Book Review – Mondo Mandingo by Paul Talbot

  • Mondo Mandingo – The “Falconhurst” Books and Films
  • by Paul Talbot
  • Publisher – iUniverse, Inc. 
  • Copyright 2009
  • 266 pages (+ 6 Appendices, Bibliography, & Index)

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Rating – 7.5 / 10

Summary – Race is America’s obsession. The Mandingo books and films captured attention by discussing race in a strange form of popular entertainment that engaged the public for about 30 years. Author Paul Talbot discusses this phenomenon in his good book Mondo Mandingo.

Review – Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the James Bond films enjoyed great popularity. People said that the secrets of 007’s success was simple – the films were filled with sex and violence. If sex and violence made Bond a hit, then the Falconhurst books and films should have been even bigger because they focused on the all-American trifecta – sex, violence, AND race.

The idea behind the Falconhurst books was to set the work at a plantation during the days of slavery. Then create a plot that centered around interracial sex and horrific acts of violence. It wasn’t complex, but it sure got people’s attention – especially, the interracial sex part. The Falconhurst works probably won’t ever quality as a great art, but the phenomenon is quite interesting.

Kyle Onstott (1887-1966)

Back in the 1950s, as the United States slowly turned its attention to civil rights, an eccentric named Kyle Onstott began drafting a novel titled Mandingo. Onstott was an intriguing character – independently wealthy, he spent his life as a dilettante, often indulging his passion for breeding dogs. Somehow, Onstott became intrigued by the stories he’d heard about plantation life in the 1800s.

Following his obsession, Onstott finished his novel and published it to surprising success. Prior to Mandingo’s publication, no one could have envisioned the series’ success. (Falconhurst is the name of the plantation in many of the novels).

For all of his success, Onstott quickly faded from the scene. In Mondo Mandingo, author Paul Talbot states that Onstott wrote only the initial Mandingo novel. Authors Lance Horner and Harry Whittington (who used the pen name Ashley Carter) stepped in to fill in the rest of the series. The Mandingo series would total fourteen novels published over thirty-one years (1957-1988).

The Mandingo Books

Interestingly, Talbot writes that Onstott didn’t even write the best version of his own Mandingo novelTalbot considers the unabridged version of Mandingo to be overly long and burdened by digressions that read nowhere. (Having attempted to read the unabridged version of Mandingo, I share his opinion).

Talbot’s discussion of the Mandingo books covers only about the first 75 pages of Mondo Mandingo. But this section has some of the book’s best material. Onstott’s biography is terrific reading and there are a number of other good war stories. For instance, Talbot suggests that the second author of the Mandingo books, Lance Horner, was poisoned to death in 1973 by his male lover (who hoped to inherit Horner’s estate).

If there’s a downside to this section, it’s that it can be hard to follow. The Mandingo series contains so many sequels and prequels that the reader’s head spins while trying to follow Talbot’s plot summaries. This isn’t Talbot’s fault, because there isn’t a neat, linear story in the Mandingo novels.

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Back cover

A 1961 Play

The Broadway play was a disaster and ran for just eight shows after its previews ended. The play came about mainly because – given the social mores of the time – there was no other suitable medium for a Mandingo adaptation. Talbot’s account of the play is relatively short (covering pages 77 – 98), but it has a few nice pieces of information.

For instance, Talbot quotes extensively from the negative reviews and discusses the casting decisions. Cast members included –

  • James Caan (who was fired after four rehearsals),
  • Dennis Hopper (who replaced Caan),
  • Brooke Hayward,
  • and former boxer Rockne Tarkington (who played the slave, Mede).

Two Movies – Mandingo (1975) and Drum (1976) 

Talbot’s discussion of the movies Mandingo and Drum takes up the bulk of Mondo Mandingo (pages 95-222). Fortunately, these sections are where the book is strongest. I’m much more of a reader than a movie goer, but I really enjoyed learning how a motion picture moves from the idea stage to the final product. In the case of both films, there were many false starts, stops, and changes along the way. Talbot makes all of this interesting.

Readers will enjoy Talbot’s extensive interviews with those who worked on Drum and Mandingo. Heavyweight boxer Ken Norton starred in both films and offers readers some good insight. Talbot also interviewed Steve Carver, who directed Drum (after the producers fired the original director, George Kennedy). Carver explains what it is like to take over a film and try to make changes in a limited time.

As with the Broadway play, Talbot did in-depth research on critics’ and audiences’ reactions to the two movies. The critics were scathing, but audiences were kinder. In their interviews, many of the actors are defensive about their participation in the films; several state that they think that the critics were too harsh.

Misses – What Could Have Been Better

While I really enjoyed Mondo Mandingo, the book has some weaknesses. It can be difficult to follow in places. For instance, Talbot often includes over-long lists of everyone who was involved in the movies. Likewise, the discussions of the Falconhurst novels tend to run together. Some simple editing (including more subheadings and moving some of the long lists into the appendices) would have made the book more readable.

Another negative is that Mondo Mandingo closes on a weak note. The final chapter (pages 223-266) focuses on other “slave-sploitation” films that grew out of the success of Mandingo. This material is interesting, but it diverts attention from the book’s main focus, which is supposed to be the Mandingo phenomena. (Talbot also includes some discussion of the many series of books that were inspired by Mandingo’s success). Mondo Mandingo just “dead stops” after this last chapter; Talbot should have at least given his readers a one-page parting shot.

Find Your Own Answers

Talbot may not offer any conclusions, but he doesn’t push an agenda, either. You will have to find the answers for yourself. My take is that Mandingo’s success – and that of all of its many spinoffs – is a case of popular entertainment outdoing “deeper” works. Highbrow critics hated the Mandingo films, but the highbrows offered few works about race that engaged people on main street.

Mondo Mandingo’s a one-of-a-kind book that offers insight the American psyche and into the worlds of publishing and movies. Readers meet a number of interesting people along the way. The book is well worth a look.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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