Director: Richard Fleischer Starring: James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes Screenplay: Norman Wexler Country: USA
Name some of the most controversial films of the 70's and you're likely to hear names like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, I Spit On Your Grave and Last Tango In Paris. You might also hear the name Mandingo, and figure that by today's standards the film can't be all that impactful in this era of Saw and Hostel-style torture porn. Well, you'd be wrong. Mandingo remains pretty strong stuff even to this day. It's not overly explicit but it's...frank, for lack of a better word. Yes, this highly controversial film from 1975 still packs a punch by today's standards, mostly thanks to its exploitative content masquerading as historical drama. Obviously the highly charged and horribly racist content will sit uneasily with most viewers - some of the matter-of-fact dialogue spouted by James Mason's character and the other white characters is still shocking to this day, perhaps more so considering the politically correct climate we now live in. Mandingo doesn't shy away from the horrors of the material.
Ageing plantation owner Warren Maxwell (James Mason) and his slave master son Hammond (Perry King) decide to purchase a "Mandingo" - a slave from a particular ethnic group - called Mede (Ken Norton) to compete in brutal fights for entertainment and coin. Warren also wants Hammond to marry annoying Southern belle Blanche (Susan George) and sire a son so that the plantation's future is secured, but unfortunately for both Warren and Blanche, Hammond has eyes for a slave girl named Ellen (Brenda Sykes). Ellen ends up pregnant by Hammond, and things get even more problematic when Blanche retaliates against Hammond's affections for Ellen by going after some action herself, in the statuesque form of Mandingo fighter Mede. What entails is less Southern soap opera and more sleazy interplay between a bunch of people who have no business being together. Actually, it does sound like a Southern soap opera after all, albeit with more nudity, whippings, beatings and horrible racial epithets.
Mandingo takes pains to show how black men, women and children were horribly mistreated, abused and denigrated at that time. Women are humiliated, beaten and sexually abused, a child is used as a footstool in order that the plantation owner's rheumatism can drain from his system into the kid, men work until they drop from exhaustion, and in some of the most brutal scenes, fighting-fit "Mandingo" men beat each other to near-death (and sometimes actual death) for the entertainment of their owners. It's shocking hearing the white men (and some women) talk about the blacks as property, young women as "wenches", babies as "suckers", Mandingos like they're pedigree stock - like they're talking about raising horses, not people, which in their minds probably wasn't far from the truth.
If you can get past all the corrosive material, you'll find excellent performances, a blunt and effective script, an extremely strong sense of time and place thanks to superior production design and muted cinematography. James Mason is probably the standout as the horribly misguided and racist plantation owner, but everyone sells their part well; Perry King is probably the most sympathetic white character of the lot, but that's not saying much judging by the film's climax. Brenda Sykes's Ellen is unfortunately sidelined compared with her counterpart slave, Ken Norton's Mede, who is a towering screen presence - they are both naturals and completely nail their difficult roles. Susan George's Blanche might feel over-the-top, particularly as the film goes along, but that's simply a natural progression for such a conniving, manipulative character. She's probably the most despicable of the lot, which is really saying a lot.
You can see where Quentin Tarantino got some of the material for his phenomenal Django Unchained, and the two films share more than just a few thematic elements. However where Django can be terrifically entertaining, at odds with its disturbing material, Mandingo is a drama through-and-through, and can be rough-going for even the most cynical and jaded of viewers. Apparently its sequel Drum is more exploitative than this, but Mandingo will probably be enough for most.
Probably the biggest disappointment was the rather abrupt ending - though the film's built to this explosive moment, there's no resolution to speak of, and we're left with the fates of a few characters hanging in the air. But that doesn't deny what's come before it; a stark, brutal look at the horrors of slavery dressed up as a big screen epic with Gone With The Wind aspirations, two-parts historical drama and one-part exploitation film. It's not exactly recommended for a solid night's entertainment, but it sure is compelling.
Mandingo's high-def presentation is superior, retaining all the grain and imperfections of its original picture without any annoying DNR to make the actors looks like wax figurines. This is how a conversion should be - anything more and Mandingo would have looked and felt less authentic as a result. The lossless audio is satisfactory if not especially memorable. Maurice Jarre's score feels a little out-of-place at times - the use of Muddy Waters' "Born In This Time" fares much better, but beyond that the dialogue and sound effects have terrific clarity.
Unfortunately the disc has only one feature, and a pretty lame one at that - a Press Kit Slideshow which has a few press stills set to "Born In This Time".
It's my understanding that this Blu-Ray release is slightly cut from its original release - there's a distracting cut at the end of the big Mandingo fight that seems like it's been clumsily censored; other than that it appears that nothing else has been modified.
Mandingo is unapologetically un-PC and blunt, depicting the horrors of slavery with an unflinching eye. It's not explicit, but its grim tone, confronting dialogue and scenes of brutality make it an uncomfortable watch. At times too melodramatic for its own good, it's got the aspirations of a lavish historical drama peppered with exploitative material that sometimes feels like it belongs in another movie. It's enthralling, if hardly entertaining, and more than worthwhile for those who can stomach the ugly thematic material. Unfortunately the movie deserves a better Blu-Ray than what we got.
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Originally born unto this world as Terror Australis.net back in March 2002, Digital Retribution is a proudly Australian website devoted to all things horror, cult, and exploitation that strives to promote Australian films and filmmakers while sharing its questionable taste in ultra-violent smut-laden local and international offerings with the rest of the world.