Like many a schlock fan my age, Your Humble Reviewer was first intro­duced to Mandingo via a throw­away gag in Kentucky Fried Movie (the faux-trail­er for Catholic High School Girls In Trouble, which the nar­ra­tor claims is “More offen­sive than Mandingo!”).  A quick lookup in Leonard Maltin’s T.V. Movies guide revealed that it had a “BOMB” rat­ing and had been given a scathing write­up that end­ed with the dra­mat­ic excla­ma­tion “Stinko!”

Thus, it was easy to believe that Mandingo was just anoth­er well-fund­ed Hollywood pot­boil­er from the 1970’s, albeit one with racism and inter­ra­cial sex thrown in for exotic spice.  That is the rep­u­ta­tion it has always had and is the rep­u­ta­tion it con­tin­ues to have in many quar­ters.  And it’s a shame because this film deserves bet­ter.  Mandingo might have its roots in lurid mass-mar­ket pulp fic­tion but it is a well-made, seri­ous film with a deeply felt mes­sage about soci­etal hypocrisy.

Mandingo draws its plot from Kyle Onstott’s infa­mous nov­el about life at Falconhurst, a south­ern slave-breed­ing plan­ta­tion.  Warren Maxwell (James Mason) is its aging own­er, who is try­ing to ensure his busi­ness and fam­i­ly will con­tin­ue on.  His son, Hammond (Perry King), does his best to help his father by find­ing him a prize slave from the Mandingo tribe named Mede (box­er Ken Norton) to use as a stud and also by enter­ing into an arranged mar­riage with his cous­in, Blanche (Susan George).  However, per­son­al pas­sions com­pli­cate things when Hammond becomes emo­tion­al­ly attached to his “bed wench” slave Ellen (Brenda Sykes) and a jeal­ous Blanche turns her eyes to Mede as she con­tem­plates her own frus­trat­ed desires.

It’s a per­fect setup for lurid pulp thrills and Mandingo nev­er shies away from the graph­ic nature of its con­tent: there is inter­ra­cial sex, full-frontal nudi­ty from both men and wom­en, the depic­tion of vicious­ly racist atti­tudes and a ton of bloody vio­lence that includes whip­pings, hang­ings, shoot­ings and an intense­ly bru­tal bare-knuck­le fight.  That said, Mandingo the film nev­er seems to rev­el in its con­tent the way Mandingo the nov­el does: the pile­up of lurid con­tent is more unnerv­ing than it is excit­ing.

The film achieves this off-kil­ter feel because direc­tor Richard Fleischer presents the­se ele­ments in a straight-for­ward, unadorned style that forces the view­er to con­tem­plate their reac­tions to what they are wit­ness­ing with­out direct­ly telling them how to feel.  Racism is pre­sent­ed in a mat­ter-of-fact way and, once the shock wears off, the casu­al pre­sen­ta­tion allows the view­er to see how it cor­rodes its prac­ti­tion­ers from with­in while sti­fling the lives of its vic­tims. This approach allows Mandingo to com­mu­ni­cate the ugli­ness of racism with­out reduc­ing the film to a lec­ture.

Mandingo also gives visu­al cues about its the­mat­ic con­tent in a very styl­ized way.  With the help of Richard Kline’s moody, art­ful cin­e­matog­ra­phy, Fleischer sub­tly rein­forces the ugli­ness of the time by allow­ing the audi­ence to see the ugli­ness beneath the slave own­ers’ attempts at appear­ing civ­i­lized.  The Hammonds’ world looks aging and decayed, an effec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of their lifestyle’s cor­rupt­ing effects.

Racism isn’t the film’s only the­me: screen­writer Norman Wexler spe­cial­ized in writ­ing films about char­ac­ters strug­gling with the sti­fling atti­tudes of the world they lived in — films like Joe, Serpico and Saturday Night Fever — and he works that the­me in here to oft-dev­as­tat­ing effect. Hammond’s poten­tial for kind­ness is snuffed out by his father’s dom­i­na­tion of his life, Blanche’s desire to love is twist­ed into resent­ful cru­el­ty because of Hammond’s sex­ist treat­ment and the slave char­ac­ters either become enraged or numb them­selves over their sta­tus as non-humans.

Finally, and most impor­tant­ly, the per­for­mances dri­ve the film’s com­plex themes home.  King gives Hammond the emo­tion­al depth need­ed to achieve the mix­ture of sym­pa­thy and revul­sion he ulti­mate­ly inspires.  George’s work is often writ­ten off as histri­on­ic but it suits her char­ac­ter per­fect­ly, exter­nal­iz­ing the inten­si­ty of her bot­tled-up pas­sion and anger.  As expect­ed, Mason is an old pro, mak­ing Warren an odd­ly like­able sym­bol of well-mean­ing cor­rup­tion.  Equally note­wor­thy are Brenda Sykes, who deliv­ers a mov­ing mono­logue about how she wants her unborn child to be free, and Ji-Tu Cumbuka’s fiery turn as a rebel­lious slave who pays for his free spir­it.   Even the oft-crit­i­cized Norton does well, com­mu­ni­cat­ing his character’s fear­ful iner­tia in a raw but affect­ing way.

In short, Mandingo is every bit as shock­ing as its rep­u­ta­tion sug­gests — but it’s also far more intel­li­gent and art­ful than you’d expect.  It might speak the lan­guage of schlock but it uses it a point­ed and dev­as­tat­ing effect.