It is 1840 in the Deep South of the United States, and despite the abolitionist movement in the North, slavery is still extensively used there. On the run down Falconhurst estate the patriarch Warren Maxwell (James Mason) buys and sells slaves to fund his family's lives, as he is today, when a purchaser inspects his wares with a view to taking a few off his hands. The idea that these are human beings is an alien one to the likes of Warren, as he treats them little better than animals, but his son Hammond (Perry King) has a kinder outlook. Though the fact remains, the whites in this corrupt society are thoroughly depraved...
To get some idea of the reaction to this film at the time, look to its references in comedy: in The Kentucky Fried Movie the spoof trailer for Catholic High School Girls in Trouble proudly proclaims it to be "More offensive than Mandingo!", and on an episode of Saturday Night Live a parody of it saw O.J. Simpson passionately kissing Bill Murray. So with material like that, you might have expected the work itself to be a non-stop barrage of camp bad taste that would have audiences rolling in the aisles, but in spite of this reputation it's not half as funny as all that. Although it endeavours to be harrowing and can be seen as nothing more than a big budget exploitation movie, it's actually far grimmer than often given credit for.
It's not as if the filmmakers were thinking, let's make a hilarious ride through the darkest period in American history, though by adapting the novel, by the possibly pseudonymous Kyle Onstott (a whole series of these were written), which did have a trashy notoriety, the view was that producer Dino de Laurentiis was up to his old catchpenny tricks. This was certainly no Gone with the Wind, where the whites were the good guys, and the whole point of abolishing slavery was somewhat forgotten in the family saga, as for a start Mandingo is set before the Civil War, and besides the whites here are shown to be despicable hypocrites whose behaviour has not only debased a whole race of people, but themselves as well.
That's not to say that director Richard Fleischer did not set out to shock, as there are plenty of lurid scenes, but at least they are presented as unavoidable and essential to the plot. It is far too long, and by the first half hour you have pretty much got the measure of the lesson you are being told, yet its serious intentions should not have been doubted, even if it did mix in the whole sexual angle with uncommon enthusiasm. Indeed, sex is the only thing that they are enthusiastic about as Hammond falls in love with slave Ellen (Brenda Sykes), his so-called "wench" who he can go to for satisfying his carnal desires, only to develop a deeper bond with her than his wife, Blanche (Susan George).
George was much lampooned for her supposedly over the top performance, but she isn't doing anything that the script did not demand, and is very effective as the dissolute example of how the white women were every inch the phonies their menfolk were. The Mandingo of the title refers to boxing champ Ken Norton's Mede, who Hammond buys as a stud and as a fighter, and approaches him with a respect that we see by the end amounted to little more than that afforded to a loyal pet dog. And when Mede turns against Hammond in the final half hour, not through any fault of his own but because Blanche forces him into it, we can also see that his master was little better than his vile father Warren. What this film needed to be was a whole lot angrier: the sequence where slave Cicero (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) fights back is more satisfying even if it does end in his hanging. But perhaps that was the point, that the degeneration of this society spawned a miriad hopeless cases that only the war, drawing nearer as the story hints, could do something to assuage. Music by Maurice Jarre.