It’s difficult to believe that MANDINGO is based on one of the most successful American pulp novels of the late 20th century. Kyle Onstott’s salacious 1957 novel spawned more than a dozen sequels, even more rip-offs, a shortlived Broadway play (co-starring Dennis Hopper!), and this Paramount feature that produced a sequel of its own. MANDINGO—the film—was almost unanimously reviled by the critical establishment. Even though it made a lot of money for the studio upon its 1975 release, Paramount was embarrassed by it, farming out the sequel, 1976’s DRUM, to United Artists and licensing the DVD rights to Legend Films, which put out a bare-bones disc in 2008.
I guess everyone involved thought they were making a thought-provoking expose of the American South of the late 19th century, but what MANDINGO really is is an exploitation movie, an often unintentionally hilarious one. James Mason is Warren Maxwell, the patriarch of an 1840s Louisiana plantation called Falconhurst. His lame son Hammond (Perry King) marries his niece Blanche (Susan George), though both can only find sexual pleasure elsewhere—Ham with black “bed wench” Ellen (Brenda Sykes) and Blanche with “fighting buck” Mede (boxer Ken Norton in his film debut). The sprawling nature of Onstott’s nearly-700-page novel was trimmed down by scripter Howard Wexler (SERPICO), but not the soap operatics or the rampant violence and sex. Few major Hollywood films of the era showcase as much male and female nudity as MANDINGO.
Picking out the film’s worst performance is difficult. It’s probably George’s humiliating histrionics, since the wooden Norton can hardly be blamed, and Mason is here purely for the paycheck. King is actually not bad with Wexler’s laughable dialogue, Sykes has some sensitive moments, Ji-Tu Cumbuka (A MAN CALLED SLOANE) is impressive as a defiant slave, but Susan George is pitiful.
Quentin Tarantino once said that MANDINGO and SHOWGIRLS were the only two “full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movies” made by major studios, though MANDINGO is too long and leisurely paced to be a proper grindhouse flick. It is terrible enough to be one though, chock full of terrible accents, laughable dialogue, outrageous plotting, and a tremendously sleazy finale that defines the word “overkill.” Fleischer’s direction is technically proficient, so MANDINGO looks like a real movie, which is what makes it such a jawdropper.
Set in 1860 Louisiana, DRUM is just as laughable as MANDINGO, but even more tasteless, if such a thing is possible. It’s hard to believe anyone could take these sordid soap opera antics seriously, but there’s little indication, outside of Warren Oates’ eccentric and possibly alcohol-fueled performance, that the cast, director Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA), or writer Norman Wexler are playing for camp.
Twenty years after he is born illegitimately to white prostitute Marianna (Isela Vega), who raised him with her black lesbian lover (Paula Kelly), Drum (Norton, back from MANDINGO, but as a different character) grows up to be a soft-spoken slave with a rock-hard pair of fists, who is called upon to bare-knuckle-box other slaves for his owner’s entertainment. After pummeling his friend Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) to a bloody pulp, the two are sold to a loudmouthed plantation owner named Hammond Maxwell (top-billed Oates playing Perry King’s role from MANDINGO) and taken to his elaborate plantation to work.
Maxwell is obnoxious and ignorant, but not overly cruel to his slaves—at least not in comparison to other slave owners, such as a demented homosexual Frenchman named Bernard (John Colicos) who keeps trying to kill Drum after the slave rejected his sexual advances. Although perhaps “overly cruel” has to be judged in context, since Maxwell does hang two of his slaves upside-down and naked and whip them as punishment for fighting, and threatens to castrate one for allegedly having sex with his spoiled teenage daughter (‘70s drive-in queen Rainbeaux Smith).
Whereas MANDINGO attempted to at least look like a respectable Hollywood production for propriety’s sake, DRUM has no such ambitions. Trash to its very core and filled to the brim with nudity, violence, wild dialogue, racial slurs, and terrible acting, DRUM is a terrific showcase for humiliated talented actors. Whether it’s Oates confirming to his “bed wench” (Pam Grier), “You knows I likes big titties,” or Kotto enduring the sexual teasing of potty-mouthed young Rainbeaux or Colicos rubbing Drum’s burly shoulders, lisping how much the young “buck” will “love it,” plenty of shame is available to go around, and I find this type of all-star ineptness enormously entertaining.
Norton is clearly not an actor, cast only because of his body and unfairly asked to carry a film, and Colicos’ lipsmacking, sadistic homosexual is the most offensive gay stereotype you can imagine. Grier (billed as “Pamela” Grier) was a pretty big star in AIP movies by this time and probably believed she was making a welcome leap into mainstream filmmaking, but DRUM gives her little screen time and nothing to do except bare her breasts.
John Vernon was one of many performers who were cut out of the film after producer Dino de Laurentiis fired original director Burt Kennedy and replaced him with exploitation filmmaker Carver, who had made THE ARENA in Italy with Grier. Kennedy filmed a lot of footage in Puerto Rico and New Orleans, but most of it was either dropped or reshot by Carver. Narration attempts to clear up some clunky exposition in the opening reel. It doesn't help. Probably nothing could.