Severin Films // 1979 // 118 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 4th, 2013
Only two men could rescue her. One driven by love, the other by revenge.
The film catalogue is often one of the most underrated assets a media company can have. Though everyone keeps their eyes out for the latest box-office numbers each new release achieves, smart studios leverage the films they've already made to create new revenue streams as opportunities present themselves. Sometimes, we as consumers don't know what those opportunities are when an older film gets released; we can only speculate. I'm going to guess that Ashanti (Blu-ray) is being released now, having skipped the DVD-only era and only been available on VHS, because slavery is in the theaters in a way that hasn't happened since Spielberg's Amistad. Between Lincoln and Django Unchained, slavery is more alive in the national consciousness than it has been, and perhaps that's why the tale of modern-day slavery is finally getting a digital home video release. Though largely disowned at the time of its release, it's exactly the kind of film that makes a perfect present-day curiosity.
Dr. and Dr. Linderby are United Nations medics helping villagers in Africa. When Anansa Linderby (Beverly Johnson, 54 is kidnapped by a slaver (Peter Ustinov, Spartacus), David Linderby (Michael Caine, Quills) enlists the aid of an activist (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady) and a mercenary (William Holden, The Wild Bunch) to get his wife back.
Ashanti is by far one of the weirder products of Hollywood's strange history. First, there's its director. Richard Fleischer was always a director willing to take on different kinds of projects. In a single five-year span he worked on both Tora! Tora! Tora! and Soylent Green. Not long after making Ashanti, he would direct an entry in the Conan saga. He was apparently pulled off of Ashanti before filming finished, and that's only a small part of the struggles the film suffered.
The second strange thing about Ashanti is the contrast between its exploitation-sounding premise and the caliber of actor it attracted. The modern-day slaver story is one that has a rich history in exploitation films. The supposed "documentary" aspects have allowed filmmakers tremendous license in showing depravity in the name of capturing this social ill. That usually implies a collection of over-the-hill actors working for a paycheck. That might describe some of the cast -- this was almost the last film for both William Holden and Rex Harrison -- but Michael Caine was in the middle of a long and illustrious career. Though many of the actors were past their best work, they're all in fine form here, giving performances that would make most exploitation performers blush.
Finally, the film is explicitly an adventure tale, traveling the more exotic parts of the world in search of (and in spite of) danger. Though the coming decade would produce its share of adventure films (think Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone), those films were usually cartoonish in some way, with objects of desire that were usually material and villains who were safely distant. Ashanti instead tackles the real-world problem of modern-day slavery. The usually carefree nature of the adventure genre doesn't make for the most secure bedfellow with a hot-button issue like slavery.
All this means that it's going to take a lot of work to enjoy Ashanti. If you can forget that it's about real-life issues and not particularly sensitive by modern standards, Ashanti offers some excellent performances. My favorite is William Holden, offering the hard-nosed clarity that made his performance in The Wild Bunch so spectacular. Of course, he's evenly matched by Michael Caine, Peter Ustinov, and Rex Harrison, who all seem game to take on the modern slave trade. Beverly Johnson is, of course, gorgeous as Anansa Linderby, and fans of her modeling career will want to see her performance here.
The film is also worth watching for the startlingly un-naïve view it takes of slavery in Africa. Though we see Rex Harrison as an activist, the film is remarkably clear-eyed about how little can be done to stop trafficking in human beings. The film avoids being condescending to its African subjects, and no great white savior appears to save the poor dark children. Despite the exploitative nature of the plot, the film seems very respectful of the complexity that African politics necessitates.
Unsurprisingly, the film was largely disowned by all involved and was panned by critics when it was released. It was available on VHS, but hasn't seen home video release since. The folks at Severin have gone back to "vault elements" to produce this release. Though the print is in pretty good shape, the overall transfer is so-so. Encoded with the MPEG-2 codec in 2.35:1/1080p, the transfer does a fine job with muted colors of the desert, and closeups have some pleasing detail. However, the overall picture is softer than I'd like, with some shots appearing a bit noisy. Audiophiles might be disappointed by the lack of a lossless audio track, but the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono does a fine job with the film's dialogue and score.
The film's main extra is a 26-minute interview with Beverly Johnson. She spends as much time discussing her life and work. She doesn't have that much to say about the film, but the stories she tells are amusing in their own right. The film's trailer is also included. Fans might wish to hear from Michael Caine about the project over three decades later, since he claimed at the time it was one of his worst efforts.
Ashanti is one of the odder films released on home video in 2012. It's a major starring vehicle for a handful of well-known actors that saw criticism in its initial release -- and obscurity since. Though Blu-ray purists might balk at the old school MPEG-2 codec and lossy audio, Severin films have done film fans a great service releasing this strange little flick. It's worth a rental for fans of the actors or weird late-seventies semi-exploitation cinema.
Not guilty, despite the exploitation overtones.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Unrated