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I just saw this film on the big screen (the only surviving 35mm print in
the world). I had never seen it on video, so seeing it in a crowded
theater was my first experience with the film. As a bonus, the
director, Richard Fleischer, the star, Perry King, and Brenda Sykes, who
plays King's slave "wench" in the film, spoke before the screening.
The audience alternated between gasping and roaring with immediately regretted laughter throughout the screening. Nobody laughed for a moment at Susan George's supposedly over-the-top performance. And at the climax -- there were astounded gasps all over the theater. Afterwards, once the applause had died down, the audience filed out, stunned. Everyone looked shell-shocked. I wandered around for a while listening to people murmuring: "I told you guys..." "Best I've seen..." "Totally uncompromising..." "That's how it was..." "Didn't pull any punches..." "Amazing..." "Where did you hear about it?..."
We had one big advantage over most people who see the film. Most viewers go rent the tape because they read about it in, say, Edward Margulies' and Stephen Rebello's BAD MOVIES WE LOVE (which is how I knew about it). MANDINGO has a huge reputation as a camp classic, so people seek out the video where it can be found. Then they take it home and watch it alone, or with a friend or two, pre-primed to laugh.
The audience I was sitting with at the American Cinematheque theater had, first of all, read the sober, favorable description in the Cinematheque schedule. Then we'd listened to Fleischer himself talk about how he had refused ten times when Dino de Laurentiis had asked him to film the novel, only to finally accept when he realized how he could do it: "By being totally honest and straight with it." And he was, if you view it without a laugh ready. King and Sykes also spoke calmly and soberly about how hard the shoot was, and how the cast considered it an important film but still had trouble handling the emotions it stirred up.
Fleischer is hardly a symbolic director, although there's a lot of "found" symbolism in 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, for example. But MANDINGO was an obvious statement of the inhumanity of slave-OWNing, and it constantly used the setting and characters to emphasize the moral and physical disintegration of the Deep South under the self-imposed yoke of the slave culture. That sounds pretentious, but in MANDINGO it's totally straightforward. Moral disintegration leads to moral disintegration. The crime is its own punishment. MANDINGO is an antimatter GONE WITH THE WIND.
MANDINGO, as Fleischer pointed out, was a huge hit on its initial release. It was also viciously attacked by all but two critics in the United States. (Fleischer admitted that he saved all his reviews, and pointed out mildly that those two reviewers -- who were the only critics to go into the film in depth -- pronounced the film a masterpiece. "I don't know if it's that," he said, "but those two were certainly a breath of fresh air.")
Because of all the controversy, the film was never rereleased. Nobody at the screening could think of a single time it had been screened between 1975 and August 28, 1999. Perhaps it was screened once or twice, but my point is that essentially no one since 1975 has seen this film with an audience, to feel the reactions of those around the room, to see it on the big screen.
I think it's really unfortunate that MANDINGO has gotten locked into this "camp" label. The film contains so much depravity that I can certainly see why it was selected as a "camp classic". But that wasn't the intent at all. I've heard this film compared to SHOWGIRLS. But SHOWGIRLS was directed by the bizarre Paul Verhoeven (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, BASIC INSTINCT). Of course he was going for camp; he always does camp. But Richard Fleischer? He did 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, MR. MAJESTYK, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (a real gem), THE BOSTON STRANGLER, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, SOYLENT GREEN. He is one of the most mild-mannered directors alive. He's done bad stuff -- CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA come to mind -- but in the seventies he was doing his best work. And that would have to include MANDINGO -- to my complete amazement.
I can't believe how different my experience with this film was from its usual "cult" interpretation. Now I wonder if Otto Preminger's HURRY SUNDOWN is as bad as the Medveds said it was in 50 WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME. I'll have to try to see it for myself.
This unflinching, hard-hitting look at slavery is a severely underrated and
misjudged film. That's probably because it sheds light onto a tough, painful
subject that many people would prefer to ignore or forget; if you're
expecting a "slaves-and-masters-are-all-a-big-happy-family" depiction of the
life in the mid-19th-century Southern plantations, then this simply isn't
"Mandingo" was followed, one year later, by "Drum". They are both far better films than their reputations might make you believe, and they are also handsome, almost sumptuous productions with a far lower "sleaze" quotient than many reviews seem to indicate. They are both worth seeing - preferably as a double bill. (***)
This is an underrated, truly great film on the subject of slavery, sexual
hypocrisy and the haunted, hothouse atmosphere of generations of white
karma in the 19th century deep south. There are some who've commented
who get it, others who don't want to get it because it's just too
and disturbing. These folks undoubtedly would prefer a TV sanitized
of slavery as in ROOTS. It's a testament to Richard Fleischer's integrity
that he was able to pull this off. All performances are excellent (well,
that's not strictly true as Ken Norton stumbles his way through but
Fleischer, through his direction and editing gets an adequate job from
including superb James Mason (one of his most brutally fearless roles as
opposed to the nadir of his career as one IMDB commentator puts it). One
the things that's most disturbing about the film is the depiction of the
consequences of slavery, racism and hypocrisy on the white race, how it
warps son, Perry King's natural tenderness towards Brenda Sykes into a
horrifying insecure paranoia that evolves into aberrantly exaggerated
jealousy and sexually motivated violence by the climax. And poor Susan
George's character is driven totally mad by her husband King's neglect
jealousy and the semingly contradictory tender erotic ministrations of
slave, Norton. Mason reaps what he sows at the end and King's upbringing
(and inferiority complex) is ultimately too much for him in the end,
him down the same road to hellish oblivion.
If one wants to see a truly lurid, exploitive treatment of the same subject (although very entertaining also with a great cast -- Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Yaphet Kotto, et.al.) one should look no further than MANDINGO's sequel, DRUM. However, MANDINGO is different. It does contain some lurid, super charged sexual images and shocking cruelty and violence -- but Fleischer's treatment is matter-of-fact, in-your-face and ultimately totally unpretentious. It walks a tightrope but courageous director Fleischer never stumbles. The gritty, extremely realistic location and production design add to the disturbing ambience. Unflinching, beautifully shot (I saw this in the theater when it was released and at a rare revival screening in 2000) and undeserving of it's pariah reputation.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have heard this film described as campy... I don't see it that way...
I found it incredibly disturbing because i believed every bit of it. I'm no historical expert, but this had the ring of truth to me. Human nature combined with the institution of slavery would inevitably lead to these exact kinds of situations. When one population completely dehumanizes another population, every excess and taboo becomes acceptable in their eyes. If this kind of stuff (specificly the use of female slaves as sex objects) is not well documented in the history books, that shouldn't surprise anyone. You can bet your bottom dollar that in those male dominated times, such practices were commonplace and probably considered relatively normal.
Despite the fact that I think this is a great film, I can see why many people would want to bury it or dismiss it. It's just too difficult to accept and it doesn't even have a happy ending. There is no sense that the situation will change in any way.
I almost wish i had never seen it so i can't really recommend it despite the fact that it's great. Very few people will watch this movie and take it the right way. Many will laugh at it and assume it's a big exaggeration others will find it mean spirited or racist and despicable.
If it has any flaw, it's that it's too honest. People don't like to watch a movie and be bludgeoned by it. There is no attempt to appease an audience. There is a bit of melodrama, but it's surrounded by so much evil that you can't care about it and I don't think you're meant to. This movie is a slap in the face... Take that into account before you watch it if you choose to.
On another note... Based on other descriptions, it's possible that I saw a slightly edited copy of this film... Differing versions of the film apparently exist and some have edited scenes. That may account for some of the different opinions expressed in regards to the movie. If there is a more graphic version out there, I doubt my opinion would change. Making it more graphic would not necessarily reduce it's greatness, but on the same note, the version i saw was plenty graphic enough to get it's point across.
This may be a case (unprecedented??) were the edited version of a movie is actually the better version. I can say for certain that the movie i saw was a great film, and I'll leave it at that.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To be (a nasty, mean-spirited exploitation flick) or not to be (a
nasty, mean-spirited exploitation flick): that is the question!
"Mandingo" is pretty much a mystery of cinema on its own. Did the
prominent Hollywood crew, with names like Richard Fleischer, Norman
Wexler and Maurice Jarre, intend to produce a trashy & sleazy picture
or was it really their intention to bring a harsh yet realistic
portrait of the slavery business in Southern America around the year
1840? Either way it was meant, "Mandingo" is a truly impressive and
unforgettable film that totally represents the 70's decade! Wexler's
screenplay adapted from a novel by Kyle Onstott is definitely not
meant for squeamish or easily offended people, as it is an honest
depiction of how awful and disrespectful the wealthy white "masters"
treated their black servants AND considered their behavior to the most
normal and common thing in the world. The movie revolves on the
plantation-owning Maxwell family, Warren and his son Hammond, and their
main occupation is the "breeding" of slaves. Hammond hits the jackpot
when he buys a pure Mandingo on the market. This is a physically strong
black male he uses for reproducing and trains to become a bare-knuckle
fighting champion. Meanwhile, father Warren insists on having a son of
his own with the distantly related Blanche, but Hammond is far more
sexually aroused by his collection of black "wenches". "Mandingo" is a
very powerful film, despite the large amount of exploitative sex and
violence, and Richard Fleischer's like-it-or-not narrative style is
ultimately confronting! Particularly the harrowing yet accurate little
details will have a severe impact on you. For example, the sight of
rich white bastards resting their legs on black children or the endless
images of obedient slaves being exhibited on markets and getting
inspected like ordinary farm animals. Much rather than a sick
exploitation film, I think this is a truly insightful and fundamental
portrait of one of mankind darkest history pages. Naturally, this film
got boycotted due to its explicit content and I can easily understand
why most film-committees chose to ignore a production that deals with
topics like racism & sadistic rape, but it's a great film that needs to
be seen by wider audiences. Just to prove that it's more intelligent
than the majority of 70's exploitation films, there's the compelling
sub plot of a courageous slave (Cicero) who tries to mobilize his
companions in misfortune to revolt against their masters. Richard
Fleischer, one of the most underrated filmmakers ever, assures a tight
directing and most of the players deliver excellent performances, which
isn't so obvious seeing the insane lines they sometimes had to say. The
n-word dominates pretty much every dialog and everyone talks with a
heavy Southern accent. Ken Norton (as the Mandingo) isn't much of an
acting talent, but physically speaking he's definitely the right man
for the job. What a handsome fella, he is! The music, cinematography
and use of rural filming locations are all splendid as well. In
conclusion, "Mandingo" is a fabulously curious 70's highlight and
recommend to open-minded lovers of cinema.
* Note: this comment got deleted once after a complaint raised by another user. Can somebody please tell me what's so offensive about this write-up??
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Mandingo is one of those films like Birth Of A Nation, or Triumph Of The
Will in which one is forced contemplate objectionable content all the while
reluctantly allowing mitigating qualities. That's not to say that
Fleischer's exploitative film, hardly an artistic landmark, is at anything
like the same level as those masterpieces, although he had an interesting
and varied career. He was responsible for low budget noirs (Armoured Car
Robbery, 1950), Disney classics (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, 1954),
intelligent biblical drama (Barabbas, 1962), war epics (Tora! Tora! Tora!,
1970) as well as science fiction (Soylent Green, 1973) each made with equal
professionalism. These are films that are still a pleasure to re-encounter,
and continue to hold up as solid entertainment. Mandingo stands out as his
most controversial work, and in these politically correct times is seen
infrequently, even more so the sequel Drum, 1976 - not by Fleischer.
For those used to the cosy image presented of the old American South, Mandingo will come as a slap in the face. Falconhurst, where most of the action takes place, is far removed from the comforting, romantic world of say, Gone With The Wind (1939). So inflammatory is the subject matter of this film that Fleischer apparently refused several times when Dino de Laurentiis asked him to direct. It is reported that Fleischer finally decided to accept the job only on the basis of his film 'telling the truth'.
With, or without, the salve of supposed historical accuracy, Mandingo was a huge hit when it came out, although few critics liked it and tellingly it was never reissued. It still retains a strong camp reputation, dividing audiences between those who value its revisionism and those who smell exploitation. None of the director's initial hesitation is apparent on the screen, as his work plunges into the excesses of slavery with gusto. On one level Mandingo is a racist, sexist, violent melodrama. But it is also one of the first films supposedly to show the slave-south as it was: as a casually cruel society harbouring an odious institution, one that debased human relationships at every level. (Interestingly, there's an echo of such a slave-based society in Soylent Green, where women are commonly sold as part of a rich apartment's contents and termed 'furniture'.)
Starring as the grouchy patriarch Warren Maxwell, James Mason appears uncomfortable both in and out of character. Playing Maxwell as afflicted with a rheumatic foot, the actor also suffers professionally, being handicapped with a dubious southern accent. More familiar in suave, dapper and civilised roles, Mason here plays a shabby bigot who meets an abrupt end. Although he makes the best of it there is a distinct feeling that he is playing beneath himself, a star at the dog end of an illustrious career, as the opening 'haemorrhoid scene' only serves to illustrate.
Less can be said for Susan George, called upon to play a frustrated and vengeful wife. For those with a nose for such things, her eventual dalliance with Mede (pronounced 'meat') is an all too-predictable event, their climactic miscegenation amongst the most exploitative elements in the film. George pouts and plots appropriately, but her sensuality is overwhelmed by the brutality that surrounds her and her nudity is mild.
Perry King, who plays Mason's son Hammond, had a brief career in films before he disappeared into anonymity and television in the 1970s. Interestingly, in the same year he also appeared in another cult flick, The Wild Party. In the present film as the conscience-stricken offspring, he manages competently enough, without making much of an impact. Impaired by a limp, his physical handicap suggests something of his inner doubts - although in terms of sexual morality, at least, he is as hypocritical as everyone else.
As Mede, the 'mandingo' in question, ex-boxing champion Norton is at the centre of the film, brooding darkly at the injustices around him. Is he secretly hatching plots against his white masters we wonder? For a long time his motives and potential are in doubt. At first, the humiliation he experiences at the slave market (the old lady scrabbling in his loin cloth a defining moment) and later his involvement with the secretly literate blacks suggests that Mede is a dynamic character, even a black Spartacus. He takes obvious pride in the fighting skills, which allow him a limited sense of independence, although his self-contained rage and violence is continually understated. Even when upbraided by Cicero for "killin' another black man" he seems more sheepish towards his accusers than angry at the system. His continually postponed revolt is what gives the film much of its tension. It is unfortunate then that Mede's ultimate "No, Masser." at the end, although expected, is less a long-awaited declaration of rebellion than a resigned withdrawal from service into self-defence. The older Cicero, a supporting character, is noticeably angrier and more radical. One need only recall a film like Schepsi's The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith, where the revolt of the repressed is made explicit, to see how restrained the lead in Mandingo is. Mede's final violent acts, done almost in sorrow at his master's failings, are ultimately much less cathartic than natural justice and the audience demands.
In short, Mandingo posits a society worthy of overthrow and then denies the audience the satisfaction of seeing it effectively opposed. While this allows scope for exploitative images of lust, humiliation and punishment, the final result is curiously inconclusive and gives the film a disturbing nature. One is left with a rush of dead and dying bodies, resolving nothing outside of plot strands. The big boiling cauldron into which Mede topples, pierced with a pitchfork epitomises his constant agony. It also stands as representative of the hell the film has represented so excruciatingly for its participants, while offering no immediate prospect of salvation. Mandingo's audience are left contemplating the need for real justice, or face having blithely enjoyed the degradation on its own account. No wonder this uncomfortable film is rarely seen today.
Mandingo seems to divide it's audience strongly between love and hate
and that's not really surprising; the film features some real nasty
elements and the way that it's all done with a highly quality 'period
drama' sort of style means that it will likely miss it's supposed
intended audience - although it seems to have found a good fan base
among exploitation fans. The film is liable to shock modern audience
for its racial themes and strong racial tone; it didn't bother me all
that much to be honest as it suits the film within it's context and
helps to enforce its exploitative nature, which in turn makes Mandingo
more powerful. The film takes place in the south of America during the
1840's and the main focus of the plot is on slavery. White farm owner
Hammond Maxwell one day discovers the fighting talent of one of his
black slaves and soon decides to toughen him up for battle with other
slaves. He's sympathetic with his slaves and soon becomes affectionate
with one of the women, which doesn't sit well with his wife Blanche
who, for revenge, forces the top fighter to sleep with her.
Anyone going into this film expecting a serious look at slavery will be either disappointed or annoyed (maybe both), but if you go into it expecting some nasty exploitation, you might find a lot to like. The film gives an unflinching look at a more primitive society and it actually more shocking for its tone and implications than the events that take place in it (although the film does include plenty of racism, torture and rape scenes). The way that the film depicts the black slaves as animals makes for uncomfortable viewing and the way that society was segregated into 'white masters' and 'black slaves' is always enforced on the viewer. The performances sit better with the exploitation side of the film rather than the serious drama side as none of them are particularly brilliant; although the three leads do fit into their roles well. Overall, this is clearly not a film for everyone and I'm not in any way saying that the film's bad reputation is in any way undeserved; but Mandingo is certainly an interesting film and I would say it is at least worth seeing.
This film, despite some controversy about it's biracial sex scenes when it was initially released, seems to have faded from memory. Given the degree of sex, violence, and unadulterated exploitation of slavery in the antebellum South, that's a surprise, because I saw this flick nearly ten years ago and STILL can't forget it! Those whose image of the old South has forever been defined by GONE WITH THE WIND as romantic and chivalrous and pick up this movie in the video store(the cover art on the box resembles that famous pose with Gable and Leigh)thinking they're about to be trasported to Tara ought to run like Hell! James Mason and his lame son Perry King live on a plantation and own slaves body and soul. Well, at least the body part, as we see when Mason strings an errant slave upside down, strips him, and pattles his butt with a perforated paddle. Son King takes a more tender approach, as he sleeps with the female slaves, especially Brenda Sykes, whom he takes as his mistress. However, he marries Susan George to provide an heir, and presents her with a ruby choker. He also gives Sykes the matching earrings. When George learns of the relationship(Sykes wears the earrings while she serves dinner to George and King on their first night at the plantation), and Kings learns George has slept with her brother, the marriage hits the skids. George drowns her sorrows in lots of sherry and lots of Ken Norton, a slave Perry has purchased specifically for fighting other slaves for betting. George becomes pregnant, and when the baby comes, it hits the fan! It's hard to believe that anyone in 1975 could see this film as anything but exploitation of a very dark period in American history. Didn't anyone cringe at the sight of King going in to "take pleasure" from a female slave in a bed and the woman groans, "I too black for you", or Ken Norton standing stoically on the auction block of a slave sale while an old woman gropes around inside his loincloth? The video edition of this film I saw was from the early eighties, when movie studios did their transfers from the first worn-out prints the could grab, and may have had a muddy, faded look because of this, but it's hard to believe this thing came from a major studio. You'd certainly wouldn't know it from the production values, because the film looks as if the filmmakers didn't spend a penny more than they had to(we're treated to interior scenes inside a plantation house curiously devoid of furniture). With all these setbacks, it's hard to understand why this movie hasn't garnered even a semi-cult following. If you're in the mood to be offended on all levels and don't treasure some romanticized Hollywood image of the old South, grab MANDINGO.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In Richard Fleischer's richly imagined and deliciously baroque slave
melodrama, the Old South is presented as a prison of the body and soul
for both slaves and masters, in which both black and white inmates
transgress the bars of their mutual cage, with catastrophic
consequences. Set on a decaying plantation presided over by a rheumatic
patriarch (a devastating portrait of human corruption by James Mason),
the story has the heir apparent son rejecting his new white bride (who
he is shocked to find is not a virgin) and finding refuge in the arms
of his black "wench" mistress, with whom he shares moments of intimacy
unavailable to him elsewhere. In turn, the wife chooses to manipulate
her husband's prize Mandingo slave into bed, setting all of them on the
road to a devastating tragedy.
Mandingo is a film about bodies: bodies as commodities, bodies as skin colour, bodies as objects and subjects of desire, bodies as instruments and recipients of violence. The old South is a patriarchal, property-owning and white supremacist hell, but the inhabitants are possessed with sexual and emotional desires which chafe against the ideologies of their time and place. The scenes in which the white heir shares tender moments with his wench, or the white wife seduces the Mandingo are complex and intense scenarios. In sophisticated ways, they push their characters into attempting to create transgressive selves whilst at the same time temping the viewer to desire transgressively. All of the bodies of the four leads - Perry King, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and (especially) Ken Norton are eroticised by the camera and served up before the viewer as icons of sexuality; in this way, it is all the more ironic that the centre of power is the decaying body of James Mason's patriarch.
The film shows consciousness, love and hatred being created and deformed in a corrupt society. Black is set against black, but a nascent awareness that this is unjust is beginning to blossom in some of the black characters (and even, dimly, in the white heir); sometimes the old ideologies re-assert themselves, nowhere more than in the tragic denouement, when the white master kills his wife and prize slave, insults his beloved wench and ends up shot himself, all because of his double standards are revealed when the wife gives birth to a mixed race child (murdered in its cradle by the whites); white women were expected to be exemplars of race purity, even whilst their men copulated with female slaves. Susan George's Blanch comes across as a neurotic, sadistic nymphomaniac but it is clear that she is a victim of patriarchy - abused by her brother, sold by her father, shunned and eventually murdered by her husband. She in turn metes out physical abuse to her husband's wench and compromises the Mandingo man. But this latter is a compromise which compromises us all, as the image of the huge and beautiful black man on top of the slim and pale white woman is indelibly erotic, and even though this is not a pornographic film, the implication of a huge black penis sliding into this woman is built intrinsically into the scenario, for the shock, delectation and seduction of the audience.
Mandingo is complex, violent and sometimes luridly melodramatic. The characters speak in a rich and textured language full of demeaning imagery and Gothic cadences. It's a huge film, made with all of the resources of a major Hollywood studio - yet its a down and nasty film about an ugly era of history, an era of history which is part of what made America what it is today.
"Mandingo" is truly an amazing movie. One would think that this is as
close you can get to actually seeing the slave-owning south on film.
"Mandingo" is probably lumped into the "cult/camp classic" category because this is a film no one would dare make today, unless the slaves got a major comeuppance at the end. They do not here. This film is a brutal look at slave owners and their slaves which will leave the audience gasping. Some of the lines are so daring by today's politically-correct standards, there's no doubt they'd get a lot of laughs. Kind of how 1977's "Fight For Your Life" gets laughs with all it's over-the-top racism, only not in such abundance. Sure to get some laughs is hearing the English actor who played "Bently" on "The Jeffersons" talk all nasty.
Perry King is Hammond, the slave owner's son, and he actually has a bit of a heart where the slaves are concerned. He and "Mandingo" (actually his name is "Mede," evidently a "Mandingo" is a name for a "breed" of strong/fighting slave) become friendly. Hammond also has a favorite female slave "wench" who he falls for. And he marries cousin Susan George, who is very bitchy and shows the slaves no respect. Mede is played by Ken Norton who is obviously not an actor but who looks the part.
The film has a sleazy realism to it. Even the plantation looks like a mess - the outside is all ragged and the inside isn't much better, and this is a rich man's plantation. This is definitely not "Tara."
Not to repeat the plot, but many amazing things happen, and there are plenty of incredible scenes. The big fight scene between Mede and another slave is especially bloody and brutal. The ending certainly won't anyone feel all nice and cozy. There are many familiar 70's movie faces all over the place.
This is a film that has kind of disappeared in the realm of today's political correctness. But seeking it out isn't tough, as it has to be seen by anyone with an interest in non-PC cinema, or any kind of "forbidden" movies.
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