‘The Klansman’ (1974): A must-see for lovers of deeply wrong moviemaking

One of the holy grails of trash exploitation, finally available uncut!

By Paul Mavis

Olive Films and Paramount Pictures have released on Blu-ray The Klansman, the 1974 racial potboiler from Paramount, directed by Terence Young, written by Millard Kaufman and based on William Bradford Huie’s novel (with maybe a wee bit of Samuel Fuller left over from the initial script), and starring the absolutely one-of-a-kind whack-job cast of Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Cameron Mitchell, Lola Falana, David Huddleston, Linda Evans, and double murderer (according to the civil trial) O.J. Simpson.

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Ditched by Paramount after loads of bad pre-production press, and as a smattering of protests erupted during its initial release, The Klansman gained almost instant cult notoriety as an artistic failure of epic proportions—a reputation further burnished today due to all those public domain copies out there that tease our sick hopes with fuzzy, edited, fullscreen prints. Seen today, The Klansman’s not nearly as bad as our imaginations made it out to be, but it is a wonderfully bizarre exercise in conflicted intentions, with the saving grace of all good exploitation—it wallows in its own grotesqueries. In other words: must-see viewing for lovers of deeply wrong moviemaking.

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Crackertown, USA, in Atoka County, Alabama. “Hands off” county sheriff Track Bascomb (Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen, Prime Cut) has his hands full keeping a lid on the town’s simmering racial tensions. The local Klan membership, headed up by Mayor Hardy Riddle (David Huddleston, Blazing Saddles, Santa Claus: The Movie), is jess itchin’ for some action against them uppity negroes, since they’s goin’ to be a big voter drive commencin’ soon, and you know what that means for the minority whites in the county. Riddle advises caution to the pent-up peckerwoods—no killin’, maimin’, or blowin’ up any black churches, less it affect business—but iffn you have to muss up a couple of black bucks to let everyone knowd what’s what, well…so be it.

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Hated local gentry Breck Stancill (Richard Burton, The Medusa Touch, The Exorcist II: The Heretic), generational enemy of the Klan since his great grandpappy was hung for resisting succession (Atoka’s general populace thinks Breck is a Commie because he ain’t got a TV and he…reads books), will maintain a “dignified neutrality” when questioned by Track if he’ll offer shelter on his mountain to the city negroes and Commie agitators bused in for the voter drive. That neutrality should last all of about five minutes after Breck’s gorgeous protégé, upwardly mobile Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana, The Liberation of L.B. Jones, Lady Cocoa), returns home from Chicago, ostensibly to visit her ailing grandmother who lives rent-free on Breck’s mountain, along with the town’s other poor blacks.

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When pretty white lady Nancy Poteet (Linda Evans, Beach Blanket Bingo, Avalanche Express) is raped by an unseen black man, the bigoted town goes into hyper drive, with her fellow good Christian townspeople spurning her, while the Klan goes apesh*t, castrating one young man while another, Garth (O.J. Simpson, The Towering Inferno, The Cassandra Crossing), barely escapes with his life. Turned into an instant Black Power revolutionary, Garth begins a deadly guerilla-style war against the Klan, while Breck ditches insanely hot meter maid (or something) Trixie (Luciana Paluzzi, Thunderball, The Green Slime) for Nancy, whom he takes under his wing. After cretinous Deputy Sheriff “Butt Cutt” Cates (Cameron Mitchell, Slaughter, The Toolbox Murders) viciously rapes Loretta, and Garth keeps picking off white hoods, it’s up to the conflicted Track to decide which side he supports: the Klan or Breck, in a final bloody showdown.

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My only childhood memory of The Klansman was seeing the ad for it in our local newspaper, and wondering what the hell were big, big stars Lee Marvin and Richard Burton doing in a relatively cheapo piece of AIP-like Southern-fried drive-in action-movie trash? It’s a good question, then and now, and their presence only adds to the strange, irresistible mix of the movie (as an adult with a little bit of movie history under my belt, I now understand that inveterate booze hounds Burton and Marvin were indeed big—but rapidly falling—stars by 1974).

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Watching it today, you have to give credit to The Klansman just for having the balls to be notably offensive during a time in movie history when the field was crowded with mainstream movies unfettered in their bad taste. Today’s SJW/white knight “film” critics will no doubt wring out their panties at The Klansman’s geegaw grotesqueness, but exploitation cinema has always been about enjoying what makes the uptight “squares” uncomfortable—and what could possibly be more uncomfortable to today’s mainstream snowflake audience (today’s squares, through and through, even though hilariously, they think just the opposite) than a movie like The Klansman, with its slobbering racist goons shouting “nigger!” every five minutes, in-between horrors like rape and castration and O.J. Simpson’s performance, and a central message that reads quite simply: the only possible outcome of race relations in America is senseless violence?

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Of course, what those affronted critics will purposefully ignore in their outraged write-ups of this new Blu-ray of The Klansman is that this racially offensive movie (it’s belligerently offensive to all races) was produced by an African-American, William D. Alexander, a noted documentarian who in 1974 was shepherding the highest-budgeted movie a black producer had ever delivered for Hollywood. If you’re one of those people who think it’s just awful that The Klansman even exists in the first place (see: Confederate flags, statues, and The Dukes of Hazzard re-runs), then talk to Alexander (a neat trick since he’s dead). He was in charge of the production; he gathered the money needed to film it, and he oversaw the filming of the script he and Paramount approved. I don’t think that fact alone explains why The Klansman turned out the way it did…but it sure makes it harder for sniffy, injured critics looking to score brownie points with their perpetually outraged and wounded readers, to claim an abomination like The Klansman was all “racist” Hollywood’s fault (there’s some question over whether or not Paramount actually had any say in the production. Sam Fuller, the original screenwriter/director who was canned in pre-production, said yes, but AFI and other sources state that The Klansman was strictly an indie pick-up for Paramount, which had no skin in the game. So to speak).

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What’s truly weird about The Klansman isn’t its exceedingly tawdry exploitation elements, but rather the genuinely interesting tangents that are hidden in the movie…or rather buried there through incompetence and gaucherie. You may hate the method of delivery, but The Klansman does give voice to some of the more uncomfortable aspects of racial unrest in America, and does so in a remarkably crude, boorish way that occasionally works. Marvin’s sheriff, the “hero” of the movie, is a shadowy creation that looks and talks like a likeable, authoritative anti-hero—until we realize he’s seriously deluded. He thinks he’s “smoothing things over” in the town, but he can’t admit the truth: he’s allowing crime and degradation and humiliation against the town’s blacks to continue, in order to maintain his job, his authority, and his way of life (in a few scenes, such as Marvin’s visible self-disgust at what he must make Falana do after she’s raped by Mitchell—agree to lie it wasn’t Mitchell or he Marvin will let Falana bleed to death—underrated actor Marvin shows there might have been pure gold among the dross here).

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Burton’s character is poorly drawn, but there are possibilities there, too, such as a country brahmin who’s completely out of touch with reality in terms of what his noble ideas are actually costing everyone. When Marvin tells Burton no one is going to help defend “Breck’s blacks” against the Klan, because Burton’s letting them live rent free on his mountain while collecting government checks doesn’t sit well with the tax-paying whites, it’s another example of Kauffman’s script bringing up economic aspects of racism that sure weren’t discussed in most blaxploitation movies at that time (the script tries to play fair, occasionally giving the other side of the coin: blacks who finally rise out of Atoka County create a workforce vacuum for exploiters like the Mayor, who then can’t pay whites the chicken feed rates they used to force on black laborers, who had no legal means of redress).

With interesting elements like those in the script, if producer Alexander and scripter Kauffman (who penned other high-pedigree, racially-themed movies like Bad Day at Black Rock and Raintree County) had originally intended The Klansman to be a serious statement on race, they and director Terence Young (Wait Until Dark, The Poppy is Also a Flower) ultimately failed, due to a surreal mishmash of tones and intents that bury any potential cohesive meaning.

With its obvious California topography subbing for Alabama, and its strange time warp feeling (events depicted seem like from ten years earlier, during the hot civil rights voter registration troubles of the 1960s—not 1974), we’re immediately off our footing. Subplots flood over us—it’s certainly busy Southern-heat melodrama, if nothing else—in-between the heartless, over-the-top violent scenes (Mitchell’s rape of Falana takes the cake for graphic repugnance, only topped by the once-in-a-lifetime movie moment of a disgusted Marvin contemptuously smearing menstrual blood on the crying rapist’s face). Almost immediately there are story problems, and as The Klansman rolls along, more head-shaking tangents are introed and dropped: not one but two pointless scenes about Marvin’s son going to West Point; the notion that rape victim Evans needs to be seen as sexually desirable again to “save” her (I dare anyone to diagram that discussion with Burton and the voter registration reverend, and make sense of it); Burton’s instant, inexplicable affair with Evans (we totally forget she’s even on his mountain), leading to a marriage proposal, no less; Burton’s heretofore unseen purebred dog getting killed (the only time he looks genuinely upset), and so on. By the time you realize they’re never going to explain the central crime that’s The Klansman’s catalyst—the rape of Evans—you’re long past caring (you can guess at the reasons why the moviemakers pull no punches explicitly showing white Mitchell raping black Falana…after demurely cutting away from an unseen black man raping white Evans). You’re just waiting for The Klansman’s next crazy-ass moment to come up.

And boy howdy are there a lot of them in The Klansman. Jaw-dropping lines come left, right, and below the belt in seemingly every scene, from someone describing Evans’ rape as “a black peg in a white hole,” to Falana referring to herself as Burton’s “private piece of brown comfort.” That kind of “color” analogy continues throughout the movie, such as when insanely hot Paluzzi—whose presence in The Klansman is laughably unmotivated—asks a mummified Burton if he’s “getting his chocolate milk from [Falana]?” (looking at walking corpse Burton, formaldehyde seems more likely).

Action scenes are choreographed for maximum laughs (why is fugitive O.J. sitting on a park bench, putting together his sniper rifle, while oblivious couples sit just a few feet away? Better yet: why are those benches on the side of a mountain?), with the highlight being the single worst karate fight in major motion picture history. An immobile Burton and a visibly embarrassed Mitchell fall around on their asses as Burton slowly lashes out trembley rubber hose arms at a flailing Mitchell, all to paralyzingly funny effect (three quarts of vodka-a-day Burton, who literally almost died from alcoholism during The Klansman’s production, recounted a notorious story where, years after the pic’s shoot, he met Marvin for what he thought was the very first time…and had to be reminded by an incredulous Marvin that they had actually shot a picture together).

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The insane finale, with the local Klansmen’s huge, bulky white robes and hoods providing hilariously inadequate camouflage during a nighttime assault on Breck’s mountain, is a treat of pointless nihilism, as Marvin strikes a Dirty Dozen pose with a machine gun as he mows down the Southern knights…while poor, inebriated Richard Burton—possibly the greatest movie actor of the 20th century—struggles to lift a tiny little rifle with his arthritic hands. Reportedly, they had to lash the drunken actor to the tree with unseen ropes, to get the shot (my god what I would have given to see that massively depressing, strangely heroic—and utterly hilarious—sight). When Paluzzi has The Klansman’s last word—“What a stupid waste”—she is so right. And thankfully, so, so wrong.

A short word about the video quality of this new Blu transfer of The Klansman, important considering all the public domain copies out there. The Klansman’s 1080p HD 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced widescreen Blu transfer is a huge improvement over the way you’ve probably seen this before (like all those 3rd and 4th generation fullscreen public domain copies). That isn’t to say it’s perfect. The biggest complaint is a soft-ish image that’s only noticeable in some of the longer shots (I’m betting that’s the fault of the original materials they’re using here). Otherwise, there’s a big uptick in terms of image detail, color values (the movie’s a little blah in that department, anyway—lots of browns and yellows), and contrast. All in all, short of a restored camera negative 35mm print at MOMA (hee hee!), this is the best you’re going to experience The Klansman. No extras, unfortunately, not even an original trailer—next time you want a commentary track for a taboo title, Olive, I’ll give you one that will move units, baby!

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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