When I think of director Richard Fleischer, who passed away Saturday at the age of 89, I don’t necessarily think first of his films that those of my generation might be thought to naturally gravitate toward— the Disney epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the effects packed adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage, or even the movie that came to epitomize major studio cluelessness and ineptitude at the end of the 1960s, 20th-Century Fox’s Dr. Dolittle.
The name Richard Fleischer instead brings to my mind a trio of pictures he did in the early to mid 70s—Charlton Heston discovering the secret of a popular food substance in an overpopulated future in the science-fiction thriller Soylent Green; the Charles Bronson action drama Mr. Majestyk, based on a screenplay by Elmore Leonard; and perhaps his most notorious film (if you don’t count Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, that is), the hit adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s brutal sex-and-slavery potboiler, Mandingo.
For months, after writing an essay which included an account of seeing the film as a teenager, I wondered if there was any serious writing on this movie, which has stuck with me for years and which, upon encountering it again as an adult, revealed itself to be a much more serious and intelligent film than I (or many film critics in 1975) ever gave it credit for being.
The answer to my question came this morning in discovering within the online pages of The Film Journal a Director’s Retrospective series of essays concerning the films of Richard Fleischer, published this past January. The first article, written by Zach Campbell, whose Elusive Lucidity blog can be found on the sidebar to your right, is entitled “Follow Him Quietly: Richard Fleischer and the Consideration of Metteurs-en-scène” and contains a quite-welcome look at Mandingo near its conclusion.
But even more detailed a consideration is Robert Keser’s “The Eye We Cannot Shut: Richard Fleischer's Mandingo.” Keser spends a healthy amount of space on the film’s methodology and its critical reception in 1975 before launching into an exhaustive, and convincing, analysis of Mandingo as social critique derived and informed by the mechanics and tropes of melodrama, “sans big speeches or messages embedded in the dialogue,” and gives Fleischer another chance to defend his film:
Not driven by literary respectability, Mandingo confounded critics who could not accept a serious statement about the socio-economic order in the form of a melodrama sans big speeches or messages embedded in dialogue. What’s more, the dramatic extremes of the plot… continually risk making the film look ridiculous, no less than the use of archaic vernacular—such as “wenches” (black women used as bed partners) and “suckers” (their offspring).
In his capacity as both director and co-scenarist, Richard Fleischer reacted with passion, defending his artistry against reviewers who were unable to address racist subject matter that felt too raw (and may still be so):
”The thing that is infuriating to me is that the critics become blinded by their own dislike of the subject. They may loathe the story, but then they say that the photography was bad, the sets were lousy, the costumes stank and that the writing was rotten. I can defend all of that. I can defend the direction, and everybody said the direction was terrible, inept. I really don’t think you can criticize a lot of things in the film as being badly done. You may hate what it is or what it says, but you can’t say it’s all rotten. It’s just not true.”
Indeed, this negative critical reception has shut Mandingo out of the national conversation about race, yet its indictment of top dog morality seems more relevant than ever. With no villainous power-hungry individual as a repository of the plot’s evils and no true hero with a tragic flaw, the system itself is the flaw that entraps and destroys its participants. Mandingo bears poignant witness to how this impersonal and unforgiving economic apparatus closes its jaws on each player and then bites down.
The script’s genius*—not too strong a word—is to fuse melodrama into social critique, creating a hybrid where sexual relationships are poetic correlatives to economic ones, a credible match as procreation formed the basis of the business. Mandingo is two entities at once: the economics contains the melodrama, while the potboiler is the repository of all the sexual conflicts and betrayals that reveal how the lucrative enterprise worked on a human level. As such, its pulp proves more useful than all the allegory and postmodern finger-wagging of Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay.
I highly recommend the writing of both Campbell and Keser as tributes both to a director most never considered with much seriousness while he was alive and making films, and to one film in particular whose reputation would surely be well served by a DVD release, if there’s anyone left in Hollywood with the nerve to put it back on the shelf.
(* Mandingo’s script was adapted from the Onstott book by scenarist Norman Wexler, who also wrote the scripts for Joe, Serpico and Saturday Night Fever.)