While on a medical mission for the United Nations, Dr. Anansa Linderby (Beverly Johnson) is abducted by slave traders led by Suleiman (Peter Ustinov). Her husband, Dr. David Linderby (Michael Caine) embarks on rescue mission that leads him across West Africa, the Sahara desert and the Middle East, in the company of various colourful characters, including Malik (Kabir Bedi) a nomad with a grudge against Suleiman for enslaving his family.
As every film fan knows, Michael Caine - wonderful though he is - made more than his fair share of stinkers. The great man himself allegedly considers the tacky Ashanti his second worst film, behind The Swarm (1978) of course, although with Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987) on his resume it really comes down to personal (dis)taste. There are hints from its opening scenes that the makers of Ashanti are out to craft a socially responsible action-adventure film, one that spotlights the slave trade as a Major International Problem. Yet dealing with slavery requires a modicum of sobriety this film does not have.
Witness Peter Ustinov being outrageously hammy as the odious Arabic slave trader. Earlier in his career, Ustinov excelled in villainous roles but by this stage was better known as a raconteur and avuncular comic performer. Consequently Suleiman comes across as a rather camp and ridiculous figure, despite shooting, torturing and even allowing his right hand man to molest a young African boy (mercifully off-screen). The sadism coupled with some brief nudity from model-turned-actress Beverly Johnson (later Lex Luthor’s evil assistant Mrs. Cox on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) comes across like a big budget version of those Italian jungle adventures from the late Seventies. Indeed most of the film crew are Italian, including cinematographer Aldo Tonti reunited with director Richard Fleischer after Barabbas (1961).
Hitherto an accomplished director of crime thrillers and adventure films, Fleischer entered an altogether schlockier period in his career after Mandingo (1975). Although both he and Beverly Johnson were removed from the production midway through shooting (in Fleischer’s case on account of sunstroke), the veteran filmmaker imparts a glossy sheen to proceedings, from the hypnotic desert to the shimmering seas wherein a cheesy finale straight out of TV’s Hart to Hart comes complete with disco love theme sung by Jimmy Chambers.
Light on action, Ashanti (named after Anansa’s ancestral tribe) plods along rather too enamoured of itself. Caine’s vapid hero gets some tedious comedy business with an uncooperative camel, but does surprisingly very little. Kabir Bedi handles most of the action but despite his tragic past emerges a diffident, distant figure. Worse yet, the way the story unfolds winds up reinforcing the despicable mindset that spawned the slave trade. Time and again, David learns there is no room for compassion in the pitiless desert. Most of Anansa’s fellow captives are forgotten by the film’s end, including one poor girl (Akosua Busia) traded to a Tuareg Chief (Marne Maitland) in her stead. “I’m stuck with this stupid girl…” the self-aggrandizing creep laments before David and Malik bid them both farewell. The sole affecting scene finds David forced to abandon a group of weeping children to their fate, a moment whose repercussions are glossed over far too easily in a bid to educate the liberal European how things work in the desert.
While Caine looks bored for the most part, film fans may relish the starry if rather pointless cameos which include Rex Harrison as the screen’s most apathetic anti-slavery campaigner; William Holden in one of his last roles as a world-weary mercenary; and Omar Sharif, the epitome of suave villainy as the Arabian Prince who hypocritically berates Suleiman for his lack of principles then kidnaps Anansa anyway. While Holden suffers the indignity of copping a bullet from Ustinov early on, Sharif’s exit proves especially hilarious. Once bullets start to fly amidst the finale, he disappears behind a door, never to be seen again. Presumably off to cash his paycheque at the nearest casino.