I just saw this film on the big screen (the only surviving 35mm print in the world). I had never seen it on video, so seeing it in a crowded theater was my first experience with the film. As a bonus, the director, Richard Fleischer, the star, Perry King, and Brenda Sykes, who plays King's slave "wench" in the film, spoke before the screening.
The audience alternated between gasping and roaring with immediately regretted laughter throughout the screening. Nobody laughed for a moment at Susan George's supposedly over-the-top performance. And at the climax -- there were astounded gasps all over the theater. Afterwards, once the applause had died down, the audience filed out, stunned. Everyone looked shell-shocked. I wandered around for a while listening to people murmuring: "I told you guys..." "Best I've seen..." "Totally uncompromising..." "That's how it was..." "Didn't pull any punches..." "Amazing..." "Where did you hear about it?..."
We had one big advantage over most people who see the film. Most viewers go rent the tape because they read about it in, say, Edward Margulies' and Stephen Rebello's BAD MOVIES WE LOVE (which is how I knew about it). MANDINGO has a huge reputation as a camp classic, so people seek out the video where it can be found. Then they take it home and watch it alone, or with a friend or two, pre-primed to laugh.
The audience I was sitting with at the American Cinematheque theater had, first of all, read the sober, favorable description in the Cinematheque schedule. Then we'd listened to Fleischer himself talk about how he had refused ten times when Dino de Laurentiis had asked him to film the novel, only to finally accept when he realized how he could do it: "By being totally honest and straight with it." And he was, if you view it without a laugh ready. King and Sykes also spoke calmly and soberly about how hard the shoot was, and how the cast considered it an important film but still had trouble handling the emotions it stirred up.
Fleischer is hardly a symbolic director, although there's a lot of "found" symbolism in 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, for example. But MANDINGO was an obvious statement of the inhumanity of slave-OWNing, and it constantly used the setting and characters to emphasize the moral and physical disintegration of the Deep South under the self-imposed yoke of the slave culture. That sounds pretentious, but in MANDINGO it's totally straightforward. Moral disintegration leads to moral disintegration. The crime is its own punishment. MANDINGO is an antimatter GONE WITH THE WIND.
MANDINGO, as Fleischer pointed out, was a huge hit on its initial release. It was also viciously attacked by all but two critics in the United States. (Fleischer admitted that he saved all his reviews, and pointed out mildly that those two reviewers -- who were the only critics to go into the film in depth -- pronounced the film a masterpiece. "I don't know if it's that," he said, "but those two were certainly a breath of fresh air.")
Because of all the controversy, the film was never rereleased. Nobody at the screening could think of a single time it had been screened between 1975 and August 28, 1999. Perhaps it was screened once or twice, but my point is that essentially no one since 1975 has seen this film with an audience, to feel the reactions of those around the room, to see it on the big screen.
I think it's really unfortunate that MANDINGO has gotten locked into this "camp" label. The film contains so much depravity that I can certainly see why it was selected as a "camp classic". But that wasn't the intent at all. I've heard this film compared to SHOWGIRLS. But SHOWGIRLS was directed by the bizarre Paul Verhoeven (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, BASIC INSTINCT). Of course he was going for camp; he always does camp. But Richard Fleischer? He did 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, MR. MAJESTYK, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (a real gem), THE BOSTON STRANGLER, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, SOYLENT GREEN. He is one of the most mild-mannered directors alive. He's done bad stuff -- CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA come to mind -- but in the seventies he was doing his best work. And that would have to include MANDINGO -- to my complete amazement.
I can't believe how different my experience with this film was from its usual "cult" interpretation. Now I wonder if Otto Preminger's HURRY SUNDOWN is as bad as the Medveds said it was in 50 WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME. I'll have to try to see it for myself.
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