MANDINGO (1975) — Shallow People, Deep South — New on Blu

Olive Films released Mandingo to Blu-ray on Oct 27.

When Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was announced, most fans assumed it would be a revival of the Django character that first appeared in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western of that name, and perhaps more appropriately the countless copycat faux-sequels that followed. The “franchise” had received an official sequel, Django 2, in 1987, and most recently Takashi Miike had spun off another unofficial entry with the playfully titled Sukiyaki Western Django, in which Tarantino played a bit part (terribly). As the clearer picture emerged, it became evident that Tarantino’s purported spaghetti western wasn’t much of a western at all (it’s based in the South, to begin with), but rather a revival of slavery-themed blaxploitation films of the 70s. This short-lived subgenre most famously included three brazenly-titled films starring Fred Williamson, and the subject of this review, Mandingo, and its sequel in spirit, Drum.

“Beating” scene in Mandingo, visually referenced in Tarantino’s film.

Mandingo is not an easy film to review, or to recommend (which I ultimately do). Its subject matter is lurid and ugly, and undoubtedly some will find it downright offensive. It’s quite probably the most shocking film from prolific director Richard Fleischer, who is generally not associated with exploitative material.

Put simply, the film deals with the disgusting sexual politics and racial attitudes in the antebellum South. As the property of their masters, slaves were expected to submit to their whims, and that included sexual service. Since blacks were generally not considered human, white masters acquitted themselves of the guilt of their rape and fornication. Mandingo is exemplary of the hypocrisy, racism, and sexism of the era, although its sordid portrayal seems at times to strain credulity and exhibit a preoccupation with schlock over historical accuracy.

The film is set on a plantation owned by Warren Maxwell (James Mason in probably his craziest role) and his son Hammond (Perry King). Hammond makes a regular practice of bedding his female slaves according to the fashion of the era, even considering it bestowing an honor to show such favor. He’s probably the film’s most complex character — in other respects, he is depicted as a “kind master”, considering the time and place. That is to say, within the context of owning slaves, he isn’t overtly cruel and treats his slaves relatively humanely to the point that other white characters like his father criticize him; his worst aspects seem complicit to the era. Obviously this does not absolve him, but the point is that he’s the most empathic of the film’s white characters. However, this will be challenged before the tale reaches its conclusion, the result being the film’s ultimate statement.

Hammond purchases two slaves who will shape the course of his future: a Mandingo named Mede, and a sexual mistress named Ellen, with whom he becomes infatuated. That term “Mandingo”? An ugly word essentially meaning that Mede is a prime physical specimen, a handsome and muscular stud intended to help selectively breed strong children to serve as future slaves. Unfortunately, despite having the title role, Mede is more of a pawn in a drama of white players. One of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes features Mede pitted in a brutal hand-to-hand death match with another slave (this idea of a Mandingo fight, which is most likely a fictional rather than historical curiosity, made its way to Tarantino’s film).

Hammond’s infatuation with Ellen becomes a big problem for everyone when he takes a wife. Blanche (Susan George) is both a victim and villain in this tale — men of the era are expected to fornicate while women held to a standard of purity (actually, this still rings somewhat true). When Hammond realizes his new bride isn’t a virgin, he berates her (despite the fact that he is himself extremely promiscuous) and drives her insane with jealousy by favoring his mistress. She in turn abuses Ellen when Hammond isn’t around, and coerces Mede into her own bed. It’s all really ugly, sordid stuff, and as one can imagine, this volatile mix of infidelity and spite will not end well.

Mandingo isn’t an enjoyable film in the traditional sense; its relentless ugliness and depravity can make it a tough watch. However, it’s incredibly thought-provoking and a unique glimpse of the twin evils of slavery and racism, and even to a lesser extent sexism.

A lot of the film’s most offensive material isn’t even the obvious sex and violence, but the constant assault of casual racism and sexism: Families separated when slaves are sold. Slaves lined up for sale, poked and prodded like animals. Constant slurs, not only the obvious ones but also black women and infants constantly referred to as “wenches” and “suckers”. White folks openly discussing whether blacks have souls, even as their slaves are serving them at the dinner table. And on that note, slaves constantly holding their tongues when even the most absurdly offensive garbage is being spewed. And in one particularly gross conversation that encapsulates the conflict of the film, Warren advises son Hammond on the supposed differences between white women and black, such as not to fully undress in front of a white woman as he does with his wenches; a proper white woman would reel from the shock. In the same vein, white men commonly and openly have sexual relations with slaves, but white women are prohibited from doing the same. It’s the casualness of these racist and sexist attitudes that make the film both nauseating and compelling.

The Package

Mandingo returned to Blu-ray in a new edition from Olive Films on Oct 27.

The film was previously released on Blu-ray by Legend Films in 2011. This older edition (shown left) was pretty ugly, both in terms of the atrocious cover art as well as the rough picture quality — one of the roughest Blu-ray transfers I’ve seen with dull colors and soft clarity.

Olive’s new release (shown center) looks much better, despite appearing to use the same source. That’s just my guess based on certain flaws and flickers in common, but if that’s the case, it’s had some restoration done. Same source or not, it has noticeably richer colors and contrast, and less dust and scratches throughout.

The new edition has far better cover art, remixing imagery from the original movie poster, itself an acerbic riff on Gone With The Wind. With its red motif, the artwork also makes it a much better pairing with the Blu-ray edition of quasi-sequel Drum (shown right) from Scorpion Releasing and Kino Lorber.

The older edition trumps the new release in only one respect: the inclusion of a three-minute “Press Kit Slideshow” — basically a black and white photo gallery. It’s a non-essential featurette and the overall new Olive release is still hands-down the superior edition, despite its absence of features.

Special Features and Extras


A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 Mandingo [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]
 Drum [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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