An Italian-German co-production, this big budget adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel features a serious international mix of cast and crew, with John Kitzmiller (Dr. No, Son of Captain Blood) playing the titular role of matriarchal Uncle Tom, the moral anchor of several slaves and their extended families whose lives are torn apart when their owner's bad debt is paid off by selling 10 slaves to repulsive cotton plantation owner Simon Legree.
If you haven't read the book, some of the character names are undoubtedly familiar, and have evolved into pop culture references good and bad: Simon Legree became popular nomenclature for a humorously rapacious scoundrel or heartless bastard, whereas slave names like Uncle Tom evolved to signify an overly obedient black caricature, whereas Sambo is a now a racial slur in North America that's a few hairs short of the “N” word.
Not since 1927 had there been a firm attempt to mount a detailed adaptation of Beecher Stowe's novel, and perhaps due to the social changes in Europe and the U.S., with black actors, actresses, and musical artists reaching more international audiences prior to WWII, it seemed like the right time to take the classic novel and go farther than the mostly single-character stories Hollywood had made.
With Onkel Tom Hutte, the filmmakers could follow the lives of several black characters, and stay more faithful to the book's depiction of racial hatred that most studio pictures avoided so as to ensure their pictures remained broadly appealing, and sellable in every domestic and international territory.
One can cite rare examples like Roger Corman's The Intruder (1962) as a hard social drama, but that adaptation of the Charles Beaumont novel was set in the contemporary South, and addressed integration; Beecher Stowe's novel begins as Abraham Lincoln is about to become President, and his plans to abolish slavery. The temporal settings are distinct: in The Intruder, racism generally lies beneath mannered sheaths, whereas in Onkel Tom, it's right out front.
Like Intruder, Onkel Toms' screenwriters – director Géza von Radványi (Valahol Európában / Somewhere in Europe), and western/sexploitation writer Fred Denger (Mark of the Devil II) – make frequent and potent use of the “N” word in suitable dramatic situations that illustrate how some landowners, workers, and rich snobs regarded blacks as sub-human, if not less than dogs.
The head monster in the drama is Simon Legree, and while actor Herbert Lom is best remembered today as the increasingly neurotic police Chief Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther films, Lom could handle strong dramatic roles with great adeptness. As Legree, Lom's majestic voice (in fluent German) smites the complaints of liberal thinkers, blows off reams of racist verbiage in a hard, business-like tenor, and bullies Uncle Tom's original owner into signing over slaves with not a waver of sympathy.
He's a marvelously loathsome villain who eventually adds murder to his skills, and the filmmakers make excellent use of differing sets and locations to distinguish Legree's decrepit, profit-geared plantation from the pristine mansion where Uncle Tom is initially sent before tragedy sends him back to into Legree's hands.
The score by Peter Thomas is a very weird mix of sixties orchestral pop-jazz that sometimes freezes in its tracks to allow short traditional spirituals, either sung a cappella or with mild pop orchestrations for electric guitar and strings. It's anachronistic, infrequently matches onscreen drama, and sometimes elevates a cliché into caricature – notably Uncle Tom's arrival at the St. Clare plantation, with happy slaves in fine work clothes waving with excited glee that ‘Massa' has returned with a new family addition.
Thomas' use of percussion in action cues – particularly during Simon Legree's hunt for escaped mistress Cassie and his entire lot of slaves heading for a mission where Cassie's brother will take them to Canada – is fairly effective, and the theme song, “Mississippi Blues,” works well during Uncle Tom's steamship journey in chains to New Orleans, the city where he meets Eva St. Clare, the sometimes grating, good-natured moppet (enough about the dollie!) who convinces her father to save Tom from Legree's plantation by offering an above-market cash offer.
A more interesting use of music happens over the End Credits, when Eartha Kitt's face is superimposed in the top left corner as she sings Onkel Toms' theme song, looks downward with a mournful gaze, and rears up to continue her vocal part after a short instrumental bridge. (The iconic Juliette Greco also appears as a saloon cabaret singer, but it's an extended cameo that really doesn't add anything to the narrative beyond European novelty casting.)
There's also the novel prologue that starts off with fast-moving aerial shots of New York City, underscored with a funky orchestral jazz cut. A thick electric bass and piano play a funky version of Thomas' theme before a smash cut to a view of the Stature of Liberty, as seen from a moving boat in choppy waters. The film then dissolves to the Abraham Lincoln Statue, followed by a montage where Beecher Stowe hands Lincoln a copy of her book, and then a recreation of John Wilkes Booth's Lincoln assassination, before the camera zooms in on the book cover, and the film proper begins.
Whatever one may think of Thomas' score, the composer may well have designed it as a pop cultural bridge for audiences perhaps unwilling to sit through a nearly 3-hour historical slave epic; the funky intro sets up an addictive groove, and Thomas' score tries to push the film's melodrama beyond its archetypal boundaries.
The cinematography by Heinz Hölscher (Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill ) is too overlit for the interiors, but it's fairly attractive when capturing sunsets, vistas, and the expansive mansions and plantations. Hölscher was also one of the cinematographers on Flying Clipper - Traumreise unter weissen Segeln (1962), the first film in 65mm MCS Superpanorama, a now-obsolete anamorphic widescreen format developed by camera whiz Jan Jacobsen, on which Onkel Toms Hutte was also photographed.
That may explain why it's tough to find a clean print of Onkel Toms Hutte, let alone find it on any video format. The German version used for this review is a 35mm reduction print that chops off much of the side information, and is matted down from 2.20:1 to 1.85:1. The running time's also been trimmed to about 142 mins., which is considerably less than an alleged original length of 170 mins (which may have included an Overture, Entr'Acte, and Exit Music).
When pioneering exploitation vendor Kroger Babb bought the film's U.S. rights, the film was chopped down to less than 2 hours, and released in 1969, after which it's become a very hard-to-find epic on video that's been technically brutalized in whatever extant format since its original 1965 theatrical run in Germany.
The shorter 117 min. U.S. cut appeared on a long-deleted VHS release, and a few Spanish DVDs contain either the French 125 min. edit, or the 142 min. edit; the latter contains optional Spanish and English dub tracks, but whether any of these are in true stereo or are letterboxed in 4:3 non-anamorphic is unknown.
However, at a recent Todd-AO 70mm film festival in Karlsruhe, Germany, a surviving 70mm 6-track stereo print from the Kinemathek in Coburg was screened, of which a short report can be read HERE, at in70mm.com. (Just scoot down to about the middle, and you'll see some sample poster art adjoining the text.)
Onkel Toms Hutte is a white European mounting of an American historical novel, but then Beecher Stowe wasn't black, either; her book was written from a white Calvinistic perspective, outraged with the evils of slavery. Her classic novel's an epic time capsule, as is this elaborate film production, and like the 1927 American silent or the recent 1987 TVM, it deserves to be rescued from oblivion.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan