Like the trailer for The Arena (1974), that for Mandingo (1975), a Paramount Studios release of a Dino DeLaurentiis production of the bestselling 1957 novel by Kyle Onstott, constitutes a provocative and well-chosen thematic and film-historical introduction to Quentin Tarentino‘s post-modern tribute to the exploitation genre Django Unchained.
Although the films are remarkably similar in subject matter–the brutality of slavery, the sexual complications of human chattel, and the spectacle of “gladiator” style fighting– there is no happy ending for Ganymede (an odd name, since the mythological original was a beautiful boy beloved of Hercules) or the enslaved mistress of plantation scion, Hammond Maxwell, and no comeuppance for their victimizers.
But then, Mandingo purports to be realistic; Django constitutes historical fantasy. And yet both use provocative subjects and deplorable events as an occasion, if not quite the justification, for anti-racist advocacy.
Here’s what the trailer’s V.O. says, over scenes of racial, sexual, economic and cultural violence and coercion, human degradation and dignified if hopeless defiance set on a fictional plantation in 1830’s Alabama.
“The shocking realism
All the magnificence and depravity
The passion of the explosive novel that sold over 9.5 milion copies
Has now been brought to the screen
Mandingo, the pride of his masters
Mandingo, the strongest and the bravest
Mandingo is the first true motion picture epic of the old south.”
These are mostly generic claims, emphasizing realism, provenance, magnificent cinematic qualities and epic heroism. The visuals, however, propose a different narrative, a dark, oppressive story in which intimate personal relationships provide the lens for dramatic dioramas of racial violence, sexual jealousy and human trafficking. For music cues, Afro-Caribbean drum beats (think New Orleans’ Congo Square) imbue energy, tension and topicality, while a closing blues vocal underlines the tragic outcomes.
Whether Mandingo is “the first true motion picture epic” of the Old South is debatable, but its race relations–unlike those depicted in Gone With the Wind or Jezebel–are agonistic, tangled and appalling. That certainly sounds historically accurate.
It will be useful to note, here, that the term exploitation film, despite the connotative charge of the word, is not intended to demean its quality, but rather to describe the motivation and circumstances of its production. Considerations of exploitation (finding an audience, engaging it and selling tickets to them) are critical and primary factors, rather than the expression of a director or producer’s cinematic vision. Exploitation films are developed in response to the zeitgeist of an era, the issues most pressing to it and the competition in production or release. In other words, marketing comes first, rather than film art. They are thus, a fascinating (even obvious) subject for the study of trailers which share their commercial impetus and marketplace imperative. They are thus a fascinating and relevant window on contemporary film aesthetics, economics and production.
Mandingo, the film, is not, by this definition, a purely exploitative film. It is based on a play inspired by the best-selling novel, published in 1957. 18 years later, in 1975, when De Laurentiis released the film, the reception environment for such an “authentic” account of slavery was noticeably better, but still eminently and desirably capable of generating controversy and free press. As is evident from the trailer, the distributors were aware of and ready to leverage the provocative elements of the story.
Thus, the Mandingo marketing campaign exploits controversial subject matters (interracial sex, institutional violence, enduring political antagonism, and contemporary debates) to attract attention and engage viewers with hot button emotional issues. Its trailer, as a marketing and promotional exercise, reduces, simplifies and exploits serious, significant and complicated subjects, in order to persuade would be audiences to buy tickets, independent of whether they may sympathize with the anti-racist point of view of the narrative. In this 3:35 film, stories and persons, scenes and dialogue are utilized as means, rather than ends, which is finally an ironic commentary on a film about the political, moral and economic problem of slavery.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.