Directed by Richard Fleischer
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 126 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English
MSRP: $ 14.95
Release Date: June 3, 2008
Review Date: June 3, 2008
Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo is a southern fried melodrama that’s not broad enough to be camp so it must simply be labeled a bad movie. Likely scandalous at the time of its release (interracial sex, male and female frontal nudity, a range of sadistic practices), the film now plays as a hammy and absurd curiosity. It’s memorable all right but for all the wrong reasons.
The film concerns a fairly well-to-do family in the Louisiana of 1840. Instead of raising cotton or tobacco, however, the plantation raises slaves, and it’s run by the fiery Maxwell (James Mason). His son Hammond is much more sensitive than his father. He has a genuine affection for many of the slaves on their spread and makes promises to them to keep them together when barter time comes. As was the custom of the times, the white owners often took one of their slaves as a “bed wench,” and Hammond’s virginal choice Ellen (Brenda Sykes) becomes almost like a wife to him. When he chooses a woman to be his wedded wife, however, he picks Susan George’s Blanche whom he learns on his wedding night is not a virgin (little does he know that her brother was the one who deflowered her). Thus ends the thought of marital relations between them, so she turns to drink and sinks deeper and deeper into an alcoholic haze of bitterness and jealousy over Ellen. Also on his trip to New Orleans where he weds Blanche, Hammond buys a Mandingo stud slave for the plantation so he can father a brood of young children that will fetch high prices. The one he chooses, Mede (Ken Norton), is also worthy of fight training, another way of bringing money to his owner.
It’s a story with many characters and one that almost requires a grid to keep all of the relationships straight once the hot and heavy sexual interplay begins. Yes, we see a great deal of it in heavily shadowed close-ups. Naturally, though, the director saves his bright, even tighter close-ups for the beatings, gougings, bitings, and hangings that litter the screenplay. Yes, it’s excruciatingly vile to focus almost pleasurably on such inhuman treatment, but that was what the paying customers of 1975 were likely the most interested in. We see much more graphic violence in some of our films today, of course, but the almost lascivious way the camera laps up the agony of the victims hasn’t changed much from then to now.
There isn’t a white actor in this film who can do a decent southern accent, and James Mason and Susan George’s attempts are laughably bad. It’s the worst performance I’ve ever seen James Mason give in a film, a bitterly sad record of an actor taking a role he was monumentally wrong for. Perry King is trying mightily to give a performance of depth, but the vapid writing almost always defeats him. Susan George’s Blanche spends most of the movie inebriated, but she even acts that poorly. The black characters make a much stronger impression. Tony-winner Lillian Hayman is the plantation’s “Mammy” character in a fine performance of strength and conviction. Brenda Sykes’ Ellen is quiet and retiring, a dignified performance that matches well with King’s sensitive Hammond. Ji-Tu Cumbuka is all brash and bluster as Cicero, the plantation’s revolt leader who strives for freedom and respect. Ken Norton, who was at the time a world ranked heavyweight contender, plays Mede’s physicality without effort, but his vocal performance has been dubbed with another actor’s voice, a lighter pitched voice that doesn’t much match the boxer’s actual lower speaking register. Norton's own line readings must have been miserable to need to be dubbed with this ill-matched professional.
Norman Wexler’s screenplay follows the plot of Kyle Onstott’s book closely enough, but Fleischer’s direction just doesn’t have much flow to it. The scenes churn by without much grace, and Fleischer doesn’t do enough contrasting of the faded glory of Maxwell’s plantation with the luxuriousness and splendor of Blanche’s homeplace. He places the camera on a slant to film scenes of Blanche’s tipsy beating of Ellen, but in a climactic fight scene between Mede and a champion Jamaican fighter, the framing is often poor and some action gets missed.
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 for this DVD release, and the anamorphic encoding helps bring out some detail in the photography even though sharpness overall is not strong. It’s a very dated looking transfer, too, with lots of age related dirt, color that looks unnatural and faded at times, and shadow detail that obscures people and things that ought to be seen. The overall image is really darker than it should be. The film is divided into 20 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. There is no hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter in the track, but otherwise, the mix is rudimentary at best. It represents the sound mix of a typical film of its era.
There are no bonus features on the disc, not even a theatrical trailer.
It’s trashy, cheap, and abysmally exploitative of an era in our country’s past that deserves a proper representation. (Roots got it right; Mandingo doesn‘t.) Curiosity might lead some to check the disc out anyway, but I suspect you’ll find the film is too poor to laugh at and not good enough to sit through.