Slavery on the Big Screen

Slavery in pre-Civil War America has always been a controversial subject for filmmakers because it’s frankly easy to mess it all up; make a drama too polite, and it’s a sanitization of humans being inhumane to each other; make it frank and coarse, and depending on the era, the film will either get cut to pieces prior to a general release (the sixties), or the onscreen cruelties will serve as an adjunct to a sleazy, sex drama that embraces bigamy, incest, rape, drunken debauchery, and prostitution (ah, the seventies!).

When Dino De Laurentiis made Mandigo (1975), it was during an era when many film taboos had already been broken down, and the MPAA’s film ratings committee perhaps felt the political and social climate should allow franker dramas on hot-button topics (or maybe they just couldn’t keep up with the raunch from the sexploitation realm, increasingly nastier raunch from Europe, and emerging raunch from the major studios who tried to cash-in on trends a few years too late).

Mandingo is rough going for a studio film because the racist language and behaviour of plantation owners is far uglier than in prior Hollywood productions, and it makes a pretty clear point that slavery was damn lousy.

But being an oversexed drama, the narrative deals more with smutty behaviour than anything else, so whatever message was inferred kind of gets smothered by very bad behaviour, with boxing champ Ken Norton trying to act between all the screaming, whipping, punching, biting, and hot toddies.

The DVD from Legend Films’ is the uncut American release with all the naughty bits, and it’s also 1.85:1 anamorphic, made from a decent print that should please fans who’ve been waiting for a decent home video release for a while now. Check out the review HERE.

Drum (1976) , the sequel which also starred Norton, was handled by UA, and remains unavailable on a Region 1 DVD, but it’s part of a small sub-genre perhaps best described as Southern sleaze, which includes films like The Klansman (which is available on DVD, and a title we’ll cover in the coming weeks).

Perhaps the oddest attempt to mount an epic drama of slavery is Onkel Toms Hutte / Uncle Tom's Cabin, a German-Italian co-production from 1965 that lavishly filmed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic abolitionist novel with an international cast headed by John Kitzmiller (Dr. No, Son of Captain Blood) in his final film, and Herbert Lom as scumbag extraordinaire, Simon Legree.

Still apparently unavailable on home video in North America (besides a fleeting VHS release), we’ve reviewed the 142 min. German version, although it’s a far cry from the original 70mm six-track stereo version that played in Germany. A print does exist, but this flawed but engaging production has yet to receive a DVD release using elements faithful to its original theatrical engagement. An expanded soundtrack of Peter Thomas’ weird orchestral-pop score was released on CD, but the film still languishes in multiple lengths and multiple dub versions.

(Perhaps the most insane example of a big budget epic with multiple international co-producers is The Battle of Neretva, the Oscar-Nominated 1969 Yugoslavian war film, which exists uncut on a Serbo-Croatian DVD, a bit shorter on a German dub version, a bit shorter on a Spanish DVD with English and Spanish dub tracks, and brutally hacked to pieces on the American version.

There’s also two music scores for differing versions, and actors voices are dubbed by others when not in their native tongues. Somehow I don’t think Criterion could make sense of the mess, but we will, at some dead point this year, take the time to write a lengthy piece so as to bring attention to this other neglected epic.)

Coming next: Dario Argento's The Card Player and Trauma from Anchor Bay/Starz, and the Back to the Goblin 2005 album.

And imminent: Doc Martin (Seasons 1 and 2) PLUS an interview with the show’s composer, Colin Towns!


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