George PastellRoger DelgadoMarie DevereuxMichael Nightingale
The Stranglers of Bombay
Medium: film
Year: 1959
Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: David Zelag Goodman
Keywords: historical
Country: UK
Actor: Guy Rolfe, Allan Cuthbertson, Andrew Cruickshank, George Pastell, Marne Maitland, Jan Holden, Paul Stassino, Tutte Lemkow, Roger Delgado, Marie Devereux, Margaret Gordon, John Harvey, Jack McNaughton, Warren Mitchell, Michael Nightingale, Steven Scott, Ewen Solon, David Spenser
Format: 80 minutes
Website category: British
Review date: 5 March 2013
Couldn't be called brilliant, but I quite liked it.
It's another Hammer adventure film, set in India and shot on the set of their 1958 Dracula. (Despite the title, though, it's not set in Bombay.) It's a lurid tale of Kali-worshipping Thuggee who go around strangling everyone until Guy Rolfe catches them and sets the East India Company's resources to wiping them out.
Obviously these days it's going to get called racist, but I don't think it is, really. I had more of a problem with its 1961 near-remake, The Terror of the Tongs. Most importantly, the Thuggee were real. The Guy Rolfe character is partly based on William Henry Sleeman, who spent 35 years wiping out the Thuggee in India and eventually succeeding. Surprisingly for a Hammer film, it's fairly accurate. The numbers quoted at the end are actually an understatement, since a million victims is in fact just in the hundred years up to 1840. (They're first mentioned in the History of Firuz Shah in 1356.) Their killing techniques were as we see, joining travellers and gaining their confidence before strangling them.
Modern critics would have more of a point with all the non-Indian actors in blackface. This is regrettable, but it's also just something that films and TV did back then. Doctor Who did it. Personally I found it more palatable than the yellowface make-up in The Terror of the Tongs, because it looks more convincing and so one's intelligence feels less insulted. They get away with it. It also helps that it's in black and white. The usual suspects are wheeled out: George Pastell (Greek, Tomb of the Cybermen), Marne Maitland (born in Calcutta, actually), Tutte Lemkow (Jewish Norwegian, Marco Polo, The Crusade, The Myth Makers), Roger Delgado (come on, you know him), etc.
These actors look okay. Not brilliant, but okay. I'm unhappier about Roger Delgado barely getting two words of dialogue.
Just as important though is the film's attitude towards India and its people, which is excellent. You could criticise it for showing imperial attitudes, but... well, d'oh. It's set in India in 1840 under the East India Company. However the film goes out of its way to criticise Englishmen who have no interest in the locals or their customs and only stir themselves into action when white folks start complaining. Guy Rolfe accuses the Company of caring nothing about India except as an opportunity for financial exploitation.
Rolfe, on the other hand, cares. (I loved his character, which is ironic since apparently Rolfe more often played villains.) He's the soul of kindness to everyone regardless of skin colour, he's generous even when in financial straits and he's prepared to resign if his boss won't give him the full-time task of investigating the disappearances.
One could want more plot involvement for the Indians, as opposed to white Englishmen. It's a simple movie, which means a small cast and hence most of the Indian characters end up dead and/or unmasked as Kali-worshippers. However at least the Thuggee are sincere in what they're doing. They're religious. They're almost likable, in a bloodthirsty kind of way, whereas the East India officers we meet include (a) a homicidally arrogant ignoramus and a dick, and (b) someone who thinks the best man for the job is that homicidally arrogant ignoramus and dick.
That's the political correctness argument. As entertainment, though, the film's problem is that it's too piecemeal to feel as if it hangs together properly. The Terror of the Tongs was a gangster flick. If you crossed Christopher Lee, people died. Here though, the Thuggee are discreetly doing their thing (like Methodists or Quakers) and barely interacting with Rolfe at all. They're not megalomaniacs or gangsters. They just want to worship, in their special way. Thus the film limps along. It's almost as if it's hobbled by its historical accuracy, mistaking "a bunch of things that happened" for a storyline. Mind you, it can't have helped either that the script was written in two weeks.
You'll also see men in Jon Pertwee frilly shirts.
The main reason to watch this is Rolfe's character, I think. He's so kind-hearted that you've got to love him, especially when the script's finding nasty little ways of tripping him up. I also enjoyed the respect for India and its people that's being shown both by him and ironically by the film itself, despite being a bloodthirsty Thuggee adventure flick. (In my opinion.)
This isn't a particularly noteworthy film, but it's far better than it might have been. Its storyline never really kicks into gear and it's divided into plot strands that don't interact enough. However I quite enjoyed it.