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The Deceivers
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Screenplay: Michael Hirst (based on the novel by John Masters)
Stars: Pierce Brosnan (William Savage), Saeed Jaffrey (Hussein), Shashi Kapoor (Chandra Singh), Helena Michell (Sarah Wilson), Keith Michell (Colonel Wilson), David Robb (George Anglesmith), Tariq Yunus (Feringea), Jalal Agha (The Nawab), Gary Cady (Lt. Maunsell), Salim Ghouse (Piroo), Neena Gupta (The Widow)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1988
Country: India / U.K.
The Deceivers DVD
The Deceivers The Deceivers, a Victorian colonialist potboiler with art film pretensions (it was produced by Ismail Merchant), is set in India in 1825. Pierce Brosnan, in the pre-James Bond days when he was best known as the star of TV's Remington Steele, plays William Savage, a collection officer for the British East India Company who becomes involved with a mysterious cult of murderers.

Through a contrived series of events, he witnesses the slaughter of a group of travelers by members of the Thugee, a secretive cult that worshipped Kali, the multi-armed Indian goddess of destruction. If any of this sounds familiar to American audiences, it is likely through the appropriation of the Thugee as the villains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, although they have a long history of villainy in Western fiction, beginning in 1839 with Captain Philip Meadows Taylor's sensationalistic novel Confessions of a Thug, the first bestselling Anglo-Indian book, which was also responsible for introducing the term thug into the English language.

The Thugees' method of murder was ritualistic slaughter using a roomal, a special scarf with weighted ends that could be whipped out and thrown around an unsuspecting victim's neck with the frightful speed of a gunslinger drawing his six-shooter. According to a title card at the end of the film, the Thugees' centuries-long reign resulted in the murder of 2 million people, although scholars now suggest that their escapades were greatly exaggerated. The film's title comes from the literal translation of the Thugees' name, which in Hindi is t'ag, meaning "deceiver." It also refers to the fact that Savage disguises himself as a Thugee in order to observe the group's activities firsthand; thus, he is a deceiver within the deceivers.

Savage must go to such extremes because, despite his eye-witness claims, his superior officers don't believe he saw the travelers slaughtered. Even when he digs up a mass grave, exposing some 68 bodies dating back several decades, they still don't believe him and even remove him from his post. So, what's a good British officer to do but don brown make-up and go undercover to infiltrate the murderous cult and expose them? Working with a Thugee defector named Hussein (Saeed Jaffrey), Savage successfully joins a Thugee group and travels with them. This naturally puts him at risk of losing his own soul, as he must often partake in murders to keep his secret identity safe.

This undercover operation comprises the bulk of The Deceivers, but it is also its most problematic area. Simply put, it's hard to swallow the idea of a lily white British officer caking himself in brown makeup and passing himself off as an Indian within an extremely secretive cult that had survived and thrived for hundreds of years. In his disguise, Brosnan looks like a white man in brownface, which brings up all sorts of troubling racial issues that the film in no way wants to deal with.

The filmmakers clearly felt that they had a pass since they claim the film is based on fact, although the only verifiable facts are of the most general historical sort. The Savage character was based on a real-life British officer named William Sleeman, who waged a campaign in the 1830s to eradicate the Thugees, successfully catching some 3,000 of them. However, the plot of The Deceivers comes from a novel by British writer John Masters, who, according to his 1983 obituary in The New York Times, conceded that his numerous India-set novels were "wholly fiction."

Despite the highly fictionalized story, Masters, who was born in Calcutta and served in the Indian Army from 1934 to 1947, was a stickler for historical and cultural detail. He felt extremely close to India, as he was the fifth generation of his family to serve there. The 1952 novel on which The Deceivers was based, his second published, was one of a series of novels depicting the Savage family in India, which also included his first novel, Nightrunners of Bengal (1951), and Bhowani Junction (1954), which was made into a 1956 movie by George Cukor starring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.

Despite The Deceivers' fundamental narrative flaws, director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) does an excellent job of depicting early 19th-century India, even if it is entirely through British eyes. The production design by Ken Adam, a veteran of numerous James Bond films and winner of two Oscars for Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1995), evokes the regimented pageantry of the British colonialists in contrast to the rough splendor of India.

In addition to its visuals, The Deceivers has a few pleasures to offer. The narrative thread involving Savage's temptations to fall in with the Thugee way of life, rather than expose it, is intriguing. Meyer, working from a script by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth), keeps the story moving briskly along without losing any of the sense of mystery and wonder that are so central to historical stories about the East seen through Western eyes. Savage's internal dilemmas become the film's chief focus, which makes the side plots about the wife he left behind seem remote and unengaging. Meyer tries to punch it up by cross-cutting between Savage giving into drug-fueled sex in a Thugee orgy with his wife back at home, but it has little effect.

All of this is largely moot, though, as the film continually stumbles on the problem of Brosnan in disguise. This is the point at which Masters departed most from historical accuracy, as Sleeman, Savage's historical model, never went undercover. The whole brownface spy angle is a narrative conceit that would have been more readily accepted in the 1950s at the time of the book's publication than it was in the late 1980s, when the film was made. Even more to the point, it is a narrative conceit that works much better on the page than the screen. After all, there is a world of difference between reading a description of a British office disguising himself as "a native" and seeing Pierce Brosnan surprised by his wife with half his face painted brown. One is passable, the other downright embarrassing.

The Deceivers DVD

Aspect Ratio1.77:1
AnamorphicYes
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements Original theatrical trailer
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
SRP$19.95
Release DateJanuary 18, 2005

VIDEO
The Deceivers has been given a new anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1) transfer that is a bit spotty, but any flaws appear to be a result of the source material, not the transfer. Specifically, the darker scenes, particularly those at night, are notably uneven. Some shots look fine -- smooth and well-detailed -- but others are extremely grainy and somewhat gray, as if fast film stock was used that couldn't pick up enough light. Otherwise, the transfer is good throughout. The film has a fairly muted color palette, and the detail of the Indian landscapes looks good.

AUDIO
The two-channel Dolby Digital surround track sounds very good throughout. John Scott's musical score, which mixes standard orchestration with traditional Indian music, is excellent.

SUPPLEMENTS
As The Deceivers is certainly one of the lesser films in the Merchant-Ivory Collection, the only supplement included is the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen but looks extremely grainy. It is unfortunate that more supplements weren't included, particularly since the film had an interesting and contested production history, one so fraught with problems that producer Ismail Merchant wrote an entire book about it (the now out-of-print Hullabaloo in Old Jeypo: The Making of The Deceivers).

Overall Rating: (2)

All images Copyright ©Merchant Ivory Productions


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