For those who enjoy charting the outer reaches of bad cinema, the title of The Klansman looms larger than that of most ’70s movies. Featuring an inexplicable combination of actors—Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, O.J. Simpson—and a lurid take on incendiary subject matter, the movie promises a feast of jaw-dropping wrongness. And sure enough, The Klansman is both uproariously terrible and consistently distasteful. It’s also, however, quite tedious.
The story is appropriately florid. In a small southern town populated by poor black folks and foaming-at-the-mouth racist whites (narrative restraint is not the watchword here), a young white woman (Linda Evans) is raped, so the gun-toting townies decide to pin the crime on “uppity” black Garth (Simpson). The town’s sheriff, Track Bascomb (Marvin), improbably a voice of reason and tolerance, tries to protect Garth from a lynch mob, but the fugitive escapes and starts picking off white people with an M-16.
Meanwhile—there’s always a “meanwhile” in overcooked bad movies—local landowner Breck Stancil (Burton) invokes the ire of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter because he won’t let Klan soldiers search his property for Garth, who may be hiding with Stancil’s predominantly African-American workforce. Soon, the various forces in the story converge in a violent climax. All of this should be trashy fun, but as lifelessly directed by 007 veteran Terence Young, the movie just kind of happens; it feels as if the production team showed up every day and shot the appropriate screenplay pages without any regard for what came before or what might follow.
Reportedly, one reason for the movie’s flatness is that it’s the faint echo of a potentially more interesting project: Original writer-director Samuel Fuller conceived the piece, using William Bradford Hule’s novel as a foundation, as a full-on KKK story in which the hero would be a Klan member who learns tolerance. Instead, the studio asked for something less provocative, and Fuller walked. The project was further damned by unwise casting: Burton and Marvin were falling-down drunks at this point, and Simpson, whose character is supposed to come across as a justice-dispensing revolutionary, is, to be generous, not an actor.
Compensating somewhat for the lackluster work by the leads, Character player Cameron Mitchell livens up the picture with his cartoonish villainy as a hateful deputy. Better still, the priceless David Huddleston gives the best performance in the movie (which is admittedly not saying a lot) as the town mayor, who moonlights as the “Exalted Cyclops” of the local Klan chapter. Yet even Huddleston can’t do anything with hopeless dialogue: “Don’t look at me like I’m the heavy. You want to know who the heavy is, I’ll tell you. It’s the system. And we’re all of us caught up in it.”
Unbelievably, the dialogue gets even worse later. Lola Falana plays a young black woman visiting her mother, one of Stancil’s employees, so the rednecks presume she’s sleeping with Stancil and therefore rape her to make a point. “They think I’m your brown comfort,” she says. “They wanted to foul your nest.” Yet perhaps the most (morbidly) fascinating aspect of this whole disastrous enterprise is Burton’s excruciating performance—he’s exactly this awful in plenty of other movies, but The Klansman features his spectacularly unsuccessful attempt at a Southern accent, which sounds different in almost every scene.
Given how punishingly bad every frame of this movie is, it’s a wonder no one thought to chop it down to a 90-minute highlight reel, because if The Klansman moved faster, it would at least have the quality of a fever dream. Instead, it lumbers along for 112 bludgeoning minutes, forcing viewers to soak up every nuance of its terribleness. In this case, more is less.
The Klansman: FREAKY