The Deceivers: Loose Cannon, by David Bax
1988’s The Deceivers, playing in theaters now in a new restoration, is produced by Ismail Merchant but it’s not quite what you imagine when you think of a Merchant/Ivory production. For one thing, it’s not directed by James Ivory. Instead, it’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘s Nicholas Meyer at the helm (though cinematographer Walter Lassally does provide the same soft, grimy beauty that he brought to Ivory’s The Bostonians and Heat and Dust in the years prior). Sure, The Deceivers may depict 19th century British military and aristocrats living in (read: occupying) India. But Meyer’s film doesn’t have the classy sheen associated with Merchant/Ivory. In fact, it can be downright trashy.
In many cases, trashiness can be a delight. The Deceivers is, unfortunately, not one of those cases. The film threatens to be fun at first, especially with the nearly psychedelic, 1960s-inspired font of its opening titles. But that’s the last time the movie takes itself anything less than seriously.
In its broad strokes, The Deceivers (adapted by Michael Hirst from the novel by John Masters) has plenty in common with the broad, dumb, conservative, individualist lone wolf cop action movies coming out of Hollywood at the same time. William Savage (Pierce Brosnan) is an officer whose main duties consist of collecting taxes. But when he discovers a band of roving thieves and murderers operating in the area, he defies his superior’s orders to stay out of it and goes undercover himself, infiltrating a secret society of Indian bandits called thugee.
Now, you’re smart. So you’ve probably done the miniscule amount of reading between the lines necessary to realize the major way The Deceivers falls short of reasonable standards of cultural sensitivity. Yes, Brosnan spends nearly the entire film in brownface.
Truthfully, that’s only the most superficial of The Deceivers‘ offenses against the nonwhite people it depicts. Let’s start with the fact that what spurs Savage into action is not the mass grave of thugee victims; it’s the fact that just one of those victims was white. Later, the more time Savage spends among the killers, the more he becomes like them. On its own, that’s a pretty obvious character arc; paired with his taking on another ethnic identity, though, it turns into a story of a white man becoming more and more animalistic the longer he lives as a man of color. And finally there’s the extratextual fact that 21st century Indian scholars have questioned whether the thugee really existed as described here or if they were just a racist construction by the British colonizers.
If this review feels like mere bait for the “It’s just a movie” crowd or, worse, the “It was a long time ago” faction, know that The Decievers is not even very good on its own terms. Boilerplate cop movie tropes aren’t made any less obvious by a change in era and location. Not to mention that it takes a herculean suspension of disbelief to swallow everyone just accepting that a guy who looks like Brosnan is Indian because he’s got brown shoe polish on his face.