sat 15/08/2020

Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle, BBC Four review - meticulous account of a haunting American tragedy | reviews, news & interviews

Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle, BBC Four review - meticulous account of a haunting American tragedy

Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle, BBC Four review - meticulous account of a haunting American tragedy

How deranged cult leader Jim Jones led his Peoples Temple to the slaughter

Jim Jones with members of his Peoples Temple

It happened 42 years ago, but the mass suicide of 900 people at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana is still an event that freezes the blood. They were members of the Peoples Temple, the semi-totalitarian cult founded by Jim Jones, who began as a mere egomaniac but morphed into a bullying dictator convinced of his own God-like powers.

This was the first of two 80-minute Storyville films (on BBC Four) but the length paid off, allowing director Shan Nicholson to assemble a meticulously detailed portrait of the way Jones built up his “Temple” and persuaded ostensibly rational people to follow him unquestioningly. Indeed, the way Jones proselytised for socialist ideals of equality and racial harmony, personally adopting children of different ethnicities to create his own “rainbow family” at a time when this was far from a fashionable idea, initially appeared brave and even admirable. Many of his new followers felt that his Temple offered a welcoming haven, and allowed themselves to taken in by Jones’s self-aggrandising rhetoric.

Born in 1931, Jones grew up in Lynn, Indiana, and was described by one observer as “a little on the weird side”. He used to hold elaborate funerals for roadkill animals, and while his contemporaries idolised the American forces fighting in World War Two, Jones was fascinated by Hitler and his ability to manipulate crowds. His flop of black hair may have been an homage to the Fuhrer, though it was also striking how his hair, ostentatious sunglasses and sideburns frequently called Elvis Presley to mind.

As his Temple and his personal influence grew, so gradually Jones’s dark side began to emerge. He developed an eye-catching line in faith healing stunts, driving his congregations into delirious states as he did so, but these later proved bogus. A woman whose broken leg he miraculously cured was found to have been drugged and had a plaster applied to her perfectly sound leg. His cancer “cures” were merely illusory. Even more outrageous was his staged assassination, where he arranged for a gunman to fire blanks at him, then got a henchman to parade his bloodied shirt with bullet-holes in it before his faithful. Then Jones himself appeared, his “wounds” sensationally healed.

The plentiful archive footage demonstrated that he was a charismatic speaker with a domineering air of command which easily kept his disciples, who frequently seemed to be damaged or introverted characters, in the role of malleable supplicants. Jones also had a lust for power and made influential political friends, including the Governor of California, the Mayor of San Francisco and President Jimmy Carter’s wife. However, growing success and a burgeoning public profile fuelled his dictatorial urges, with a severe amphetamine habit adding raging paranoia to the mix.

He set up a “planning commission” to control his flock, and beatings were administered to unruly members. Anyone attempting to leave the Temple could expect death threats. A newspaper expose prompted Jones to flee the USA and set up a compound in the Guyanese wilderness, but it proved to be an unsustainable folly. The consequences, which included the murder of US congressman Leo Ryan, will be explored in ghastly detail in Wednesday night’s part two.

Jones was fascinated by Hitler and his ability to manipulate crowds

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