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  • Benjamin May

The Klansman (1974) Review

A famous Hollywood story goes that sometime in the mid-to-late 70's, Richard Burton was at a party and got talking to Lee Marvin, whom he thought he had never met. Eventually Burton remarked that the two men should work together at some point, to which Marvin simply stated, "we have."

That Burton forgot making 'The Klansman' is unsurprising, considering his unintentionally hilarious and obviously intoxicated performance in the film. He stars as a liberal Southern landowner named Breck Stancill, who is brought into the local furore after a white girl makes allegations of assault against a black man. Marvin co-stars as the town Sherriff, Track Bascomb, who tries in vain to quell the uprising of racially motivated violence that ensues. Also, in his first credited role, OJ Simpson plays a vigilante who uses the situation to start a one-man revolt against the Ku Klux Klan.

An adaptation of the 1967 William Bradford Huie novel of the same name, the film had a troubled production history. Adaptation rights were first purchased that same year, but were then passed around for the next couple, with no projects ever getting off the ground. At one point Samuel Fuller was attached to write and direct, but that too never transpired. His screenplay was eventually rewritten by Millard Kaufman and Terence Young took over as director. Burton and Marvin were then brought in and proceeded to drink their way through the shooting process.

The finished film is a tonally confused, visually unexciting and oftentimes very funny concoction that doesn't have a lot going for it on paper. Huie's hard-hitting story about racial violence is diluted and obfuscated by camp moments like a strange fight scene where Burton drunkenly karate chops people, throwing many through doors. The dialogue sounds stilted and preacherly when it isn't hilariously over the top.

The movie is cheap looking, even for something billed as a work in the exploitation genre, looking like cinematographer Lloyd Ahern forgot to clean his camera lens before shooting began. As well as all that, many of the supporting actors have had their voices dubbed in post-production and it's not a subtle or decent piece of work (with the dubbing of Luciana Paluzzi being the most notably inept).

Which is not to mention Burton's performance at all. In every scene it is obvious he's four sheets to the wind and clearly has no interest in the material. Struggling with his Southern accent, he's like a poorly drawn, very funny caricature. Though reports say he was doing an equal amount of drinking, Marvin actually delivers a steady, interesting performance as the Sheriff, not once appearing intoxicated. There is much pleasure that can be drawn from watching Burton act in 'The Klansman', but none of it was intentional.

Having listed all those detractions, it may surprise you that 'The Klansman' is actually a very entertaining movie. There are moments where the themes and sequences from Huie's novel are treated with a measured hand, like the rape scene and some of the locals' ignorant conversations, as well as the finale. These are visceral, powerful and neatly directed by Young.

Burton and Marvin's characters are well drawn, with the Sherriff being one of surprising depth- again, thanks in large part to Marvin's performance. The OJ Simpson character is intriguing, even if his story is not fully explored, and the local racists- led by David Huddleston- have some great scenes that are genuinely affecting.

At the end of the day- whether they wanted it to be or not- the film is funny, and anything that makes you belly laugh in these dark times is a positive experience. 'The Klansman' is not a hard-hitting story about racial prejudice and violence in a small town, nor is it a good adaptation of William Bradford Huie's source material. It has dark elements that are well realized for the screen, and are quite difficult to watch- brutal racism is never palatable- but, overall, it's a joyride piloted by a drunken Welshman that's very entertaining.


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