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HTF DVD REVIEW: Mandingo



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#1 of 43 Matt Hough

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Posted June 03 2008 - 09:49 AM


Mandingo
Directed by Richard Fleischer

Studio: Paramount/Legend
Year: 1975
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 126 minutes
Rating: R
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English
Subtitles: CC
MSRP: $ 14.95

Release Date: June 3, 2008
Review Date: June 3, 2008


The Film

2/5

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.


Video Quality

2.5/5

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.

Audio Quality

3/5

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.

Special Features

0/5

There are no bonus features on the disc, not even a theatrical trailer.

In Conclusion

2/5 (not an average)

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.


Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC

#2 of 43 chas speed

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Posted June 03 2008 - 03:41 PM

It seems like the sequel "Drum" was a much funnier film.

#3 of 43 Chuck Pennington

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Posted June 03 2008 - 04:30 PM

DRUM is terrific! They showed it uncut on MGM HD a few weeks back, and I uploaded a montage of clips to YouTube.

It's notable that this release of MANDINGO is uncut, while the international DVD releases are of an alternate version with clothed scenes and alternate angles. Still, that release includes a trailer and has far better video quality, but it is heavily censored. Ah, anyway....

Enjoy!



#4 of 43 Eric Peterson

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Posted June 04 2008 - 12:21 AM

I attended a movie collectibles show in Chicago about 2 months ago and Ken Norton was there. I was able to pick up an original poster for "DRUM" and get it autographed. I can't wait to get it framed.

Ironically, I've never seen the film.

#5 of 43 AndrewWickliffe

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Posted June 04 2008 - 02:18 AM

Is 1.85 the OAR?

#6 of 43 Chuck Pennington

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Posted June 04 2008 - 02:40 AM

1.85:1 is the OAR for both MANDINGO and DRUM. DRUM is a United Artists film (and trashy as hell).

#7 of 43 AndrewWickliffe

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Posted June 04 2008 - 02:43 AM

Ok.

(I just figured De Laurentiis always did Panavision). Any word on the rest of Legend's Paramount releases yet?

I remember reading, in the Making of King Kong, how po'ed De Larentiis was at Mandingo getting bad reviews, considering there were lines for it around the block in NYC

#8 of 43 Charles Ellis

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Posted June 04 2008 - 03:48 AM

You simply cannot take this film seriously- it's as campy as can be. Just think of it as Douglas Sirk meets Margaret Mitchell, and you'll be agape at some of the crazy things these actors do onscreen. For me, the most eye-popping moment had to do with the character of Maxwell (James Mason) and his 'creative' cure for rhuematism- I won't spoil it for you, but it's the kind of scene that's straight out of John Waters!
Bring "The continuing story of PEYTON PLACE" home on DVD: the one that started it all- from Dallas and Dynasty to Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl!!! Starting this May, see the legendary saga starring Mia Farrow, Ryan O'Neal, Barbara Parkins, and Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone on DVD thru...

#9 of 43 tim cat

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Posted June 04 2008 - 05:32 AM

Where can I buy a copy of the just released "Mandingo" on DVD. Nobody has it in there stores. Best Buy doesn't have it, Target doesn't have it, Circuit City doesn't have it, K-Mart doesn't have it and Wal-Mart doesn't have it. Even the video rental stores don't have it. What's up with that?

#10 of 43 Eric Peterson

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Posted June 04 2008 - 05:51 AM

Where can I buy a copy of the just released "Mandingo" on DVD. Nobody has it in there stores. Best Buy doesn't have it, Target doesn't have it, Circuit City doesn't have it, K-Mart doesn't have it and Wal-Mart doesn't have it. Even the video rental stores don't have it. What's up with that?


I would highly doubt that any major store would carry this title. It's far too controversial. While I completely disagree with the position of these companies, it's just the fact of the matter. You'll either have to buy this from a specialty store or get it online.

#11 of 43 tim cat

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Posted June 04 2008 - 06:00 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Eric Peterson

I would highly doubt that any major store would carry this title. It's far too controversial. While I completely disagree with the position of these companies, it's just the fact of the matter. You'll either have to buy this from a specialty store or get it online.
Where on line do you recommend?

#12 of 43 Richard--W

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Posted June 04 2008 - 07:39 AM

Matt Hough isn't giving MANDINGO its due. Critics have always hated it, while audiences -- both black and white -- seem to understand that to expose injustice and racist behavior one must show it. The film may not be sophisticated by today's standards, but viewers should be able to perceive a judgment at work in the outrages that are accepted and practiced by the characters and committed in front of the camera. It is important to understand that Richard Fleischer and company are not racists, and that the actors who lend themselves to this story, both black and white, are not racists either. They are telling an historical story about slavery that is intended to provoke audience reaction, in the best tradition of good drama. The trend today is to editorialize and lecture instead of depict; in 1974 the trend was to simply show the story. True MANDINGO is dated by today's standards, but to dismiss it as racist is unfair, and too easy. If anything, the book and film are heavily sanitized depictions of things that actually happened, and a culture that existed, in pre-Civil War America.

#13 of 43 Gordon McMurphy

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Posted June 04 2008 - 08:28 AM

Well said, Richard--W. I mean, the fact that Richard Fleischer directed it should tell you the film isn't trash. Maybe people - whites and blacks - still see the film as an affont to their pride. Well, tough titty, folks, 'cause dats hows thangs was in dem days. If the film is trash, it is because it depicts trash in an age of trashiness and faux-sophistication.

#14 of 43 Matt Hough

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Posted June 04 2008 - 08:43 AM

I never said the film was racist, but I did say it was a terrible production with dreadful performances from several key players, poorly paced direction, and a script that's more interested in the grotesque than in a solid, delving look into the politics and personalities of the time.

#15 of 43 Chuck Pennington

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Posted June 04 2008 - 08:45 AM

I purchased MANDINGO directly from legendfilms.net back in April and got it 3 days later :-) A lot of their new titles have been available for months directly from them.

#16 of 43 Jon Martin

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Posted June 04 2008 - 08:59 AM

Dennis Cozzalio has an excellent piece on the film this week, also hoping for a critical reevaluation.

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: THE SLIFR TOP 100: MANDINGO

Dave Kehr also mentioned it in his DVD column.

#17 of 43 Bob Cashill

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Posted June 04 2008 - 11:01 AM

I got mine on Amazon. No hassles or headaches there.

#18 of 43 Richard--W

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Posted June 04 2008 - 11:17 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon Martin
Dennis Cozzalio has an excellent piece on the film this week, also hoping for a critical reevaluation.

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: THE SLIFR TOP 100: MANDINGO

Dave Kehr also mentioned it in his DVD column.
Thank you for the link.
A very perceptive analysis.
Where do I find Dave Kehr's column?

Quote:
Originally Posted by MattH.
I never said the film was racist, but I did say it was a terrible production with dreadful performances from several key players, poorly paced direction, and a script that's more interested in the grotesque than in a solid, delving look into the politics and personalities of the time.
MANDINGO is an historical drama on a small scale. Accordingly, the production is reasonably well-mounted with everything it needs to show life on this plantation. Period detail is convincing and typical of the 1970s. It is confidently and intelligently directed by Richard Fleischer, who does not flinch from the unpleasantness of the material. He is brutally honest in recreating this white man's world of decadence and corruption taken for granted.

The script has the courage to depict the ugliness and barbarism of 19th century slavery, for the first time in an American film. That's its' value, and that in itself is political I suppose, but what's missing from MANDINGO is editorializing. At the time this film was made, dramatists trusted their audience. It was believed that a depiction of actual circumstances and events was sufficient to be understood. Editorializing should be saved for documentaries. MANDINGO shows an historical reality in dramatic terms. It is not a documentary.

Acting is an emotional process, not a political one, and the principle players don't hesitate to throw themselves into their roles. It took courage for some of the actors to do what is required to tell this story. The interaction between slaves and their masters had never been depicted before in an American film. We may not like the characters -- I don't, personally -- but I can't see how James Mason, or anyone else, can be faulted in their performances. All the characters come through as realistic personalities of the period. This is what southerners believed, and this is how they behaved, in the American south of the 1850s. Perhaps their behavior is so outrageous, so far beyond the accepted behavior of today, that some viewers find it difficult to believe in. I can understand that, but guess what, folks -- the behavior in MANDINGO is a pale shadow of how real slave owners interacted with their slaves before the Civil War stopped it.

MANDINGO is not a film I'd choose to watch often, but I do respect it. I hope the availability of MANDINGO on DVD will lead to a re-evaluation of the film on its merits, which are considerable.

#19 of 43 Charles Ellis

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Posted June 04 2008 - 11:20 AM

Come on, guys- you're calling this movie art? Midnight movie fodder is more like it!
Bring "The continuing story of PEYTON PLACE" home on DVD: the one that started it all- from Dallas and Dynasty to Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl!!! Starting this May, see the legendary saga starring Mia Farrow, Ryan O'Neal, Barbara Parkins, and Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone on DVD thru...

#20 of 43 Jon Martin

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Posted June 04 2008 - 01:41 PM

Dave Kehr wrote about the film in the New York Times

http://www.nytimes.c....es&oref=slogin

And he posts a screengrab on his blog where the comments section has a discussion about Fleischer's work

New DVDs 6-3-2008 | davekehr.com





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