Monday, 25 April 2011

Mandingo (1975)

Regarded upon its release as a ne plus ultra of sleazy trash, but rescued and regarded by some critics, especially Jonathan Rosenbaum, as perhaps the most unflinching look at elements of a daily reality of slavery in the American Old South, Mandingo is actually perched somewhere between those two poles. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it represents both a climax and waning point of the tensile realism with which he had inflected his late-‘60s and early-‘70s films, as Mandingo is expostulated in a visually realistic fashion, yet embraces an oversized artificiality associated with camp in its acting and plot. Mandingo takes Kyle Onstott’s pulp novella and turns it into the cinematic equivalent of The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, blurring the middle-ground between exploitative fantasy and subversive fever-dream. The cinematography manages to be alternately alluring, drinking in natural and source lighting with painterly effect, yet also peculiarly unmannered and unvarnished, and this helps Fleischer in communicating visually a deeply ironic perspective. Likewise, Maurice Jarré’s incredible score deconstructs on an aural level what the drama does on narrative level, orchestral romanticism shading into plucked banjos and African drums, in music that commences with ironically playful themes juxtaposed with blackly comic displays of alien behaviour and philosophy, and becomes increasingly, spare, atonal, and sick-sounding. The film’s poster deliberately evoked Gone With the Wind, and Fleischer offers up a key scene that mirrors the old blockbuster in which a baby is miscarried after a fall down a flight of stairs. A black mammy character is dolled up like Hattie McDaniel but whose name, “Lucrezia Borgia”, evokes decadence and decay, in giving birth to the evil twin of Margaret Mitchell’s and David Selznick’s ultra-romanticised antebellum.

The story revolves around the Maxwell clan, represented by an ornery patriarch (James Mason) and his son, Hammond (Perry King). Their plantation, Falconworth, is a seedy, crumbling empire with a columned homestead in desperate need of a good paint job, constantly selling off their human chattel to pay for whatever extravagancies they indulge. The opening, set to an appropriately mournful blues song sung by Muddy Waters, sees the camera entering the grounds of the plantation as if violating a veil between present and past, as a columns of slaves is mustered for selling. The leisurely following scenes introduce the world of Falconworth with its peculiar rituals, as Hammond steps up to his manly duty and deflowers Big Pearl (Reda Wyatt) as is the custom, and keeps “wenches” for his bed. House slave Agamemnon (Richard Ward) is caught teaching reading and religion to the other slaves, and earns being strung upside down and beaten on the backside. A relative, Charles Woodford (Ben Masters), arrives in time to take exception to the softness of the beating, actually being executed by another slave, and when he attempts to demonstrate a more vigorous style, Hammond gives him what-for. The misunderstanding is quickly overcome, and Charles invites Hammond for a stay at his richer, more embellished plantation. The two men are given two concubines for the night, one of whom, Ellen (Brenda Sykes) proves to be a shy virgin, who charms Hammond: they fall in a kind of love. Nonetheless, Maxwell insists Hammond marry Charles’s sister Blanche (Susan George) for the sake of providing a proper heir. But she has her own dirty secret: she lost her virginity to her brother when she was 13, and after their wedding night Hammond is furious with her, returning to the arms of Ellen, whom he buys. Whilst in New Orleans for his honeymoon, Hammond buys a Mandingo (a Sierra Leonese) slave, Ganymede or "Mede" (Ken Norton) for short, a virile and powerful man Hammond hopes will fulfil his father’s long-held dream of finding a perfect stud to breed champion fights, and when Mede gets into a brawl with a brothel owner’s slave, he grabs the attention of a Creole gentleman, De Veve (Louis Turenne), who proposes that Hammond pit Mede against his own champion Jamaican fighter Topaz (Duane Allen).

The most worthy aspect of Mandingo is that it succeeds in making the world it portrays vile and cruel in ways that a more “respectable” version couldn’t manage – Roots looks almost cute by comparison, and Spielberg’s Amistad kept a long way from the seamiest aspects of institutional slavery that Onstott’s story all but drools over. From the way Maxwell uses a slave boy in local quack Redfield’s (Roy Poole) supposed cure for rheumatism, to his prescription for both a proper beating for Agamemnon and then the necessary cure for his wounds (“Salt…lots of salt.”), the big pot of hot water he has Mede sit in to toughen his skin for fighting, terrified virgins being offered up for violation, and Charles’ indulgence of sadistically flogging his female slaves before bedding them, the sheer infuriating mass of inhumanity is pushed to a fittingly extreme point. There’s no breathing room for apologia, and yet it’s a complete vision of society existing by different rules to an extent that it almost normalises those different rules. The story imitates the elder Maxwell’s world-view in that it essentially reduces everything on display to a macro-biological study, where all human transactions are fundamentally about flesh and power; no external forms of morality or social custom are allowed to interfere with its ultimate vision of an exclusive sectarian patriarchy. Maxwell views his slaves, and everyone else, too, as essentially an animal amenable to appropriate habits of fornication, feeding, and breeding. His peculiar plan is to breed a kind of superman who is nonetheless completely obedient to his will, cunningly revealing the subterranean link between the perverted pseudo-Darwinian rhetoric of Nazi ideals and their historical counterparts and springboards.

The adaptation, in spite of screenwriter Norman Wexler and Fleischer’s best efforts, doesn’t transcend the innately sordid source material, as the narrative throws in everything it can think of, from incest to death-battles to infidelity and matrimonial homicide, in keeping the pot boiling. But this narrative tactic helps comprehensively expose the workings of a culture that has removed all blinkers relating to the use of one set of human beings by another, apparent on all levels, from a German immigrant woman checking out the size of Mede’s manhood with an eye to using him as a walking sex toy, to the casual selling off of the slave children, or “suckers” as they’re called, to the final murder of a half-caste baby with astonishing blitheness. The story also incidentally satirises and exposes the assumptions of the type of generational saga, popularised by writers like Edna Ferber, which evolved into the soap opera. The exchanges of prerogative and power, as well as sins and advantages, between fathers to sons and then warped in strange new shapes, familiar from such fare, here metastasize in peculiarly monstrous ways. Hammond seems characterised as a more humane, unwillingly participant in the cruelty of the world, affected enough by beatings that he has to leave, and later sticking up for a slave woman who doesn’t want her sucker sold off. But his greater emotional involvement also leaves him more prey to irrational rage when acts that violate the fundamentals of the inescapable culture he’s been raised in, committed by his wife, give the lie to it. Especially, smartly anarchic is Fleischer’s insistence on inverting the tale’s delight in the trappings of sexual slavery by eroticising its male, rather than female characters: he shoots topless women with dead-eyed clarity, where it’s Mede and Hammond whose undressing and physical beauty is lingered over, particularly when Blanche blackmails the slave into her bed, and strips him down with pornographic relish. The atmosphere of the film is so fetid it’s a wonder sweat doesn’t start streaming down the screen, amongst other bodily fluids.

Mandingo’s central set-piece of violence, Mede’s battle against the Jamaican, is quite remarkably brutal for a mainstream film of any era: “No holds barred!” declares the referee, and that’s what we get, as eyes are gouged and bodies are bitten, Mede finally defeating his opponent by ripping his jugular vein out with his teeth. Blanche is named obviously after Tennessee Williams’ iconic heroine, but this version strips Williams' heroine of aristocratic affectations and leaves only the sexually voracious hysteric beneath, also channelling Scarlett O’Hara’s sense of offended entitlement and unhappy marriage, curdled into vicious sociopathy. Everyone in the film is some sort of murderous bastard, it’s just a question of what they’re murdering for. Mede does it out of respect; initially impressed that Hammond buys him to save him from the German woman’s bed, he’s inspired by affection when Hammond tries to stop the fight against Topaz in worry at the damage being done to Mede, and Mede works up the determination to best the ogreish opponent. But Mede is mocked as a tool by Agamemnon, and contrasted with Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), Agamemnon’s angriest and most successful convert to the underground revolt, who was sold to the Woodfords, and who instigates a rebellion. When Cicero is caught by Mede and Hammond, he gives a fiendishly impolite speech to the assembled white onlookers, reminding them of the hypocrisy of having fled their own oppression in other lands and then imposing it on others, then inveigling them, “After you’ve hung me, kiss my ass!”

The weird mixture of semi-anachronistic Black Power tropes and high camp, totalised sexuality that invests the proceedings of course seems as much about the mid-‘70s as it does about history. Mandingo is concise about methods of social control and construction of repressive paradigms: Maxwell has banned all reading and writing amongst his slaves, as well as religion, anything that might give them a sense of self and power to contradict his imposed concept of them as a dumb fodder. The film's sexuality is exaggerated, of course: the old South idealised its chivalrous surfaces and relied on a complex interplay of double-standards and euphemisms in a manner that's missed here, to a degree that actually hurts Mandingo's satirical impact. One seriously doubts that, as undoubtedly practiced as it often was, that sex-slavery, depicted here as accepted and pervasive as in any distant historical fantasy of ancient Rome or Persia, was ever so openly acknowledged and institutionalised. That this world is being likened, indeed, to such more remote and imperial settings is confirmed in the classical names the slaves are given. The portrait of the Maxwells as men less able to comprehend white females than blacks is mordant. Yet the failure of the film to establish the gulf between what is done and what is “not done” saps the force of the scurrilous developments by which the society’s rules are violated and wrath incurred, as evinced in a much more euphemistic, yet coherent, tale like Raintree County (1958), where the heroine’s biracial nature inspires schismatic insanity and is desperately suppressed. The camp aspect is stoked mostly by George’s suitably unhinged performance, building to a head when Blanche whips Ellen with ripe fury for usurping her place in Hammond’s bed. This drives Ellen to run away, only to take a plunge down the stairs, killing Hammond’s baby which she is carrying.

It’s worth noting that whilst the story is critical of the culture it describes, it’s also highly indulgent of it, offering the spectacle of awesome masculine strength in Mede and the erotic never-never land to mitigate the bitter flavour of the amoral setting. Indeed, as in Italian muscleman movies and Conan the Barbarian, it’s the amoral, historical setting that gives the power fantasy it heft: you can see a similar thing working even in a film like Gladiator (2000), in which, in an inevitably losing game, nonetheless the strong man subverts the ruling paradigm by dint purely of his physical potency. The film’s fascinating final act nonetheless veers in some unexpected directions, as Blanche violates the ultimate taboo in her society by screwing Mede and having his child. The efforts of the Woodfords to cover up the sin by killing the baby fail when Hammond insists on seeing the dead child. Stirred to a murderous intent all the more chilling because of his poise, he first, under the guise of caring for Blanche in her post-birth exhaustion, feeds her a poisoned glass of wine. He then sets out to kill Mede in the most hideous fashion, and the film reaches an apogee of appropriate madness as Hammond, after shooting Mede full of holes, presses him into the boiling water with a pitchfork. The literal act of rebellion comes not from Mede, but from Agamemnon, but Mede's final words nonetheless betray his shock and rage at discovering that Hammond is just another whitey, and a final rejection of mere obedience. The end impression of a world that’s locked into a spiral that can only end in self-annihilation is nihilistic, yet actually cathartic in a manner like Visconti’s The Damned (1969), in portraying such a nadir everything else seems an improvement.


Samuel Wilson said...

The weird thing about Mandingo is that it seems to want to portray the often well-meaning Ham as as much a victim of the slave system and its obsession with breeding as Mede or any of the other slaves. The theme song, "I was born in this time, and I'll never be free" could just as easily apply to Ham as to the slaves, as the system dehumanizes white and black alike -- or so the movie claims. Interestingly, Ham retains a core of minimal decency despite Warren Oates's more crass portrayal of the character in the sequel, Drum, which barely acknowledges the events of the first film. For an indictment of slavery you can hardly top the epic atrocity of Giacopetti & Prosperi's Goodbye Uncle Tom which was at one time envisioned as an adaptation of Onstott's Mandingo!

Roderick Heath said...

Well said, Samuel, and it's interesting that it finishes with Ham finally completely giving in to the dehumanisation when he was deeply, personally offended, a twist that felt both unexpected yet valid: Mede dies horribly, but at least he remains a man. I wonder if I'll ever get around to catching Drum.

The Rush Blog said...

Well said, Samuel, and it's interesting that it finishes with Ham finally completely giving in to the dehumanisation when he was deeply, personally offended, a twist that felt both unexpected yet valid: Mede dies horribly, but at least he remains a man. I wonder if I'll ever get around to catching Drum.

Don't bother with "DRUM". I had originally set out to watch "MANDINGO", expecting it to be nothing but a costumed, titillating trash. In the end, I was both impressed and disturbed by it. Then I decided to watch "DRUM", which struck me as nothing more than a cheap, exploitation of the success of "MANDINGO".