Comfortable and Furious

Fucked-Up Films #10: The Klansman (1974)


Southern man, better keep your head/Don’t forget what your good book said’


Terence Young


Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Cameron Mitchell, O.J. Simpson, Lola Falana, Linda Evans, David Huddleston

What are these sick bastards doing? Shaming humanity, helped by a lot of talent both in front of and behind the camera, including a couple of legendary leading men, a three-time Bond director and a pair of respected screenwriters, not to mention a reasonable budget. This artistry is partly what makes the amazingly non-PC Klansman so absorbing coz it sure doesn’t pull any punches. Here we get rape turned into public entertainment, the castration of an innocent man with a skinning knife, rampant murder and a fiery finale. If you like your racial hatred served up with the most pungent of odors, then this one makes a fine dish alongside Mandingo.

How skuzzy are the men? Oh, boy, they’re a right bunch of shitkickers. Even the ones who aren’t murderers and rapists appear to be useless members of society, such as a drunken, cat-kicking wife beater released from a police cell once he’s sobered up. Journalists that flock to this little town in Alabama after the first couple of killings are sleazy jerks only interested in inflaming the situation. Even a civil rights advocate can’t help hitting on a woman instead of concentrating on the vital task in hand. The vast majority of the other gun-toting, Klan-loving locals are beyond the pale. This includes the corrupt, system-blaming mayor (who believes in an occasional bit of black ‘chastisement’ so everybody can get along) to a moronic, half-rabid deputy sheriff who rapes and kills without hesitation.

The townsfolk are always a heartbeat or two away from organising a lynching, but even one of our nominal heroes proves deeply problematic. The tight-lipped, level-headed Sheriff Track Bascomb (Marvin) is often difficult to read. Unlike Year of the Dragon’s main cop who wants the ‘rice to boil over in Chinatown’ in a bid to solve its endemic problems, Bascomb tries to keep the surface of Atoka County unruffled. Hence, he’s a pragmatist, acutely aware he needs yearly votes to stay in office while being unable to make any real difference to the rancid culture anyway. On the other hand, he’s a coward and an ingrained part of the problem. He outlines his philosophy to the press: “There are two kinds of law open to a back county sheriff. He can book and punish. Or he can cool things, smooth them out by bending the law a little to keep people from breaking it.” It’s clear he’s chosen the latter method yet this involves not only treating victims of sexual assault without a shred of compassion but strong-arming them. There’s also the strong suspicion that although he appears firm but fair, the Klansman of the title is him.

Is the villain any good? There isn’t a main villain, just a collective load of redneck peckerwoods. Basically the whole town needs bulldozing.

How do the lovely ladies fare? Not well. There are two sexual assaults within the opening ten minutes. A bout of prolonged, interracial rape pops up later (“I always wanted me some of that black meat, baby”). It’s so graphic that I’m sure Michael Winner would heartily approve. Perhaps most interesting is the fate of Nancy (Evans), a white woman raped by a black in her stalled car the moment her obnoxious husband goes looking for a tow truck. He, of course, can’t handle the fact that a ‘black peg’ has been ‘stuck in a white hole’ and shortly afterward leaves town, partly because he senses people want to ask: “How does it feel to screw a wife that’s been screwed by a nigger?”

This fear of white women being ‘tainted’ by black sexual interference (voluntary or otherwise) runs throughout Klansman. Even so, the complete lack of sympathy for Nancy is staggering. She’s treated like she’s living in a Muslim country where a rape victim can be charged with adultery and/or stoned. This is brilliantly displayed in a chilling church scene when she unexpectedly turns up in the middle of a Sunday morning sermon. Some of the congregation immediately rise, hissing ‘I can smell nigger on her’ while others are content to spit out ‘shame’ and ‘filth’. You’d think the deputy pastor might have something to say about such appalling behaviour in God’s house, but he merely asks: “How can you push yourself on these good Christian folks after being in that nigger’s foul embraces?”

Would the violence make a vicar faint? There’s plenty of violence, profanity and sexual assault, but it’s the dreadful depiction of the clergy that’s likely to bother a vicar more. Right from its groovy, tongue-in-cheek opening song (in which The Staple Singers chirp And it’s all in the name of the good Christian people) it’s clear Klansman sees religion as providing a solid platform for racism, brutality and the most blatant sense of superiority. All the homicidal bigots here are church-going, God-fearing Christians. A particularly odious pastor is given a front row pew to watch rape while commenting: “Nigger women are made for it.” Atheists, meanwhile, are lumped in with the other ‘Commie-controlled agitators’, such as whores, punks, scum and perverts.

How fucked-up is this film? Its tone is established in the opening sequence in which Bascomb finds a load of whites in some woodland who have encircled two blacks. They’re encouraging a podgy, sub-normal black to rape a terrified woman for their amusement. Bascomb, diplomatic as ever, simply tells them they’re trespassing. “Oh, Sheriff,” one complains, as if he’s been caught drinking in the street. “We was just having a little fun.” Bascomb disperses them in a matter of fact way, but neither speaks to nor consoles the sobbing, half-naked woman. These whites are not all bad, though, as they had planned to give the rapist a dollar for his trouble. “Ain’t no nigger gal mind being raped a little,” another of the disappointed spectators says, although it’s unclear whether he offers such a defence with a hint of sheepishness or defiance.

Klansman is widely derided, but I found its near-two hours fascinating. The direction is smooth, there are plentiful bursts of action, and many performances are eye-catching. The ever-reliable Marvin is well-tuned to the character’s apparent tact, although you sense the man’s inner steel. O.J. Simpson, as an ‘uppity spade’ turned icy-cold avenger in his cinematic debut, is notably hammy while the mayor (Huddleston) is a convincingly unpleasant, self-centered politician. Falana also deserves a mention as a dignified out-of-town rape victim and much needed sympathetic character.

The exhausted-looking Burton, however, is a problem, along with his mangled attempt at a Southern accent. He plays Breck Stancill, a rich, crippled landowner (‘a peg leg honky’) who helps the blacks and hates the Klan, but Burton’s real-life alcoholism is so painfully obvious that he can barely stand. At times he slurs. Hence, when he busts out some victorious karate moves against the chief baddie in the town’s bus station it’s both funny and ridiculous, but at least it provides the flick’s sole moment of humor. It’s also tough buying him as a poon hound able to bed a couple of gorgeous conquests, especially when he ‘cures’ a rape victim with a single touch.

Despite such descents into clunkiness, Klansman works. There are many brutal, uncompromising scenes, such as a rape victim’s vaginal blood being smeared on the face of her attacker. Even the quieter sequences in which the question-deflecting Bascomb jaws with the educated, liberal Stancill about the wider situation are intriguing and nuanced. The writers show flair in capturing salty Southern dialogue, peppering proceedings with slang like ‘glory suit’ (the Klan’s robes) ‘black-snaked’ (raped by a black) ‘brown comfort’ (an attractive non-white woman) and ‘shit house mouse’ (not sure, but I like it). We get the racists’ point of view shoved down our throats, but time is also devoted to a militant black’s perfectly understandable take on the situation (‘History proves my way works’), as well as what the law-abiding, non-confrontational blacks think.

Put it all together and it’s one hell of a nasty-tasting stew.



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One response to “Fucked-Up Films #10: The Klansman (1974)”

  1. Harry Moseby (aka JRW) Avatar
    Harry Moseby (aka JRW)

    Christ Dave, you never mentioned the Control Voice his self, Vic Perrin was in it!

    ”There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to…
    The Outer Limits.”
    Man, remember the Demon with the Glass Hand with Robert Culp? Great TV.

    And the Juice! There was that character on Taxi that believed OJ to be the Messiah. After Jim Brown, he was the greatest Football player of all time. Real football, not that glorified kickball the rest of the world plays.

    He was loved by all until he went and did the bad thing. Butchered his ex wife and her friend. And got away with it! Is this a great country, or what?

    When they were shooting that turkey up in a sleepy southern town just outside of Sacramento, CA (all involved might have been lynched had they shot in Alabama) TV Gossip Queen Mona Blare-it offered daily reports (weekdays anyways) of the Burton/Marvin drinking fest (Burt Lancaster almost threw the drunken Marvin off a mountain while shooting The Professionals, Marvin was so drunk).

    Being young and foolish I had to see it. Yeah. I stumbled out of the Magnolia theater in Burbank to see a film critic puking against the theater’s west wall next to parked cars. A reaction to what he had just viewed.

    He regarded me with bleary eyes and asked:
    “Did you see it? Did you witness the abomination?”

    “I’m afraid so, man.”

    “You got any weed?”

    “Sorry man, no. But you barfed on my car”

    I retrieved my car and drove to a gas station to wash away the Klansman puke. This was before you had to pay for water and air for the tires.

    At the Hughes supermarket I scored a quart of
    Cutty Sark, ice and a large can of planters cocktail peanuts.

    At my apartment I employed these vitals to wash away the ugly memory of that evening.

    Thank you, Dave, for bringing it all back so vividly.

    PS. the last movie I saw at the Magnolia before it closed for good was Arthur Penn’s modern noir, Night Moves. Gene Hackman, Susan Clark (yummy) and a very young Melanie Griffith.

    Sometimes I fee like Hackman’s Harry Moseby at the end of that movie.

    ”We now return control of your television set to you, until next week at this same time, when the Control Voice will take you to… The Outer Limits.”

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