Rejoicing in the All-American physicality of Jim Brown’s ‘Slaughter.’
For more than 20 years, Jim Brown dominated American popular culture with his physicality. During his senior year in 1956 at Syracuse University, he ran 986 yards and was named first team All-American. A year later, he was drafted into the NFL by the Cleveland Browns where he would rush 237 yards during his 9th game, setting a rookie record that would last for more than 40 years. Spending less than a decade in the NFL, Brown exited the game as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126), and all-purpose yards (15, 549). As a film freak, and a total dunce at sports, all those numbers sound pretty impressive, but mean even less to me than the Wikipedia entry I cribbed them from. What I understand is that Jim Brown was a titan on the field, and once he had his hands on the ball, he could do things that most would think impossible. And yet, Jim Brown refused to let his life be defined by the game he conquered.
When talking to Spike Lee for his HBO Sports documentary (Jim Brown: All-American) in 2002, Brown stated that “the bottom line with a man is ‘I’ll kick your ass,’” and while football allowed him to prove his masculinity on the field week after week, he also understood that his gladiatorial bravado could be used beyond the arena. While his time with the Cleveland Browns was winding down, Brown first accepted Hollywood’s call for the revenge Western, Rio Conchos. It’s a serviceable story in which Brown’s buffalo soldier aids Richard Boone’s leading man on a hunt for the villainous Apache who massacred his family. Not concerned with paving any new ground, Rio Conchos offered only glimpses of Jim Brown’s charm, but proved to producers that he could play in this stage of combat as well.
Jim Brown would eventually reject the NFL when issued an ultimatum on the set of The Dirty Dozen (them vs. us), and took it as his opportunity for evolution. From there, he would find himself benched with a variety of box-office elite. He dodged chainsaw-wielding Nazis with Rod Taylor in Dark of the Sun, he got chummy with Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine in Ice Station Zebra, and made terrifying love to Raquel Welch in the mondo bizarr-o Western 100 Rifles. However, after years of playing second fiddle to others, Brown would finally find his name above the title when he embraced the rising returns of exploitation cinema.
As the self-proclaimed baddest cat who ever walked the earth, Jim Brown’s Slaughter represents that Molotov cocktail of ability/durability that he expressed so aggressively on the field. For ninety percent of the film, he barely cracks a smile, intimidating every character (and probably actor) with his physicality. While such violent machismo might be out of style today, Slaughter is the epitome of Blaxploitation attraction. Mostly silent, calculated confidence supported with a backbone of cool that the audience has already gifted its lead character before the Billy Preston theme song even ignites the whole affair. You won’t need much of the film’s runtime to recognize if this world is for you or not. If you choose to explore further, Slaughter will launch you through a black hole of cinema that includes other equally baadasssss songs like Trouble Man, Truck Turner, and Shaft in Africa (sure, the original Shaft is cool and all with its Isaac Hayes orchestral brilliance, but it’s the trilogy capper where Richard Roundtree’s private dick properly slays the villains).
Having exclusively ruled nearly every B-movie and Drive-In market of the 1950s and 60s, American International Pictures immediately saw the potential of Blaxploitation dollars. Spearheaded by producer Roger Corman’s philosophy of where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way filmmaking, AIP cranked out nearly all of the greatest hits for this thirsty market: Black Cesar, Coffy, Blacula, Hell Up in Harlem, Foxy Brown, and a dozen more. For Slaughter, they chose director Jack Starrett (known these days mostly for his small acting roles in Blazing Saddles and First Blood) after witnessing his capable hand on the Vietnam War cheezefest, The Losers. Starrett had no pretentions for what kind of film he was hired to helm, and he savored every opportunity to linger on blood, boobs, and barbecue…Slaughter’s fiery action allows for lots of crispy mannequin stand-ins.
Like the best exploitation flicks, Slaughter keeps the plot to simple “You killed my mom and dad, I’m gonna kill all of you” mechanics. There is some shadowy familial mob ties, but the screenplay never gives you the time to linger on the morality behind the Slaughter name. On top of Jim Brown portraying the title character, the audience knows Captain Slaughter is a seriously tough hombre because he was a one-time Green Beret. If Sgt. Barry Saddler’s ballad taught the boob tubers back home anything, it’s that the American war machine produces no tougher soldiers than those cats with the flat caps. The name drop early on is all the backstory you need, the costumers could relax as broad bowties and polyester suits are the only uniform of ass-kickery Slaughter requires.
Vigilante justice is swift, but the bread crumbs of corpses catches the attention of Cameron Mitchell’s corrupt Treasury agent. One of the many staples of the genre, if a G-Man is involved, he’s going to prove to be worse than the villain of the piece. Extortion leads to deputation, and Jim Brown quickly finds himself south of the border where a diabolical branch of the Cleveland mafia is cooking the books with the aid of a super-computer. Did I say these plots were simple? Delightfully goofy is always a plus.
From time-to-time, the one-man show does consent to some surprising character work. While you can ironically loose your wits over the extraterrestrial heights that boss man Norman Alfe reaches as the grey afro’d villain Mario Felice, it’s his right-hand henchman Rip Torn who steals every scene from under him. Torn spews his dialogue with cancerous, guttural gravel and matches his words with a permanent leer stuck somewhere between spastic confusion and fascistic superiority. It’s an utterly baffling series of choices that I’m not sure even Nic Cage could pull off, but Rip Torn wears his performance with undeniable assurance. It’s the type of role that perfectly fits into the love-to-hate cliché, but still manages to shock right up until that last second of screen time.
They may not have fit as neatly into the much plagiarized Campbellian hero’s quest as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader would do just a few years later, but the climactic showdown between Brown and Torn gets the blood boiling something proper. The manner in which Slaughter slides out of a speeding car to immediately start blasting his shotgun through a horde of Mafioso goons is grotesquely enchanting, but not as cathartic as when he smashes Rip Torn into a bloody pulp along the side of the road. Rooting for the home team has never been easier.
Gloria Steinem, writing for New York Magazine, once dubbed Jim Brown as “The Black John Wayne.” This spoke to his bluster, his swagger, and his assertion of physicality, but it is simply not accurate. At the time, if you were African American, you could not be your own person. You had to be The Black Godfather, Black Caesar, Black Shampoo, Black Frankenstein, or even Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. In 1967, Sidney Poitier had to fight to be a guest at the dinner table, but he was never permitted to bring his sexuality to the silver screen. After Melvin Van Peebles proved with Sweet Sweetback that real money awaited those that catered to an ignored audience raging against the machine, men like Jim Brown succeeded by championing masculinity. Brown was that adventure hero, and he belonged next to chiseled idols like John Wayne and Lee Marvin, but just as he was succeeding in Blaxploitation he was also being strong armed from mainstream entertainment.
In exploitation cinema Jim Brown could command a screen in the same manner in which he owned Cleveland stadium. However, he was often regulated to sidekicks for Harvey Keitel or Arnold Schwarzenegger whenever the big blockbusters came calling. With Slaughter, Jim Brown established a persona worthy of the great action film characters, but also represented a sense of strength that so many Hollywood pretenders failed to exude. He is power. He is sex. He is cool. He is Slaughter.