Thursday 18 May 2023

Drum (1976)

Director: Steve Carver
Writer: Norman Wexler, based on the novel by Kyle Onstott
Stars: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Ken Norton, Pamela Grier, Yaphet Kotto, John Colicos and Brenda Sykes

Index: The First Thirty.

Friday Foster was Pam Grier’s fifteenth film, so I’m halfway into her First Thirty. It was also the end of her traditional exploitation output, the women in prison and blaxploitation flicks that made her such a cult figure. Drum is still an exploitation movie, even though it was a major studio film, and it’s still black focused, but it’s a very different picture.

It’s the lesser known sequel to Mandingo, an immensely successful novel written by Kyle Onstott in 1957 that became a play and then a film, with James Mason and Susan George. The book sold five million copies in the U.S. alone and spawned fourteen sequels, starting with Drum. The movie only spawned this one.

These are stories of the antebellum south, if we want to bowdlerise things. We should call them stories of sadistic slaveowners, because Onstott was inspired not only by the stories he grew up hearing, “bizarre legends” about slave breeding and abuse, but by research done by his adopted anthropologist son in Africa.

While we end up in the central location for the series, the Falconhurst plantation owned by Hammond Maxwell, it’s not where we start and he’s actually the nicest of the slaveowners we meet. Then again, there wasn’t much of a bar to top. He’s still a slaveowner with a crude nature, a bedwench and a willingness to whip and castrate and more.

But we start out in Havana, the heart of the slave trade, and quickly shift to New Orleans. Dona Marianna lived in the former but fell in love with a slave, Tempura, a king in his own land back in Africa. That got him strung up but she was pregnant and left for the latter to run a brothel in which her son, Drum, who’s unaware that she’s his mother, becomes the bartender. It’s fifteen years on from Mandingo and Drum is twenty years old.

So far, so good. Enter Bernard DeMarigny, a quintessentially loathsome villain. I doubt any of us can say that we like Maxwell but we want to see DeMarigny get his comeuppance in the most karmic way possible and we want it five seconds after meeting the man.

He’s invited thirty friends to witness a fight at the brothel but his fighter didn’t show, so he’s about to lose face. Having already shown us that he has the hots for Drum, he explains to Marianna that he’ll withdraw all his custom and that of his friends and have the city shut her down unless... Drum fights Blaise.

Now, I’m happy to see Drum fight Blaise, as Drum is played by Ken Norton, a noted boxer who hadn’t won a world championship yet but had broken Muhammad Ali’s jaw in an upset win; and Blaise is Yaphet Kotto, fresh from his role as Pam Grier’s sidekick in Friday Foster. It’s a bloody battle but Drum emerges the winner. He gets Blaise as a gift and a woman of his own as a prize. Guess who shows up to join them?

DeMarigny is played by John Colicos, much more sadistic here than in Battlestar Galactica. He’s a vicious bastard from the outset, lusting after Drum but hurling out the N word like it’s confetti. Drum doesn’t only reject him, he hits him too and that makes him a deadly enemy. Next thing we know, he springs a knife fighter on him and it’s only Marianne selling her son to Maxwell that saves his life.

And so it goes, but it feels draining rather than entertaining. Outrageously awful things happened in every one of Pam Grier’s women in prison flicks, but I was entertained because, while there was a very real grounding to those films, they were flights of fancy and the girls tended to get their revenge at the end. Here, it plays far more realistically, with all the sadism a sad reality and, even though we’re supposed to feel relieved by the finalĂ©, I never did.

There’s not a lot of entertainment on offer here. There’s degradation, whether deliberate by ruthless slaveowners like DeMarigny or the infamous Zeke Montgomery or casual by the likes of Maxwell. There’s abundant crudity in the ruling classes. There’s a base irony in them seeing themselves as superior when it’s clear to everybody that they’re just slime. Beyond a few fight scenes, I only really appreciated the end of DeMarigny. Had I not had a reason to keep watching, that would have been it.

You might be wondering where Pam Grier is in this film all about Ken Norton being sold to Warren Oates, a wonderful actor who does an excellent job here, with Yaphet Kotto a bonus to the purchase. Well, Grier plays Regine, who Hammond buys on the same morning he buys Drum and Blaise. She’s his new bedwench, an object of contention for Augusta Chauvel, who he’s also just hired to raise his daughter.

There are many problems here for me, but the crucial one at this point is that Regine is a far less interesting character than any of the other women in the film and none of them are as interesting as the men.

There’s depth to Marianna’s relationship to Drum, even if she wastes it. There’s depth to Augusta’s golddigging nature; while she was hired to be a governess, she has firm sights on becoming Mrs. Hammond Maxwell from the very outset and she’s not going to let anything or anyone stand in her way.

There’s a little depth to Lucretia Borgia, the only actor/character combination to continue on from Mandingo—three actors returned, Ken Norton being one of them, but only Lillian Hayman played the same role; and Hammond Maxwell continued but in new hands, Oates a replacement for Perry King.

And there’s character, if surely not depth, to Sophie, Hammond’s daughter, in the form of Rainbeaux Smith, who’s excellent and yet also thoroughly annoying as a spoiled brat who has every intention of sleeping with all the slaves and, if they don’t go for it, she’ll tell her daddy that they tried to rape her.

Regine, on the other hand, is more of a prop than a character. She’s there for Hammond to pleasure himself with and for Augusta to rage against and that’s about it. Sure, this was a big budget production made by Dino de Laurentiis and distributed by United Artists, but it wasn’t a particularly good role to segue Grier into a more serious film career. She does fine but it’s hardly a challenge for her. She could do this in her sleep and may well have done so.

Let’s hope that her next film had something more substantial for her to throw her talents at. Spoiler: it didn’t.

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