MANDINGO (1975) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: James Mason, Perry King, Ken Norton, Susan George, Paul Benedict
By Greg Klymkiw
Receiving critical jeers upon its release in 1975, Richard Fleischer’s film version of Mandingo, adapted from Kyle Onstott's best-selling sex and slavery potboiler and produced by the oft-loathed-and-scorned producer Dino De Laurentiis, did, like its recent cinematic blood-brother Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven’s All About Eve in a Vegas strip club) achieve considerable cult status as a bright jewel in the crown of unintentional high camp and laughs.
I recall a critic in the long-defunct Canadian-published film magazine Take One (the 70s version, not the 90s reincarnation) bestowing a Mandingo “Please Don’t Whup Me No Mo’, Massah” Award for the Worst Film of the Year. Quentin Tarantino issued a laudatory misreading which placed it in the pantheon of stellar lower-drawer laugh riots like the abovementioned Showgirls. Golden-Turkey-styled attention was also lavished upon it when critic Stephen Rebello included Mandingo in his tome on “bad movies we love”.
In spite of all these uncalled-for raspberries, I assert - wholeheartedly and with NO reservations - that Mandingo is a genuinely terrific picture. It has been the recipient of boneheaded derision for too long, now, and this is a wrong that needs to be made right.
The source material, like many other great pictures (The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws – to name just a few), is derived from a trashy, mega-potboiling novel. Mandingo was first published in the 50s and not only went through the roof on its initial release, but also continued through the 60s and 70s to be a huge seller – receiving countless reprints. Author Kyle Onstott also wrote sequels entitled Drum (which was eventually produced by De Laurentiis to an even greater scornful reception) and Master of Falconhurst – all three forming a sort of unofficial trilogy. All were set against the historical backdrop of the slave trade and featured explicit sex and violence that was, to say the least, uncompromising by the standards of the time (and by today's strangely conservative and/or politically correct standards, the novels might well be considered abominations of the most heinous variety).
As a kid, I remember the bookshelves of my local Coles bookstore in a north Winnipeg mall filled to the brim with the Mandingo/Falconhurst sagas, and like most healthy young lads, I devoured them (along with their aforementioned pot-boiling brethren) like a greedy baby hippo amongst a patch of delectable bull rushes. Upon his death, Onstott left one unfinished work which was fleshed out and published with the assistance of Lance Horner who went on to write several more sequels and then the torch was passed to Ashley Carter to generate even more sequels. None of these, however, were any good.
As a kid I was utterly bewitched by the lurid covers of bosomy dusky beauties and brutish slave traders brandishing whips and delightedly ascended to the heights of Heaven's gate by Onstott’s ripe prose style and wildly overripe dialogue. And make no mistake – while I read all the books in the series (including the Horner and Carter instalments), it was the Onstott titles that shone. Either Onstott’s research was insanely meticulous and reflected the horrendous, almost-surreal cruelty of the slave trade or he had one of the most depraved imaginations in 20th century literature. I strongly suspect it was a bit of both.
Mandingo was, of course, the crowning glory of Onstott’s trilogy and when, in my 16th year on this Earth I discovered that a movie version would be opening in my favourite downtown Winnipeg picture palace, the Metropolitan Cinema, I was in such a state of anticipation that I experienced the closest movie geek premature ejaculation. I harassed the theatre almost daily and pestered them with telephone calls inquiring as to the movie’s release date. Remember, this was 1975, when movie theatres actually had live humans answering the telephones, when release dates were not set in stone months (or years) in advance and when cinemas had “coming soon” or “next attraction” sign cards affixed to a film’s poster.
I used to see almost every picture playing at this theatre and eventually, the sign card on the poster case and the tag in front of the trailer changed to “next attraction” and within a couple of weeks or so, my dreams became a reality. On the opening Friday, I waited in line at the Metropolitan Cinema (a 2000-seat picture palace where I saw most of my favourite movies and where, interestingly enough, Guy Maddin shot Isabella Rossellini in the delightful short “My Dad is 100 Years Old”). I entered the theatre for the first noon-hour showing of the day. I recall most of the orchestra seats were taken, which should give you an idea how big a hit the movie was. (It also played first-run in Winnipeg for months.) Though the film was rated “Restricted”, I had manufactured a fine fake I.D. for myself, which, incidentally, was so fine that this was something I did for pocket money – manufacturing fake I.D.s at a price, of course – for many friends and acquaintances in my high school.
That, of course, is another story.
My anticipation was rewarded – I loved the picture so much I sat through it four times that day and would see it again many more times during its initial run and subsequent re-releases and repertory showings throughout the 70s and 80s.
Let it be written in stone now: Mandingo, without question, is one of the most powerful, lurid, shocking and downright entertaining movies – not only of the 70s, but of all time.
Set against the crumbling ruins of the stale, stench-ridden Old South breeding plantation Falconhurst, the film opens to the strains of a mournful blues tune composed by the legendary Maurice Jarre and sung by Muddy Waters as a group of black slaves are led down a dusty road and presented to a sleazy trader by the patriarch of this pit of sorrow and depravity, Warren Maxwell (deliciously played by the late, great James Mason – with his trademark mellifluous voice handling both the Southern drawl and the rancid, racist dialogue with all the skill and panache one would expect from a star actor of his stature).
We watch with open-mouthed horror and disbelief as the trader, played sleazily by the magnificent character actor Paul Benedict (yes, Bentley from The Jeffersons), puffs on a saliva-dripping, well-chewed and obviously smelly cigar as he inspects the teeth, testicles, hands and, among other body parts, anal cavities of the slaves who must remain stoic, with eyes averted as they are poked and prodded like animals at a county fair livestock auction.
What makes all of this so shocking (remember, this was pre-Roots and post-Gone With The Wind) is how matter-of-fact everything is staged and presented. The lip smacking and eye rolling – long attributed to the film are nowhere to be found in this opening, nor frankly, in much of the picture (except when genuinely warranted). It is played very straight. The actions of the characters are often crude, tasteless and over-the-top, but the cinematic treatment is most certainly not. In fact, the picture’s stylistic restraint on most fronts is what makes Mandingo so effective – as drama, as entertainment and as an expose of a dark period of 19th century history.
This is not to say there aren’t melodramatic aspects to the narrative borrowed by veteran screenwriter Norman Wexler from Onstott’s novel, but like any great drama they’re used to perfection. Besides, the notion that there’s something inherently wrong with melodrama is ridiculous anyway – there’s only good melodrama and bad melodrama, and director Richard Fleischer handles the melodramatic aspects of Mandingo’s story expertly. Besides, how can there not be aspects of melodrama in a movie aimed at the masses? Especially a movie set against a backdrop like this one.
And what a backdrop!
What a story!
Everything in this film is driven by the two simple needs of a father and how their fulfillment has tragic consequences. Warren Maxwell’s craving for a pure Mandingo slave for breeding and prizefighting is rewarded when his son Hammond (Perry King) returns from a business trip with the sleek, beautiful, powerful, caramel-skinned Mede (heavyweight champ Ken Norton). While Hammond trains Mede in the art of bare-knuckle fighting, Maxwell frets that his son is not married and that there will be no heir to Falconhurst. Again, Hammond fulfills his father’s wishes and, like so much chattel, adds Blanche (Susan George) to the Falconhurst stables, a blonde and beautiful Southern bell bride.
Much to Blanche’s consternation, Hammond also returns to Falconhurst with a new slave acquisition. Ellen (Brenda Sykes) is a stunningly sultry bed wench Hammond favours because he believes his new bride is not a virgin and also because he wrongly believes that white women do not want to be “pestered” sexually (other than for basic purposes of procreation).
In retaliation, Blanche blackmails Mede into servicing her needs sexually. Falconhurst becomes a miscegenation fetishist’s wet dream with all the white-black couplings inevitably leading to all holy hell breaking loose.
So what’s the problem? We have an unsparing look at the world of slavery adorned with dollops of melodrama. Why did critics hate this film and why did it earn the reputation as a howlingly bad (but entertaining) camp classic?
Could it simply be that Mandingo retained many of the more salacious elements of its pulp literature source and, in fact accentuated them? In addition to the graphic depiction of slavery and miscegenation, the picture features the following:
- Graphic bare-buttocked floggings with belts, paddles and whips.
- Graphic lynching.
- A character being pitch forked into a vat of boiling brine water.
- No holds barred and to the death bare-knuckle fist fighting (replete with biting and scratching).
- Oodles of nudity and sex (including some magnificent buttock shots of Ken Norton and a truly delightful full frontal view of Perry King’s majestic genitals). Oh yeah, we get to see many of the ladies nude also.
- More whoring.
- More wenching.
- Have I mentioned the incest?
While this is certainly an extensive grocery list of depravity would this really have been enough to raise the lily pure ire of critics? This was, after all the 70s, a decade of movies replete with mean-spiritedness, nastiness, violence and all manner of permissiveness, so was Mandingo the nadir of this excess or was it something else?
Did Mandingo cut (as it were) too deep for critics to embrace its excess?
Was director Richard Fleischer’s uncompromising eye too much for them?
Fleischer was, after all, one of the most gifted major American directors who, like Howard Hawks before him, worked in a variety of genres (and often for “hire”) on over 50 pictures. This, of course, made it difficult for a lot of the myopic auteurist critics to pinpoint Flesicher’s “thing” and perhaps they needed to use “moral outrage” to equate Mandingo with some of Fleischer’s more obvious gun-for-hire forays into filmic folly such as the execrable Dr. Dolittle (with Rex Harrison, NOT Eddie Murphy) or the impersonal Pearl Harbor epic Tora Tora Tora (which still manages to put Michael Bay’s rendering of those events to shame). And of course, the critics of 1975 had yet to experience Fleischer’s 80s remake of The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond. If that had preceded Mandingo in the Fleischer canon, it’s conceivable those critics might have gone to the extent of forming an actual, literal lynch mob.
If truth be told, I've recently re-discovered the joys of Fleischer's Jazz Singer - especially Laurence Olivier's insane performance as Neil Diamond's father. (!!!)
As to the notion of "moral outrage" I must admit to having an intellectual knowledge of it and certainly have applied said knowledge emotionally to genuine atrocities, but I cannot say I have ever truly felt it towards any cultural artifact.
But in spite of all this, how could critics miss the boat on Mandingo? Fleischer, after all, won his only Oscar for a documentary and for most of his career he approached his subjects with the eye of a documentarian. From his noir classics at RKO (including The Narrow Margin) through to his stunning examinations of real-life serial killers in 10 Rillington Place (Christie), The Boston Strangler (DeSalvo) and Compulsion (Leopold and Loeb), Fleischer trained his camera on the dramatics by focusing, in an almost straightforward fashion on the mechanics of his subjects – he editorialized by non-editorializing. He even did this in his forays in action epics (The Vikings), fantasy (Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) and science fiction (Soylent Green). This straightforward approach almost always yielded thrilling work.
While scene after scene includes numerous instances of Fleischer's superb direction, the first public prizefight involving Mede is staggering in its brutal detail - not just the fight itself, but the slavering crowd assembled within the courtyard of a brothel to witness two human beings (though to their minds, animals) pummel, scratch, slash, bite, flip, kick, eye-gouge and hammer away at every part of their bodies, including their genitals, until one of them dies. Fleischer begins the scene with a terrific God's eye wide shot and eventually moves in to cover the fight itself - using a fine array of shots - many wide or medium to capture some excellent fight choreography and only moving in for closeups when absolutely necessary.
Edited by the superb craftsman Frank (Hud, Funny Face, The Molly Maguires) Bracht, there are no shots or cuts in this relentless sequence that are used for anything other than dramatic emphasis. Bracht, by the way, moved easily between romantic comedies, musicals, westerns and the occasional lurid melodrama (The Carpetbaggers - WOOT! WOOT!), so he was easily a good man for the job, handling Fleischer's superb coverage with both efficiency and, when needed, verve. I only wish more contemporary films used directors like Fleischer and editors like Bracht - who were able to shift from straight-up dramatic dialogue scenes to blistering action and back again. Just suffer through any J.J. Abrams and/or Christopher Nolan abomination to get my point.
In Mandingo, actors deliver their lines with (mostly) straight faces. When Paul Benedict’s slave trader admiringly refers to Warren’s son Hammond as a “right vigorous young stud”, it’s funny, but not because it’s campy, but because it’s true and rendered in a parlance that appears to be genuine - both to the period and the character. Benedict plays his role perfectly - that of a pretentious, flowery country gentleman who, most ironically, makes his fortune as a BREEDER of slaves.
As the attractive, blond, blue-eyed Hammond, Perry King swaggers into his first scene as the epitome of young manhood – especially when the film matter-of-factly informs us that on a breeding plantation, it is the master (or in this case, the “young master") who has the “duty” to break in the virgin wenches on the plantation. When Hammond protests that the latest subject of deflowering, the Mandingo slave wench Big Pearl “be powerful musky”, he does it with such a straight face that it’s not only darkly funny, but all the more powerful in the delineation between owners and slaves. Why wouldn't Big Pearl be "powerful musky"? The slaves live in abominable conditions in shacks surrounding the mansion. Hammond has no eyes for the horror he and his father are responsible for. This is also a perfect plot point in terms of character that is eventually challenged when Hammond begins to have genuine "human" feelings of love for his bed wench Ellen. The tragic implications of this eventually become very clear when Hammond, up against emotions that collide with what has been NURTURED into him, take various turns for the worst.
When Warren complains about his rheumatism, Paul Benedict, recommends that Warren place his bare feet onto the belly of a “nekkid Mexican dog” to drain the “rheumatiz” right out of the soles of his feet into the belly of the dog. This conversation, over dinner no less, is presented so unflinchingly and straight-facedly that we laugh – ALMOST good-naturedly at the period ignorance of the characters. However, during the same conversation, when the Maxwells' family doctor elaborates, with an equal straight face, that a slave boy would do just as well as a “nekkid Mexican dog”, the laughs continue, but much more nervously, and finally, not at all when it's explained - in detail - how a human being can be substituted for an animal.
One of the more amazing instances of how great the script is and how well it's rendered by Fleischer are several scenes that follow in which Warren sits in a rocker sipping hot toddies whilst resting his bare feet on the belly of a little slave boy. At first it's funny (especially since it is the normally erudite and charming James Mason in such a ridiculous pose), but the laughs eventually give way to being downright horrendous. And then, to offer a brilliant juxtaposition to Warren's stupidity and cruelty, the slave boy, hoping to get out of this demeaning activity and outwit his knot-headed owner, holds his hand to his belly and moans, “Ooooohhhh, Massah’s misery drain right into me.”
It is the film’s unflinching presentation of insane dialogue from Onstott and Wexler’s respective pens that has, I think, contributed to Mandingo’s reputation as a camp classic. When Warren explains to Hammond that wives want their husbands to have wenches because it keeps them from “having to submit”, it IS funny. When the babies of slaves are referred to as “suckers”, it’s at first darkly funny because it’s so shocking, but as it’s bandied about so frequently, it becomes sickening. When a slave’s miscarriage is straight-facedly referred to as “she done slip her sucker”, it’s especially NOT funny. It’s horrific, particularly as it follows a scene when a character threatens to “whup that sucker right outta” her belly.
If anything, Mandingo’s reputation might ultimately be getting mixed in a bit with its notorious sequel Drum which was not only critically reviled, but even upon the eve of its theatrical release, was disowned by the studio. Drum is pure B-movie – no two ways about it, but it’s also, in its own way, marvelous entertainment, crisply directed by Corman protégé Steve Carver and featuring the brilliant Warren Oates taking over the role of Perry King’s Hammond and Ken Norton making a return appearance as yet another character altogether. The film also features the legendary Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith (Lemora) as Hammond’s slattern daughter who favours being serviced by her Daddy’s Mandingo slaves and lying about them to Daddy when they do not submit to her. At one point, Hammond asks her if one of the slaves, Blaze, "be fiddlin'" with her. She replies how Blaze tricked her into playing a game with him wherein he tells her to close her eyes, hold out her hands and await a surprise treat. "And Pappy," she says in utter horror, "when I opens mah eyes, I looks down, and there, Pappy, there in my hands is is his . . . THANG!"
I remember first seeing Drum on a double bill with Mandingo in a Winnipeg Main Street grindhouse called the Epic. When I was a kid, the Epic was called the Colonial and was next door to two other grindhouses, the Regent and the Starland. Here in the stench of cum and urine, sitting on stained, tattered seats, my feet stuck almost permanently to the sticky floors and occasionally having to listen to old men getting fellated by toothless glue-sniffing hookers, I delighted, week after week to Hammer horror films, biker flicks and Corman extravaganzas.
By the 80s, this grindhouse was the sole purveyor of cinematic sleaze in Winnipeg – alternating between standard action exploitation fare and soft-core pornography. Since I had missed Drum on its initial release, I was rather excited to catch up with it on a double bill at the Epic/Colonial. I even recall that the double bill was advertised thusly: “And now . . . the BARE ‘Roots’”. I was accompanied to this screening by two esteemed members of the faculty of English and Film at the University of Manitoba, Professors Stephen Snyder and George Toles (screenwriter of such Guy Maddin films as Archangel, Careful, Keyhole and Saddest Music in the World). It was a glorious afternoon and it was certainly a coin toss to determine what was louder, the sounds of our laughter or the sounds of toothless hookers fellating old men.
Mandingo is a genuinely great picture. In fact, I would argue that it is both a serious dramatic expose of slavery AND an exploitation film. Not that this means the picture is a mess and has no idea what it’s trying to do, but frankly, this notion that there even exists such a thing as “exploitation” films is something I find just a little bit idiotic. Film by its very nature as a visual AND commercial art form IS exploitative – it ultimately has to be in order to be successful. Like melodrama, it’s either good or bad. It works or it doesn’t. And Mandingo works – it communicates a truth as hard and blistering as we’ve seen on this subject. Frankly, not even the legendary television adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots comes close to matching the sheer horror of Mandingo.
Alas, Mandingo has been released on a bare bones DVD and Blu-Ray with a mediocre transfer. Even the cover design is lackluster – Mandingo's original poster, a vivid take on the famous Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh pose from Gone With The Wind (but with a double dose of flame enshrouded miscegenation) was not only great marketing, but a more-than-apt visual encapsulation of the movie. One only hopes the movie eventually gets the home entertainment treatment it deserves – without, of course, too much emphasis on its supposed camp value and more on its quality as fine a motion picture to grace the canon of a truly great American director, the much-maligned and oft-forgotten Richard Fleischer.