Mandingo is one of those films like Birth Of A Nation, or Triumph Of The Will, in which one is forced contemplate objectionable content all the while reluctantly allowing mitigating qualities. That's not to say that Fleischer's exploitative film, hardly an artistic landmark, is at anything like the same level as those masterpieces, although he had an interesting and varied career. He was responsible for low budget noirs (Armoured Car Robbery, 1950), Disney classics (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, 1954), intelligent biblical drama (Barabbas, 1962), war epics (Tora! Tora! Tora!, 1970) as well as science fiction (Soylent Green, 1973) each made with equal professionalism. These are films that are still a pleasure to re-encounter, and continue to hold up as solid entertainment. Mandingo stands out as his most controversial work, and in these politically correct times is seen infrequently, even more so the sequel Drum, 1976 - not by Fleischer.
For those used to the cosy image presented of the old American South, Mandingo will come as a slap in the face. Falconhurst, where most of the action takes place, is far removed from the comforting, romantic world of say, Gone With The Wind (1939). So inflammatory is the subject matter of this film that Fleischer apparently refused several times when Dino de Laurentiis asked him to direct. It is reported that Fleischer finally decided to accept the job only on the basis of his film 'telling the truth'.
With, or without, the salve of supposed historical accuracy, Mandingo was a huge hit when it came out, although few critics liked it and tellingly it was never reissued. It still retains a strong camp reputation, dividing audiences between those who value its revisionism and those who smell exploitation. None of the director's initial hesitation is apparent on the screen, as his work plunges into the excesses of slavery with gusto. On one level Mandingo is a racist, sexist, violent melodrama. But it is also one of the first films supposedly to show the slave-south as it was: as a casually cruel society harbouring an odious institution, one that debased human relationships at every level. (Interestingly, there's an echo of such a slave-based society in Soylent Green, where women are commonly sold as part of a rich apartment's contents and termed 'furniture'.)
Starring as the grouchy patriarch Warren Maxwell, James Mason appears uncomfortable both in and out of character. Playing Maxwell as afflicted with a rheumatic foot, the actor also suffers professionally, being handicapped with a dubious southern accent. More familiar in suave, dapper and civilised roles, Mason here plays a shabby bigot who meets an abrupt end. Although he makes the best of it there is a distinct feeling that he is playing beneath himself, a star at the dog end of an illustrious career, as the opening 'haemorrhoid scene' only serves to illustrate.
Less can be said for Susan George, called upon to play a frustrated and vengeful wife. For those with a nose for such things, her eventual dalliance with Mede (pronounced 'meat') is an all too-predictable event, their climactic miscegenation amongst the most exploitative elements in the film. George pouts and plots appropriately, but her sensuality is overwhelmed by the brutality that surrounds her and her nudity is mild.
Perry King, who plays Mason's son Hammond, had a brief career in films before he disappeared into anonymity and television in the 1970s. Interestingly, in the same year he also appeared in another cult flick, The Wild Party. In the present film as the conscience-stricken offspring, he manages competently enough, without making much of an impact. Impaired by a limp, his physical handicap suggests something of his inner doubts - although in terms of sexual morality, at least, he is as hypocritical as everyone else.
As Mede, the 'mandingo' in question, ex-boxing champion Norton is at the centre of the film, brooding darkly at the injustices around him. Is he secretly hatching plots against his white masters we wonder? For a long time his motives and potential are in doubt. At first, the humiliation he experiences at the slave market (the old lady scrabbling in his loin cloth a defining moment) and later his involvement with the secretly literate blacks suggests that Mede is a dynamic character, even a black Spartacus. He takes obvious pride in the fighting skills, which allow him a limited sense of independence, although his self-contained rage and violence is continually understated. Even when upbraided by Cicero for "killin' another black man" he seems more sheepish towards his accusers than angry at the system. His continually postponed revolt is what gives the film much of its tension. It is unfortunate then that Mede's ultimate "No, Masser." at the end, although expected, is less a long-awaited declaration of rebellion than a resigned withdrawal from service into self-defence. The older Cicero, a supporting character, is noticeably angrier and more radical. One need only recall a film like Schepsi's The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith, where the revolt of the repressed is made explicit, to see how restrained the lead in Mandingo is. Mede's final violent acts, done almost in sorrow at his master's failings, are ultimately much less cathartic than natural justice and the audience demands.
In short, Mandingo posits a society worthy of overthrow and then denies the audience the satisfaction of seeing it effectively opposed. While this allows scope for exploitative images of lust, humiliation and punishment, the final result is curiously inconclusive and gives the film a disturbing nature. One is left with a rush of dead and dying bodies, resolving nothing outside of plot strands. The big boiling cauldron into which Mede topples, pierced with a pitchfork epitomises his constant agony. It also stands as representative of the hell the film has represented so excruciatingly for its participants, while offering no immediate prospect of salvation. Mandingo's audience are left contemplating the need for real justice, or face having blithely enjoyed the degradation on its own account. No wonder this uncomfortable film is rarely seen today.