Mandingo (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byRichard Fleischer
Screenplay byNorman Wexler
Based onMandingo
by Kyle Onstott
Produced byDino De Laurentiis
CinematographyRichard H. Kline
Edited byFrank Bracht
Music by
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • July 25, 1975 (1975-07-25) (United States)
Running time
127 minutes
CountryUnited States

Mandingo is a 1975 American historical melodrama film that focuses on the Atlantic slave trade in the Antebellum South. The film's title refers to the mandinka people, who are referred to as "Mandingos", and described as being good slaves for fighting matches. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis for Paramount Pictures, the film was directed by Richard Fleischer. The screenplay, by Norman Wexler, was adapted from the 1957 novel Mandingo by Kyle Onstott, and the 1961 play Mandingo by Jack Kirkland (which is derived from the novel).

The film stars Perry King as Hammond, the son of cruel slave owner Warren Maxwell (James Mason). Hammond is known to rape the female slaves on his father's plantation, and his father orders him to marry a white woman to produce grandchildren with no black ancestry. Hammond marries Blanche (Susan George), his cousin, who becomes jealous that he pays more attention to his black lover Ellen (Brenda Sykes) than to his wife, leading Blanche to seduce the Mandingo fighting slave Mede (Ken Norton).

Mandingo received negative reviews upon release. However, retrospectively, the film's reception became much more favorable. It has been variously seen as a big-budget exploitation film made by a major studio, a serious film about American slavery, examining historical horrors committed against African Americans, or as a work of camp. It was a box office hit,[1] and was followed by a sequel, Drum (1976), which starred Norton as a different character and Warren Oates as Hammond.


In the Deep South of the United States prior to the American Civil War, Falconhurst is a run-down plantation owned by widower Warren Maxwell and largely run by his son, Hammond. Hammond and his cousin, Charles, visit a plantation where both men are given black women out of hospitality. Hammond chooses Ellen, who is a virgin. Both she and Hammond watch as Charles abuses and rapes the other woman, with Charles claiming that she likes it. Hammond asks Ellen if this is true, and she says no. Hammond then sleeps with Ellen.

Warren Maxwell pressures him to marry, so Hammond chooses his cousin, Blanche, who is desperate to get out of her house to escape her brother Charles. It is implied that she had an incestuous relationship with Charles. After their wedding night, Hammond is sure that she is not a virgin—a claim Blanche denies. On their way back from their honeymoon, Hammond returns to the plantation where Ellen is kept and purchases her as his sex slave. Eventually, he comes to genuinely care for her.

Meanwhile, Hammond purchases a Mandingo slave named Ganymede. Nicknamed "Mede", the slave works for Hammond as a prize-fighter. He is forced to soak in a large cauldron of very hot salt water to ostensibly toughen his skin. Hammond also breeds Mede with Pearl, even though Pearl is a blood relation of Mede's. Hammond makes a great deal of money betting on Mede's fights.

Rejected by Hammond, Blanche becomes a slovenly alcoholic who does nothing all day long. While Hammond is on a business trip alone, Blanche discovers Ellen is pregnant. Correctly assuming the baby is Hammond's, Blanche beats Ellen. Ellen flees, but falls down some stairs, and miscarries. Hammond (who had promised Ellen that her baby would be freed), returns to Falconhurst and discovers Ellen lost the baby. Threatened with bodily harm by Warren, Ellen does not tell him how she miscarried. Hammond gives Ellen a pair of ruby earrings, which she wears while serving an evening meal. Hammond gave the matching necklace to Blanche, who becomes enraged to find Ellen being publicly favored by Hammond.

Hammond leaves on another business trip, taking Ellen with him. A drunken Blanche demands that Mede come to her bedroom. Although the other slaves attempt to stop him, Mede does as he is ordered. Blanche says she will accuse Mede of rape if he does not have sex with her, so he is forced to spend the night with her, which he does on several occasions.

Hammond returns to the plantation. A great deal of time has passed since Hammond and Blanche's marriage, and Warren Maxwell is eager for a grandchild. Sensing that the marriage is troubled, Warren locks Hammond and Blanche in a room together and refuses to let them out until they reconcile. They appear to do so. A short time later, Blanche announces she is pregnant, but when the baby is born, it is clear the child is mixed race. To avoid a scandal, the child, on doctor's orders, is allowed to bleed to death from its umbilical cord. Sickened at Blanche's sexual indiscretion, Hammond asks the doctor if he has the poison he uses on old slaves and horses. He pours the poison into a toddy for Blanche. An outraged Hammond seeks out Mede, intending to kill him. As Hammond attempts to force Mede into a boiling cauldron of water, Mede tries to tell him that Blanche blackmailed him into having sex with her. Hammond shoots Mede twice with a rifle and the second shot throws Mede into the boiling water. Hammond uses a pitchfork to drown Mede. In a fit of fury, the slave Agamemnon picks up the rifle and aims it at Hammond. When Warren calls him a "crazy nigger" and demands that he put the gun down, the slave shoots and kills Warren. As he runs away, Hammond kneels helpless next to Warren's lifeless body.


Perry King and Brenda Sykes in Mandingo


The original novel sold over 4.5 million copies. Film rights were eventually bought by Dino de Laurentiis.[2]

Producer Ralphe Serpe said during filming that the movie was:

A human, sociological story that's going to bring about a better understanding between the races ... We're faithful to the story of the book but not the spirit. I mean, the book's hackwork, isn't it? It's almost repulsive. A lot of people have read it, but they read it for the wrong reasons. It's really a story of love. We had the script rewritten three times. ... I hated that ending in the book where the guy boils the slave down and pours the soup over his wife's grave. I mean, we have the slave boiled but we cut out the part where he pours the soup on his grave. He just ... pulls away. And we know that tomorrow there's going to be a lot of trouble. It's really a very beautiful ending.[2]

Charlton Heston turned down the role of the father and the role of his son was rejected by Timothy Bottoms, Jan Michael Vincent, Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges. Boxer Ken Norton turned down a $250,000 gate to fight Jerry Quarry to make the film.[2]


Contemporary reviews[edit]

The critical reception of Mandingo was predominantly negative upon release, with the film being seen as being campy by reviewers in 1975.[3] On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a score of 29% based on 21 reviews, with an average rating of 5.6/10.[4] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times criticized the film, calling it "racist trash, obscene in its manipulation of human beings and feelings, and excruciating to sit through in an audience made up largely of children, as I did last Saturday afternoon", giving it a "zero star" rating.[5] Richard Schickel of Time magazine found the film boring and cliché-ridden.[6] Leonard Maltin ranked the film as a "BOMB" and dismissed with the word "Stinko!"[7]

Critical re-evaluation[edit]

In the years following the film's initial release, the reception of the film became more favorable. The Chicago Reader writer Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in 1985 that Mandingo is "One of the most neglected and underrated Hollywood films of its era [...] it’s doubtful whether many more insightful and penetrating movies about American slavery exist."[3] Movie critic Robin Wood was enthusiastic about the film, calling it "the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood."[8] The New York Times columnist Dave Kehr called it "a thinly veiled Holocaust film that spares none of its protagonists", further describing it as "Fleischer's last great crime film, in which the role of the faceless killer is played by an entire social system."[9] The film has also been the subject of scholarly praise for its handling of race.[10][11][12]

In 1996, director Quentin Tarantino has cited Mandingo and Showgirls as the only two instances "in the last twenty years [that] a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie".[13] In Tarantino's film Django Unchained (2012), the terminology of "Mandingo fighting" was inspired by the 1975 film.[14]


Drum, the sequel to Mandingo, was released the following year. Released by United Artists, it was once again produced by Dino De Laurentiis. Ken Norton, Brenda Sykes, and Lillian Hayman were the only actors from the first film to return for the sequel. Norton and Sykes played different characters, and Hayman returned in the role of Lucretia Borgia. Warren Oates took over for Perry King in the role of Hammond Maxwell. The story is set 15 years after the events of the first film.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ AFI Catalog - The American Film Institute, retrieved August 11, 2022
  2. ^ a b c Millar, Jeff (April 6, 1975). "A Silk Purse Out of a Sow's Ear?". Los Angeles Times. p. m31.
  3. ^ a b Rosenbaum, Jonathan (October 26, 1985). "Mandingo". Chicago Reader. Retrieved May 11, 2022.
  4. ^ "Mandingo". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  5. ^ "Mandingo :: :: Reviews". July 25, 1975. Archived from the original on June 6, 2011. Retrieved November 17, 2010.
  6. ^ Schickel, Richard (May 12, 1975). "Cinema: Cold, Cold Ground". TIME. Archived from the original on January 11, 2005.
  7. ^ Maltin, Leonard, ed. (August 2007). Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (2008 ed.). New York: Signet. p. 860.
  8. ^ Wood, Robin (1998). Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond. Columbia University Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-231-07605-0.
  9. ^ Kehr, Dave (February 17, 2008). "In a Corrupt World Where the Violent Bear It Away". The New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2012.
  10. ^ DeVos, Andrew (May 1, 2013). ""Expect the Truth": Exploiting History with Mandingo". American Studies. 52 (2): 5–21. doi:10.1353/ams.2013.0005. ISSN 2153-6856. S2CID 144849730.
  11. ^ Southern history on screen : race and rights, 1976–2016. Jack, Bryan M., 1969-. Lexington. January 8, 2019. ISBN 978-0-8131-7646-8. OCLC 1076830655.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. ^ Race and racism : essays in social geography. Jackson, Peter, 1955-. London. 1987. ISBN 0-04-305002-6. OCLC 16082217.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ Udovitch, Mim (1998). "Mim Udovitch/1996". In Peary, Gerald (ed.). Quentin Tarantino: Interviews. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 172–173. ISBN 978-1-57806-051-1.
  14. ^ Daniel Bernardi The Persistence of Whiteness: Race and Contemporary ... – 2013 "For the purposes of breeding chattel, he must also buy a "Mandingo" buck, a male slave. In the film, a "Mandingo" represents the finest stock of slaves deemed most suitable for fighting and breeding."

Further reading[edit]

Sommerville, Diane Miller, " 'Now You Are Ready for Mandingo': Sex, Slavery, and Historical Realism," in Writing History with Lightning: Cinematic Representations of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Matthew C. Hulbert and John C. Inscoe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019): 112-124.

External links[edit]