Sometimes the critics get it dead wrong. Such was and is the case with Ashanti (1979), a once reviled adventure-thriller set in Africa that today is almost completely forgotten, despite the presence of heavy-hitter talent like Michael Caine, Peter Ustinov, William Holden, Omar Sharif, and Rex Harrison in the cast. Even Caine himself hated it, and apparently it was an unhappy, troubled production, with director Richard Fleischer removed from the film before the end of shooting. A Swiss production despite its English-speaking cast, Ashanti's producer, Georges-Alain Vuille, also apparently ran afoul with Columbia Pictures, the film's primary distributor. Co-star Beverly Johnson, in a new interview included with the disc, speculates the studio more or less sabotaged the film's commercial chances and may have even encouraged an industry-wide smear campaign against it.
Given Michael Caine's terrible career choices around this time (The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Hand, etc.) my expectations for Ashanti were similarly calamitous. Instead, from the opening scenes little details in its storytelling impressed me. It deals with a serious, rarely touched topic - modern-day slavery - in unusual, unexpected ways. The story is engrossing and exciting, the acting is good, and the dialogue witty and perceptive. (Flashman creator George MacDonald Fraser worked, without credit, on the script.) Peter Ustinov is good but miscast, the routine execution of the handful of action scenes undermines the rest of the film's originality, and the score by jazz pianist Michael Melvoin is inapt. Otherwise though, given its terrible reputation Ashanti is almost shockingly good.
It appears Ashanti hasn't had a legitimate home video release in America since the days of VHS, so Severin Films' excellent Blu-ray of this Panavision production is particularly welcome. A trailer and the aforementioned interview with Johnson are included.
World Health Organization doctors Anansa (Beverly Johnson), an African-American, and David Linderby (Caine), a Brit, arrive at a small West Africa village as part of a United Nations-sponsored inoculation program. Afterwards, she decides to go for a swim nearby where slave traders, mistaking Anansa for a local, kidnap her. Arab Suleiman (Peter Ustinov) and his men follow the slave route through the Sahara, planning to sell the dozen or so victims in Saudi Arabia, into sex slavery and domestic servitude, after which Suleiman plans to retire.
Linderby, gradually realizing what has happened, is horrified, yet local authorities can do little. He's approached by anti-slavery activist Brian Walker (Rex Harrison), who in turn puts Linderby in touch with Jim Sandell (William Holden), a mercenary and helicopter pilot. (Mild spoiler): Sandell charges more than Linderby can afford, but Sandell agrees to help anyway after Linderby reveals that Anansa is in fact his wife, something no one (including the film's audience) anticipated. Later still, Walker introduces Linderby to Malik (Kabir Bedi, Octopussy), whose wife and children were murdered by Suleiman (or one of his clients), and whose experience in the desert Linderby desperately requires if there's any hope of finding and rescuing his wife before Suleiman disappears into the Middle East.
What might have been tasteless and exploitative, or didactic, or simplistic and dishonest, is none of those things. Instead, Ashanti is intriguingly matter-of-fact with regards to modern slavery, unblinkingly acknowledging its existence but starkly realistic in how so little can be done to curb its practice.
In one scene, for instance, Malik and Linderby attack and Malik kills some slave traders in the Sahara, but they turn out not to be Suleiman's party. The kidnap victims are all children from Sudan and other parts of East Africa, and Linderby naturally wants to see them returned them to their homes. But Malik instead only provides the children with directions to brigands seen earlier who will surely enslave them, but where they will be fed and overall be better off than they would be in Saudi Arabia. Linderby is appalled but realizes he can do nothing for these doomed, helpless children. Caine's performance here is very good, making one wonder why he dislikes the film so much.
Myriad other aspects of the film impress. Holden's character is a bluntly self-aware mercenary, of the type he played to perfection for much of his career. When Anansa identifies herself as an American WHO doctor, Ustinov's Suleiman pragmatically weighs the advantages and disadvantages of marketing an educated and liberated but exotically beautiful woman in repressive Saudi Arabia. His dialogue regards her purely in commercial terms and without a glimmer of humanity, but also without personal malice or sadism. This has the effect of making Suleiman's behavior even more disturbing instead of less.
Other scenes ring true tonally, such as the relationship between one of Suleiman's henchmen, Ansok (playwright Winston Ntshona), and a kidnapped child he lusts after, a young boy. Suleiman lets him rape the child (thankfully not shown) but later, when Ansok shows favor to the boy, throwing him a literal bone denied the other kidnap victims, the boy disturbingly smiles broadly. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?
So few postwar films have depicted the complexities of Africa both (reasonably) accurately and accessibly, with Zulu (1964), Africa Addio (1966), and the underrated Gold (1974) coming to mind. Tellingly, all three of those films were extremely controversial and often misunderstood when they were new, as Ashanti was.
Caine's character, who speaks only English and has no experience at all traveling across Africa, is believably in way over his head yet also so determined to rescue his wife that the alliances he forms and the actions he takes always seem plausible. Regrettably, the few action scenes have that choreographed, Republic serial look about them but are acceptable.
More problematic is the casting of Peter Ustinov, with the filmmakers no doubt recalling his charming if unscrupulous slave trader in Spartacus (1960). Suleiman is more casually cruel, and Ustinov, always a fine actor, tries but can't quite completely shed him of the actor's natural charms.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, Ashanti generally looks just fine, with a sharp, bright 1080p image throughout, while the Dolby Digital mono (English only, no subtitles) is strong and clear. I did notice a couple of missing frame-fueled jump cuts and other minor damage, but those may be inherent to the original vault elements, not the transfer.
Included is a standard-def trailer, but the real surprise is an almost half-hour interview (in high-def) with Beverly Johnson, who in the 33 years since Ashanti's release seems to have aged at least five years. She has superficially nice things to say about her co-stars (except for Ustinov), but mostly talks about herself rather than the film, describing herself as "Supermodel Beverly Johnson" and informing viewers no less than three times how unfaithful her then-husband was during production. She then recounts a strange story of being raped then jailed when the alleged rapist, a hotel masseur, claimed he was assaulted. Conversely, she never mentions Fleischer (at least not by name) nor does she really evaluate the film or discuss its extremely negative reception. An odd but fascinating supplement.
Far better than its reputation would suggest, Ashanti is something of a find on Blu-ray and due for a major reappraisal. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.