Thuggee cults. What are they?
I don't really know. And apparently neither do most writers or filmmakers. I've been given the impression that the activities of these Indian outlaws encompasses everything from highway banditry to assassination by yellow scarf to ritual sacrifice unto the four armed goddess of time, change and destruction--Kali! They've appeared in fictional form torturing British prisoners in Sherlock Holmes stories (Adventure of the Crooked Man), squaring off against Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and trying to prevent Kobra from bringing on the apocalyptic Kali Yuga in the pages of John Ostrander's Suicide Squad. Here are three great films about thuggees with debatable historical accuracy. GUNGA DIN (Dir: George Stevens, 1939) Three rowdy BFF's, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen, yuk it up as soldiers jauntily brawling around colonialist India looking for adventure. The screenplay is written by the "Shakespeare of Hollywood" Ben Hecht and his sometimes writing partner Charles MacArthur. A lot of it is pretty much just a period reworking of their classic and frequently-filmed play The Front Page. Fairbanks plays the roll of the boozy chauvinist torn between a respectable marriage and debauched fortune and glory with his buddies. But then the group runs into trouble with a cult of Thuggee and their evil guru, only escaping with the help of their lowly companion Gunga Din (and also the entire British army). The movie has almost nothing to do with the Rudyard Kipling poem from which it takes its title, but it does have a ridiculous scene at the end where a fictionalized Kipling sees Gunga Din nobly sacrifice himself and decides to write about it. Despite an overabundance of stupid humor this movie is massive classic Hollywood adventure. THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (Dir: Terrence Fisher, 1960) This is one of Hammer Films' all too rare non-horror movies, though it was still somewhat notorious for its bloody violence. Members of the British East India Trading Company have for years been getting kidnapped and murdered by a mysterious cult. Guy Rolfe shows up to get to the bottom of things and has almost as much trouble getting the British to cooperate with his investigation as he does with the evil Thuggees who stake him to the ground and unleash a vicious cobra on him. In terms of Thuggee menace, this movie really steps it up. The cult is vicious and gruesome, disemboweling, cutting off or gouging out stomachs, hands, tongues and eyes. Of course, they also strangle. But the film seems to be intensely critical of the imperialist British as well. It doesn't condemn colonialism outright, but it shows most of its enforcers to be stupid, selfish assholes. It's a weird balance between criticizing the ignorance and injustice of colonialism and presenting this totally fantastical, implicitly racist vision of stereotype villains. This movie isn't as swashbuckling as the other two on the list, but it is definitely just as entertaining. INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (Dir: Stevie Spielberg, 1984) "Drop them Dr. Jones! They will found! You won't!" This is where the Thuggees cross the line. No longer are they just murderers. They now enslave entire towns of children and their leader Mola Ram somehow has the ability to tear out sacrificial hearts while keeping his victims alive long enough to lower them into a vast pit of fire. He even has the hypnotic power to get Indy to strangle his charismatic little Chinese friend. This movie is pure class. I hesitate to say it, but in some ways I like this one even more than Raiders of the Lost Ark. They wisely changed things up for the sequel. It's more pulpy, more gruesome, more in the spirit of an actual old-time serial. It's definitely better than the still respectable third one and in a whole different class from the horseshit new one. The only thing that brings it down is Kate Capshaw's obnoxious performance. As a little kid, home sick from school one day, I walked down the street to Stadium Video and rented this movie on VHS. It scared me so bad that I had to call my mom at work and ask her if someone reached into your chest and tore out your heart, would it really just heal up like that? And if so, if you then caught on fire would your heart also erupt in flames? And do people really eat chilled monkey brains and living baby snakes recently cut out of the bellies of big dead snakes? I don't think her answers were very satisfying because I had to watch the movie several more times that day. Thuggees officially became nightmare material. -Tommy