By the time Richard Burton (1925-1984) and Lee Marvin (1924-1987) began filming The Klansman (1974), they were not just actors, but bona fide Hollywood legends.
Burton had conquered the stage with theater roles in Camelot (1960) and Hamlet (1964), been nominated for an Academy Award several times, and was a huge box office draw with The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and Where Eagles Dare (1968).
Marvin had won the coveted Oscar for Cat Ballou (1965) and had maintained a steady line of success with action films like Point Blank (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Prime Cut (1971).
So, the very idea of The Klansman, featuring topical subject matter culminating in a machine-gun shootout, seemed to have all the boxes checked—especially considering it was directed by Terrence Young (From Russia with Love), based on the book by William Bradford Huie (The Americanization of Emily), and with a screenplay by Samuel Fuller and Millard Kaufman. But, instead of a tailor-made fit for both legends to shine, it became an embarrassing, colossal mess.
In pre-Dynasty fame, Linda Evans plays Nancy Poteet, who is raped by an unknown assailant that bigoted town members automatically identify as a black man named Willy Washington (Spence Wil-Dee)—though everyone knows it’s highly unlikely he committed the crime. Not surprising, since, in Atoka county, the Ku Klux Klan openly display flyers at the local barbershop touting racial purity and strut about town like fanatical versions of Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife, had either of those beloved characters belonged to the dark side of the Force.
One movie poster for The Klansman declared, “It’s a racial war…in a small southern town,” but it should have read “in a small stereotyped town” because every male white citizen besides Breck Stancill (Burton) seems to belong to the KKK, spout the epithet “nigger” at the drop of a hat, and shoot at minorities from pickup trucks, then get agitated when the victims fight back. These one-dimensional caricatures have names like Butt Cutt Cates, Shaneyfelt, Lightning Rod, Flagg, and Hondo—yeah, the writers probably thought they were thinking outside the box by not including Bubba.
These “good folk” are not only frenzied over the rape, but also the shifting social balance—with African-Americans moving out, leaving low-wage jobs unfilled, and opting for educational opportunities, gaining more control. But the town’s simpletons have bigger worries when Garth (O.J. Simpson), who witnessed his friend gunned down, begins executing KKK members in high fashion—going so far as killing one white-robed rube at a funeral. This scene is a washout because director Young telegraphed his moves by filming Garth setting up for a kill.
Why? We have no sympathy for the devil, so there’s no buildup of suspense…it would have been more startling with a direct shot of the Klan member going down in a blood-splattered demise. But, then again, it would have made little difference because the entirety of The Klansman is so lazily directed, acted, and scored.
(Note: In a peculiar moment of art imitating life, O.J. is hiding out in a sports utility vehicle attempting to elude police.)
In one of the most abysmal scenes I’ve ever seen acted, Nancy Poteet goes to church, only to have the congregation squirm in repugnance at her appearance. Well, wait a minute, squirm may be too strong an emotion because none of these actors could act their way out of a paper bag. It appears they filmed the first rehearsal run-through. And, I was left wondering why “white patriotic Christians” were so angry with victim Poteet, until Sheriff Track Bascomb’s (Marvin) later explanation to Breck, “If she ain’t dead from rape, she ought to suicide herself or at least have the decency to be all tore up and crying and trembling with shame.” Unbelievable.
There are films that are so bad that they are unintentionally hilarious, like the go-to example Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), where actors knock over headstones and scratch their heads with prop pistols. Then, there are those like The Klansman that are unable to cross over, leaving you speechless at the utter incompetence, and end up as abominations in movie history. The film is amateurish, irresponsible with its clumsy American Civil Rights message, and, above all, just plain boring.
In a 1977 candid interview, Burton admits to being “into my third bottle a day,” and, soon after The Klansman wrapped, was hospitalized for alcoholism. A blood test prompted doctors to assess that if he had kept going at that rate of consumption, he would have lived a scant two more weeks.
Allegedly, for many of Burton’s scenes, director Young had him sitting or lying down because he was just too intoxicated to perform upright. And, besides one of the weakest Southern accents by an actor on film, Burton slurs line after line. In an interview for Michael Parkinson, Burton, fresh out of the hospital, does an imitation of an incoherent Lee Marvin offering acting advice to O.J. Simpson—though Marvin was able to conceal his addiction better (it seems like the real action was happening behind the scenes!).
After The Klansman, Marvin remained a mainstay draw, with films like The Big Red One (1980), and symbolically handed the action baton to Chuck Norris in The Delta Force (1986). Burton continued a streak of misfires (another hard-to-believe-it’s-that-bad offering is 1978’s The Medusa Touch), though he pulled out an Oscar nomination for Equus (1977) and ended his film career with a brilliant turn as O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984).
Both men were not just respected for their acting chops, but also their no bullshit approach to life and their careers. That’s why it’s even sadder that the only film Burton and Lee ever did together was The Klansman, which obviously was to collect a paycheck.
I wouldn’t recommend watching The Klansman, unless you are really into turkey eggs or you’re looking to get out of an early relationship…at the end of the film, turn to your date and say, “This is my kind of movie.” You probably won’t get a return call after that.
David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.