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The late 1970s saw an influx of slightly sexier film content, produced with an eye not only to relaxed censorship but also to new markets in pay cable television. Blake Edwards' "10" made a major star out of model Bo Derek, and even TV's Charlie's Angels was built around three actresses-models guaranteed to entertain viewers even when the soundtrack was muted. 1979's Ashanti is a curious combination of realistic adventure and subdued sex fantasy. It purports to be an exposé of African slave trafficking yet concentrates on the constant threat of rape to its heroine, an American doctor kidnapped to be sold at auction. The film's one surprise is a deviation from the conventions of standard colonial rape fantasies: in this case, the helpless female victim is black.
Ashanti sold itself as "brutal" and "shocking", yet it is now best remembered as one of Michael Caine's many 'paycheck' movies, such as Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Island and Blame it on Rio. Caine was never embarrassed to earn an honest dollar, and his stock as an actor never diminished now matter how dubious the film project. Asked about his participation in 1987's Jaws: The Revenge, Caine stated, "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."
Married U.N. doctors David and Anansa Linderby (Michael Caine and Beverly Johnson) are inoculating tribespeople in Central Africa when Anansa is carried off by the henchmen of Suleiman (Peter Ustinov), a slave trader who intends to transport twelve captives overland to the Red Sea, to be auctioned off to wealthy Arabs. Suleiman regards the beautiful Anansa, by heritage an Ashanti African, as a major prize. He uses his wits to keep a nomad Touareg Chief (Marne Maitland) from stealing her away. David had to rely on Anansa's local familiarity to get around. He finds that local authorities will do little: African governments ignore the slave trade as a matter of public relations. Charity representative Brian Walker (Rex Harrison) introduces David to mercenary helicopter pilot Jim Sandell (William Holden), who helps David to confirm that Suleiman is taking Anansa eastward. Brian then puts David in contact with Arab widower Malik (Kabir Bedi of Octopussy), who wants revenge on Suleiman for murdering his family. The two men travel into the desert on camels to catch up with Suleiman's little caravan of woe. Little do they know, at the end of Suleiman's trail awaits Prince Hassan (Omar Sharif), who intends to buy Anansa as a 'plaything' to comfort his dying father.
Ashanti is an undemanding but smartly assembled production with appeal for lovers of drama and adventure in remote places. After struggling hopelessly on his own, Michael Caine's David learns to ride a camel like Lawrence of Arabia and sets out to retrieve his bride before ... before ... you know. Making the captive Anansa both black and a native African is a smart choice, commercially. Instead of a white slavery rape fantasy, Beverly Johnson's trial is more of a survival ordeal endured by a tough and resourceful woman clearly in better physical shape than her captors. Casting Peter Ustinov as the depraved but practical slaver is a brilliant touch. Suleiman considers his captives to be expendable property, should trouble come or their marketability be compromised. Selling an American doctor as a sex slave is pushing things, but this bastard has clearly seen everything. Ustinov's calm attitude makes it work for the purpose of the film. Allowing one of his helpers to sodomize a captive boy, he then has the nerve to talk endearingly about his own children.
Ustinov is surely present also to cash a paycheck, but like the other stars he does an honest job of work. Suleiman could be played as a silly gloss on the actor's great role in Spartacus, but Ustinov does what's right for the movie.
Supermodel Beverly Johnson skinny-dips in a lake early in the show, but Ashanti does not turn into a skin parade. She looks plenty haggard chained and led across the desert, so much so that when she's presented to Omar Sharif's prince, painted up and drugged, we again remember how devastatingly beautiful she is. It's an almost entirely physical performance, yet it has a basic integrity.
Michael Caine conjures alternating bouts of frustration, self-control and rage. The movie makes a moral case when David and Malik are forced to abandon a group of helpless children to continue their pursuit of Suleiman. But a bit later on, the fate of the group of tiny captives captured with Anansa is left up in the air -- Suleiman may have killed them all to effect a clean getaway, but we don't know.
Kabir Bedi is the film's action hero character, and the one with the most selfless reason to help David. The Indian actor fights well enough to convince us that he can overcome two or three opponents at a time. Most impressive of all, at a crucial juncture Malik foregoes his sworn revenge, making possible a happy ending. Stars Harrison, Sharif and Holden play their brief parts straight and simple and come off well enough. We feel cheated only with Holden, who is on screen only a couple of minutes before his exit. Omar Sharif seems to have no qualms about playing his Prince as an Arab accustomed to purchasing sex slaves. Is that an official acknowledgement that the stereotype depraved wealthy Arab is not a fantasy?
The movie's written prologue and its promotional materials claim that slave trafficking in Africa has persisted quietly for centuries, ignored by governments eager to encourage tourism. Well, when money is involved everything and anything could and still does happen in this jolly world -- involuntary workers, captive immigrants, sex slaves of one degree or another probably exist not far away in my own city, Los Angeles. Ashanti's claim of thousands of African slaves sold every year is a little fuzzy, especially if we're talking about a customer base comprised of depraved Arab oil sheiks... they'd have to be using the captives and throwing them away, like Kleenex.
This 'unofficial' scandal reminds me of the purported mass-murdering Kali-cult Thugs of colonial India, dramatized in Hammer's The Stranglers of Bombay and Merchant-Ivory's The Deceivers. Based upon a nonfiction work, the existence of the Thugs persisted for 150 years, until researchers began to theorize that they might be a "scare myth" concocted to draw attention from the depredations of the English East India Company. The truth may be somewhere in between the idea of a Killer Cult and a cynical colonial conspiracy. Fear sells, whether the threat is stranglers in the night or inhuman slave marketeers.
Ashanti almost wants me to stand up for the rights of slandered Arabian zillionaires -- one scene shows a room of bearded old goats grinning and licking their lips while regarding a lineup of little African boys. Is this an honest exposé or mild exploitation?
Director Richard Fleischer bounced around the industry in his later career as a pro for hire. With diminishing returns on Hollywood pictures he turned to projects that could afford his price, never giving an individual project less than his best. His experience with the tasteless slavery soap opera Mandingo more than qualified him for the relatively tame subject matter of Ashanti, which is cleanly directed in every aspect and never looks cheap.
Severin's Blu-ray + DVD Combo presentation of Ashanti is a quite beautiful transfer of this almost-forgotten adventure attraction originally released by Warner Bros. The movie is almost all filmed outdoors; the only possible flub I caught was an entire sequence timed for high noon, when dialogue indicates that it was probably meant to be Day For Night. The mono audio is also well recorded.
In addition to the original trailer, Severin includes an excellent interview with Beverly Johnson, who is still remarkably attractive. The intelligent and personable Ms. Johnson gives her candid views and detailed memories about Ashanti, going so far as to tell us that she got the desired role of Anansa after another actress was cast -- by having her music producer husband Danny Sims intervene on her behalf. Now that's honesty.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ashanti Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.