The Klansman

Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Millard Kaufman and Samuel Fuller (based on the novel by William Bradford Huie)
Stars: Lee Marvin (Sheriff Track Bascomb), Richard Burton (Breck Stancill), Cameron Mitchell (Butt Cutt Cates), O.J. Simpson (Garth), Lola Falana (Loretta Sykes), David Huddleston (Mayor Hardy Riddle), Luciana Paluzzi (Trixie), Linda Evans (Nancy Poteet), Ed Call (Shaneyfelt), John Alderson (Vernon Hodo), John Pearce (Taggart), David Ladd (Flagg), Vic Perrin (Hector), Spence Wil-Dee (Willy Washington)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1974
Country: U.S.
The Klansman
The Klansman

The Klansman is a fascinating mess of a Southern potboiler about race and violence. Set in a small Alabama town that is dominated by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, it at times appears to be aspiring to some kind of noble social commentary, but more often than not stumbles over its own exploitative tendencies and lack of subtlety. It certainly shows the Klan to be a ruthless group of backwards racist hypocrites who deploy violence at every turn and control virtually every seat of power to ensure their 19th-century-style stranglehold on the political process, but that isn’t anything that necessarily needed to be dramatized by the mid-1970s, at least not without some more nuance and care and thought. This is sledgehammer social drama.

Lee Marvin stars as Track Bascomb, the sheriff of the fictional Atoka County, Alabama, where he spends a great deal of his time managing simmering racial tensions (the film opens with a scene in which a group of white men have paid a mentally challenged black man to rape a black woman for their entertainment, an activity that Track busts up with the kind of casual attitude one might take toward someone not paying his parking meter). Track, however, is not a one-note villain. He is technically a member of the Klan, albeit largely for political reasons; he does, after all, need to be re-elected each year, something that the town mayor and Klan leader Hardy Riddle (David Huddleston) constantly reminds him. He is also saddled with a deputy named Butt Cutt Cates (Cameron Mitchell) who is virulently, unapologetically racist. Track is more of a quiet accomplice, allowing a certain amount of racial animosity to keep the powerful whites satisfied, but without letting the county descend into complete anarchy.

The threat of complete social breakdown becomes all too real when a trio of events collide that rapidly escalate the county’s simmering tensions: the rape of a white woman named Nancy Poteet (Linda Evans) by a black man; the subsequent revenge castration and murder of a black man by the Klan that is witnessed by the man’s friend, Garth (O.J. Simpson in his first movie role), who then becomes a vigilante-assassin, shooting Klan members with a sniper rifle at random intervals; and the arrival of a voters’ rights group to register black residents of the county (although never explicitly stated, the film seems to be taking place some time in the mid-1960s). Track often turns to Breck Stancill (Richard Burton), a reclusive military veteran whose family has lived in the county for eight generations, but whose generally liberal attitudes about race in America and his willingness to let poor blacks live for free on his property do nothing to endear him to the local populace (his tearing down of Klan recruiting posters at the local barber shop in fully view of Butt Cutt and his minions doesn’t help, either). A hard drinker and casual womanizer, Breck is the closest thing the film has to a conscience, which is most clearly indicated by his relationship with Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana), a young black woman who has returned to the county from Chicago to care for her dying mother. Everyone assumes that she and Breck are sexually involved, and they also assume that Loretta has really returned to help the so-called out-of-town “agitators.” What ensues is a cascading series of violent events that bring the film to a climactic shoot-out on Breck’s property, but without really saying anything other than violence begets more violence and racist people are bad.

The film was based on the 1967 novel of the same title by Alabama-born journalist-turned-novelist William Bradford Huie, who wrote about the civil rights movement and, most famously, the murder of Emmett Till and the “Freedom Summer” killings. Huie also covered the Klan extensively, and The Klansman was based largely on his own research and reporting (he had originally intended to write a nonfiction history book, but then decided to turn it into a fictional novel). The film version squanders the dramatic opportunities inherent in Huie’s book in favor of cheap sensationalism and ham-handed plotting; the film’s racialized violence, while all too real in the historical record, feels consistently cheap and cartoonish. The screenplay is credited to Millard Kaufman and Samuel Fuller, the latter of whom was originally contracted to write and direct. If you believe Fuller’s account (as recounted in his highly entertaining autobiography A Third Face), Fuller put together a masterful screenplay that John Cassavetes called “one of the best scripts he’d ever read,” but was sidelined by the studio, his contract to direct revoked and his screenplay heavily rewritten “by an old studio hand” (surely a reference to Kaufman, whose credits include the 1955 western Bad Day at Black Rock and the 1957 romantic drama Raintree Country). Fuller’s script, which ended with a triple crucifixion, was diluted into what he described as a “styleless melodrama,” which is a fairly apt description of how The Klansman turned out.

Lee Marvin had signed on when Fuller was slated to direct (they would eventually work together on Fuller’s 1980 war epic The Big Red One) and was stuck with the contract, and his flat performance suggests an actor whose attention was elsewhere. Burton, on the other hand, who was drinking as much as he was fighting with Elizabeth Taylor, delivers a stumbling, mumbling performance that is at its most ridiculous when he is trying to convince us of his fighting skills. His buffoonish physical movements and the awkward editing that tries to make him look adept at hand-to-hand combat combine in a way that is outright laughable.

British director Terence Young, who by all accounts took the gig strictly for the paycheck, seems to have little idea what to do with the material, resulting in dramatic scenes that are inert and violence (particularly a protracted rape scene) that feels more unseemly than infuriating. Young had ably handled the first three James Bond Films (1962’s Dr. No, 1963’s From Russia With Love, and 1964’s Thunderball), as well as the memorable thriller Wait Until Dark (1967), but he was only a few years away from helming the notorious bomb Inchon (1981), a disastrous and expensive movie about the Korean War funded by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon. In other words, his star was clearly on the decline, and the hack work he does here is testament to that descent. Perhaps at some point The Klansman had the potential to live up to its incendiary material, but it ends up doing little more than crassly exploiting it.

The Klansman Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioDTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
DistributorOlive Films
Release DateFebruary 21, 2017

The Klansman has been in the public domain for some time, so there are a handful of bargain-quality DVDs out there already, all of which were made from a heavily edited version that was likely prepared for broadcast television (the same can be said for the version currently streaming on Amazon). Olive Films’ new Blu-ray, which boasts a 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation, features the original theatrical version and surely looks far superior to those editions (the Amazon streaming version, which I sampled out of curiosity, looks positively awful). Olive’s transfer is very clean, with virtually no signs of age or damage. It very much looks like a film produced in the early 1970s, which means that it is slightly soft and is composed of primarily desaturated colors (the splashes of blood and the burning crosses certainly stand out). The print used for the transfer looks like it was perhaps a tad faded, but otherwise the image looks quite good. The original monaural soundtrack is clean, but certainly limited by the original mix. The music and sound effects are good, but the dialogue seems a bit tamped down in comparison.
No supplements are included.

Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (1.5)

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