Monday, November 15, 2010


When Kyle Onstott published his sleeper novel Mandingo in 1957, Hollywood's idea of an expose of American slavery was Raoul Walsh's Band of Angels, adapted from a Robert Penn Warren novel. In that film, we're meant to sympathize with a slave played by Yvonne de Carlo, who if not as Lily-white as in her Munsters years is caucasian enough for us to be outraged when the "one drop of blood" rule reduces her to servile status. While the film was probably Sidney's Poitier's most prominent appearance to that time, it wasn't exactly a milestone for race relations -- nor was it likely to start riots in theaters. Mandingo was on another level entirely, as this review details. Its popularity led to numerous sequels by the already-elderly Onstott and his collaborators, but Hollywood waited until the Seventies to adapt it, and then under the impetus of an Italian, the late Dino de Laurentiis. The book had gone over big in Europe (and was recommended to a French publisher by no less an authority than the novelist Richard Wright), and had been considered for adaptation by Mondo meisters Jacopetti & Prosperi before they decided to go their own way in the dark epic Goodbye Uncle Tom. American slavery was a natural subject for a world fascinated by the Civil Rights movement and told by leftist propaganda that racial inequality belied U.S. claims to moral high ground in the Cold War. While Goodbye Uncle Tom was repudiated by New York critics in 1971, the blaxploitation explosion already under way by that year and a widespread critical attitude among Americans must have made the time seem ripe to both de Laurentiis and his associates at Paramount Pictures for a Mandingo film. The public responded, inspiring a sequel based on Onstott's own follow-up novel, but the critics howled again, treating Richard Fleischer's film as an atrocity and slavery as if it were a forbidden subject for film.

Mandingo is pretty atrocious. It isn't as relentlessly appalling and horrific as Goodbye Uncle Tom, but while Jacopetti & Prosperi combined exploitation impulses with an analytic thesis designed to explain the motivations and weaknesses of contemporary black protest, Fleischer's film is simply trashier, reducing the crime and tragedy of American slavery to the stuff of soap opera, making it personal rather than political and asking us ultimately consider a master as much a victim of the system as a slave.

Satire. Get it?

Our setting is the Falconhurst plantation, where Mr. Maxwell (James Mason) reigns over a clan of slaves and his own son and heir, Hammond (Perry King). Maxwell is concerned with breeding. His slave girls need a good stud to give him another generation of human chattel, while Ham has reached the age when he ought to be giving Maxwell a grandson. Ham seems happy bedding the slave women, particularly Ellen (Brenda Sykes), towards whom he feels growing compassion as well as lust. Nevertheless, he must go a-courtin' Miss Blanche (Susan George) while shopping around for a sound Mandingo male for human breeding.

Blanche proves a disappointment, not being a virgin, but Ham seems to have made a better choice in Mede (heavyweight contender Ken Norton), a mighty Mandingo for whom he outbids a randy Dutch widow. Mede is short for Ganymede, pointing toward at least one direction the movie, at least, refused to go. As a kid, seeing the original advertising but ignoring the reviews, I assumed that Norton was the title character. In any event, before Mede proves himself a lover he proves himself a lucrative fighter, earning Ham's respect in the process. After one brutal fight Mede openly questions the point of such violence. When old man Maxwell asks whether Ham will allow Mede to talk that way, Ham decides that he will.

"I don't buy a pig in ze poke!" Whether a woman would be permitted to make such a hands-on inspection of the goods for sale at a slave market (Ken Norton) is strongly debatable.

I assume Mede's bath in hot brine (the Romans supposedly toughened their fighters that way) is straight from the novel, but do you suppose Richard Fleischer recognized this reversal of the cartoon cliche of the savages cooking white folks in a pot? More power to him if he did.

Martial arts in Mede's time were decidedly more mixed than they are today. Perhaps I should have had my friend Wendigo meet with this bit of bloodsucking.

While the elder Maxwell is a parody of degenerate, unenlightened backcountry aristocracy, Ham appears to approach the culture's own ideal of a benevolent, paternalist master, treating Ellen and Mede almost like human beings while his father regards them as no more than breeding stock. Ironically, it's his possessive, patriarchal attitude toward Blanche, his white wife, that embitters him toward his blacks. Blanche herself is jealous of Ellen and pitches her down a flight of stairs, inducing a miscarriage of Ham's child. To further avenge herself, she orders Mede to her bedchamber and seduces him. When she gives birth to a black baby the doctor commits infanticide and Ham poisons Blanche. He grabs a gun and goes after Mede, knocking aside Ellen's pleas for mercy and Mede's own insistence that he meant no disrespect. Ham kills the daylights out of Mede, shooting him twice, dumping him in a giant cauldron of boiling water and punching holes in the man with a pitchfork. A long-suffering slave named Mem (for Agamemnon) grabs the gun and threatens Ham, but when old man Maxwell shows up and orders the "loony black bastard" to drop the weapon, Mem shoots him instead. As Mem runs away and Ham contemplates his father's corpse, Muddy Waters reprises the film's theme song, "I was born in this time/And I'll never be free," the placement suggesting that Ham, now the master, is in his own way as unfree as his slaves in a slave society. Sure he is....

There's a kind of Michael Corleone quality to Ham Maxwell, a minimal likability succumbing to the pathologies of unjust power while going superficially unpunished for monstrous deeds. We don't know what kind of master he'll actually be (though I suppose Drum will tell us) but you can believe that he's lost what little soul he had. Unfortunately, Ham is something of a grotesque from the start, limping about symbolically as he does, and Perry King distinguishes himself only by being less embarrassing than most of his castmates, and by doing a full-frontal scene early on. As his father, James Mason is a ranting cartoon character, while Susan George is hysterical (however you spin it) as the tantrum-throwing Blanche. Both have hopeless dialogue, but neither helps matters trying to out-ham Ham. Ken Norton, the man who broke Muhammad Ali's jaw, has a naive naturalism but can't do much with Mede's character. Does he feel guilt for helping capture a runaway who ends up hanged? Does he really despise slaves like Mem who talk a good game of resistance in the slave quarters and criticize him for fighting for the master's pleasure but bow and scrape in a white man's presence? We don't know Mede (apparently a much more articulate character in the novel) enough to know.

Fleischer directs the film with slick efficiency and just enough epic sweep (Richard H. Kline's cinematography is aptly atmospheric) but he can't raise the material above the exploitation level. Without the interpretative framework of Goodbye Uncle Tom or the moral focus of a consistent black point of view, too much of Mandingo seems designed simply for titillation or shock. One curious thing about the film is that, for all the sex and violence, some of the most disquieting scenes are still those infamous bits when Mason attempts to ease his rheumatism by resting his bare feet on a slave boy's back, on the premise that foot-to-flesh contact will drain away his ailment. Somehow that sums up the debasement of slavery more than the film's more violent abuses of power. It's physical intimacy without titillation, and it suggests that the moral truth of slavery can be told without the blood and sleaze.

Not that there's anything wrong with blood and sleaze, but American slavery is probably a topic that ought to be approached with more moral seriousness than Mandingo ultimately musters. The film's real problem may be that it tries. A more completely exploitative, audience-gratifying blaxploitation film, something that wrapped with a violent, victorious uprising, might be less objectionable because it could not be taken as seriously, as might be a more morally rigorous, physically reticent account of the peculiar institution. Goodbye Uncle Tom is a more successful film, even if some find it more disturbing or disgusting, because its analytical ambition, its daring time-travel gimmick and Riz Ortolani's stunning score make it a work of genuine diabolic artistry. Mandingo is too often merely tawdry.

I get the impression sometimes that "slavesploitation" is one branch of exploitation that many otherwise adventurous viewers are reluctant to explore. I suppose the reason may be that people realize that the subject matter has too much contemporary resonance to be treated lightly or crassly. Some folks probably feel the same way about the Ilsa (or Night Porter inspired Nazi prison films from the same era as Mandingo. Art ought to be able to overcome all such qualms, but I can understand people's reticence on certain issues. Nevertheless, I'm pressing on this week because I owe the Lost Video Archive a review of Drum and particular attention to blogathon honoree Yaphet Kotto's performance in it alongside such Seventies titans as Warren Oates and Pam Grier. I actually have a few other slavesploitation items from other collections to make things more interesting down the line. For now, however, I'll say that despite its many faults Mandingo is probably essential viewing for students of pop cinema from that most disturbing decade.

For some the trailer may be more than enough. robatsea2009 uploaded it to YouTube.


dfordoom said...

I actually like this movie quite a lot. But then I like the idea of putting a serious political message in an exploitation movie. It's not something that everyone approves of. I also like Salon Kitty for the same reason, and Caligula (yes, really).

I'm also a big fan of The Night Porter. Art, politics and exploitation, that's my idea of a movie.

I'd certainly prefer something like Mandingo to the kind of excessively PC approach this kind of material would get today.

But I admit I don't have many supporters when it comes to my championing of Mandingo. And it's very embarrassing to find oneself agreeing with Quentin Tarantino!

Samuel Wilson said...

My main problem with Mandingo is that I doubt its seriousness. Goodbye Uncle Tom is as exploitative and as far from PC as you could want but its format allows the filmmakers to make its relevance violently obvious. On the other hand, the Italian film's lack of a conventional, personal story probably makes it less accessible to the average viewer than Mandingo. I probably judge the American film too harshly by comparison to one of my all-time favorites, but the bad writing and acting are less entertaining in this context than they otherwise might be.

I actually haven't seen The Night Porter or Salon Kitty -- not to mention Salo! -- but I do mean to someday, but Caligula is a sort of guilty pleasure of mine.

The Rush Blog said...

Of course "MANDINGO" seemed like an exploitive movie. It is based upon an exploitive system that existed in this country - a system based upon money, labor, sex and race. What did you expect? I admire "ROOTS", but I feel that its portrayal of American slavery was minor in compare to "MANDINGO".