Released near the end of the blaxploitation era, this is one of the few exploitation films of that time that, instead of being a crime drama set in a (then) contemporary urban area, is a lurid melodrama set in the Antebellum Deep South. It's also kinda significant to note that it is a full on exploitation film with a decent budget and full backing from a major studio.
The story concerns the owner of a run down plantation and his son who struggle to keep their enterprise going, and, in the case of the son, also have to deal with romantic feelings. The main theme of this film, besides racism, is that of miscegnation, aka interracial relationships. The material is good stuff for a history-based film, and could make for compelling viewing, but in this film's case, it's a mess.
The film does have a few good moments, and it is great at provoking thoughts, and makes for good discussion and debate material, but the way it is handled is just awful. Rarely do films make me feel scuzzy, but this one did. It's awkward, uncomfortable, and hard to watch, but since it is trying to both be artsy and exploitative, that makes it worse. Had this been a lower budget, and not tried to have merit, I think I could deal with it better. It's one of the early examples (that I'm aware of) of a film addressing the issue of slavery instead of glossing over it like Gone With the Wind, but it doesn't really DEAL with it, instead using the material as backdrop for hollow scenes of shock and awe that have no real weight. There's maybe a few scenes such as a direct camera address that work and have substance, but they're few and far between.
The music is handled by Maurice Jarre with a bit of assistance from Muddy Waters, and, while this helps some, the music still feels a bit out of place and overly dramatic. It's hard to really take it seriously. The acting like most of the rest of the film, is a real mess as well. James Mason is really slumming here, and I feel embarrassed for him. Susan George, my word, is she always this terrible and hysterical? It's almost making me rethink my thoughts on Straw Dogs. Ken Norton actually is okay here, even though the material only gives him so much to work with. Still, he deals with it the best he can.
All in all, I've seen worse, but the film at least tries to be both important and a seedy exploitation flick. Unfortunately, the way things are handled keeps the two parts from really mixing all that well, and it's the over the top exploitative stuff that shines through, and that's probably more detrimental than beneficial. Still though, I'm giving it some credit because I really never found it boring, and, like all films it does have potential. It's actually a rather fascinating film, even though it is pretty awful and trashy. If it were fun, like other black centric exploitation films of the era, then I might have enjoyed it far more. As it stands, I will defend it as something worth discussing, but the more time that passes before I watch this again (if ever), the better.