Reporter-novelist William Bradford Huie earned the enmity of the real Klu Klux Klan with his 1967 novel, The Klansman, but this starry screen adaptation emerged a stupefyingly crass and misguided disaster. In a small southern town, the rape of a young white woman leads the racist authorities to assume the culprit was a black man. Local sheriff Track Bascomb (Lee Marvin) arrests black lothario Willy Washington (Spence Wil-Dee), despite doubting his guilt, but the Klan led by loathsome, if ridiculously-named deputy Butt Cutt Cates (Cameron Mitchell) set to lynching, burning and killing any African-Americans they find. Liberal landowner Breck Stancill (Richard Burton) is caught in the chaos, especially after he welcomes his civil rights activist friend Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana) and his buddy Bascomb convinces him to shelter rape victim Nancy Poteet (Linda Evans) when the whole town turns against her. However, one angry black militant fights back, waging a one-man war on the racist rednecks.
And that man is Garth played by none other than O.J. Simpson! That’s right, the juice is loose and he’s kicking KKK ass! Twenty years before he fled the cops for real, the former pro-football star was among the most beloved black celebrities in America. Nonetheless, viewed in retrospect his calamitous casting earned The Klansman another unwanted layer of infamy. Presumably the filmmakers intended Garth to engage audiences, specifically urban African-American audiences, as a Shaft-style, take-no-shit-from-whitey action hero. Instead, he comes across like an irresponsible idiot whose antics, which include assassinating a KKK member in the middle of a civil rights march, only succeed in endangering every other black person in town. Garth justifies his terror tactics with a cynical speech wherein he brands Loretta a “bourgeois negro” and rants: “The only thing the man understands is violence. History proves my way works.”
Scripted by cult director Samuel Fuller, who was attached to direct but quit over script changes, and Millard Kaufman, who wrote the superb Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Klansman aspires to a style of socially relevant thriller akin to In the Heat of the Night (1967) and the underrated tick... tick... tick... (1970). It hits on one interesting idea when town mayor-cum-“Exalted Cyclops” Hardy Riddleston (David Huddleston) admits the Klan’s opposition to civil rights is as much motivated by economic factors as by racial hatred (newly-educated/affluent African-Americans will deprive them of a cheap workforce), but spreads its misanthropy evenly between racist rednecks and liberal do-gooders. Indeed several of the activists are portrayed as self-righteous, condescending and more than a little misogynistic in their attitude towards Loretta.
Equally bizarre and offensive is the way in which the film deals with rape, implying a victim’s foremost worry is whether she will ever be seen as desirable again. Abandoned by her husband, Nancy finds solace in Breck’s bed, strangely curtailing his romantic subplot with sheriff’s secretary, Trixie (former Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi). Future Dynasty star Linda Evans’ shrill and whiny performance inexplicably leaves Nancy the least sympathetic rape victim in screen history.
Nor does the film work up much in the way of trashy exploitation thrills. Terence Young’s rambling direction saps momentum and leaves the plot looking increasingly messy. Young made two of the finest Bond films: From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1967) as well as taut thrillers Wait Until Dark (1967) and Cold Sweat (1970). Sadly, The Klansman was characteristic of his sad decline into schlock (War Goddess (1973)) and eventual disaster (Inchon (1981)). Richard Burton and Lee Marvin, two of the most commanding actors in cinema, are sadly not at their best here. While Burton stumbles about in a booze-induced stupor, searching for his lost Southern accent (his karate slapping match with Cameron Mitchell is a something to savour, for all the wrong reasons!), Marvin mumbles unintelligibly, although his is the more intriguing character - a sheriff more concerned with keeping the peace, than morality. Neither man fares well in the downbeat, depressing climax which, despite the suspenseful build-up, implies O.J. was right all along. Which is the scariest idea in the movie. One last question: who the hell raped Nancy?!