Starring Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Cameron Mitchell, O.J. Simpson, Lola Falana, David Huddleston, Luciana Paluzzi, Linda Evans
Directed by Terence Young
Klansman is an abysmal experience. It’s a race relations film, so you’d expect it to take some stance against racism. Instead, the film, like the lead character, is hesitant to come out in favor of a side (and not in a through-provoking ambiguous way). In fact, the film actually feels like it’s saying you shouldn’t interfere with the unstoppable juggernaut of the Klan, and that the races should just mind their own and stay segregated. Yeah. W. T. F.
Klansman began its life as a 1967 novel by William Bradford Huie, which was subsequently optioned and offered to Sam Fuller to write and direct as a film. Fuller jumped in head-first, delivering a script that sought to show the KKK in a brutally realistic manner. Production started to roll forward and Lee Marvin was cast as the Klan leader, the film’s lead. But before the cameras rolled, Paramount got cold feet about Fuller’s vitriolic version, replacing him with British director Terence Young and having his edgy script completely re-written. Fuller had taken the novel’s story as a starting point for his own socially charged yarn, and in the rewrites his villainous Klan leader character was changed back to the novel’s lead: a mild-mannered town sheriff caught in the middle of a race war.
Lee Marvin was contractually obligated to make the film, even though he sided with Fuller in thinking the new version was horrid. So his lackluster performance can probably be blamed on this apathy. The character’s actions are another matter entirely. Sheriff Track Bascomb does nothing to impede the Klan’s obviously illegal actions. In the first minutes of the film he breaks up a large circle of Klan members watching a black man — who they paid — rape a black woman. Sounds like a serious offense, right? Well… Bascomb apparently sees this kind of thing on the regular because he breaks it up like the klan members were just a bunch of innocent kids playing ball on the wrong lot. Ugh. Later Bascomb actually helps the Klan cover up a horribly violent rape of a black woman, even yelling at the victim minutes after the rape in order to force her to lie about her attackers if she wants Bascomb to take her to the hospital before she bleeds to death! And he’s supposed to be the guy we’re rooting for! I suppose this was meant to show how the sheriff was trying to manage the racial tensions in town the best way he knew how, but why in this film did that always boil down to the black people “knowing their place” and the whites just going home and “cooling off.” WTF.
On the other side of this is Garth (OJ Simpson), a man driven to vigilantism when he witnesses the Klan mutilate and brutally murder his innocent friend. Garth refuses to wait around for justice to gradually take shape, taking matters into his own hands and using the Klan’s brutality against them. Garth’s violence, coupled with the actions of a sympathetic landowner, Breck (Richard Burton), eventually incites the Klan to go on the warpath, leaving nearly everyone dead or wounded. This is where it feels like the film is saying that the answer to racism is for the races to just leave one another alone. In reality, I don’t think it’s actually trying to say anything, which begs the question of why you’d even bother making a film like this.
Klansman is almost primarily told from the perspective of the white townsfolk. The black characters feel like second-class characters, merely existing as plot points instead of as real people. Most of the white characters are one-dimensional cutouts, too, but that’s kinda beside the point. I suppose this is all due to the time this was made, but I imagine Fuller’s version would have been much different. Perhaps the most head-shaking choice is how Garth’s frustrated, violent character is made into some kind of Blaxploitation avenger. Upbeat funk music plays every time he performs an act of violence, making the scenes into popcorn entertainment when they should be anything but.
Fuller’s original film, according to his short musings in his memoir, sounds like it would’ve been something to see. The ending could have been memorable and chilling, but instead the ending filmed is almost like a goddamn action movie, with Lee Marvin and the klan alike lighting up the night with machine guns. Adding to the head-shaking nature of the film, it was produced by the same Paramount who would later shelve Fuller’s White Dog before it was ever released. So I’m not really surprised that they didn’t have the balls to let Fuller make what could’ve been an incredible, damning film on the atrocities of the KKK. I do have to wonder what Paramount was afraid of… reprisals from the klan? In any case, major studios always care more about making money than any kind of social consciousness, so of course they went with the movie that ended with machine guns. Wrong move, Paramount! Don’t make the same move by greenlighting this movie in your home!