The first of two films based author Kyle Onstott's sweaty ‘ol South diptych, Mandingo, and Drum this Dino De Laurentiis production (theatrically distributed by Paramount) is a raunchy, violent, oversexed monster that is nothing less than grand-scale sleaze, much like Paramount's prior star-studded sex-fest, Harold Robbins' The Adventurers (1970).
Mandingo lacks the international scale of Adventurers , but it delivers a compact storyline of deceit and miscegenation in the pre-Civil War American south, and there's a surprisingly raw quotient of dramatized bigotry that probably hadn't been seen on major American screens. (You could argue, however, that Goodbye Uncle Tom / Addio zio Tom, the 1971 Gualtiero Jacopetti-Franco Prosperi mondo docu-drama on colonial slavery, predated Mandingo's own frank montages of slave inspections, or topless slave market.)
What's ironic is that the international version excised varying elements of full frontal nudity, gore, sex, and rape, but the American edit, making its premiere DVD release here, via Legend Films, is the uncut version released in the States.
It's a rare example of how, for a short period, studio films (produced by or distributed by) pushed boundaries before good films with adult themes were superseded by indulgent productions wallowing in adult matter. One can argue that as audiences began to associate adult-themed films with exploitive junk, it backfired against serious filmmakers and pushed the MPAA into a more conservative stance that hasn't really changed much since the late seventies; had Mandingo been made today, there's little doubt the same script if filmed just as vividly would've been slapped with an NC-17 rating.
The screenplay by Norman Wexler (Serpico) basically takes the novel's rudimentary storyline and upgrades it with elements of ersatz progressiveness: beyond obedience training, Hammond (Perry King) treats his slaves with a more respectful hand, and he abhors unwarranted cruelty meted out by wealthy father Warren Maxwell (James Mason). Less enlightened behaviour comes from cousin Charles (Ben Masters), who likes to whip whores prior to rape; and Hammond's new bride, Blanche (Susan George), who whips pregnant mistress Ellen (Brenda Sykes) because Blanche's steady stream of hot toddies have done anything but calm her jealousy and need for a good screw.
Wexler's dialogue also flips into contemporary slang when escaped slave Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka, with hair!) chastises racist whites prior to being hanged, and the use of afros and sideburns kind of lessens the filmmakers' attempts to establish a specific time period.
The locations are first-rate, however, as is the decision to use a disintegrating colonial plantation as the Maxwell home; the sweat, grime, decay, mold, and overgrown lawn support the script's angle that slavery had started to reach an inbreeding nadir and was bottoming out; abolitionists were slowly probing the South, slaves were learning to read in spite of the dangers, and the lifestyle and beliefs of the white landowners had become exceptionally rotten and ridiculous: the ‘N' word is endemic to most conversations, white boys have the right to deflower a virginal slave, black babies born to white women were killed behind doors, and father Warren is told the application of feet to the body of a black child will rid his body of chronic rheumatism.
The problem with Mandingo is it's so full of excess and genuinely crazy dialogue delivered by a suffering cast that it's either an offensive celluloid glob made by a delusional producer, or a classic work of studio fromage, much in the way Adventurers cannot be seen as anything but giddy, diamond-studded smut. The TV production of Alex Haley's Roots (1977) told the slavery saga with refined skill and a mandate to educate audiences, whereas Mandingo is Hollywood 's antithetical history lesson while trying to be edgy, hip, and in vogue with recent Blaxploitation fodder.
De Laurentiis' cast is a weird producer's hit list meant to imply dramatic gravitas (James Mason, struggling with his southern accent), attract young audiences with hot and bothered leads (Perry King and a shrill Susan George), and uhm, sport fans, via the casting of acting newbie/boxing champ Ken Norton, who plays the lead character, a Mandingo tribe fighter named Mede, who Hammond exploits in a boxing ring to win a large bet.
Norton's character is an underwritten hulk who trains, fights, bites, and screws his way through various events apparently meant to show his gradual awareness that slavery is Bad, but the script abandons that thread because the sexual rage from Hammond and vengeful wife Blanche takes over the narrative, thereby nixing any further self-enlightenment Mede was destined to experience, and setting up the film's amazingly nihilistic finale.
Mandingo is in no way a good movie; it's trashy and exploitive, the docu-styled cinematography is sometimes overlit if not flat, Richard Fleischer's direction is interesting only when he plays with compositions whenever a character has a fit of rage (like all of Blanche's drunken episodes), every fight scene is clumsily choreographed and edited, and Maurice Jarre's score is either appropriately low-keyed or flips to a bizarrely buoyant orchestral theme rendition over dour scenes that aren't meant to be cheerful, adventuresome, or grand.
Legend's anamorphic DVD (at 1.85:1, not the 1.78 stated on the DVD sleeve) uses a speckled but decent print, although the original mono mix has some distortion, mostly evident during the boxing/wrestling/biting match which the film's sound editors stitched with wildly dynamic effects exceeding the track's saturation range.
Mandingo was followed the next year by Drum (1976), which had Ken Norton starring as Mede's son (begat from an arranged breeding liaison), after which the boxer returned to the legitimate ring. Co-star Perry King (The Possession of Joel Delaney) later appeared in the slutty vengeance pic Lipstick (1976), after which he became a prolific TV actor, whereas Susan George slowly slid deeper into exploitation hell, with Tintorera (1977) and Venom (1981) among her best fromage.
Screenwriter Norman Wexler wrote Drum, hit paydirt with Saturday Night Fever (1977), and penned its 1983 sequel and the Arnold Schwarzenegger idiocy Raw Deal (1986) before disappearing from film, and Richard Fleischer's subsequent films for producer De Laurentiis were Amityville 3-D (1983), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Red Sonja (1985), collectively closing a directorial career with a triptych of unbearable mediocrity.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan