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Mandingo (1975, James Mason, Susan George)

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Gloriously over-the-top, bed-hopping family saga set in the steaming babylon of America’s slave trade. Starring James Mason, Susan George and Perry King.

It’s been tagged as sexploitation, blaxploitation and Gone With The Wind on acid. But whatever you call it, this hugely entertaining potboiler deserves credit as one of the first films to look at America’s slave trade without rose-tinted glasses.

Adapted from Kyle Onstott’s bestseller (first published in 1957), it exposes the racial and sexual iniquity of early American society by detailing the collapse of a Louisiana slave-breeding family during the 1840s.

The trouble starts when the tyrannical patriarch of Falconhurst, Warren Maxwell (Mason), persuades his only son Hammond (King) to marry cousin Blanche (George) in the hope that they’ll give him a grandson. He should be so lucky. When Hammond discovers that his new bride isn’t a virgin, he turns to black ‘bed wench’, Ellen (Brenda Sykes). But Ellen falls pregnant with Hammond’s child, prompting Blanche to take a double revenge. First she induces Ellen’s miscarriage. Then she beds Hammond’s prize-fighting slave, Mede (future WBC boxing champ Ken Norton).

Of course, she becomes pregnant too, thereby incurring the wrath of her husband and catalysing a bloodbath.

Playing like a delirious, X-rated soap opera, Mandingo is about as subtle as a lynch mob. But just because it’s enormous fun doesn’t make its points any less valid. And as Marjorie Bilbow of ‘Screen International’ wrote, “whether we giggle or whether we wince, a shouted message, however vulgarly phrased, reaches a hell of a lot more people than a discreetly worded sermon”.

TRIVIA
Andy Warhol called Mandingo his favourite bad movie of 1975.

TROUBLE WITH THE CENSORS
Sadistic cruelty was of course a way of life on slave plantations in the Old South but is a most troubling theme for the censor who must worry whether audiences would be harmed or excited by such images. Richard Fleischer was a seasoned director who made hard-boiled thrillers at RKO for many years before moving onto darker tougher fables such as 10 Rillington Place, a disturbing portrait of a serial killer, and this sexually charged and explicit depiction of the horrors of slavery.

Maybe Mandingo is an effective indictment of slavery but its relentless catalogue of torture, cruelty and sadism mixed with rape and sexual exploitation turns many stomachs. The BBC owned the rights for years but never transmitted it.

Passed by the BBFC in 1975 for cinema with four cuts (an X certificate), then passed in 1987 for video with only two (an 18 certificate). The outstanding problem scenes are those in which a suspended and therefore helpless black slave is brutally beaten on his naked and bleeding buttocks  at 26 mins – and then the brutal whipping of a black slave girl at 32 mins. The cuts delete 47 seconds in total.

cast
James Mason as Warren Maxwell
Susan George as Blanche Woodford Maxwell
Ken Norton as Mede (Galamede)
Perry King as Hammond Maxwell
Richard Ward as Agamemnon
Brenda Sykes as Ellen
Lillian Hayman as Lucrezia Borgia
Roy Poole as Doc Redfield
Ji-Tu Cumbuka as Cicero
Paul Benedict as Brownlee
Ben Masters as Charles Woodford
Ray Spruell as Wallace
Louis Turenne as De Veve
Duane Allen as Topaz
Earl Maynard as Babouin
Beatrice Winde as Lucy
Debbi Morgan as Dite
Irene Tedrow as Mrs. Redfield
Reda Wyatt as Big Pearl
Simone McQueen as Madam Caroline
Evelyn Hendrickson as Beatrix
Stanley J. Reyes as Major Woodford
John Barber as Le Toscan
Durwyn Robinson as Meg
Kerwin Robinson as Alph
Deborah Ann Young as Tense
Debra Blackwell as Blonde Girl
Sylvia Kuumba Williams as Black Mother
Stocker Fontelieu as Wilson
Edwin Edwards as Gambler
Warren Kenner as
Laura Misch Owens as Prostitute
Sylvester Stallone as Villager (uncredited)
Rosemary Tichenor as Slave-Buying Woman

crew
Director: Richard Fleischer
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Writer: Norman Wexler
Photographer: Richard H Kline
Composer: Maurice Jarre

USA / 127 minutes / 1975