The Klansman (1974)

“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, […] little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King, nearly exactly fifty years ago.

King’s words were prompted by his own activities previously in 1963, fighting for civil rights in a state where the Ku Klux Klan was very strong, and often had support from local police and mayor. Eleven years later, those “vicious racists” and the violence they instigated inspired the film The Klansman.

The film depicts a small Alabama town where a white woman is raped, and Klan members (led by the local mayor) target a black man as guilty, trying to have him lynched. The local sheriff, torn between conflicting emotions and loyalties, try to maintain order, but violence escalates and threaten to go out of hand as a black vigilante starts to kill Klan members.

Lee Marvin, Richard Burton and a bottle of whiskey in The Klansman (1974)

The version available at the Internet Archive, unfortunately, is not the original. It is a version for TV distribution, cut down both in terms of aspect ratio and playing time. I suspect that much of the eleven missing minutes consist of explicit sex and violence, although a fair portion of graphic violence remains.

Some say this is a bad movie (see for instance the excellent blog Cheap as they Come for some thoughtful opinions). Me, I do not think it is bad, but it certainly is uneven. The dialogue is sometimes captivating, sometimes corny. Some actors – Lee Marvin in particular – are very good, others are outright bad. The plot is tight and interesting in some spots, hard to take seriously in others.

Judging by accounts at IMDb and Wikipedia, the production seems to have been cursed with trouble. Intended director and writer Samuel Fuller left the project in protest after financers had rejected his daring and controversial treatment of the racial issues. Stars Richard Burton and Lee Marvin were both drinking heavily during shooting of the film, the former to the extent that he had to be institutionalized after shooting was completed.

It is interesting to ponder what this movie could have been if it had been made according to the original visions, and with a cast that cared enough to stay sober. Even as it stands, it is a powerful drama, heavy with tension and aggression. Had things been different, it could have been a great classic, a forerunner to Mississippi Burning (1988). As it is, it is just another typical 70s drama, interesting to watch because it depicts a shameful part of United States history.

So, what have we learned from that history, real and fictional? Well, some things have undoubtedly improved over the last forty or fifty years. The Klan is no longer a major threat. But in many places, both in and out of the United States, racism still exists. Focus have shifted from coloured people to muslims, and racist actions are often more covert and less spectacular (thereby less interesting to make films about and generally more difficult to target). In Europe there are strong right-wing parties in almost all countries with aggressive anti-immigration agendas. So while not everything in The Klansman is relevant today, and even though its message may be a bit muddled by changed scripts and cuts, I still think it holds a lesson and a message that deserves to be considered. We must not let King’s dream die just yet.

This film is best enjoyed if your expectations of actor performances are not set too high.

Lee Marvin faces the Ku Klux Klan with a burning cross in The Klansman (1974)

The Klansman
Download link
Year: 1974
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Directors: Terence Young
Stars: Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, O.J. Simpson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)