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The Deceivers

The Deceivers
Home Vision Entertainment
1988 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 103 min. / Street Date January 18, 2004 / 19.95
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Saeed Jaffrey, Shashi Kapoor, Helena Michell, Keith Michell, David Robb
Cinematography Walter Lassally
Production Designer Ken Adam
Art Direction Gianfranco Fumagalli, Ram Yedekar
Film Editor Richard Trevor
Original Music John Scott
Written by Michael Hirst from the novel by John Masters
Produced by Ismail Merchant, Tim Van Rellim, Michael White
Directed by Nicholas Meyer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Ismael Merchant didn't partner with his usual director James Ivory for this absorbing, superlative thriller set in colonial India and based on historical fact. Part adventure, part horror film and informed with a keen sense of spiritual possibilities, The Deceivers has at least five or six chilling moments when one wants to nod in approval: Finally there is a movie that has gotten it right! Based on a novel by John Masters, Michael Hirst's script embellishes historical truth with some wonderfully weird touches, including one drugged lovemaking scene that successfully transposes psychedelics back to the first half of the nineteenth century.

The able director is Nicholas Meyer of The Seven-Percent Solution and Time After Time but the film's big draw is Pierce Brosnan. He cuts a fine form as a dedicated Englishman who goes undercover to expose a fiendish death cult.


1825. The East India Tea Company rules as a colonial power and officers like William Savage (Pierce Brosnan) are supposed to do as little as possible beyond collect taxes. While helping the citizens of the area he governs, Savage uncovers evidence of a massive conspiracy of murderers. His superior (his father-in-law) orders him to ignore it but Savage disguises himself as a native and journeys with Hussein (Saeed Jaffrey) in search of the Thuggee cult. The Thugs (pronounced 'tugs') have been murdering thousands of Indian citizens each year ... for centuries.

Movies have been using variations on the mysterious Thuggee cult of India as a catch-all for evil Eastern doings at least since George Stevens' Gunga Din, with the result that Arab or Hindu villains are still frequently portrayed as murderous glassy-eyed fanatics, killing at the behest of profane gods. For instance, when Our Man Flint wants to empty a nightclub, he simply puts a turban on his head and screams "Kali!" while shooting a pistol in the air.

The only film previous to The Deceivers with the same central subject is Terence Fisher's 1959 The Stranglers of Bombay, a gory Hammer horror film that dwelled on torture and mutilation: Branding, eye-gouging and tongue-cutting. Like Gunga Din, it distorted the Thuggee into a political terror organization dedicated to driving the infidel Englishmen out of India.

The Deceivers portrays the Thugs for what they were, a murderous organization of thieves that survived by maintaining absolute secrecy. Hence the horrible tortures dealt out to members for minor infractions. According to historians the cult prospered for six centuries before being discovered and eradicated in the 1820s after an investigation by a courageous British officer named Sleeman. Pierce Brosnan's William Savage takes on this role, obtaining his evidence by dyeing his skin and living among the Thugs.

The expertise of the Merchant producing team creates a convincing colonial world with authentic costumes and credible cultural detail. A grieving Indian woman (Neena Gupta) plans to immolate herself over a missing husband that Savage suspects has been murdered by the cult. Savage captures a Thug named Hussain (Saeed Jaffrey of The Man Who Would be King) and convinces him that he can survive the vengeance of Kali if protected by a Christian crucifix. "My God is stronger than yours," claims Savage, a boast that will soon be put to the test.

Hussain and Savage join the evil band led by depraved nobleman Feringea (Tariq Yunus) and we see how the Thugs operate. When a caravan of merchants passes they pretend to be beggars and join it for protection. Feringea's men entertain their hosts; his own beautiful son dances to distract the merchant leader. At a predetermined signal the Thugs whip out hidden cloth sashes and strangle the entire party simultaneously.

Savage is understandably horrified. He discovers that other provincial governors seem to know about the Thugs, but prefer to shake them down for extortion money instead of exposing them. There's a growing unease when we realize that the Thugs have a potent spy organization of their own that reaches into the police force and the personal staffs of the English overlords. Savage's deception can't last indefinitely.

Savage tries to limit his complicity to digging graves but is forced to kill along with the rest of the band. Feringea runs a terror organization and his stranglers are devout fanatics convinced that a horrible death awaits anyone who betrays Kali, the Hindu god-being warped by the Thugee leaders into a jealous and bloodthirsty monster.

As part of a Thug ritual, Savage partakes of a sugar cube laced with some unknown substance that produces terrifyingly vivid hallucinations. In a masterfully written and directed sequence the drug is compared to the sacramental communion wafer. Savage's reality warps to turn one harlot into three women: Herself, the widow seen earlier and his own wife (Helena Mitchell) left behind to provide cover for his activities. Savage hallucinates his lover as having six arms like Kali herself, while the two women far away share a common vision of him falling into danger. As Hussain has warned, the ritual cube will make its partaker the property of Kali forever.

Pierce Brosnan is a dashing hero. The addition of a turban, beard and skin dye also makes him a convincing Indian. With exciting locales, well-directed action scenes (there's even a cavalry charge) and a number of chilling jolts worthy of the best horror movies, The Deceivers is an adventure thriller with a heady message about religious fanaticism and secret empires of crime. It's highly recommended.  1

Home Vision's DVD of The Deceivers looks fine but is slightly more grainy overall than most of the other Merchant/Ivory releases, with a couple of nighttime shots having some real problems. Thankfully, they're very brief and the prevailing impression is appreciation for the lush cinematography of Walter Lassally and the fine production design by Ken Adam. Compared to the relatively threadbare The Stranglers of Bombay, this is a sumptuous epic. The disc has no extras save for an excellent original theatrical trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Deceivers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 20, 2004


1. From Michael Kulikowski, Assistant Professor of History, University of Tennessee, 1.13.05:
Dear Glenn, Thanks for the review of the very good (and rather spooky) The Deceivers. But a couple of historical/literary points may be of interest to other readers. First, most scholars would now reject Sleeman's account of Thuggee as exaggerated, both in terms of the historical longevity of the cult and -- more importantly -- the extent of its prevalence in the Indian subcontinent. Sleeman's discovery of Thuggee was instrumental in distracting British attention away from scandals in the East India Company and the zealous policing which he and his contemporaries encouraged shifted domestic scrutiny from the colonial government and onto the colonized population. Secondly, the real origins of the Thuggee myth in literature -- and thus film -- lie in Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug, a work now little known even to afficionados of the nineteenth-century novel. Taylor was a police superindent in India and his massive Victorian potboiler (still a good read) was published in 1839. It purported to record the true confessions of a Thug named Ameer Ali, and thus became a massive bestseller at mid-century, acting as a major influence on both the colonial genre fiction of H. Rider Haggard (of King Solomon's Mines fame) and more consciously literary works like Kipling's Kim. Most of the stereotypes of Hindu fanatics that made the transition from late Victorian and Edwardian pulp fiction into early cinema were first delineated in a fictional context by Taylor. Best wishes, Michael Kulikowski


Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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