The American South, the 1840s. Plantation owner Warren Maxwell (James Mason) is keen that his son Hammond (Perry King), much given to bedding female slaves, marry a white woman and produce a son and heir. So Hammond finds himself Blanche (Susan George). Discovering that Blanche is not a virgin on their wedding night (we find out who was responsible later), Hammond turns away from her in disgust. Meanwhile, he trains another slave, Mede (Ken Norton) to be a fighter in bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fights.
The history of censorship is not one of increased licence, but more one of advances and retreats, the latter just as likely to be done for commercial reasons as the activities of moralists. If the perceived excesses of the early 1930s led to the enforcement of the Production Code, the breakdown of said Code in the 1960s led to just under a decade of breaking taboos. Boundaries were pushed, and in some cases filmmakers went further than many would be likely to go nowadays. Also, taboos shift with time. Western society is far more sensitive about sexual violence or the abuse of children...and those early 70s explicit rape sequences or for that matter on-screen child killings in Soldier Blue, say would be far more nervously approached by filmmakers nowadays. Another area of sensitivity is racism. We live in a time when a textbook cinema classic like Birth of a Nation has to be released in the UK with an explanatory caption telling us that the film reflects the time it was made, so that we aren't offended by a film that has the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. And so we come to Mandingo. A well-made film with an A-picture director and cast, and a hit of its day, it is now rarely shown and seems to have been cast into the outer circle of Hades reserved for the ultra-politically-incorrect. Along with its sequel Drum (which I have not seen), it has yet to be shown on British television, over thirty years after its cinema release. Although it made a fair amount of money for Paramount, it's telling that it's one of a batch of that studio's back catalogue that they have licensed to Legend Films for DVD release.
I haven't read the original novel by Kyle Onstott (adapted for the screen by Norman Wexler, via a stage version by Jack Kirkland), which was part of a long series that also included Drum. It's out of print in the UK, which may be due to cultural sensitivity or simply due to the fact that popular entertainment reflects the culture which creates it, and as that society changes so does its entertainment. (That's why Victorian bestsellers are for the most part unreadable now, except for social and literary historians.) The novel was first published in 1957, but I suspect that due to Hollywood censorship of the time, a film version was probably inconceivable much before the time when it was made, 1975. Dino De Laurentiis's production probably benefited from the success of the blaxploitation trend earlier in the decade.
Quentin Tarantino has described Mandingo as the occasion (prior to Showgirls) when Hollywood spent a lot of money to make a balls-out exploitation movie. Certainly Mandingo is strong stuff in places: given Perry King's full-frontal nudity, not to mention a fairly explicit sex scene later on, this would probably be in danger of a NC-17 rating if it went before the MPAA nowadays. And that's without the violence: a pretty vicious bare-knuckle fights, not to mention a whipping and a paddling (the latter two still cut the last time the BBFC saw the film, for video release in 1987). The plot is certainly pure melodrama, but I didn't find this an exploitation movie: at just over two hours it's too long and classically-paced for that. And also too well made, especially with Maurice Jarre providing the music, Richard Kline the photography and Boris Leven the production design. There's even Muddy Waters singing over the credits. Richard Fleischer seems to have a seriousness of purpose motivating him, to show the antebellum South as it was, however ugly and unpalatable that might be to modern audiences. You certainly can't accuse a film which features, almost as soon as the opening credits have rolled, a slave dropping his breeches and bending over so that he can be inspected for haemorrhoids of wanting to spare delicate sensibilities. Gone With the Wind this most certainly is not.
While I don't regard Mandingo as exploitative racist trash, as some clearly do, I don't see it as a neglected masterpiece either, as many of its defenders do. There are definite flaws, such as a sometimes sluggish pace. Also, James Mason and Susan George seem out of place: it's hard to say which undergoes more mastication, the scenery while they're on screen or their Southern-fried accents. George in particular seems to think she's doing Tennessee Williams. It's hard to guess that they would be outacted by Perry King and a former heavyweight boxer, but that is indeed what happens. This could be King's best screen work: he's certainly more at ease than his two British costars. As for Norton, best known for fighting Muhammad Ali three times, he or Fleischer or both had the good sense to not let him say much and to rely on presence alone for most of the film. His charisma is not in doubt. Norton, with another Wexler script, would return in Drum.
Mandingo is not an easy film to come to terms with, or indeed to review. But anyone who wishes to understand the workings of Hollywood in the 70s, or to examine its treatment of racial issues throughout its history, does need to see it.
Mandingo comes to DVD as part of Paramount's licensing deal with Legend Films. The disc is a DVD-9 encoded for Region 1 only. A toned-down version circulated in some territories (for details, see the “Alternative Versions” tab in the IMDB version), even before local censors such as the BBFC had a go at the film, but this is almost the full-length original version. I say “almost”, as one shot is missing: during the bare-knuckle fight there should be a gory close-up of a neck after a chunk has been bitten out of it.
The original ratio for Mandingo was 1.85:1; the DVD opens the matte up to 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. I'm not of an age to have seen the film on its cinema release - this DVD was my first viewing.- but I suspect the film's look did not go in for Altman-like revisionism, judging from reviews and the memories of those who did see the film then. The 70s was the era of dark lighting, grainy camerawork and blown-out highlights, and since that's a description of this DVD transfer in many places, you suspect that the film is in need of some restoration. There's also some print damage, but nothing too distracting.
The soundtrack is mono, as was the film on its release. That in itself should not be problem, but it's a rather muddily-mixed track that's not always as clear as it should be. As Legend have not provided subtitles, this DVD might prove hard work for non-native English speakers and the hard of hearing.
There are no extras on this DVD, not even a trailer.
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