If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!
The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family…
Up until last night, I was under the impression that James Mason never gave a single bad performance over the course of his long career. Oh sure, I knew that Mason had probably appeared in his share of bad films. But I figured he was one of those actors who was always better than his material. Just watch Lolita, The Verdict, Julius Caesar, Odd Man Out, Bigger Than Life, or Murder By Decree and you’ll see that James Mason was a great actor.
But then, last night, I finally got around to watching the 1975 film, Mandingo.
I’ve actually owned Mandingo on DVD for a few years. I bought it on a whim, the result of having seen it listed as one of the worst films of all time in several different reference guides. But I have to admit that I did not have any great desire to actually sit through the film. Instead, it was one of those films that you buy just so your very ownership of it can be a conversation piece.
(“Oh my God, Lisa, what’s this?” “Oh, that little old thing? That’s my copy of Mandingo…”)
However, when I decided to do Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, I realized that this would be the perfect time to actually watch and review Mandingo.
Mandingo deals with life on a sordid plantation in pre-Civil War Alabama. Warren Maxwell (James Mason) owns the plantation and he spends most of his time sweating and complaining about his rheumatism. When a Satanic slave trader named Brownlee (Paul Benedict) suggests that Warren can cure his rheumatism by always resting his feet on the backs of two little slave children, Warren proceeds to do just that. Seriously, this is a 127 minute film and, nearly every time that Mason appears on screen, he’s got his feet propped up on the children.
Warren’s got a son named Hammond (Perry King). Hammond walks with a limp, the result of a childhood pony accident. Warren expects Hammond to sire an heir to Maxwell family legacy but Hammond is only comfortable having sex with slaves. Finally, during a business trip with his decadent friend Charles (Ben Masters), Hammond meets and marries Blanche (Susan George). Blanche assures Hammond that she’s a virgin and, on their wedding night, she asks Hammond how to have sex. “We take off our clothes…” Hammond begins.
However, the morning after, Hammond is convinced that Blanche lied about being virgin because she enjoyed having sex. Once they return to the plantation, Hammond refuses to touch Blanche and instead ends up falling in love with a slave named Ellen (Brenda Sykes). When Ellen gets pregnant, Blanche beats her until she miscarries.
And meanwhile, James Mason keeps popping up with two little kids resting underneath his feet…
But that’s not all! Hammond has purchased a slave named Mede (Ken Norton). Mede is a boxer and wins Hammond a lot of money. In order to “toughen up” his skin, Mede is also forced to bathe in a cauldron of very hot water. “Shuck down those pants!” Hammond shouts before Mede gets in the cauldron.
Blanche, who is now an alcoholic, gets her revenge on Hammond by having sex with the the legendarily endowed Mede. Soon, Blanche is pregnant and Hammond and Warren are both excited. Then the baby is born and all Hell breaks loose.
And, meanwhile, James Mason rests his feet on the back of two little kids…
Mandingo is one of those films that you watch in wide-eyed amazement, shocked that not only was this movie made but it was also apparently made by a major film studio and directed by a professional director. (Before he directed Mandingo, Richard Fleischer directed everything from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to Doctor Dolittle to Soylent Green.) I know that some would argue that Mandingo used the conventions of exploitation cinema to expose the sickening inhumanity of American slavery but let’s be honest here. Mandingo is not Django Unchained. Instead, it’s a slow-moving soap opera that is occasionally redeemed by some over-the-top dialogue and histrionic performances.
And it’s also proof that James Mason was capable of giving a bad performance. According to the imdb, James Mason described Mandingo as a film that he did solely for the paycheck. From his terrible Southern accent to the way that he always seems to be trying to hide his face from the camera, Mason gives perhaps one of the worst performances ever given by a legitimately great actor.
Here’s how it works. Earlier today, I put on a blindfold and then I randomly groped through my DVD collection until I had managed to pull out ten movies. I then promptly stubbed my big toe on the coffee table, fell down to the floor, and spent about 15 minutes cursing and crying. Because, seriously, it hurt! Anyway, I then took off the blindfold and looked over the 10 movies I had randomly selected. Two of them — Dracula A.D. 1972 and A Blade in the Dark — were movies that I had already reviewed on this site. So I put them back and I replaced them with two movies of my own choosing — in this case, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Between now and next Sunday (March 27th), people will hopefully vote in this poll. On Sunday, I will watch and review whichever movie has received the most votes. Even if that movie turns out to be Incubus. *shudder* (Have I mentioned how much I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?)
Now, of course, there’s always the possibility that no one will vote in this poll and I’ll end up looking silly. Those are the risks you take when you set up an online poll. However, I have a backup plan. If nobody votes, I will just spend every day next week shopping for purses at Northpark Mall and then blogging about it. And by that, I mean blogging every single little detail. So, it’s a win-win for me.
Anyway, here’s the list of the 10 films:
1) Barbarella— From 1968, Jane Fonda plays Barbarella who flies around space while getting molested by …. well, everyone. Directed by Roger Vadim.
2) Barry Lyndon — From 1975, this best picture nominee is director Stanley Kubrick’s legendary recreation of 18th-century Europe and the rogues who live there.
3) Caligula — Yes, that Caligula. From 1979, it’s time for decadence, blood, and nudity in the Roman Empire. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, John Steiner, and Theresa Ann Savoy.
4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Oh my God, I love this movie. Jim Carrey breaks up with Kate Winslet and deals with the pain by getting his mind erased by Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and an amazingly creepy Elijah Wood.
5) Incubus — From 1969, this low-budget supernatural thriller not only stars a young William Shatner but it also features the entire cast speaking in Esperanto. For. The. Entire. Movie.
6) Inland Empire — If you want to give Lisa nightmares, you can vote for David Lynch’s disturbing 3-hour film about lost identity, sexual repression, human trafficking, and talking rabbits.
7) Kiss Me Deadly — From 1955, this Robert Aldrich-directed cult classic features hard-boiled P.I. Mike Hammer and a host of others chasing after a mysterious glowing box and accidentally destroying the world in the process.
8 ) Mandingo — From 1975, this infamous little film is a look at slavery, incest, and rheumatism in the pre-Civil War South. Starring James Mason, Ken Norton, Perry King, and Susan George. Supposedly a really offensive movie, one I haven’t sat down and watched yet.
9) Sunset Boulevard — From 1950, hack screenwriter William Holden ends up the kept man of psychotic former screen goddess Gloria Swanson. Directed by Billy Wilder.
10) The Unbearable Lightness of Being — From 1988, Philip L. Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s classic novel (one of my favorite books, by the way) features Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin having sex and dealing with ennui. After I first saw this movie, I insisted on wearing a hat just like Lena Olin did.
Everyone, except for me, is eligible to vote. Vote as often as you want. The poll is now open until Sunday, March 27th.
(Edit: Voting is now closed but check below for the results! — Lisa)