Now on Blu-Ray: Lee Marvin Battles the Klan in 1974’s ‘The Klansman’

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The Klansman

The opening frames of the 1974 piece of exploitation from director Terrance Young, The Klansman, warns the audience immediately with a sign that reads, “Drive Carefully. You are in Wallace Country,” a nod to the segregationist Governor of Alabama George Wallace. The camera pulls away from the sign as the Staples Singers start belting out their song “The Good Christian People” as we start to follow Sheriff Track Bascomb (Lee Marvin) as he patrols the streets of his quaint Alabama hometown. The status quo in this region is one where a few stand on the backs of the many for their own personal gain, and use violence and intimidation to quash any dissent. This is a powder keg on the verge of a major explosion.

Now being issued on Blu-ray for the first time by Olive Films, The Klansman is a curious case of cinematic provocation, one that really attempts a delicate balance in its exploitative examination of race relations. Judged in a modern context, a lot of people would be taken aback by the harsh nature of Young’s film. However, judged in the context of its time, there’s a lot of daring choices being made in The Klansman in how it approaches a delicate subject with blunt force. Would The Klansman be considered problematic? You betcha. Is The Klansman an entertaining piece of ‘70s action with a socially conscious tinge? You betcha.

Sheriff Bascomb’s opening patrol takes him to a horrific scene where a group of rednecks have circled around a young black woman being sexually assaulted by a large black man. The rednecks cheer and laugh as this poor woman is struggling to free from the lecherous clutches of her tormentor. However, Sheriff Bascomb simply breaks up this good ol’ boy happening, setting the young woman free but refusing to arrest anybody involved in this ghastly scene. Sheriff Bascomb may be a man of the law but he’s also a man of his region, and he takes a fairly hands off approach to policing the racially motivated crime in his town; as he explains later he aims to cool things off instead of locking everyone up. It’s a fascinating character as played by Lee Marvin, a man driven by his duty to the law but afraid to rock the boat of the angry, vocally racist locals who elected him to his post. As the film progresses, he’s a character that must choose between what’s right and his own personal comfort, a choice that few in the South were willing to make.

Elsewhere in the town, Breck Stancill (Richard Burton) oversees his expansive property. Not a fan of the actions of the Klan and despised by them for his generosity to his oppressed neighbors, Stancill is an outcast for his family’s generational opposition to institutional racism – his great grandfather was hung from a tree for his opposition to slavery and secession. Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana), a young woman whom Stanchill has mentored, has returned to town to see her dying grandmother, and to attend a protest scheduled to take place later in the week.

Things escalate when Nancy Poteet (Linda Evans), a white woman, is raped by a black man. The members of the Klan hear the news during their latest meeting led by the town’s mayor Hardy Riddle (Tom Huddleston). The suspect is Willy Washington (Spence Wil-Dee), but Sheriff Bascomb is able to arrest the man before the bloodthirsty mob of the Klan is able to exact their twisted brand of lawless justice. Undeterred, the members of the Klan decide to terrorize two black men, one of which, Garth (O.J. Simpson) escapes and witness the terrible violence perpetrated against his friend. As the Klan continues their reign of terror as a means to the squash the impending protests, Garth takes on his own violent ways and begins laying waste to the members of the Klan. All of which leads to an even more forceful reaction from the Klan and its law enforcement member in Deputy Sheriff Butt Cutt Cakes (Cameron Mitchell). Nobody is safe and there’s no peace in the valley as a violent showdown lurks on the horizon.

The screenplay adaptation of William Bradford Huie’s novel by Samuel Fuller and Millard Kaufman doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of its subject matter in the slightest. From the opening scenes until the closing credits, director Terrance Young and his screenwriters push the horrific events right in your face, daring you to turn away from the horrors in front of your eyes. The violence of The Klansman is fairly exploitative in nature yet it’s astute in highlighting how violence is used as a form of intimidation and a means of oppression to retain the unjust status quo. This, too, extends to the film’s use of sexual violence as a way to further silence any opposition. Where The Klansman avoids some of the noxious use of sexual assault in movies is that these horrible events aren’t the motivation for a man to seek revenge on behalf of a terrorized woman; these are moments that show that methods employed by the hateful know no bounds and dehumanizing degradation is their objective. The fact that Terrance Young brings his British sensibilities to American violence gives The Klansman an extra edge in its brutal look at the darkest parts of the American id.

Lee Marvin’s Sheriff Bascomb is the most interesting character in The Klansman because he’s a man that must take a stand for what’s right. However, Sheriff Bascomb must go on a journey to see the errors of his ways before he makes that stand. It plays against movie star conventions that Marvin’s character isn’t morally upstanding from the get-go, and the character makes a number of decisions that are straight up horrible as a passive defense of the oppressive status quo. The journey of Sheriff Bascomb reflects the journey that many Americans have had to take in their response to the Civil Rights Movement, with an aversion to public protests yet being unable to stomach the horrific violence those in the search of equality are subjected to.

For decades rumors have swirled about Richard Burton’s state on the set of The Klansman, with many saying that the veteran actor was in the midst of an unbelievable bender while filming. Burton has many scenes sitting down or lying in bed, and the longstanding speculation had been that Burton was so inebriated that the filmmakers didn’t trust his ability to stand. His wobbly line delivery and staggering walk (although the character does have a leg injury) only lends credence to old rumors surrounding Burton. This becomes especially apparent in the actor’s lone fight scene, where he awkwardly flails about while he’s supposedly beating up Butt Cutt Cakes. The intoxicated performance of Richard Burton adds a layer of oddity to the violent, racially charged proceedings of The Klansman.

The other oddity of The Klansman is the casting of O.J. Simpson, whose decent from superstardom to infamy is well-documented. What’s odd about his role in The Klansman is the fact that the former football star is playing a radical black revolutionary, willing to employ violence as a means to bring about equality. Yet this runs entirely contra to who O.J. Simpson was in public and private during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, as meticulously documented in the stunning documentary O.J.: Made in America. Simpson’s detachment from the Civil Rights Movement becomes apparent in his performance as he’s simply incapable of capturing the essence of even the most radicalized freedom fighter; Jim Brown, another football legend and Lee Marvin’s co-star in The Dirty Dozen, would’ve been the ideal choice.

The Klansman isn’t cinema as high art nor is it the lowest form of exploitation filmmaking. It’s a Hollywood movie with the great Lee Marvin giving a morally complex performance opposite a noticeably intoxicated Richard Burton. The Klansman hits on a variety of social issues that still reverberate throughout our society today, though one shouldn’t be looking for great insights from Terrance Young’s film. There are few things as enjoyable about the movie as watching Lee Marvin mow down members of the Ku Klux Klan with a submachine gun, and that is one thing The Klansman has that no other movie does.

The Klansman
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

A ’70s thriller that toes the line between socially conscious drama and violent exploitation, The Klansman features a nuanced performance by Lee Marvin opposite a noticeably intoxicated Richard Burton and an oddly out of place O.J. Simpson in an entertaining albeit problematic cinematic oddity.

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