TAMANGO, a 1957 cult classic, tells a fascinating tale about a revolt on a 19th-century slave ship heading from Africa to Cuba. A restored 35mm CinemaScope print of this neglected masterwork was distributed in 1997, due to renewed interest in the career of its star, Dorothy Dandridge.
TAMANGO is set in 1815, when slave-trading had already been outlawed in France, but illegal trafficking endured. Aboard the ship, "L'Esperanza," the Captain (Curt Jurgens) runs a cruel operation, where he keeps his prisoners, whom he captured on the coast of Guinea, chained and submissive, but
strong and well-fed. One such prisoner, Tamango (Alex Cressan) chafes at the idea of being sold into slavery and openly quarrels with the Captain. Knowing that Tamango is a valuable property, the Captain teaches him a lesson by killing one of the other slaves, then tying up Tamango on the deck.
While Tamango roasts under the hot sun, the Captain's slave-mistress, a "mulatto" named Aiche (Dorothy Dandridge), tries to advise him to keep quiet.
Tamango rejects Aiche's recommendation and plans a revolt with his warrior comrades. But when one of Tamango's fellow prisoners is caught hiding on deck in preparation for the attack, the man is killed. Meanwhile, Aiche, feels caught between her love for the Captain and her loyalty toward her
people. She also must fend off the advances of Corot (Jean Servais), the cynical ship's doctor.
Below deck during a storm, Tamango seeks revenge for the killing of his friend by executing his murderer, the First Mate, Bebe (Roger Hanin), and the prisoners hide Bebe's body under the floorboards of the ship. When Aiche learns from Corot that the Captain had never intended to marry her and that
he has a fiancee waiting for him in France, she shifts her loyalties completely toward the prisoners. Now with Aiche's help, Tamango and the others plot to steal the crew's weapons and stage their mutiny. They succeed in killing eight men and taking Aiche hostage below deck, forcing the Captain to
choose between his love for her and his revenge for the massacre. When smoking out the prisoners fails, the Captain chooses to shoot a cannon into the slave quarters, killing Aiche and all his human cargo.
If for no other film than TAMANGO, expatriate John Berry deserves reconsideration from the auteur critics who look seriously at the ways in which directors of the Hollywood era transformed stylistic and thematic conventions (Berry's HE RAN ALL THE WAY is strongest from his pre-blacklist Hollywood
years). TAMANGO, one of several French-produced films Berry made, is special in a number of ways. What's immediately apparent in the new CinemaScope prints is that TAMANGO is a gorgeous-looking film; the use of color, lighting, and tableaux framing is combined stunningly. Even more remarkably,
however, the screenplay by Berry, Lee Gold, Tamara Hovey and Georges Neveux (based on a novelette by Proper Merimee) is consistently sympathetic with the African prisoner's point of view and never exploits their plight in a sensational way. (For this reason, it's far more interesting than many
"Blaxpoitation" films of the 1970s and the undeservedly hailed GLORY of 1989). Moreover, Dorothy Dandridge makes her slave role (something the actress usually refused to play) moving and complex.
Not too surprisingly, TAMANGO received some good reviews in its day, but was poorly distributed in the US (in 1959, a full two years after its European release). Scenes that the censors thought would offend audiences were cut from the American release (including a kiss between Jurgens and
Dandridge). Fortunately, the restored version is complete, although the English-language dubbing (substituting the French) severely hampers some of the performances in key moments. Otherwise, TAMANGO is a hugely engrossing, refreshingly progressive picture from a reactionary era. (Violence, sexualsituations, adult situations.)
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- Review: TAMANGO, a 1957 cult classic, tells a fascinating tale about a revolt on a 19th-century slave ship heading from Africa to Cuba. A restored 35mm CinemaScope print of this neglected masterwork was distributed in 1997, due to renewed interest in the career of… (more)