludes, "In one quick step, the "Raiders" films have gone the way the James Bond opuses went at certain points, away from nifty stories in favor of one big effect after another." But, I'm not sure what film he was watching. Temple feels less reliant on big set piece spectacles than Raiders, even though the mine car chase, for example, feels bigger than most of Raiders' sequences. And, this story is definitely more "nifty". Then again, McCarthy refers to (I think) the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi as an "airborne sleigh chase" so I'm not sure any of his phrasing can be trusted.
Temple of Doom involves a more straightforward plot, and Indiana actually affects this plot, and dictates its end, unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Maybe it was just the 80s. Violence and sex in 70s films was kinkier, dirtier, more obviously adult. Actions films in the 80s drifted into bigger and bigger displays of violence, but they all bought into patriarchal angles and American jingoistic flights of fancy about one (white) man saving the day, or a bunch of kids saving the day (see the aforementioned Red Dawn). Inspiring a more cautious MPAA rating was more a side product. A strange coincidence, when a film like Temple of Doom, as film critic Filipe Furtado aptly described it, "somehow [doubles] down on the racism and sexism inherent to [the serial] tradition" that inspired Indiana Jones in the first place. And, American filmgoers loved the racism and the sexism and the violence. We didn't always care for sex and nudity. Though plenty of comedies through the 80s still included some, home video and cable television made that sort of thing more readily available, so mainstream films included sex less and less, but violence can easily mean spectacle. Spectacle works on the big screen.
Temple of Doom took all the visual spectacle of the original and made its titular hero more of an affective protagonist than he was in the previous film. It still relied on racist bits and sexist bits--and I'm sure I'll get into that tomorrow--but as a film at least it changed some things up, raised some stakes and...
And maybe this was really the unconscious reason that this film raised more ire. It raised some stakes and acknowledged something other than Christianity as real. The Sankara stones glowing like they do--that means that it's not just the Christian God out there fighting Nazis, as a proper deity should, but that there are other deities out there, and that means American (Christian) Exceptionalism is lessened just a bit.