Release Date(s)1988 (November 16, 2021)
Studio(s)Cinecom Pictures (Cohen Media Group/Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D-
The Deceivers is an interesting if somewhat problematic look at British colonialism in India, and the legends of the Thuggee cult. It was something of a passion project for producer Ismail Merchant, who spent ten years developing the film with different potential directors. He finally ended up bringing it to the screen in 1988 with Nicholas Meyer at the helm. The Deceivers would end up being one of the few films that Merchant produced which didn’t involve either director James Ivory or screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. In this case, the screenplay was by Michael Hirst, based on the novel by John Masters, and that’s where things get a bit complicated. The opening title card declares that the film is based on a true story, but the exact nature of the Thuggee cult (and even its very existence) has been disputed by historians.
The story of The Deceivers is inspired by William Henry Sleeman, who supposedly discovered the Thuggee cult and was instrumental in its eradication. This fictionalized version drawn from the Masters novel involves William Savage (Pierce Brosnan), a British officer who’s investigating a series of savage murders. When he captures a Thuggee named Hussein (Merchant-Ivory stalwart Saeed Jaffrey), he engages Hussein’s assistance to go undercover as an Indian and attempts to infiltrate the cult. Yet he finds that the dangers involved don’t merely put his life at risk, but also his very soul.
The legend of the Thuggee has always been inextricably bound with British colonialism, not merely because it was supposedly discovered and destroyed by the British, but also because it became a tool of colonialism—a way to portray the savageness of the native peoples and the need for British control. Sleeman’s account of what happened has been criticized as being exaggerated, and a likely way of distracting from the scandals that plagued the East India Company. Over the decades, the portrayal of the Thuggee in popular culture has been questionable at best, with a strong emphasis on “othering” dark-skinned people relative to the white heroes. That’s been true from the earliest origins of its use in Nineteenth century literature, and has continued on screen as well. The Deceivers does offer a slightly more nuanced portrayal of the Thuggee than the cringeworthy version in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom just four years earlier, but it still never really questions the inherent British-centric nature of the legend.
Despite whatever valid doubts may be raised about the historical accuracy of The Deceivers, it’s still a well-crafted film, with Nicholas Meyer proving that he could handle a variety of different material. He’ll always be most beloved for his Star Trek films, which is certainly understandable, but films like The Deceivers and Time After Time demonstrated his versatility. Pierce Brosnan proved his own versatility here, and he’s really quite good, even if he’s less than convincing in brownface as an Indian. His performance smooths over that issue, especially when the film takes a turn into the supernatural when he comes under the influence of Kali. The notion of going so deep undercover that the lines blur is an interesting one, and The Deceivers might have been even more compelling if it had explored that idea in more detail. Still, despite any flaws, it’s an unfairly overlooked film.
Cinematographer Walter Lassally shot The Deceivers on 35 mm film using J-D-C cameras with spherical lenses, framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for its theatrical release. Cohen Media Group describe their Blu-ray as a “new 2K restoration,” but it looks like an older DVD era master. The image is consistently soft, enough so that it looks like noise reduction has been applied, and the contrast range can look a little flat at times. The biggest issue is noise—daylight scenes look the best, but nighttime scenes are awash with it, and the darker the scene, the worse that it gets. (A handful of brighter scenes exhibit the same problem, but it’s primarily confined to the darker moments.) On the plus side, the color reproduction looks very good, with accurate flesh tones and nice details to the costumes. There’s also very little damage visible.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. (Note that the subtitles must be selected from the menu, rather than using the subtitle button on your remote control.) The Deceivers was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so it’s a matrixed four-channel mix, but everything is focused on the front channels, with little more than light ambient effects in the surrounds. Everything sounds a trifle thin and compressed, without much dynamics, and very little deep bass. Even John Scott’s superb score lacks low end. Otherwise, it’s a clean track, with clear dialogue.
A single extra is included, aside from a few forced trailers at the beginning of the disc:
Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:00)
The Deceivers doesn’t really break new ground in terms of how it examines the Thuggee, but it’s still a bit more complex than other films on the subject. It also features Nicholas Meyer and Pierce Brosnan in top form, so it’s well worth seeking out.
- Stephen Bjork