“Slaves” is one of my all time favorite Stephen Boyd films, and it is incredible to think it has been 50 years since it was released in 1969! During the time is was coming out, “Ben-Hur” had just been re-released for its 10 year anniversary. The movie premiered in a perfect city – Baltimore – which hung on the edge of both North and South States and had a strong African-American population. Below are some of the pictures and fanfare of the premiere, which Stephen Boyd and Dionne Warwick both attended.
Stephen Boyd Talks about “Slaves” , Civil Rights, Scientology and Cleopatra!
August 1, 1969, Detroit Free Press by Bruce Vilanch
For a man who made his name getting dragged through the mud, Stephen Boyd is surprisingly clean.
His teeth really sparkle, his eyes shine bright, he appears to have full power in all his four limbs- he’s in great shape.
This will assure the thousands who became concerned when Boyd spent the better part of 15 minutes under the hoofs of eight galloping stallions pulling his chariot to oblivion in “Ben-Hur.”
A sizeable portion of skin and bone was sliced off the Boyd body during that scene, all so Charlton Heston could go on to victory in Rome and and Oscar in California.
Undaunted, Boyd picked up his pieces and headed for Hollywood, and Irish heartthrob-in-a-toga, to star in such treasures as “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” “Caper of the Golden Bulls” and America’s trash classic, “The Oscar.”
He married (a whirlwind union of 23 days), divorced and was quoted as proclaiming “the only difference between Doris Day, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot is their hair styles.”
He walked out of “Cleopatra” and into “Jumbo” (in which he shared billing with an elephant) and “Fantastic Voyage” (in which he plunged lymph gland rapids with Raquel Welch).
He even played the heavy in “Genghis Khan.”
It has not been a dull life for Stephen Boyd.
The new Boyd, minus the blue eyes (they were contact lenses) and the massive shoulders (that was padding), stands over six feet tall and is dashingly handsome, but in a decidedly un-Hollywood, non-glamour-boy way. He is finished with Biblical pictures, gladiator spectacles and other trappings of imperial majesty and, in his latest film, plays an enigmatic, yet evil plantation owner in Mississippi circa 1850.
The picture, “Slaves” and was shot on what in movies they call “a shoestring” (small fortune.) Boyd says no one would back “Slaves” until he signed on as its star. “That helped them raise at least some of the money,” he says.
“No one would back ‘Slaves’ because it is about an explosive situation which is explosive only because no one understands it.”
The picture tries to make a statement all about Now and how voices in the black community clamor alternatively for blood and quiet. Stephen Boyd thinks this is the value of “Slaves.”
“Civil rights 100 years from now should not be discussed. Civil rights of today is what is important. I joined the civil rights movement years ago,” the former British subject, now American citizen says. “I gave my word years ago to help. Now I want to find out if their programs are getting to the people they’re supposed to be getting to.”
“I feel a picture like ‘Slaves,’ which addresses itself to some of America’s current problems, is something of a moral obligation for me. As soon as I have fulfilled some of my moral obligations, I can begin making money doing other things so I can have time to fulfill some more.”
The whole idea of moral obligation and responsibility for one’s fellow man, as well as responsibility to oneself, fills up a great deal of Boyd’s conversation. He speaks of co-workers as if they were close relatives, not just contractual partners.
“I was a guest on one of those New York radio panel shows and they were talking about Judy Garland,” he says, “one fellow, I won’t mention his name its so sickening, was carrying on about how she was a no-talent, a faggot hero. It’s disgusting what some people will say in public.”
In an attempt to find his own mind amidst such goings-on, Boyd has turned to scientology, a voguish new faith whose speakers turn up regularly on college campuses to lecture for $2.50 a throw.
“I don’t think anything should be suspect because it costs money,” he says. He calls scientology “a process used to make you capable of learning.”
“Scientology is nothing. It means only what you want it to. It is not a church you go to to pray, but a church that you go to to learn. It is no good unless you apply it. It is the application.”
Basically, scientologists meditate, usually in the presence of a spiritual supervisor, teaching themselves to be open in order to learn. One who has truly opened himself can be elevated to the position of Clear. Stephen Boyd has elevated himself to OC 6, a position beneath that of Clear. It took him nine months.
“Slaves” did not take him quite so long to accomplish, and, hopefully, it will give him equal peace-of-mind. What it certainly will not do is anything big for Stephen Boyd’s career. This he knows and accepts, as he has accepted everything since he walked away from the most expensive movie of all time.
“It was in the original version of ‘Cleopatra,’ the one to be shot in London. I was to play Marc Antony opposite Elizabeth Taylor, with Rouben Mamoulian directing, but Elizabeth got sick and everything stopped.
““I was outside the hospital door that day with Eddie (Miss Taylor’s fourth husband, singer Eddie Fisher) when the doctors came out and told us her had one hour to live. It was one of the saddest, most pathetic moments I can recall. But somehow she pulled through – nothing ever stops her when she wants something.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t wait around until they decided to shoot. The script was being rewritten, there was a new director, the whole Shaw and Shakespeare concept of a personal drama was being thrown out in favor or spectacle. So I left. They gave my part to a fellow named Richard Burton. They even gave him my costume, and to this day every time he sees me, he says ‘Jesus, you’ve got big feet!”
“He doesn’t even mention my chest,” Stephen Boyd says, with that serene scientologist’s smile.
I wanted to share my experiences of visiting two Louisiana plantations recently, especially in lieu of the fact that this year marks 50 years since the release of “Slaves”, the controversial and under appreciated 1969 film about slavery. The film itself was made at the Buena Vista Plantation near Stonewall, LA., about 250 miles north of New Orleans near Shreveport. I hope to make a trip to that plantation later this year to document it for my blog.
In the meantime, however, I recently enjoyed a visit to New Orleans and had a great day trip from Grayline Tours which visited two plantation sights. Here’s what I saw.
On the way to Whitney, on “River Road”, we caught a glimpse of the Evergreen Plantation which was used for some scenes in Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained.”
I was very impressed with the narration and poignant documentary memorials at this site. When you arrive they give you a lanyard with a slave’s name and story on the back. You immediately feel connected to the scenes which are about to unfold. Unlike Buena Vista, Whitney Plantation, which is located on what the locals call “River Road” in the lower part of the state, was a sugar cane plantation. Buena Vista, which is located farther north, was a cotton plantation, as depicted in the movie “Slaves.”
At Whitney the sugar cane was harvested generally between October and January, but it was basically a year round ‘factory’, as our guide described it. The sugar cane was also processed on the plantation in a process called ‘The Jamaica Train”. Sugar cane was soaked, then pounded, then finally granulated into it’s final form. All of the working and cutting and harvesting of the sugar cane was done by slaves. The Whitney includes some of the original slave cabins, which housed anywhere form 14-25 people at a time. The slaves were allowed to raise chickens and grow other vegetables to feed themselves. It was a hard life and dangerous in so many ways – including not only overwork, but injury by all the dangerous tools used to harvest the sugar cane.
Besides some very touching statues of slave children, the Whitney includes some amazing memorial walls listing hundreds of peoples names – usually just first names, because that’s all we know about the people who lived here for generations in slavery. There are also brief stories engraved on these memorials as well of the heart-wrenching existence these people endured.
There is also a special monument to a slave uprising in the area, and also another section for the slave children, documenting some of their memories and also their names. There is also dreadful plantation bell which was rung through the day to keep all the slaves in time with their tasks or meals. People on our tour rang it in passing in memory of one of the slaves. Also at Whitney are some converted jail cells from New Orleans which were equal in size to the slave ‘pens’ which used to be located all around New Orleans, where the slave trade was constantly in motion. New Orleans was the capital of the slave trade. You can step into one of these pens and see the places were cuffs and chains were hooked.
Whitney was used as the location of the Academy Award winning film “12 Years a Slave”. It also has an oak tree path in the front of the house. We toured the first and second floor. It was rather modest and small to what you generally thing of a ‘plantation’ house.
My impression of Whitney is that this is a ‘must-see’ for anyone. Just like places like Auschwitz, which is also initially hard to visit, it is a place and an experience which really makes you appreciate and understand the harsh realities of what happened in the context of the time.
Onto the next plantation! Now I had seen Oak Alley many years ago, but they have done a better job now of displaying and explaining the slavery side of the plantation. Of course Oak Alley is known for it’s incredible big house, and the 300 year old oak trees which dominate the path towards the Mississippi. This plantation has been seen in many films, including “Interview with a Vampire.” The front of the house brings to mind the ‘moonlight and magnolias’ of the Old South in all its romance.
However, now the sight does show and document several of the slave stories from this plantation as well. There are several cabins which still stand, and the plaques explain the difference between the ‘house’ slaves and the ‘field hands’, which were the lowest of the slaves. It also tells specific stories of certain slaves, by name, and what happened to them on this plantation. On display are also chains and an especially grotesque-looking collar which would make it impossible for someone to try to escape.
To read the actual accounts of slavery is really the only way to really understand what went on. Accounts vary from person to person. Many masters were brutal while others were more gentle. Some slaves immediately fled the plantations after the Civil War while others lingered behind or stayed, either because of circumstance (wage labor) or merely considered the plantation and the masters family their own home. So many women were raped or brutalized and so many families were torn asunder. Slavery did damage to not only slave but slave-owner as well as the unlimited power these men (and women) had over others truly turned many of them into sadistic brutes. So many stories to tell.
I highly recommend the below books, as well as Frederick Douglass’ personal narrative.
When I Was A Slave (from the Slave Narration Collection)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Slaves” is a loose remake of this novel)
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (one of the more harrowing true life accounts you will ever read)
Celia, A Slave by Melton A McLaurin
I’ll end with a quote from Harriet Jacobs riveting personal account from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet hide in a crawl space above her grandmothers house for 7 years before she made her escape to the North!
DURING the first years of my service in Dr. Flint’s family, I was accustomed to share some indulgences with the children of my mistress. Though this seemed to me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and tried to merit the kindness by the faithful discharge of my duties. But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master’s age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes.
Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling. He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?
No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited one half the truths that are told you concerning the helpless millions suffering in this cruel bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south.
Every where the years bring to all enough of sin and sorrow; but in slavery the very dawn of life is darkened by these shadows. Even the little child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves. Perhaps the child’s own mother is among those hated ones. She listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect.
My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings. The other slaves in my master’s house noticed the change. Many of them pitied me; but none dared to ask the cause. They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the guilty practices under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was an offense that never went unpunished.
A PERILOUS PASSAGE IN THE SLAVE GIRL’S LIFE.
……I have told you that Dr. Flint’s persecutions and his wife’s jealousy had given rise to some gossip in the neighborhood. Among others, it chanced that a white unmarried gentleman had obtained some knowledge of the circumstances in which I was placed. He knew my grandmother, and often spoke to me in the street. He became interested for me, and asked questions about my master, which I answered in part. He expressed a great deal of sympathy, and a wish to aid me. He constantly sought opportunities to see me, and wrote to me frequently. I was a poor slave girl, only fifteen years old.
So much attention from a superior person was, of course, flattering; for human nature is the same in all. I also felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged by his kind words. It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend. By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart. He was an educated and eloquent gentleman; too eloquent, alas, for the poor slave girl who trusted in him. Of course I saw whither all this was tending. I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment. A master may treat you as rudely as he pleases, and you dare not speak; moreover, the wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy. There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible….
THE NEW TIE TO LIFE.
…I had not seen Dr. Flint for five days. I had never seen him since I made the avowal to him. He talked of the disgrace I had brought on myself; how I had sinned against my master, and mortified my old grandmother. He intimated that if I had accepted his proposals, he, as a physician, could have saved me from exposure. He even condescended to pity me. Could he have offered wormwood more bitter? He, whose persecutions had been the cause of my sin!
“Linda,” said he, “though you have been criminal towards me, I feel for you, and I can pardon you if you obey my wishes. Tell me whether the fellow you wanted to marry is the father of your child. If you deceive me, you shall feel the fires of hell.”
I did not feel as proud as I had done. My strongest weapon with him was gone. I was lowered in my own estimation, and had resolved to bear his abuse in silence. But when he spoke contemptuously of the lover who had always treated me honorably; when I remembered that but for him I might have been a virtuous, free, and happy wife, I lost my patience. “I have sinned against God and myself,” I replied; “but not against you.”
He clinched his teeth, and muttered, “Curse you!” He came towards me, with ill-suppressed rage, and exclaimed, “You obstinate girl! I could grind your bones to powder! You have thrown yourself away on some worthless rascal. You are weak-minded, and have been easily persuaded by those who don’t care a straw for you. The future will settle accounts between us. You are blinded now; but hereafter you will be convinced that your master was your best friend. My lenity towards you is a proof of it. I might have punished you in many ways. I might have had you whipped till you fell dead under the lash. But I wanted you to live; I would have bettered your condition. Others cannot do it. You are my slave. Your mistress, disgusted by your conduct, forbids you to return to the house; therefore I leave you here for the present; but I shall see you often. I will call tomorrow.”
He came with frowning brows, that showed a dissatisfied state of mind. After asking about my health, he inquired whether my board was paid, and who visited me. He then went on to say that he had neglected his duty; that as a physician there were certain things that he ought to have explained to me. Then followed talk such as would have made the most shameless blush. He ordered me to stand up before him. I obeyed. “I command you,” said he, “to tell me whether the father of your child is white or black.” I hesitated. “Answer me this instant!” he exclaimed. I did answer. He sprang upon me like a wolf, and grabbed my arm as if he would have broken it. “Do you love him?” said he, in a hissing tone.
“I am thankful that I do not despise him,” I replied.
He raised his hand to strike me; but it fell again. I don’t know what arrested the blow. He sat down, with lips tightly compressed. At last he spoke. “I came here,” said he, “to make you a friendly proposition; but your ingratitude chafes me beyond endurance. You turn aside all my good intentions towards you. I don’t know what it is that keeps me from killing you.” Again he rose, as if he had a mind to strike me.
But he resumed. “On one condition I will forgive your insolence and crime. You must henceforth have no communication of any kind with the father of your child. You must not ask any thing from him, or receive any thing from him. I will take care of you and your child. You had better promise this at once, and not wait till you are deserted by him. This is the last act of mercy I shall show towards you.”
I said something about being unwilling to have my child supported by a man who had cursed it and me also. He rejoined, that a woman who had sunk to my level had no right to expect any thing else. He asked, for the last time, would I accept his kindness? I answered that I would not.
“Very well,” said he; “then take the consequences of your wayward course. Never look to me for help. You are my slave, and shall always be my slave. I will never sell you, that you may depend upon.” ….
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a 19th century novel which has been said to be one of the great reasons for the Civil War and the fight in the North against slavery.
“Slaves,” the Theater Guild Film production at the Orpheum and numerous other New England theaters, borrows a lot from the Harriet Beecher Stowe work although the obvious intent seems to be that Negroes still have a long way to go even if they managed to achieve freedom from their chains.
None of the action takes place in the present, but there are numerous bits of dialogue which are placed there for irony – – the hope that in the North all children get equal education, for instance, and the belief that escaped slaves will get a chance at meeting economic competition on equal terms.
Some of the old “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” features are necessarily missing. There are no Topsy and Eva combination. Eliza doesn’t cross the ice with her baby. The wide-eyed kid brought over to freedom in “Slaves” is carried in a friendly white woman’s carriage, and helped by her brother from the North.
But (Luke Stillwell) has many of the Uncle Tom characteristics–he reads the Bible, he believes in honesty and truth, and he possesses an honor which causes his tragic death when he refuses to betray his fellow slaves for his freedom.
Stephen Boyd plays the cruel master but this has its updated side. Capt Nathan Mackay, a nouveau-rich ex-slaves dealer who wants to prove his superiority to the aristocratic Southern plantation owners with whom he now associates, collects primitive African art and buys royal jewels from France for his black mistress. Dionne Warwick portrays Cassie, who lives in sin with Mackay, and hates him bitterly to the point of trying to kill him.
I am not sure why Director Herbert J Biberman, who also wrote the script, wanted to have Cassie dress so much like an actress in one of today’s African musicals or a model depicting the African trend in Harper’s Bazaar. The effect is weird.
But Miss Warwick as an actress and a singer makes up for some of the artificiality in her part. She does stand out no matter what silly dialogue is given to her.
Davis plays his role efficiently, with no extraneous touches. Kya-Hill offers some comedy relief, but primarily his role is there to point out the suffering of Luke, a sacrifice to his people.
In deference to the 1969 desire for uninhibited sex, there is a scene in which Cassie contemptuously lures her master on to raping her, and she spits scornfully in his face as proof that she is stronger than he is. Nothing is proved however, by this interracial love-making. It has little to do with the plot which centers on the evils of slavery and the cruelty of dividing black families and selling slaves into torture and death.
Much of the film was made near Shreveport, La., and as films of this type go, was brought in at moderate expense of just less than $1,000,0000. However, the picture has no make-shift scenery, nor visible short-cut photography.
There are excellent people playing subordinate roles in the picture. Gale Sondergaard takes a small role as a Southern woman who loathes the slave system; Shepperd Strudwick is the weak but basically kind master who sells Luke down river and Barbara Ann Teer has a pathetic scene as the wife whose husband is taken from her.
More Reviews of “Slaves”
Note: There seems to be a distinct difference between reviews of “Slaves” written in the North or the South, as you can see below. Just another example of just how polarizing this movie was at the time!
“…uppity, sexy member of his household (Dionne Warwick), popularly known as “the master’s wench.” When Boyd isn’t busy with her in some ludicrous bedroom scenes, he is out tying his blacks to trees or setting them on fire, or pitting them against each other as gladiatorial entertainment, or just plain whupping them.” (Clifford Terry, Chicago Tribune July 1, 1969)
“To begin with Dionne Warwick is a great disappointment. She strolls around the cotton fields and plantation house like she’s just been told Diana Ross replaced her on the album charts.”
“Stephen Boyd’s wooden performance suffers so from a lack of acting that you suffer along with it. He has the Clark Gable look, dress and walk in the world of moonlight and magnolias, but he’s nowhere near as good as the worst Gable role.” (Dale Perry, Greenville News, South Carolina)
“SLAVES is a powerful, sincere, and angry indictment of the sale and bondage of black people in this country during the nineteenth century. It is a reworking of the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with somewhat modern insights into psychology, inter-racial conflict, and the ambiguities of character. The dialogue and violence and the passions are raw and searing.”
“The performances throughout are excellent, surprisingly so in the case of Stephen Boyd…” (Daily Mail, Hagerstown, Maryland, August 22, 1969)
“Not a single performance in the film can be called even adequate. Stephen Boyd turns in a totally wooden, unfeeling characterization of McKay, the cruel master. His facial expression (unchanging throughout the film) is a simpering sneer. Is he trying to portray disgust? Cruelty? Or only mindless idiocy, like the rest of the actors (sic) in this waste? In his scenes of violent anger and sadistic passion, you’d expect to find at least some hint of his madness, but all he ever shows is that silly, meaningless grin.”
“Prior to “Slaves,”, Dionne Warwick has never acted in a film. Her record is still clean. She’s gorgeous to look at. A fashion parade of virtually every conception of African style is afforded the singer, and she wears them well, but as for acting–not a scratch. One of Boy’d line’s in reference to Miss Warwick “You won’t believe this, but that handsome masque in the corner is alive,” is an adequate description of her whole performance. She is a masque, a manikin who matches her leading man in emotional void.”
“A tell-it-all-like-it-was documentary account would have been far preferable to this romanticized, inane, cliché-ridden melodrama.”
(Filmed here: “Slaves Called Inane, Cliché-Ridden”, October 17, 1969, The Shreveport Times)
Mr. Biberman (Slaves Director) : ” I was after something much more complex than nostalgic realism – I hope that’s made clear in the character of Nathan McKay (Stephen Boyd), who is a genuine admirer of the history and the art of the black man and who is capable of deep love for a black woman. But this admiration- and compassion – makes him in no sense any less a slave master: Even as he’s praising black people and all their accomplishments, he’s destroying them by virtue of his position. (Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1969)
“The slave master, one critic says, is a one-dimensional and shallow character. I assert that because of the portrayal, it is an accurate capsule of the corrupting influence of the unjust system. The slave master played by Stephen Boyd is unique in that he does not justify himself or slavery based on two great myths: (1) The black man is inherently childish and happily irresponsible; (2) White ascendancy is due to black innate superiority. The slave master knows some of the superior past culture of the blacks. (Black studies are as imperative for white as blacks.) He, therefore, acknowledges that he is master due to power to own and use blacks for his purpose. ” (Sidney Daniels, Letter to the Editor, “The Slaves”, The Evening Sun, Baltimore, June 2, 1969)
The Major of Baltimore after the premiere of “Slaves” in May 1969 (attended by none other than Miss Warwick and Mr. Boyd) : “…wondering aloud about how the city’s “young warriors” would react to some of the film’s sensational scenes. These included scenes in which a white plantation owner rapes a black woman doubling as his slave and his mistress, threatens the emasculation by flame of a slave refusing to disclose escape plans, fatally flogs a slave whose willpower and strength of character obviously exceed is own.” (The Evening Sun, Baltimore, May 8, 1969)
” “The Slaves”, a lurid movie now showing at a local theater, purports to depict ‘the slavery system as you have never seen it, the Story of Master and Slave – a man who played God and a woman who became mistress of his plantation.”
It was filmed last year in Louisiana with distinct lack of enthusiasm among many folks of our sister state who considered is a cheap quickie defaming the South.
The so- called “world premiere” drew about 1,000 persona, mostly colored, according to the news story in the Baltimore Sun which said the movie was ‘a decided disappointment, specifically in the obviousness, artificiality and lack of depth”.
Ossie Davis, colored male star of “The Slaves” has had at least twelve connections with Communist front organizations, according to informations from the files of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities sent to Congressman John R. Rarick of Louisiana.
Herbert Biberman, director of “The Slaves” movie, reportedly has been identified as a member of the Communist Party by 15 different witnesses in various public hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, red-front and revolutionist causes, the records indicate.
“The Slaves”, as advertised, is an “epic” of sex and violence centered around a lusty white master (Stephen Boyd) and his black slave mistress (Dionne Warwick). This is a favorite theme in the central vogue glamorizing mixed sex.
One Louisiana editor has written ” Let us guess two reasons why this motion picture was filmed. (1) To increase black hatred for Whitey and (2) To increase the white ‘guilt’ complex’ ”
(Aren’t those the Red Party objectives in America?) (Mississippi Notebook, by Tom Ethridge, Oct 28, 1969, Clarion- Ledger Mississippi)
“…I never dreamed that Ossie Davis –whose very presence ordinarily fills a screen with the undeniable reality of a warm, flesh-and-blood man–would be capable of a stilted performance. Yet, except for a moment near the end, he seems self-conscious and wooden. On the other hand, Mr. Boyd, conditioned perhaps by a long career of playing stinkers, manages to make the most of his role –which, partly because of the conception, partly because of the elan he manages to give it, is the most interesting one of the film.”
“And now, having enumerated all of the reasons why you should not see the film, I’m going to do a switch and recommend that you do. I make this recommendation because :
As a work purporting to present an accurate picture of slavery, it automatically becomes part of the social fabric of our time and, as such, should be evaluated by each person individually.
Despite its failure to achieve reality as art, the suffering it describes is real. It happened. People were humiliated, hanged and beaten to death. And, in Mr. Davis’s final scene, the weight of all this suffering bursts the film’s artificial framework and descends upon us with irresistible force.” (‘ Slaves’ – Admirable in Purpose, Disappointing As Work of Art’, The Baltimore Sun, May 7, 1969)
The Journal News – White Plains New York, 09 Jul 1969
By Bernard Shaw
New York – Stephen Boyd was in town briefly to publicize “Slaves” in which he plays a plantation owner and which was to open in a few days. I hadn’t yet seen the film when its publicist called and asked if I cared to meet Boyd. I hedged and said that the only burning question I had for him was why he made so many lousy pictures.
“Ask him that, “ the publicist urged. “I did and found that he’s very bright and articulate and he has no illusions about the business. He’ll speak candidly about anything.”
I agreed to see him, the date was set, and in the meantime, I attended the premive of the 70-mm elongation of “Ben Hur” in which Boyd had played Messala way back in 1960, and I found, to my surprise, that his was by the far the best performance in the film.
He had managed to endow an almost impossible villain with so much humor and intelligence, even sympathy in his 27 minutes out of a total of four hours on screen, that he rather threw the whole marathon epic out of kilter. I even found myself hopelessly rooting for him to win the chariot race against the archangel Heston.
I meet Boyd a week later in his suite at the Elysee, still not having seen “Slaves.” He is a tall, handsome Irishman from Ulster – Belfast is his home- and he was dressed in conservative black, having some kind of semiformal luncheon to attend later on. He had a ruddy bloom on his cheeks all the Irish seem to have when they arrive here, but lose too soon. His sole concession to the now look was an elegant guardsman moustache.
After the usual amenities, my first question, predictably, was “How come you’ve made so many lousy movies?”
“20th Century Fox,” he answered immediately, “20th Century Fox. I was under contract to them- chattel- and if you think and you are correct in thinking, I made so many lousy movies, you should see what I turned. Down. I was under contract with them for eleven, which should give you some indication of how many suspensions I took.”
Why did he ever get himself involved in such a situation? Simply because at the time the contact was waived before him, it seemed like mana from heaven. He comes from a large, poor family in Belfast, and at the age of seven he went on Ulster Radio’s Children’s Hour because the family needed the money.
At sixteen, he left school and broke with the family trade – which his father and brothers all practiced – truck driving, to work with the Ulster Theater Group, and then there were long, fruitless years in stock companies in Canada and the United States where he made alarming progress getting nowhere.
In 1952 in London, where he had gone to storm the British theater, he was literally starving, and reduced to playing his guitar and “busking” to the cinema queues in Leicester Square for pennies.
That did lead to a job as doorman of the Odean Cinema which in turn led to his becoming an usher and then to his meeting Michael Redgrave who gave him an introduction to the Windsor Repertory Theater and the Midlands Theater Company and several more years of playing all kinds of roles in addition to some small parts in British films.
So that when 20th Century Fox, impressed with his performance in “The Man Who Never Was, “ offered him a Babylonian Captivity, he had to accept.
“I don’t know how I lasted,” he said, “And I’m about the only one of the bunch of white hopes who came in when I did, who did last – there were Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman, Bobby Wagner – they put you in anything they want to and there’s nothing you can do about it. When you try to speak to them, you’re told you’re a tax deduction. It isn’t so much a question of your making money for them but your’e enabling them to save money. You mean nothing.”
“But you’ve been living in Europe these last few years,” I said.
“I’ve been a resident of the United States,” he said, “ and a United States citizen for the last ten years. My home is in Los Angeles. Of course I never see it. They keep shipping me abroad which is another way of their being able to make money on you.”
“Were you forced to make things like ‘The Oscar’ and ‘The Caper of the Golden Bulls?’ ” I asked.
“I would do ‘The Oscar’ again with the original script I saw, but not with the people involved in it,” he said, “and I would do ‘Caper of the Golden Bulls’ again, but not with people involved, and many others which turned out so badly.”
“And ‘Slaves’ is different?” I asked.
He nodded, “You’ll search a long way before you find a more technically imperfect film, but that’s not what we were trying to do. We were trying to make the first true picture of slavery in America, and we did.”
“At least it’s an original of the Irish Rebellion,” I said, “I saw Sidney Poitier’s ‘The Lost Man’ which is an adaptation of ‘Odd Man Out’ and it’s terrible.”
“Sidney can’t do what he wants, superstar though he is, “ Boyd said. “He can do what he wants provided that it’s salable amd makes money. Remember, he and Jim Brown knocked themselves out, but they made it as personalities, not as blacks. The black problem was still an untouchable on the screen prior to ‘Slaves’ because the few films made that touched on the problem didn’t make money. But we’re breaking records everywhere we opened, and that’s where it counts with those boys. Will it make money?”
I asked him about some of his earlier films, about his brilliant but aborted Nimrod in John Huston’s “The Bible.” The role ended in the middle of nowhere.
“I had just made the test of Huston and had been on the film for only a couple of days when Fox yanked me off to make ‘Fantastic Voyage.’”, Boyd said. “I assumed they were going to junk what I did or do it over with someone else, but later on, Huston decided to use what little he had, so of course, the actor is blamed for it. You have to make compromises all the way. Big ones on the big picture, smaller ones on the smaller ones, you even have to make them on the good pictures, and I say the hell with it. You can make a lot of stupid pictures that make a lot of money, so why eat your heart out?”
I wondered if he was looking for a stupid picture now, but I asked instead, “Why did you bow out of ‘Cleopatra?’”
“They changed the story on me, “ he said, “When I was scheduled to do it, when Mamoulian was supposed to direct, Peter Finch was to play Caesar and I, Anthony, and it was the story of Caesar and Cleopatra an then Anthony and Cleopatra. But then it became just the story of Cleopatra, “ he shrugged.
“And you let Richard have it, “ I said.
“I let Richard have it, “ he said.
“How come you don’t return to the theater?” I asked, “Isn’t it more satisfying for an actor?”
“From an ego point of view, yes, “ he said, “but films could be satisfying too for an actor is he was involved in the creation. We all make a picture together, but nobody talks to anybody. Nobody will sit down and discuss it beforehand, and you never do discuss it – with very, very few exceptions- unless some crisis occurs. The cameraman is off creating his mood, the actor is creating his mood, the set designed only worries about how his set looks, the costume designer, her costumes.”
He shrugged “It’s no wonder so few things turn out well. If I did do a play, I’d like to do O’Casey. ‘Juno and the Paycock.’ But it would have to be played right, as it was originally in Ireland. The first two acts are comedy and the last, tragedy. You have to be very careful about the way you do Irish drama. There are so many misconceptions abroad about Catholic and Protestant in Ireland. I heard Bernadette Devlin’s maiden speech in Parliament and I was deeply moved. She was elected, remember, in a predominantly Protestant community, and she said, “There is not a religious question in Ireland. It is simply a question of poverty.”
“Of course, that was distorted in all of the foreign press,” Boyd said angrily, “Nobody had it right but the London Times. Of course it’s a question of poverty in Ireland, and people everywhere was so ignorant of the situation. Only yesterday someone said to me, ‘But you’re Catholic,’ and I said, ‘No I happen to be Protestant, but what has that to do with it?”
“I come from an Irish family, the youngest of nine. My father was a truck driver. When he retired, he was at the height of his earning power. He was making six pounds a week, that’s about thirteen dollars. How the hell are a man and his wife and nine children going to live on thirteen dollars a week?”
Then he grew less angry and he said, “And then I think of something O’Casey said when I did ‘June and the Paycock’ in Belfast and he came up to see it. He said, ‘There are many, many, many noes in the world , but there is always a bigger yes.’”