Exploiting the Archives: This Looks Terrible! # 3 The Klansman
It feels like a bit of a cheat to cover 1974’s The Klansman for a column called This Looks Terrible! because on paper at least the Klansploitation movie looks, if not “good” necessarily, then at least fascinatingly insane. Where else are you going to find a young O.J Simpson (in his motion picture debut!) sharing a screen with Lee Marvin and Richard Burton in a film co-written by the legendary Samuel Fuller and directed by Terence Young, the director of Dr. No, From Russia To Love and Thunderball ?
If a movie like that were even a lick of good, it stands to reckon that you’d probably have heard of it by now. So while The Klansman must have radiated infinite promise at one point early in its production, by the time a DVD of it arrived in the mail I figured that it must be terrible or else I would have probably seen it already.
While Sam Fuller is credited as co-writing the screenplay, apparently his work bears very little resemblance to what ended up onscreen. So while The Klansman explores such Fuller-friendly topics as race, sex, death, power, violence, terror and the seedy underbelly of the American dream, the movie fatally lacks the assurance, audacity and point of view that made Fuller such a force.
Instead of benefitting from Fuller’s clear, bold vision the film substitutes the muddled, compromised sensibility of the kind of international co-production where filmmakers and actors from around the world join forces to create something combines the worst of every country’s cinema. Shot in the American south with a British director and a Welsh star, The Klansman feels about as authentically American as Troll 2. The bad over-dubbing certainly does not help.
Though The Klansman was based on a novel by journalist William Bradford Huie, who covered the Klan extensively and once had a big old burning cross on his own front lawn for his troubles, nothing about the film feels about authentic, particularly the melancholy lead performance of Richard Burton as Breck, a sad but decent gentleman farmer from the little-known “Wales” portion of the American South. Burton is playing a Southerner, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from a boozy, slurry accent that travels all over the world, and generally ends up closer to The United Kingdom than it does south of the Mason-Dixie Line.
Marvin costars as Sheriff Track Bascomb, a pragmatic lawman in a small town ruled by the Ku Klux Klan. Bascomb seems to have reached an unspoken understanding with the Klan. He’d rather they didn’t commit flagrant crimes or terrorize the town’s black community but as long as they’re not too public or egregious about their crimes, he’s usually willing to look the other way.
The Sheriff’s commitment to keeping the peace, while also keeping the Ku Klux Klan happy is tested when news arrives that black activists are planning to protest in the town and are staying up on Breck’s mountain while they do so. Meanwhile, a white woman played by future soap opera icon Linda Evans is raped by a black man and is consequently shunned by her racist small town for being tainted and unclean.
The Klansman hit theaters in the thick of the blaxploitation craze and suggested a strange permutation of that alternately demonized and romanticized subgenre: the Racistsploitation movie. Young’s deeply confused thriller is just as violent, oversexed, nihilistic and vulgar as blaxploitation movies, and just as dependent upon broad stereotypes and caricatures. But as the title conveys, the movie focusses more on people who are violently racist against African-Americans more than it does African-Americans fighting violent racism.
It does not seem coincidental that the black characters in The Klansman feel like characters from blaxploitation, from O.J Simpson’s trigger-happy, mass-murdering, “Kill the honkeys” super-revolutionary to some cartoonish, and badly post-dubbed activists to a supporting player whose defining characteristic is the pimpishness of his hat.
The white racists in The Klansman are beyond cartoonish. They’re crazy-eyed, knuckle-dragging hillbilly monsters, one dimensional at best who are practically frothing at the mouth in their zeal to commit horrific violence against African-Americans, who aren't portrayed with a whole lot of sympathy either.
It’d be one thing if the film genuinely set out to say something meaningful and provocative about the state of race relations but there’s a big difference between exposing truth and reveling in ugliness and brutality. Brutal and unedifying, The Klansman falls on the “reveling in ugliness and brutality” side of that divide.
How nasty is The Klansman? Twenty minutes into it, I told my wife, “Jesus! Even for a movie called The Klansman, about the Ku Klux Klan, from the 1970s, they’re throwing around the N word an awful lot.” And even for a movie from the 1970s, when damn near everything short of Disney cartoons felt the need to include at least one sexual assault for “grit” this is a film with rape scenes as gratuitous as they are frequent and vicious.
O.J Simpson’s defining characteristic here is his eagerness to kill white people yet the Juice still comes across as distractingly unconvincing. The camera loved the young O.J but he’s such a terrible actor that when he’s called upon to exhibit visceral shock and horror upon seeing a compatriot’s genitals get attacked by evil hillbillies the best he can muster is a look of painful constipation.
The NFL Hall of Famer, pitchman, broadcaster, The Naked Gun funnyman and probable double murderer has a strange role where he shows up onscreen every twenty or thirty minutes or so to shoot white people, then flits offscreen before he can say anything. Late in the film O.J has a big monologue about how the days of “Kumbaya” are over and now they need to stick it to the man and he’s so hammy that it inspires giddy nostalgia for all those scenes where O.J doesn’t talk.
According to Hollywood legend, and by Hollywood legend I of course mean some shit I read on IMDB or Wikipedia, Burton and Marvin were so blackout drunk the entire shoot that they were introduced to each other at a Hollywood party years later and had no recollection of having met, let alone trudged to the American south to make a bleary nightmare of a motion picture where they have multiple scenes together.
There was a time when Richard Burton was recognized as a great actor, as well as a great over-actor and a great ham actor and then as just kind of a ham. By the time The Klansman was filmed, Burton had lost both the ability and the interest in playing characters other than Richard Burton, dissolute Welsh movie star.
Burton is supposed to be playing genial, Liberal, open-minded Southern tree farmer Breck Stancill, but at no point does he appear to be anything other than Richard Burton, exhausted, world-weary and drunk foreign movie star. Heck, you half expect the other characters to ask him about Elizabeth Taylor or reference his other movies.
Burton seems exhausted and lost. On some level that fits his character, but it’s much more obviously a reflection of his lack of belief and investment in a movie with little reason to exist beyond the public’s enduring fascination with lurid sensationalism. It’s a grubby paperback of a movie, artless and confused, tired and hateful.
As the film lurches to a conclusion, however, something very strange happens. The Klansman briefly gets good. The movie finally begins to realize its potential as a Sam Fuller-style overheated melodrama when the sheriff and the gentleman tree farmer stare down the Klan in a tense final reckoning. The final ten minutes of The Klansman have the disorienting, hyper-vividness of a nightmare as men in white sheets and hoods carrying torches aloft penetrate and defile the darkness with their tawdry, lowbrow spectacle and cheap scare tactics.
I can see someone like Quentin Tarantino excitedly showing only the final reel of The Klansman to people and hailing it as a lost pulp masterpiece. Actually, there are shots in Django Unchained that look more than a little like the climax of The Klansman. But if The Klansman acquires an unexpected, sweaty fascination in its final reel, that doesn’t come close to redeeming all the sordid ugliness that precedes it.
This Looks Terrible, Is It? Yes, with fleeting moments of transcendent non-terribleness at the very end
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