BOOTLEG FILES 201: “Tamango” (1958 production starring Dorothy Dandridge and Curt Jugens).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this title.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in bootlegged dupes.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: An obscure film that is virtually unknown in the U.S.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It is possible, if someone is interested in obtaining the rights and restoring the film.
Prior to the 1976 broadcast of “Roots,” the issue of slavery has been a thorny matter for filmmakers. There were various versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but none of the productions resonated with any degree of emotion (and the silent versions were rendered ineffective by having white actors in blackface playing the slaves). D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” actually blamed the slaves themselves for the seeds of disunion that rendered America apart in the 1860s, while “Gone with the Wind” conspicuously downplayed the degrading aspects of slavery.
“Slave Ship” from 1937 focused on the slave trade – in concept, at least. The bulk of the film involved the white crew of a slave trading vessel, with plotlines not related to the sale of human cargo. The most astonishing cinematic notion of slavery may have been “The Santa Fe Trail” from 1940, where slaves liberated by John Brown eagerly return to bondage after having a taste of freedom. And, of course, there is “Song of the South,” which isn’t entirely clear whether it takes place during the slave era or whether it takes place in a netherworld where blacks lived on a plantation and worked for no wages despite being free.
An honest cinematic view of slavery came out of Europe with “Tamango,” a 1958 French-Italian co-production that not only addressed the issue of slavery, but dared to offer a slave revolt against white oppression. Unfortunately, “Tamango” was barely seen when it was first made and its importance in the history of race-related cinema is often overlooked.
“Tamango” is based on a short story by Prosper Merimée, who is best known for writing the story that inspired the classic opera “Carmen.” Set in the early part of the 19th century, the film opens along the West African coast. A Dutch slave ship, bound for Cuba, purchases scores of African slaves from a local tribal chief. (A point that is often overlooked: the African tribes bought and sold each other to the European merchant trade.) The captain (Curt Jurgens) is hoping this will be his last voyage in this industry, as he is planning to retire to Rotterdam and marry a wealthy woman.
However, that matrimonial plan has a major problem: Aiche, the captain’s black slave mistress (Dorothy Dandridge). Their relationship hasn’t exactly been one of equals – the captain lusts after her, but she loathes his touch.
Complicating this voyage is Tamango (Alex Cressan), a captured warrior who is among the slave cargo. His initial attempts at insubordination against his white captors are met with beatings, whippings, and being chained to the deck. However, Tamango is able to unite his crestfallen tribesmen to rise up and revolt. The slaves slowly begin stealing weapons, and Aiche proves to be an unexpected ally in their plans. Needless to say, the captain isn’t particularly pleased to discover his slave cargo is ready to take over the ship and kill whitey.
“Tamango” is not a great film, by any stretch. It is plagued by the problems typical of international co-productions of the 1950s: uneven production values (the special effects in the storm sequence can offer some unintentional laughs), terrible dubbing of the non-English-speaking actors, and an emphasis on glamour over reality (Dandridge’s sarong-clad Aiche looks more like a Tahitian princess than an African slave).
Yet for its subject matter, “Tamango” was a fairly astonishing film. The interracial romantic story between Aiche and the captain was shocking for its era – not only for showing the blurred lines between master and slave, but for daring the couple a black and a white in a kiss. Dorothy Dandridge had previously co-starred in a film that gingerly tiptoed around interracial love (“Island in the Sun”), but in “Tamango” she and blonde co-star Curt Jurgens have sensual lip-locking screen time that was taboo in Hollywood. Although Dandridge’s Aiche is clearly shown to be an unwilling partner to the passion, the black-white union clearly offered cred to the film’s advertising boasts of “An Adventure as Bold and Daring as the Casting!”
Curiously, the film avoids putting Aiche and Tamango together as a romantic couple. Although Tamango’s initial view of Aiche is summed up in the epithet “White man’s trash,” he eventually realizes her as an ally in the revolt. Alex Cressan, a nonprofessional who never appeared in another film, had a strong physical presence as Tamango, which makes the lack of a romantic storyline for his character very strange.
As a side note, Dandridge and Jurgens had a brief affair during the film’s production. Obviously their off-screen compatibility was just as volatile as their on-screen embraces.
For 1958, a film with this subject matter was clearly going to face problems at the U.S. box office. There was actually a greater problem: director John Berry was a blacklisted artist in French self-exile. Back in those days, many people opposed to civil rights considered the push for racial equality to be a Communist plot. Needless to say, having someone like Berry associated with this type of a film only fueled that political argument.
Incredibly, “Tamango” received U.S. theatrical pick-up – albeit from a tiny company, Hal Roach Distribution Corp. The distributor, for no clear reason, included a provocative image of a chained black man embracing a white woman into the poster art (there are no white women in the film).
Problems with Berry’s blacklisted status and the film’s racial elements severely limited its U.S. release, and even supposedly sympathetic media outlets were hostile – the New York Times sniffed “despite the fitful embraces of its racially opposite principals, (the film) does no great service to the cause of either racial understanding or plain entertainment.” The same concerns also prevented its sale to American television. Outside of a few film restrospective tributes to Dorothy Dandridge, most Americans never saw “Tamango.”
“Tamango” has never had a proper commercial release on U.S. home video. A company called Ivy Classics Video had a VHS release that was clearly taken from a faded pan-and-scan 16mm print (the original production was shot in CinemaScope). Bootlegged DVDs based on this VHS release are in circulation and can easily be located.
“Tamango” would obviously need a digital restoration before it had a commercial DVD release. It would be worth the effort. From a historic perspective, if not an artistic one, the film deserves to be sought out and reconsidered.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
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