Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Kyle Onstott, Norman Wexler
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Cast: James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Lillian Hayman, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, Ken Norton
Running Time: 127 min.
By JJ Hatfield
“Mandingo” is one of the most misunderstood movies in U.S. cinema.
The first thing the viewer needs to know is that this is not an xploitation flick, at least not in the common usage. It is not a wild group sex romp between slaves and the people that own them. It sure as hell is not camp! If you genuinely think there is one single thing that is amusing in this film you have a problem. Most viewers literally did not know what they were about to see and nervous hesitant giggles resulted. Once people realize this is a whole different world they are going to they tend to be stunned and dazed.
James Mason plays Warren Maxwell, the Master of the plantation in the deep south. Warren is getting older and wants his son Hammond to settle down and run the plantation. The estate is beginning to look a little shabby however his son, Hammond Mawell (Perry King) has ideas about how to make things better. His father is more concerned about him getting married and having grandsons. At times he expresses doubt that his son Hammond has what it takes to run the plantation and that he is too soft.
Hammond and his father travel to a big slave auction in New Orleans to look for a “Mandingo” a direct offspring of a slave who was known for producing strong, healthy children. Finally Hammond has bought himself a certified “Mandingo”. It’s a big day for him, a real “Mandingo”! Never do any of the characters, including slaves being sold in front of huge crowds act as if there is anything wrong or abnormal about their activities. Typical behavior in the 1840‘s. Most of the slaves were showing off their strengths or prettiness enough for hopefully a decent master that won’t hurt them too much. Hammond intends to start a fight enterprise with the slaves being pitted against one another.
Hammond returns with quite a bit he didn’t have when he left home, including a couple of slaves and a wife. Hammonds new bride Blanche (Susan George) has a few secrets and he expects her to accept his “bed wenches”. Blanche doesn’t have much screen time but she goes all out when the camera is fixed on her. There is sex involved as part of the story with several different pairings and brief nudity but the focus is not on sex scenes but rather the changes that one man goes through and how his feelings and behavior deteriorate as the situation becomes more complex. As the story progresses it narrows the focus to the primary characters creating the feeling of claustrophobia as complications and repercussions begin to mount. There will be no happy ending tacked onto such a serious film, nor should there be.
Many slave owners espoused the belief that treatment of blacks was like treatment of an animal. They truly believed they were not human, but a kind of sub-class of humans with no souls. Most masters forbid any reading including the Bible and prohibited education as well. However I have never been able to believe that self serving excuse! Everyone involved with the slave trade knew exactly what happens. No matter what is status quo everyone knows right and wrong. I think it was simply a way of avoiding the hard facts that they bought a human being to be purposely treated like livestock. Probably made them sleep a little better. What am I saying? I’m sure they slept well every night.
The director Richard Fleischer does not shy away from the reality of slavery nor does he have the cast bemoaning how awful it is to live as a slave and does not become preachy. The film very subtly pulls the viewer into the story. It’s all there and too insistent to ignore. Slavery (and all that goes with it) was a despicable, disgusting, shameful part of history. It was also a very good way to cut expenses and increase revenue but that’s a different topic. Unfortunately we still have criminals trafficking in humans all over the planet, however the specifics have changed a lot. The entire cast did an excellent and believable performance, full of the little things that can mean so much. Perry King was truly exceptional in his role. I hesitate to give out any more specifics as they can become spoilers.
Ken Norton as the slave“Mede” was just okay but then he didn’t have a lot of exposition. There are still people who believe a number of the slaves in the U.S. were treated well. That was not the case. Besides I think people didn’t want to believe they were condoning something bad. Yes it is/was something very bad! Robbing someone of their freedom is up there with killing them. Considering the subject there is no way to avoid the various acts of violence from taking young infants from their mother to raping slave virgins to selling off slaves relatives. There is vicious savagery near the end of the film that surprised even me. The degree of sadistic barbarism suddenly takes a really nasty turn. Enough to turn your stomach as well. Kyle Onstott wrote the novel that was the basis for “Mandingo”.
The movie was filmed in Geismer, Louisiana.
JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 8/10 (A Must See For Everyone!)