THE DECEIVERS begins with the prologue “INDIA, 1825. This is the story of a secret society of murderers . . . and of the man who exposed their crimes. It is based on fact”. Starring Pierce Brosnan, directed by Nicholas Meyer, it was produced by Ismail Merchant, shot on location in India. Michael Hirst’s screenplay was adapted from John Masters 1952 novel, loosely based on William Sleeman (1788-1856), who led the fight against the Thuggee criminal society. The movie concludes with the epilogue “It took twenty years to wipe out Thuggee. Rather than betray the cult, over 400 Thugs put the hangman’s noose around their own necks. Thuggee had claimed almost two million victims.” *
Telling the tale between those opening and closing statements made for such a trying experience, including fending off local criminal elements, that Merchant was compelled to write a book about it, “Hullabaloo in Old Jeypore: The Making of The Deceivers”. As director Meyer noted “Scores of hooligans stormed through our sets while we were rolling; equipment was sabotaged or stolen; ‘cultural’ societies were founded for the sole purpose of suing us, alleging pornographic distortions of Indian culture.” He did have praise for the hard work of the Indian crew.
Then, after expending $6,000,000 and fighting through all the hassles filming in Jaipur, Agra and Khajuraho, when released in 1988 the movie landed with all the impact of a sack of rocks in a swamp. Throttled by critics, it was duly strangled at the boxoffice, making an embarrassing $346,300, expiring in 222nd place for the year. Recent re-evaluations have been kinder, including our own. Loving stories set in India, fresh from devouring “The Far Pavilions”, anxious for a rousing period adventure that might summon up classic actioners like Gunga Din or King Of The Khyber Rifles and deliver them in the style of more recent epics The Wind And The Lion and The Man Who Would Be King, when I first saw this, in a theater occupied by maybe six other people, I thought was a crashing bore.
Seen anew 33 years later, settling into its unhurried pace and dark, tense, often spooky atmosphere, without being poised for excitement, it comes off considerably better. Brosnan, 34, gives an impassioned performance as the officer who gets in so deep he loses himself (he was criticized at the time, not being credited for more than good looks) and the great Saeed Jaffrey backs him as a Thug who turns informer. John Scott’s subtle score blends menace into a patina of exotica. The secondary British characters are on the dull side, and the final action scenes needed more oomph, and would have benefitted from Scott’s otherwise effective score ramping up to suit. It’s a story of mood more than movement.
Neat opening credits are the work of 007 genie Maurice Binder. With Shashi Kapoor, Helena Michell, Tariq Yunus, Keith Michell and Neena Gupta. 112 minutes.
* Get your fix of Thuggee depredations, with more thrills but less accuracy—in the unabashed Imperial ode of Gunga Din, in a segment of Around The World In 80 Days (Cantinflas rescues suttee sacrifice Shirley MacLaine), for gore shocks in the sensationalistic The Stranglers Of Bombay, for Guy Madison to get a paycheck in the Italian-made programmer The Mystery of Thug Island, for Harrison Ford to overcome in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and via the Bollywood epic Thugs Of Hindostan.