The Klansman (1974)
The Klansman (1974)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.

Release Date: November 13th, 1974 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Terence Young Actors: Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Cameron Mitchell, O.J. Simpson, Lola Falana, David Huddleston, Luciana Paluzzi, Linda Evans

 


 

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n Wallace Country, Atoka County sheriff Track Bascomb (Lee Marvin) comes upon a rowdy group of men forming a circle around a young black woman. As the mob cheers on an oversized, mentally challenged black man named Lightning Rod (Larry Williams), the bumbling brute tears off the girl’s shirt and pins her down in the dirt. The sheriff breaks up the party, though he’s placated by the explanation offered by one of the onlookers: “Ain’t no nigger gal mind being raped a little.” Rod is sent home after earning a dollar for his participation in this particularly detestable brand of entertainment (though here, it upsets no one but the victim), and the sheriff happily gives one of the instigators a ride home. To top off the jaw-dropping introduction, this sequence takes place in between the opening credits; once the crowd disperses and Bascomb heads back down the road, the upbeat music chimes in again and graphics pop back up onscreen.

It’s a hell of a way to open a film, as it establishes not only the blatant, uncomfortable racism pervasive in the Alabama setting, but also the startling nonchalance with which the characters digest the racial insensitivities. In fact, it’s horrifying – yet the players all appear complacent, reinforcing the absolute normalcy of inhuman practices toward minorities in this time and place. Further supporting this is Track’s visit to the Stancills Mountain property, owned by Breck Stancill (Richard Burton), where the sheriff inquires about upcoming protests over voting rights and how Breck might react should their demonstrations encroach on his territory (to which he hints at a “dignified neutrality”).

Meanwhile, a KKK meeting with Mayor Hardy Riddle (David Huddleston) takes place, substituting for what should surely be a town hall assembly. The mayor assures the members that the Grand Dragon in Birmingham has not objected to the looming “outside agitators,” and therefore the Klan won’t be interfering in any civil rights rallies. But the “good ol’ boys” are growing impatient with talking and not acting, forcing Riddle to lay down some ground rules. The Klan can cause some light trouble if they want, but they’re to do no killing, no dynamiting of churches, and no slicing off of anyone’s testicles.

However, when word reaches the meeting that blonde, white woman Nancy Poteet (Linda Evans) just reported a rape by a black man, the Klan members immediately assume Willy Washington (Spence Wil-Dee) – a black, renowned, local ladies’ man – is the culprit. “We’re just trying to save the country the cost of a trial,” insists one of the men who attempts to beat the sheriff to Willy’s arrest. When they’re unable to wrest away their quarry from the determined law enforcement agent, they instead locate a random black man, Henry, to castrate and shoot. But Garth (O.J. Simpson) witnesses the mutilation and murder and plots revenge against the participants.

Nancy’s husband can’t stay in town because he blames his wife for having been raped by a black man; he can’t handle the looks and the questions he gets about how he could stay with a woman who has “had sex” with a black man. The church congregation similarly can’t understand why she won’t commit suicide, since she was unfortunate enough to survive rape by a black man. And a town drunk beats his wife, his kid, and his cat, but after sleeping it off in a cell, he’s allowed to return home without any judicial penalties. The film may be trying to establish a mindset and recreate unsettling times, but the scenarios aren’t purposeful enough to generate thought-provoking discussions; instead, they’re mostly just disagreeable, vulgar, and offensive. Any worthwhile statements the film might be trying to make are too buried beneath extraneous details, pitiful excuses, and far too many needless characters; it’s controversial for all the wrong reasons.

The complexities of race relations in the ’60s, demonstrators and authority figures rocking the boat of “country Christianity,” curiously misplaced fears of communism, the dangers of mob mentalities, and the extremely bitter ironies of racists convincing themselves that their vile behaviors are righteous actions executed by “God’s instruments” are all on display in this ugly exploration of small-town, Southern, historical intolerance. Even if viewers could look past the graphic rape scenes and violence; the mismatched genre notes of crime, revenge thriller, political drama, and ludicrously confused romance; and the lengthy stretches of inactivity or meandering subplots, it’s the characters that are most unpleasant. No one does the right thing, even when they’re pretending to do the right thing. In fact, nearly all of the protagonists’ choices are reprehensible – sometimes worse than the white-hooded, cross-burning antagonists themselves. “The Klansman” is a strange, conflicted, unsatisfying picture, completely unsure of how it wanted to relate its brutal, destructive tale of racial tensions, vigilantism, and hard-won reform.

– Mike Massie

  • 1/10