Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yaphet Kotto in DRUM (1976)

Hammond Maxwell went through some harrowing experiences in Richard Fleischer's Mandingo, the hit adaptation of Kyle Onstott's slavesploitation bestseller, and he appears in the sequel, adapted from Onstott's own follow-up novel, a much changed man. What does a man have to go through to change from Perry King into Warren Oates? There are hints of Hammond's adventures since we last saw him boiling his prize fighting slave in a cauldron and mourning his murdered father. In Drum he tells us that he's been married twice, apparently not counting the bride he poisoned in the first film. Actually, there's only one reference to the events of Mandingo in the entire sequel, when Hammond mentions that he had to kill a favorite slave once because he let his pecker do his thinking for him. That may be because United Artists, rather than Paramount, distributed the sequel, but whatever the reason, Drum may as well start from scratch. Rather than the almost offensively tragic figure of Mandingo, where he was shown as much a slave of the system as his chattels, Hammond, as played broadly by Oates, is almost a comedy-relief figure, clownishly boorish and still not really as malignant or corrupt as his slaveholding peers. Most importantly, he isn't really Drum's main character. That's the man the film is named for, played by the returning Ken Norton between heavyweight fights. The point of recasting Norton is somewhat lost, though. From what I've read about Onstott's novel, Drum is supposed to resemble and remind Hammond of Mede, the character Norton played in Mandingo. The resemblance is never noted, however.

"We aint gonna worry 'bout that kind of henshit!" Warren Oates holds forth in Drum.

Drum is a scaled-down sequel, replacing Richard Fleischer with Steve Carver behind the camera and relying heavily on an obvious soundstage set for whorehouse exteriors during the opening New Orleans sequence. Carver is no nonentity; he deserves a small piece of genre immortality, in my book, for directing one of the last great B movies, the Chuck Norris-David Carradine showdown Lone Wolf McQuade. There's comparatively little action in Drum until the end, but Carver keeps things moving briskly with a visceral intensity. He might have kept some of the actors under tighter rein, but there'd hardly be a point to the picture had he done so. If Mandingo itself was an exploitation film, Drum exploits Mandingo. The only direction to go is over the top.

Mandingo plus homophobia plus homoeroticism (female category) plus castration anxiety plus a slave uprising equals Drum. Along with all that, there's a documentary style opening set in Cuba, and a narration detailing the spawning of Drum, the mulatto son of Marianna (Isela Vega), an aristocrat turned madam, and Tambura, a lion-hunting African warrior. To preserve what's left of Marianna's honor, her handmaiden (and lover) Rachel raises Drum as her own son and a refined house servant of Marianna's famous New Orleans bordello. Mild-mannered Drum is no fighter, but is pressed into combat when a slave scheduled to fight for the entertainment of bordello patrons is withheld by his master.

Drum's first fight pits him against Blaise (blogathon honoree Yaphet Kotto), who belongs to the flaming villain De Marigny (champion ham and future betrayer of the human race John Colicos). Blaise has all the advantages of experience and technique, but Drum's raw strength carries the day after he catches his man in a rib-snapping bear hug. Afterward, a disgusted De Marigny decides to castrate Blaise, but when Drum appeals for mercy, he makes a present of Blaise to the victorious slave (to Marianna legally, of course), along with the female slave of his choice. That bit comes with a catch; when Drum beds his female prize, De Marigny wants to join in. Drum can still have the girl to himself; it's not her the white man wants. But neither Drum nor Calinda (Brenda Sykes, also of Mandingo) wants any of that, and the formerly magnanimous De Marigny becomes Drum's mortal enemy, even sending hired thugs to attack him. Fearful for her son's safety, Marianna decides to sell him to Hammond Maxwell, who's always looking for good studs, but she insists on his taking Blaise along as part of a package deal.

This brings us back to dear old Falconhurst plantation, where "we don't grow cattle, just n*ggers." Hammond makes Drum an overseer in all but name, but insists that the newcomer learn to talk more "n*ggerish" as a matter of deference. Both Drum and Blaise become house servants, but while their main job is to breed more slave "suckers" (is this where Barnum got the idea about them being born every minute?) they're also potential prey for Hammond's horny idiot daughter Sophie (Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith). Along for the ride are Hammond's new housemistress Augusta, a white lady hired to keep Sophie in line, and his new bed wench Regine ("Pamela" Grier), who for some reason has had five different masters in the past two years. While Hammond's made clear that he has no sexual interest in white women, Gussie is jealous of Regine's bed privileges, and tries to pair off Regine and Drum. Regine likes this idea and coaches Gussie on how to make herself attractive to Hammond.

Pam Grier offers some advice to the lovelorn: crazy white girls like Cheryl 'Rainbeaux' Smith aren't worth the risk of getting nutted for someone like Yaphet Kotto.

Meanwhile, Drum and Blaise have all they can handle keeping Sophie out of their pants, though Blaise is somewhat less steadfast on this point than Drum. Our hero tries to keep Blaise in line for his own good, since otherwise Hammond "will kill Blaise, or even worse, castrate him!" Blaise resents Drum's officiousness and picks a fight with him. Then, though they try to cover for one another afterward, he more deeply resents the fact that Drum gets just five strokes on the buttocks while Blaise has to take thirty -- approximately, since Hammond seems to get squeamish about it before the end. The fact that Drum gets favorable treatment factors at least as much as his sore butt in Blaise's new ambition to run away. "I got freedom in my heart and I'm gonna grab it," he says, stating later that "Blood is the color of freedom." Any escape plans are aborted, however, when Sophie, in a fit of pique against her father and prospective stepmother, denounces Blaise for enticing her into masturbating him. Hammond shackles Blaise and wants to hang him, but when he catches Sophie flashing and teasing the prisoner he becomes uncertain of whether to kill, castrate or simply sell him.

"Free at last my ass!"
Things come to a boil when local slavedriver Montgomery (Royal Dano) parks a troupe of down-the-river bound slaves in Hammond's barn, where Blaise remains a prisoner. Still fearing that Hammond will castrate his friend, Drum frees Blaise, not suspecting that Blaise will incite Montgomery's charges into a violent uprising and attack on the Hammond mansion, where familiar faces from New Orleans, including Marianna and De Marigny, are visiting. With the whites besieged, but little prospect of the blacks making good any escape, Drum offers to negotiate a cease-fire, and Hammond takes up his offer. What better time could there be for De Marigny to try to settle old scores with Drum and Blaise? Mistaking De Marigny's treachery for Hammond's, Drum joins in the uprising, but soon has second thoughts....

While there was something appropriately unsettling about the intimacy of masters and slaves in Mandingo, Drum too often comes across as comically sleazy. It ups the ante of decadence by introducing homosexual desires that were part of Onstott's original novel, but misses the point somewhat by making the homo-or-bisexual characters outsiders to Falconhurst. Worse, Colicos's villain is impossible to take seriously, making Susan George in Mandingo look like a model of something resembling restraint. The sequel's obsession with castration (or "nutting") -- a subject that miraculously failed to come up in Mandingo -- quickly becomes ridiculous rather than menacing, climaxing in Marianna's coming-out toast at the Hammond party: "I would like to make a castration...of all men."

In Drum's defense, Carver does a good job of gradually building tension until, as the ads, said, the fuse lit by Mandingo explodes here. Here's where Yaphet Kotto should take a bow, since Blaise is the most catalytic character in the story. His perils often motivate Drum's actions, the title character being pretty passive otherwise, and his desire for freedom and resentment of Drum and the Hammonds alike sparks the climactic uprising. It may have been just so in the novel, but it also looks like a vote of no confidence in Ken Norton's ability to carry the film. He obviously can't compete with Kotto as an actor, but he does convey a fundamental decency despite Drum's disreputable childhood environment. But where Norton lacks passion, Kotto has it to spare. The two make a halfway decent team, and it must have been fun in the initial fight scene for the character actor to have the man who beat Ali sell his punches.

If Mandingo lacked the analytic rigor and apocalyptic scale of atrocity of Goodbye Uncle Tom, then Drum lacks much of whatever moral seriousness Mandingo itself had. As entertainment, however, Drum could easily be somebody's guilty pleasure. It has a super Seventies lineup and the singular sight of Oates and Grier in bed together. It has instant camp in the form of John Colicos ("On your feet, you piece of merde!" is a typical utterance) and Cheryl Smith's wild, shameless performance. And it has just the sort of slave-rebellion climax, reminiscent of or anticipating window-breaking zombie attacks of besieged buildings, that I said a truly crowd-pleasing slavesploitation film should have. Drum is dumb, but it can be endearingly so for audiences in the right mood.

As with Mandingo, robatsea2009 has uploaded a trailer for Drum to YouTube

This review is part of a weeklong blogathon appreciation of Yaphet Kotto organized by the Lost Video Archive. Visit The Goodkind's site to find out more about Kotto's distinguished diversity of work from the Sixties to the present day.


venoms5 said...

I happen to think quite highly of the first movie. I feel it has transcended its long standing stance as gutter trash to become an important film. The sequel not so much. I think I like the sequel better BECAUSE of its undeniable and in your face sleazy charms. I have yet to see the MGM HD version that's been playing, but hope to rectify that soon.

Sam, there's an extraordinary book on the Falconhurst novels and films entitled MONDO MANDINGO: THE FALCONHURST BOOKS & FILMS. I reviewed it some time back. It covers the productions of the two movies down to the smallest details.

I wondered why the DRUM lobby set features several cards with scenes not even in the final movie. The budget was bigger for the sequel and the first 40 or so minutes were cut out eliminating several characters altogether. This lengthy segment is seen in the opening few minutes.

Also, Paramount was handling the movie, but dropped it during post and UA took over from there. I think the bootleg copy I have has the Paramount logo on it, too. I highly recommend that book, Sam.

angel said...

This movie is essential viewing for all Oates fans..

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, watching the two films has been an interesting dialectical experience. I find both of them inferior to Goodbye Uncle Tom because personalizing the slave experience while focusing on a breeding plantation seems to trivialize slavery by ignoring the experiences of most plantation slaves. At the same time, the Falconhurst films are both fascinating, and Mandingo definitely looks better after Drum, though the sequel has some virtues of its own. I've seen enough in the movies and read enough about Onstott online to be definitely interested in that book.

angel, I sometimes feel that every Oates movie is an essential one. I don't care so much for him in clown mode, but he does gradually invest Hammond with nuance, and with something approaching nobility by the end.