If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!
The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family name, so he sends son Hammond to court his cousin Blanche. Along the way, Hammond and cousin Charles are treated to having sex with a couple of slaves. While the cruel Charles beats his with a belt, Hammond develops feelings for his, Ellie, and purchases her. He also buys a Mandingo slave called Mede, “a fightin’ n*gger” who he plans to use to wager on in to-the-death battles and breed with the other slaves.
On his wedding night, Ham discovers Blanche is no virgin – seems she’s already been had by her brother Charles (“It was just once!”). Disgusted, Ham turns to his “bed wench” Ellie for comfort, and she soon becomes pregnant. While Ham’s off pitting Mede in a brutal contest against a slave named Topaz (a no-holds-barred, hardcore battle straight outta Paul Heyman’s late, lamented Extreme Championship Wrestling!), a drunken Blanche whips Ellie with a riding crop, forcing the slave to tumble down the staircase and lose her baby.
Ham, who no longer touches Blanche, heads to Natchez to sell some slaves, and while the cat’s away, Blanche will play… with Mede, whom she forces to have sex with her by threatening to tell Ham he raped her (a lie, of course). Warren, tired of waiting for a grandbaby, locks Ham and Blanche in the bedroom together until they do the wild thing and produce a kid! Blanche soon announces she’s with child, and a baby is born at last… a black baby! Mede’s! The not-so-kindly family doctor allows the child to bleed out and die, Ham sees the dead black baby in it’s crib, poisons Blanche, and goes after Mede with a gun! Forcing Mede to fill a cauldron with boiling hot water, he tells his Mandingo, “GET IN!”. Of course Mede refuses, and Ham shoots Mede into the pot and runs him through with a pitchfork! Head slave Agamemnon grabs the gun and aims at Ham, Warren commands him to stop, so Agamemnon shoots Warren instead and runs off, and… and our film abruptly ends right there!
The distinguished actor James Mason plays family patriarch Warren Maxwell waaay over-the-top, complete with a terrible Southern accent. Mason seems to know he’s trapped in a bad film, and compensates by hamming it up mercilessly as the old slave owner. Whether delivering lines like (to his daughter-in-law) “You actin’ zany! Zany! You actin’ like a Georgia bitch!”, or trying to cure his “rheumatis” by pressing his bare feet on a little black child’s belly, Mason earns a spot in the Bad Acting Hall of Fame.
If Mason is over-the-top, Susan George as Blanche takes a full leap into the abyss as Blanche. Her character is a drunken, horny harridan, vicious as the devil, and George is a real hoot! Perry King tries to play it straight as Hammond, but eventually gets caught up in the overblown theatrics. Brenda Sykes is good as Ellie, and the great Richard Ward shines in the role of the smarter-than-they-think Agamemnon (“Why, a lazy, no account, stupid, God-forsaken n*gger like me cain’t have a soul, Massa”). Also in the cast are Paul Benedict (Bentley on THE JEFFERSONS), Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Lillian Hayman (the soap ONE LIFE TO LIVE), former Mr. Universe/pro wrestler Earl Maynard, Debbie Morgan (ALL MY CHILDREN), and Roy Poole.
Then we’ve got heavyweight boxer Ken Norton in the pivotal part of Mede. The muscular 6’3″, 200+ pounder, who handed Muhammad Ali his second professional loss in 1973 and held the WBC title in ’78, makes an imposing presence. Norton wanted to be an actor, but lacked the talent. He did star in the sequel DRUM, and had some other film and TV credits, but as a thespian, he was a good boxer. Norton tries, I’ll give him that, and he’s great in the fight scenes, but let’s just say dialog wasn’t his strong point!
Director Richard Fleischer throws any sense of subtilty out the plantation window in this lurid little Exploitation number. The movie’s based on an equally lurid 1957 book by Kyle Onstott, which must have shocked the socks off of readers back then. Dino De Laurentiis produced, a sure sign of big-budget schlock (though to be fair, he did make his share of good films). And Executive Producer Ralph Serpe claimed MANDINGO would “bring about a better understanding between the races”. Who you kiddin’ bud? There’s no deep sociological message to MANDINGO – it’s strictly Exploitation fare, and should be treated as such. If you’re in the mood for some trashy fun in a “so-bad-it’s- good” kinda way, then MANDINGO is right up your alley. Don’t expect any more than that!