ken norton

Behind every eccen­tric, cultish phe­nom­e­non lurks a fas­ci­nat­ing story of how that prof­itable odd­ity came to be.  The stranger the phe­nom­e­non, the bet­ter the story.  Thus, it seems rea­son­able to believe that there is an inter­est­ing story behind the Mandingo phe­nom­e­non, which spawned three decades’ worth of books, two fea­ture films and a legion of print and cel­lu­loid imi­ta­tions.  Rest assured, there is a great story to be told about this sub­ject — and it can be found between the cov­ers of Paul Talbot’s com­pact yet infor­ma­tive tome, Mondo Mandingo.

For those not in the know, Mandingo was an epic pot­boiler writ­ten by one Kyle Onstott, a 70 year-old dog-breeding expert who had never writ­ten fic­tion before.  It told the story of life at a slave-breeding plan­ta­tion in the Old South, lard­ing it with jaw-dropping lev­els of sex and sadism and lin­ger­ing on each shock with lov­ing detail.  It became a smash-hit shocker that spawned a string of sequels writ­ten by other authors and count­less imi­ta­tors.  Movies also begin to cop from the Mandingo play­book, lead­ing to a big-budget Hollywood adap­ta­tion that earned the same mix of shock and suc­cess its par­ent novel received.  A sequel fol­lowed, along with more imitators…

In short, the Mandingo suc­cess story is a great exam­ple of a schlock phe­nom­e­non.  Talbot gives it its due via a con­cise yet detailed explo­ration of the arti­facts that fueled the phe­nom­e­non.  The early sec­tions of Mondo Mandingo explore the his­tory of the books, start­ing with Onstott’s back­ground and the real-life sto­ries that inspired his book (despite its trashi­ness, the book was care­fully researched).  There are syn­opses for each book, as well as bio­graph­i­cal sketches of sequel authors Lance Horner and Harry Whittington.  Additional enter­tain­ment is pro­vided by descrip­tions of the hyper-lurid lengths that Mandingo imi­ta­tors would go to in their zeal to out-shock their inspiration.

However, the chap­ters devoted to the Mandingo film and its sequel, Drum, are where the book really shines.  Talbot care­fully explores the his­tory both films, from con­cep­tion to crit­i­cal response.  Like the rest of Mondo Mandingo, these chap­ters were care­fully researched — right down to read­ing the films’ screen­plays — and are bol­stered with fresh inter­views done by the author, includ­ing chats with Mandingo direc­tor Richard Fleischer and Drum direc­tor Steve Carver.  Both men are forth­right about their expe­ri­ences and, as a result, these chap­ters include great behind the scenes tales, par­tic­u­larly about the trou­bled pro­duc­tion of Drum.  The film chap­ters also include excerpts from the reviews for each film, which are often hilar­i­ous in their self-righteous rage.

The final chap­ter is devoted to a series of short essays about the var­i­ous cin­e­matic knock­offs of Mandingo.  It’s a short but event­ful chap­ter that is packed with great infor­ma­tions.  Highlights include an explo­ration of the many re-edits per­formed on the German film ver­sion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which include a hysterical-sounding re-edit with 40 min­utes of freshly-shot slaves­ploita­tion sleaze by drive-in leg­end Al Adamson, and the story of how the American release of the Jacopetti/Prosperi mock-shockumentary Addio Zio Tom almost destroyed Cannon Films dur­ing their pre-Golan/Globus era.  The book’s end­pages offer a wealth of pub­lish­ing and pro­duc­tion infor­ma­tion on the books and films it exam­ines, includ­ing a chrono­log­i­cal plot order for the books of the Falconhurst series.

It all adds up to a brisk read that weaves in a wealth of detail with­out ever allow­ing its pace to flag.  Talbot has done a fine job all-around and his skill­ful work makes Mondo Mandingo a must for exploita­tion film schol­ars everywhere.