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Retro Review: THE KLANSMAN (1974)


(US - 1974)

Directed by Terence Young. Written by Millard Kaufman and Samuel Fuller. Cast: Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Cameron Mitchell, O.J. Simpson, Lola Falana, Luciana Paluzzi, David Huddleston, Linda Evans, Ed Call, John Alderson, David Ladd, Vic Perrin, Spence Wil-Dee, Wendell Wellman, Hoke Howell, Virgil Frye, Lee De Broux, Susan Brown, Jeannie Bell, Larry Williams. (R, 112 mins)

THE KLANSMAN is a film so consistently and unrelentingly repugnant that it opens with a group of white yahoos giving a mentally challenged black man $1 to rape a young black woman as they stand around in a circle cheering him on...and it somehow gets more offensive with each passing scene. A misguided clusterfuck from the moment it was greenlit to the week of its release over Thanksgiving 1974--because who doesn't want to spend the holiday with family watching a movie with rape, castration, and more racial slurs than the combined filmographies of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino?--THE KLANSMAN is, if you can stomach it, a film that simply must be seen to be believed. The fact that it's a Paramount release with big name stars probably lent an illusion of prestige, but make no mistake, this is as foul, if not more so, as any drive-in exploitation grinder, so trashy and shamelessly gutter-wallowing that, as Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot's Marty McKee stated in his review, "You need a SILKWOOD shower after watching it." Based on a 1965 novel by William Bradford Huie, THE KLANSMAN probably began with the best intentions. Samuel Fuller (FIXED BAYONETS, MERRILL'S MARAUDERS, SHOCK CORRIDOR) wrote the script and was set to direct before quitting the project over disagreements with the producers. Fuller's script was reworked by Millard Kaufman (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, RAINTREE COUNTRY) and veteran British journeyman Terence Young (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, THUNDERBALL, WAIT UNTIL DARK) was brought in to direct. Though he had some major hits under his belt, Young was pushing 60 and in paycheck mode by that point, primarily working in Europe, coming off three Charles Bronson films with 1970's COLD SWEAT, 1971's RED SUN, and 1972's THE VALACHI PAPERS, followed by the cheesy 1973 sword-and-sandal outing WAR GODDESS, and he reportedly only took the KLANSMAN gig because he was a sugar daddy to a much younger girlfriend and needed some major studio Hollywood cash.

A coasting Young was left in charge of a cast headed by legends Lee Marvin and Richard Burton, and much of the film's budget appears to have gone to their booze supply. Marvin is at least a functioning alcoholic and manages to turn in an actual performance, but Burton was bottoming out personally and professionally while in Oroville, CA working on THE KLANSMAN. His marriage to Elizabeth Taylor falling apart during production, Burton was also dogged by a persistent combined bout of bronchitis and the flu that lasted throughout the shoot, and he was drinking nearly three bottles of vodka per day. He checked himself into a hospital to deal with his alcoholism after filming wrapped, but Burton's condition and his ghoulish appearance are impossible to ignore when you watch the film: he's wobbly on his feet, shaky, pasty, often sweating profusely, slurring his words with his wildly inconsistent accent vacillating from "Richard Burton" to "HEE HAW" in the same sentence, and though it's mentioned his character has a bum leg, it could just be to explain why he's usually seen seated, holding onto, or leaning against something--a table, a chair, a wall--seemingly to keep from falling down. He seriously looks like he could drop dead at any moment.

Marvin is Track Bascomb, sheriff of Atoka County, Alabama, a hotbed of racial tension and Ku Klux Klan activity. Bascomb is a de facto good guy--he's not in the Klan, is not a hostile racist and he breaks up the rape in the opening scene ("Party's over, get on outta here"), but he more or less leaves everyone be, especially since his loathsome deputy Butt Cutt Cates (Cameron Mitchell) is a loud and proud Klan member and Mayor Hardy Riddle (David Huddleston) is the Exalted Cyclops of the Klan's Atoka chapter. At a town council meeting, the mayor tells his Klan guys to keep things under control, to not kill anyone and maybe just burn some crosses every once in a while and rough up some black folks just so they stay scared and always know their place. That all changes when white Nancy Poteet (Linda Evans) is raped by a black man and Butt Cutt eggs everyone on into blaming Willy Washington (Spence Wil-Dee), who has an alibi but is nonetheless kept in jail by Bascomb. Butt Cutt and his boys decide to harass any black guy they see, castrating one unlucky resident whose angry friend Garth (O.J. Simpson) escapes. The tensions continue to flare over an upcoming equal rights protest to be attended by black "agitator" Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana), who left Atoka years ago to move to Chicago but is back to care for her ailing grandmother. Loretta's grandmother lives in a cabin on Stancill Mountain, a huge swath of land owned by Breck Stancill (Burton), a progressive liberal do-gooder who lets poor black people live in cabins on his mountain rent-free. Butt Cutt and the Klan guys hate Stancill and they hate Loretta, who used to be close to Stancill and is assumed to be his "private piece of brown comfort." THE KLANSMAN just gets more charming from there. Hardly a scene goes by without some jaw-droppingly offensive act or line of dialogue.

Nancy's husband (Hoke Howell) can't bear the humiliation of his wife "gettin' screwed by a n----r," so he leaves town, bellyaching to Bascomb "Why did this thing have to happen to me?" She's also ostracized in church, where a woman shrieks "I can smell n----r on her! I think I'm gonna faint!" and the Reverend refuses to carry on with his racist sermon to the other "decent Christian folk" until she leaves. Garth, meanwhile, is disguising himself in Klan garb and showing up at the houses of the guys who castrated his friend (this was Young's second film--after THE VALACHI PAPERS--to prominently feature castration) and blowing them away with a shotgun. Racist vitriol eventually boils over in an unspeakably appalling scene where Butt Cutt and a bunch of guys kidnap Loretta and drag her to a warehouse, holding her down while Butt Cutt rapes her to send a message to Atoka's black population (Butt Cutt, at his most philosophical: "N----r gal don't mind bein' raped a little by another n----r, but a white man nailin' her would be humiliatin''). The rape goes on and on, with Loretta suffering massive bleeding from her vagina (the leering Reverend mutters "N----r women are made for this"). Bascomb arrives on the scene and knows Butt Cutt raped her but tells her to say three black men did it, though he's outraged enough over what happened to smear some of her blood all over Butt Cutt's face. At the hospital, it's revealed that Loretta was a virgin and the blood was from her ruptured hymen, a diagnosis immediately dismissed by an incredulous Bascomb, who sensitively tells the medical examiner "Everybody in the county knows a black girl's popped by the time she's 13." Eventually, Butt Cutt, the mayor, and all the other racist assholes finally have enough of Loretta, protests, Bascomb developing a conscience, and liberal snowflake Stancill, who's further incurred the wrath of everyone by falling in love with sullied and tarnished Nancy, and all parties eventually converge on Stancill's Mountain for the inevitable shootout illuminated by a burning cross.

Alternate poster art focused on O.J. Simpson
Astonishing for all the wrong reasons, THE KLANSMAN was released on VHS in 1991 but has otherwise been kept pretty much buried like a state secret by Paramount, who released the similarly tacky MANDINGO a year later. Low-quality bootlegs weren't hard to obtain but they were often cut, losing the worst parts of the castration scene and the agonizing rape, which is probably the most graphically offensive depiction of a sexual assault in a mainstream film outside of the early gang rape of the housekeeper in 1982's DEATH WISH II, and not just because Young meets the demands of no one by giving us a Cameron Mitchell ass shot. It was recently released in uncensored form on Blu-ray by Olive Films, and it makes for interesting viewing decades later. There's probably a serious, thoughtful film buried somewhere in the wreckage and it undoubtedly would've turned out better had Fuller directed it (he and Marvin would eventually work together on 1980's THE BIG RED ONE). But Young is just punching a clock here, and while it's obviously not condoning the actions of its despicable antagonists, it sort-of pulls a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST by wallowing like a pig in shit in the very ugliness it purports to condemn. There's no need for Bascomb to smear Loretta's blood across Butt Cutt's face or have Falana lie there naked for an extended amount of time with a pool of blood between her legs other than exploitative shock value more fitting for a LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT knockoff.

For Lola Falana's and even O.J. Simpson's sake, let's hope
this Bronco was being pulled on a trailer
and Richard Burton wasn't actually driving it. 
In Fuller's hands, the virulent racism in the story and the dialogue would've been hard-hitting and brimming with social commentary, but here it just feels like you're in the middle of a particularly feverish Steve Bannon wet dream. Some of Fuller's intent comes through--that scene in the church where Nancy is ordered to leave is legitimately enraging and upsetting and would certainly still happen in some parts of America today--but it's undermined by one bad decision after another. Who thought it was a good idea to cast Italian sex bomb Luciana Paluzzi (best known as \ femme fatale Fiona Volpe in THUNDERBALL) as an Alabama secretary named Trixie? Paluzzi always had a thick accent and she's obviously dubbed here, so her casting was probably just Young doing a favor for an old friend but it doesn't work. THE KLANSMAN marked the big-screen debut of O.J., who would still play in the NFL for another five years but was starting to build a movie career during his off-seasons (he was also in THE TOWERING INFERNO, in theaters a month after THE KLANSMAN). Juice was pushed as the star in some markets, but the film doesn't make very good use of him. His Garth exists on the periphery of the story for much of the time, hiding out in trees picking off Butt Cutt's dipshit cohorts. O.J. gets one amazing shot where he performs an extremely dangerous-looking stunt sprinting across railroad tracks in front of a speeding train that almost clips him, but his unintentional highlight in retrospect is a scene where he's in the backseat of Stancill's Bronco, forcing him to drive while waving a gun around, an almost surreal harbinger of things to come for the future double murderer. But nowhere does THE KLANSMAN shit the bed more than in the scene foreshadowed by a throwaway line from Trixie about Stancill learning karate while he was in the Marines.

Richard Burton, Luciana Paluzzi, and Lee Marvin
at a party during production of THE KLANSMAN.
Around 80 or so minutes into THE KLANSMAN, Stancill is buying Nancy a bus ticket out of town and they're confronted by Butt Cutt, who spends his free time hanging racist flyers around Atoka. Butt Cutt starts haranguing Nancy about having "been with a Negro," essentially blaming her for being raped, and a scuffle ensues, with karate expert Stancill giving Butt Cutt a kung-fu beatdown. The sight of Burton going full ENTER THE DRAGON would've been absurd even under the most sober conditions. But between his unsteady wavering, his pasty, sweaty visage, and what appears to be Stancill's entire knowledge of martial arts being limited to half-assed chops with his hand, he looks less like student of karate and more like Donald Trump mocking a disabled reporter on the campaign trail. He has to grab a wall at one point to stay upright and even with his limited movement, he looks like he's about throw up from motion sickness. The staging of the fight is inept beyond comprehension, but Mitchell valiantly tries to help sell it, flinging himself through a restroom door that's obviously already off its hinges and diving through some luggage that's been strategically placed in the middle of the bus station. If THE KLANSMAN is remembered at all today, it's typically because of shitfaced Richard Burton stumbling and bumbling his way through the most unintentionally hilarious fight scene of the 1970s, not helped at all by accompanying "wacky" music that gives it a DUKES OF HAZZARD quality. This is a film that, no matter how much unexpected relevance it may inadvertently have today with the recent upsurge in hate crimes and backwards-ass racist shitbags feeling emboldened to express themselves thanks to the current occupant of the White House and those who surround and enable him, simply couldn't be made in this fashion in today's world of SJW outrage and trigger warnings. Fuller's original screenplay undoubtedly had a message, and some of it manages to come through every now and again in the finished version. But it's a staggeringly wrong-headed, stunningly tone-deaf examination of racism in the deep south, and regardless of whatever good intent it had at any point in its genesis, THE KLANSMAN is a time capsule relic that remains one of the essential "What the Fuck Were They Thinking?!" movies to ever be released by a major Hollywood studio.

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