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Monday, August 2, 2010

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: The Klansman (1974) review


Lee Marvin (Sheriff Track Bascomb), Richard Burton (Breck Stancill), Cameron Mitchell (Butt Cutt Cates), O.J. Simpson (Garth), Lola Falana (Loretta Sykes), Luciana Paluzzi (Trixie), Linda Evans (Nancy Poteet), David Huddleston (Mayor Hardy Riddle), Hoke Howell (Bobby Poteet)

Directed by Terence Young

The Short Version: James Bond director, Young was behind the camera on this raucously out of control trash that wants to be a serious movie about racism in the deep South, but settles for tasteless, neolithic thrills and unintentional hilarity. This is often lumped in with blaxploitation movies. A true gem in the history of big studio embarrassments.

The Juice don't like "crackers" in his soup

Nancy Poteet is raped inside her car one night by an unseen assailant. The locals in town get word that it was a black man who committed the crime. This riles the numerous Klan members in Atoka County and they set about finding the rapist. Enraged, a small group of klansmen chase after two young black men and brutally kill one of them. The other, Garth, manages to escape. Amidst much violence between racists townsfolk and a group fighting for equal rights, Garth sets out to kill the group of men responsible for his friends death. Meanwhile, the Klan attempt to force a crippled white man out of town sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement while the sheriff is torn between doing what's right for either himself, or the town.

There are a lot of words one could use to describe Terence Young's THE KLANSMAN. It's wildly erratic, slipshod, mean spirited, sloppy, ill conceived and one of the best, worst movies of the 1970's, the decade where seemingly anything was possible. The film is a conundrum. It tries and wants to be an important film on race relations in a small Alabama town, but fails spectacularly. It does succeed in being a tasteless, lazily put together and big budget exploitation movie. Based on the novel by William Bradford Huie, a writer/reporter who incited the ire of the KKK during the Civil Rights Movement during the late 50's and into the 1960's.

The film is no doubt an embarrassment to Huie's work and noted controversial director, Samuel Fuller, was originally tapped to direct. Also writing the script, Fuller eventually walked away from the picture when the studio ordered major changes from proposed nervousness regarding the racist tone of the script. Whatever fears Paramount may have had, they apparently paid the production little attention as the finished film is one of the most offensive and simultaneously ridiculous train wrecks to ever chug through a theater chain.

O.J. Simpson (left) and Lee Marvin (right)

At the time, Paramount was a breeding ground for these kinds of movies teetering on a line between entertainment and bad taste. Black action pictures such as THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972) and its sequel, SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1973) are two rare and racially charged westerns starring Fred Williamson. Both those films use racism as a plot device to propel the story and give the audience even more incentive to cheer on the heroes. MANDINGO (1975) was another movie, a big movie, actually, that caused an enormous stir at the time. Seeing it now, it's more of an important movie about a dark time in man's history. The sequel, DRUM (1976), falls more in the category inhabited by the movie being reviewed here. For THE KLANSMAN (1974), racism is used purely for shock value. Whatever moralistic intentions inherent in the original script, or Young's original vision is lost in a miasma of misplaced monologues and half hearted attempts at poignancy.

Linda Evans and Richard Burton

There's several poorly explored plot strands littered throughout the script all vying for screen time. One concerns Nancy Poteet (the lovely Linda Evans of THE BIG VALLEY and DYNASTY TV shows), who is raped at the beginning of the movie. The town shuns her since they believe she was raped by a black man. Her church no longer wants her there and she, herself, believes no man will want to touch her ever again. Burton's character touches her, though, despite the film abruptly dropping a romantic angle between him and Trixie, a secretary working at the police station played by the gorgeous Italian actress, Luciana Paluzzi. She seems to have been dubbed, but if not, she pulls off an American accent beautifully.

Luciana Paluzzi and Richard Burton

Another angle the film fails to capitalize on is the message the picture is purported to be built around. In between sniping out the racist cracker bastards that murdered his friend, O.J. Simpson delivers a late arriving, Malcolm X styled speech about violence being the answer to the problem. The scenes of him taking out the bad guys are occasionally handled sloppily and the Klan funeral complete with burning crosses just prior to O.J.'s ambush is very funny. The mere presence of The Juice as an avenging angel is disturbing in light of the events that took place 20 years later in 1994.

Lola Falana

Young's movie is predominantly concerned with violence and as many creative uses for the 'N' word as possible. Yes, it does present a dark side of humanity that still exists today (on both sides, black and white), but seldom approaches the material seriously focusing far more emphasis on the vast amount of exploitation potential. The movie was apparently an embarrassment for many involved including the actual town the picture was shot in. The behind the scenes was reportedly just as chaotic as the finished film itself.

Both these offscreen rowdy alki's have several scenes where one or the other is pouring each other drinks. I bet they looked forward to multiple takes

Allegedly, both Marvin and Burton were sauced the length of the shoot, but you could scarcely say much regarding Burton considering the character he was playing is an alcoholic. Marvin is actually the most interesting character in the movie as the somewhat confused sheriff who doesn't quite know which path to take; should he do what's right, or do what it takes to get himself re elected? If Marvin was drunk the entire time, he hides it damn well. Burton, though, is pretty hilarious. His Southern accent comes and goes about as much as the movies narrative structure.

Cameron Mitchell gets rough with Lola Falana

Cameron Mitchell does more here to solidify his then downward spiraling career as a force to be reckoned with in the exploitation arena than in a dozen other trashy movies he appeared in. He plays a nasty character with a hilariously stupid name; Butt Cutt Cates(??) I suppose if my parents had named me 'Butt Cutt', I'd be mad at the world, too. Mitchell is Bascomb's violently racist deputy who displays the depths to which he will sink during a scene where he rapes Lola Falana's character while other klansmen gleefully watch.

This scene is just too funny for words

The Karate fight between Burton and Mitchell deserves mentioning as it's one of the most riotously funny moments in the entire movie. Burton does his best (even with his bum leg) to appear effective with his "deadly" strikes, but it's painfully obvious Mitchell oversells each and every reaction to Burton's blows. It's one of a handful of highlights spread out among many lowlights throughout. Any minor remnants of a serious movie is thrown through a plate glass window during the explosive finale. In it, Lee Marvin and O.J. take on the Klan members (all decked out in their white sheet attire) in a bloody shootout that leaves just about everyone dead. Even the lovely Lola Falana picks up a shotgun and takes out some punks. Her alluring figure is one of the few true bright spots found here. To see a far more successful and respectable treatment of a similar film treading the same ground, check out Ralph Nelson's superior and taut dramatic thriller, ...TICK...TICK...TICK (1970).

Character actor spotters will also recognize Hoke Howell among the cast. Howell frequently played scuzzy characters (SLAUGHTER'S BIG RIP-OFF), or redneck roles (gas station attendant in KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS). David Huddleston, the redneck, racist Mayor in THE KLANSMAN was also a comedic, dumb, racist cowboy in Mel Brooks's classic, BLAZING SADDLES (1974).

There is no current legit release of this movie and one isn't likely. There are numerous bootleg versions with different running times out there, though. Reportedly, the Paramount VHS is the most complete version running anywhere between 112 and 120 minutes. Other versions are a more widely accessible, but cut television version running 100 minutes. Oddly enough, this version retains many of the racial slurs, but cuts out expletives and nudity. Several spots reveal some major editing has taken place. An uncut Dutch(?) DVD was briefly available, but is now difficult to find. Hopefully, this trashy non classic will surface in a more complete version to remind people of just what kind of celluloid sleaze passed for entertainment back in the 1970's, clearly the most creatively free and violently raw decade in history.


Richard of DM said...

Awesome review! I can't believe this movie even exists. So it's tasteless and ineptly made? And it features Luciana Paluzzi!?!?

venoms5 said...

It's a bizarre movie, Rich. It's all over the place. Supposedly, the Paramount VHS is the most complete version which runs around 2 hours. I doubt it would make a lot of difference.

The cut version I have still retains dozens of racial slurs and derogatory comments, but eliminates expletives and nudity, the latter for obvious reasons. For bad movie buffs it's well worth tracking down.

There's bootleg DVD's at amazon and other retailers for it, but all of them to my knowledge are from the same 100 minute television version that is the source of this review.

I wish I'd of picked up the Dutch DVD when I had the chance. It disappeared very quickly, so who know how legit it was to begin with.

Skeme Richards said...

I love that flick, haven't watched in a long time. Maybe time to revisit it. I think I have the same cut version that you have Venoms5.

venoms5 said...

That brief fight between Burton and Mitchell is pure comedy gold. I get a huge laugh every time I see it. It's a wonderfully awful movie. Hopefully, I'll catch up with the complete version one day and see if it does anything to improve the experience. For some reason, I hope it doesn't.

Someone who has seen it told me the cut Lola Falana rape scene was sloppily shot, too.

The scene where O.J. snipes out one of the Klansmen from a park bench with other people around was a head scratcher, too.

Tom sciacca comicsverse said...

Paramount has this as a vod on YouTube but I don't know if it is the way I met Luciana at chiller a few years ago, we talked about this film..she did it as a favour to the director...burton was drunk as a skunk one point they had to tie him to a tree to get him to stand and do his scene....

geralmar said...

I saw Klansman and Mandingo in a double feature at the Fox Theater in Detroit circa 1976. Viewing both pictures with a nearly all-black audience was quite an experience

Unknown said...

Just came home from a viewing of this film in a theatre that shows old movies here in Helsinki. It's a mess, I agree, but I find it oddly compelling and interesting. Lee Marvin's great in it, and his character is neatly constructed.
"Remember, you're one of us!"
"Not anymore."

Herodian said...

I guess this is still not on DVD but you can get a 112-minute version on blu-ray in the United States now. Time marches on!

Film Buff said...

I have the novel this is based on. It's trashy read.

Jocko said...

I just bought the blue ray for this monstrosity and watched it for the first time. Wow! Not in a million years would something this offensive get made today.

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