The Klansman (1974)

 

 

 

 

 

Director:     Terence Young. 

Starring:     Lee Marvin (Sheriff Track Bascomb), Richard Burton (Breck Stancill), Cameron Mitchell (Butt Cutt Cates), O.J. Simpson (Garth), Lola Falana (Loretta Sykes), David Huddleston (Mayor Hardy Riddle), Luciana Paluzzi (Trixie), Linda Evans (Nancy Poteet), Ed Call (Shaneyfelt), John Alderson (Vernon Hodo), John Pearce (Taggart), David Ladd (Flagg), Vic Perrin (Hector), Spence Wil-Dee (Willy Washington), Wendell Wellman or Noah Berry, Jr. (Sheriff's son Alan Bascomb).

the KKK is up in arms when white and blacks want to march in a civil rights demonstration in their town in Alabama

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

The deputy sheriff on a motorcycle comes rushing into a small Alabama town.  Sheriff Track Bascomb now rides in a police car.  He parks his car and almost immediately hears a woman yelling and screaming.  A bunch of Southern rednecks are abusing a black woman and a black man, tossing them back and forth.  The sheriff blows his car horn to let everyone know the sheriff is here.  He walks up to the men as they stop their harassment of the two blacks.  "This property is posted.  You boys are trespassing."  Some redneck says::  "Oh, sheriff, we was just having a little fun.  We was gonna give 'em a dollar."  The sheriff takes the dolor.  He gives it to the black man who was being harassed, named Rob.  A redneck named Bobby asks the sheriff for a ride home and gets it.  He gets out at a Keep Out sign for Stancills Mountain. 

On the way back to the station, the sheriff stops to speak to a man with a bad leg known as Breck Stancill.  They go inside Breck's home.  The sheriff asks Breck if he is going to welcome the "strangers" (the "outside agitators") when they come in for the black vote registration?  "You going to let them camp on your mountain?"  Breck answers:  "I hadn't intended to."  Now Breck asks the sheriff if he thinks he's going to have any troubles with the "strangers"?  The sheriff says no. 

Heading down the road, the sheriff is unaware that his son's car is down by the lake.  The young man is smooching with his girl.   

Bobby and his wife Nancy Poteet are riding down the same road and all of a sudden the engine just dies.  Bobby pulls his car off the road onto a dirt road.  Bobby wants the both of them to walk into town and get a tow truck, but Nancy says she's too tired to go walking four miles.  She is staying in the car.   Bobby leaves.  While Nancy listens to the radio a man opens her car door and the two struggle for awhile. 

The mayor of the town leads the local KKK meeting.  The "boys" are getting antsy and want to take some preventive action against the demonstrators tonight.  The man up there with Hardy leans over to him and says:  "Now's the time to discourage our niggers from attending that demonstration next week."

The sheriff gets a telephone call and is told something upsetting.  He leans over and tells the deputy sheriff that Nancy Poteet was raped.  "Raped by a nigger."  One of the guys says he bets it's that damn Willy Washington.  The sheriff drives to a black pool hall and says he wants to talk with Willy Washington.  The sheriff wants to speak with Willy outside, but Willy isn't moving from the bar.   Willy is surprised when the sheriff tells him that he has a warrant for the arrest of Willy Washington.  Willy tries to run after a pool stick is thrown to him.  The sheriff takes Willy down, but he stops immediately when someone yells something undecipherable.  The black fellows in the pool hall look very menacing.  One of the guys is a strong looking young fellow named Garth.  The sheriff tells Willy to get up and let's go. 

And here comes the KKK boys.  The whites have rifles with them.  They want to take Willy from the sheriff, but the lawman says that's not going to happen.   He gets in his car and drives away. 

Disappointed about not having the chance to beat up a nigger, they decide to go after Garth and his friend Henry just walking along the road.  They try to run the walkers down with their pickup truck, but miss.  Garth picks up an orange and tosses it at the men.  He hits one of the guys right in the face. The truck stops and the whites start jumping out with their rifles.  Garth and Henry run as fast as they can.  Garth is faster and is able to get away, but the terrorists hoot and hit one of poor Henry's legs.  One of the guys shoots Henry with a shotgun right in the face.  Garth is really furious at this. 

A pretty woman named Trixie is staying overnight with Breck.  She hears the gun shots and asks Breck what is that?   Breck, however, is sleeping already.  Trixie wakes him to ask him why won't he marry her?  She says the mayor asked her to marry him, but he's already married and he's too fat, at least according to Trixie.  Trixie now tells Breck that she heard that the black girl Loretta Sykes is coming back.  And she wants to know if Breck is going to start up that relationship he had with her?    Breck tells her that she is only coming to town to see her grandmother, who is at present dying.  Trixie says she heard that Loretta is coming back for the black vote demonstration. 

The next day Breck goes to the barber shop for a haircut.  He's there when the deputy sheriff comes in and hangs up a poster from the top brass of the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama.  Breck doesn't like seeing posters by the KKK shown in public areas.  He tears the poster down, wads it up loosely and throws it on the floor by the barber chairs, while simply saying:  "Trash".   This makes deputy Butt Cutt Cates crazy and he follows Breck around for a short while.  He looks so foolish following the man so closely, that he just seems goofy. 

Breck is in town to pick up Loretta.  When she gets off the Grey Hound Bus, Breck is right there waiting for her. 

Two civil rights workers, Charles Peck and the Rev. Josh Franklin, come up to see Loretta because they need some help with the demonstration.  She tells the black man Charles Peck that most of the people in this isolated neighborhood near Stancills Mountain don't even know how to read or write.  So these, mostly elderly people, can't be of much help to the cause of the black vote.  But she herself will be at the demonstration. 

At night a KKK terrorist named Johnson is awakened by a klansman outside his window.  The terrorist is so happy that they are going to go on a night ride that he nearly jumps out of bed to get his pants on.  He comes out onto his porch to meet his buddy, but then he sees the man under the robe has black hands.  So the fellow struggles with the black man, but the black man knocks the rifle from the hands of the terrorist, who now runs for his life.  The white man falls down and the black man reveals his identity by removing his cap.  It turns out to be Garth.  Garth then shoots the man in the chest, killing him. 

There are four journalists speaking with the sheriff trying to get detailed information about the crime, but the sheriff has no real news for them.  The fellow from the New York Times says everything would go much smoother if the sheriff  would just be more cooperative.  The sheriff tells them to go speak to Trixie who will be very cooperative with them. 

Bobby comes to the sheriff and says he is leaving town.  He says he can't take it anymore:  "Working in the market there cutting up pork chops for some lady who I just know wants to ask me, how does it feel with a wife that's been with a nigger?"  It bothers him that his wife Nancy feels no shame about this. 

In church the reverend says:  "Our once Christian nation is being delivered to the Godless. . . . we must stand up for Jesus."  Nancy comes into the church and some people immediately leave the church calling her names like:  disgusting, shame and filth. Some church goers yell at her to get out.  Another reverend asks:  "How can you push yourself on these good Christian folk after being in that Negro's foul embraces?"  Linda shouts to these "fine" Christian people: "Well, you're the filthy ones."   The sheriff escorts Nancy out of the church. 

The sheriff pays a visit to Breck.  He talks about hiding Nancy up in this area by Stancills Mountain.  Breck doesn't want to get involved.  He tells the sheriff to tell Nancy that it just can't be done.  The sheriff says that Breck can tell her it can't be done right now because she is waiting outside in the police car.  So Breck goes out and tells her to come on into the house. 

The sheriff pays a visit to the mayor, who wants to know why he took Nancy up to Stancills Mountain?  He says the sheriff is trying to "rile up" the "good people" of the community.  And if the sheriff doesn't stop it, he will lose the next election for sheriff.  Moreover, the sheriff's behavior could jeopardize his son's getting into the West Point Military Academy. 

The press talks with Trixie again, complaining about the lack of cooperation in the town.  One of the guy's even invites Trixie over to his hotel room.  She's not interested.  But when two of the journalists says they will take Trixie to Johnson's funeral, she immediately accepts.  There is a big turn-out for the funeral complete with a marching band and a group from the KKK without their caps.  The confederate flag is carried there but not the US flag and another KKK fellow carries a burning cross.

Also at the funeral is Garth.  He is hiding behind a tree.  He takes aim at the KKK holder of the Confederate flag, named Taggart, and shoots the man in the chest.  The fellow dies. 

Butt Cutt Cates talks with a couple of fellow KKK men.  He says it must have been one of those damned agitators who shot the flag carrier. One of the men says: "And shamed us in front of the Grand Wizard and two Imperial Dragons!"  The other man with Cates says this was not done by an agitator.  The night they shot Henry, Garth was with him.  Garth must have witnessed what happened and is now eliminating those who were involved in Henry's death.  Cates says he's going to go after Garth and he bets he's being sheltered by that agitator Loretta.  He calls together a large group of KKK men saying that they've got a lot of work to do. 

At night they drive to Loretta's place.  They force her with threats to let them into her house.  The KKK men don't find any trace of Garth, but Cates decides to take Loretta in.  They shove her into the front seat of the pickup truck.

The sheriff gets a telephone call while eating dinner at Breck's place.  His son is with him and the phone call is a complaint from the school about Alan's bad behavior.  He has been tearing down the KKK "patriotic" literature put up in and around the school.  Dad tells his son about the complaint and wants him to stop it because he won't be able to get into West Point.  Alan says he doesn't want to go to West Point.  He says he wants to be an apprentice with Breck, marry his girlfriend and stay close to his family.  He also says he doesn't want to fight any damn wars.  Dad tells his son to go take a long walk.

The sheriff tells Breck that he is making things tough for him.  Why?  Because he's not cooperating with the sheriff and it's the sheriff who's trying to keep Breck alive.  Breck asks the sheriff if he's a member of the KKK?  This insults the sheriff and he is a bit peeved at Breck. 

The KKK, the reverend and the deputy sheriff take Loretta into Mayor Hardy's lumber warehouse.  Butt-Cutt says he personally will beat Loretta. 

The sheriff gets a call about trouble at the lumber warehouse. The sheriff hurries over there.  He puts the beaten Loretta into the back seat of the car to talk with her.  She begs him to get her to a hospital immediately.  But he wants her to promise him to blame this assault on the blacks before taking her to any hospital.  To save herself, she promises.  And away they go to the hospital. 

Breck visits with her in the hospital.  She thanks him for all his support over the years.  He was the one who helped her get a job in Chicago where she moved to some years ago.  She also tells Breck that she had to lie about the assault and rape because she was coerced into it. 

The demonstration finally starts.  There's a good-sized crowd of protestors.   Of course, there is a great deal of local white hostility directed at the demonstrators.  One of those watching the demonstration is Garth.  He starts to put his rifle together.  The reverend with the protestors speaks with Breck and tries to get him to participate in the demonstration.  Breck is not interested.  He's still resentful towards the reverend for putting Loretta in danger.  Some white fellow calls Breck a "nigger lover".

Garth suddenly shoots still another KKK member.  He takes off running.  He gets away by springing across the railway tracks just before a train is about to pass by him.  No one is going to stop that train and Garth is free to escape. 

Loretta and Breck drive back to Stancills Mountain.  She implies that Breck is hiding away up near the mountains.  She also says Breck thinks he's a cripple, but he's not really a cripple, except in his mind.  And why hasn't Breck married and gotten on with his life?  All of a sudden Garth raises up in the back of the car and holds a pistol to Breck's head.  Loretta starts arguing with Garth about whether the movement should use violence of not.  Obviously Garth believes in using violence.  She calls Garth "twisted".  Garth has Breck stop the car and he takes off running again. 

Breck drops Loretta at her place.  He then sees Nancy and a black woman kneeling over a dead dog.  It turns out to be Breck's dog.  Of course, Bret is upset about his dog being killed.  Nancy and Breck go into Breck's house.  Breck gives Nancy a big hug and a kiss.  She has been thinking to herself that nobody would every touch her again, but Breck shows her it isn't true. 

The KKK fellows meet to discuss their next move.  And their next move is to free Willy Washington and use him to kill Loretta. 

The KKK fellows burst into the sheriff's office with their rifles and shotguns pointed at Sheriff Bascomb.  They demand the sheriff give them the keys so they can grab Willy Washington.  Just when things are about to become violent, a young woman walks into the sheriff's office and says that it was not Willy Washington who raped Nancy.  How does she know that?  Because Willy was with her on that night.   Her husband gets so angry that he slaps his wife hard across the face.  He  then tries to strangle her.  It's the other KKK men who drag the husband away from his wife.  The sheriff now pushes the KKK fellows out of his office. 

The sheriff now thinks that it was probably Rob who raped Nancy.  He goes and talks to the man about where he was the night of the rape, but Garth suddenly appears and tells the sheriff that Rob was right here with him that night.  Bascomb now tells Garth that he thinks that he is the one who killed the three white men, all of whom were involved in Henry's murder.  He also tells Garth to get out of the county, because if the sheriff can figure out who was the murderer, the Klan will certainly figure it out. Garth leaves Rob's house. 

Nancy brings Breck breakfast in bed.  Breck indicates that he wants to marry Nancy.  She doesn't rule out marriage, but she says she first has to go and figure out who she is after all that's happened.  When she comes back, if he still wants her, they could marry.   She asks and he gives her some money to get away from Alabama for awhile. At the bus station, Cates starts harassing the two of them, until Nancy breaks and attacks Cates with her purse.  Breck steps in and is able to knock Cates out of action.  He puts Nancy on the bus, kisses her and lets her go.

The KKK boys get together again at their favorite bar. 

Breck comes to the lumber yard to talk with the mayor.  The mayor warns Breck that the KKK is fixing to burn Breck out of house and home tonight.  The mayor adds that if Breck would say some "favorable word", he might stop this whole thing. The mayor tells Breck what the "favorable word" would be and it is unacceptable to Breck.  He won't cooperate. 

Alan tells his father that he's decided to go to West Point.  The sheriff gets a call about tonight's attack.  He grabs a tommy gun and starts heading for Breck's place.  Alan tells Trixie about the KKK going to attack Breck.  She gets her purse and jacket and heads toward Breck's place.  Alan says he's going with Trixie.

Breck gathesr the local black community around him and tells them that they must hide in the woods because the KKK is coming to their section of the town.  He hands out some air horns to be used by some black guys to warn when the KKK starts showing up. 

The sheriff arrives and talks with Breck.  He tells him that if he confronts the KKK, a lot of people will die tonight.  And he's still trying to keep Breck alive.  The situation is dire.  He asked around for volunteers to protect Breck and the locals, but nobody volunteered.  Trixie and Alan now arrive.  The sheriff tells his son to hide in the ditch so he doesn't come to harm.  The air horns sound the alarm.  And Trixie starts ringing the bell by Breck's house.  The sheriff goes out to meet with the KKK guys.  They come in their terrorist uniforms to get Breck.   

The sheriff tells them that Breck is leaving the county.  A KKK spokesman says that it's too damn late for that.  So the fight begins.  Cates fires at the sheriff but misses.  The sheriff returns fire with his tommy gun.  And now a fire fight breaks out with everyone firing their weapons.  Sheriff Bascomb knocks two KKK guys out of the fight, but he is wounded in turn.  The sheriff wounds another of the terrorists.  Breck shoots down a KKK terrorist.  Another of the enemy slowly points his rifle at Breck to get Breck in his gun sights.  Breck looks like he wants to be shot because he does not raise his weapon and he does not hide behind the tree next to him.  The terrorist fires his weapon and hits Breck in the chest.

Many of the buildings are set on fire.  Trixie and Loretta run out to try and help Breck.  Loretta grabs a shot gun and kills another terrorist.  Now no one is firing, so Cates starts leading the men up to Breck's house.  Up in a tree sits Garth.  After the night riders pass by, he drops out of the tree.  The sheriff jumps up and drills Cates with his tommy gun.  Now Garth points his rifle at the sheriff, but he doesn't fire.  So the sheriff also doesn't fire.  There's a wounded KKK fellow on the ground.  Garth goes over to him and shoots the man even while the sheriff holds a pistol to his head. 

Cates is still alive and he shoots the sheriff in the back.  Then he dies.  Alan rushes to his father's side.  Garth walks away.  Loretta start a fire to burn up the hanging oak where Breck's relative was hung for being too friendly with the blacks.

 

My first political awakening was with the Civil Rights movement.  This brings back memories of the hate-filled hearts of so many people I knew or crossed paths with in northern Florida in those years.  In my high-school Americanism versus Communism I wrote a long paper that supported the Civil Rights movement.  It was too "radical" for the teachers in those days.  I remember how a female teacher told me I should read a paper by one of the other students that supported the fight against Civil Rights as a counter to my "extreme" point of view.   I paid no attention figuring, undoubtedly, that the other paper was just another reasonless excuse for racism by a redneck. 

It was familiar and personal ground for me in viewing this film.  I enjoyed the presentation of white rednecks and their racism because in those days the racists were just so terribly vocal and nasty about it. I actually liked hearing the word "nigger" again in our politically correct times, because it's a reminder of just how seriously nasty these rednecks were and still are.  "African-American" doesn't slap you in the face hard like the phrase the "N-word".  I thought it was a pretense to say that everything is "post-racial" when I knew we weren't anywhere near to a "post-racial" nation. 

I would highly recommend this film, especially, because it talks about and illustrates the racist system in a small Alabama town.  Almost everyone white was a part of this system and thought it rather normal.  Even the deputy sheriff was a member of the KKK, along with the mayor of the town who ran a big lumber company. 

There were quite a few actors whose faces and names I recognized in the film.  Lee Marvin was terrific as the sheriff at odds with his racist neighbors.  Richard Burton was very appropriately subdued as Breck, the man who befriended blacks.  And it was kind of funny seeing O. J. Simpson as the avenging assassin of KKK people.  A treat was to see the sexy Lola Falana because I had almost forgotten about her.  There is also a Bond actress in the film, Luciana Paluzzi.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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