Based on William Bradford Huie’s 1967 novel of the same name, 1974’s The Klansman intertwines issues of race and social class in the microcosm of a small Alabama town where a voting-rights demonstration is about to occur. With a strong cast that includes Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, and even OJ Simpson, this movie is generally well done, but also feels a little awkward and off-kilter as it tries to mix the hip vibe of a black exploitation film with the necessary slowness of a Southern drama.
The Klansman opens with a close-up view of a billboard proclaiming, DRIVE SAFELY. YOU’RE IN WALLACE COUNTRY – which would have been an ominous indicator in 1974, considering George Wallace’s then-recent rhetoric and presidential campaigns – and quickly we see a motorcycle speed by. As the credits roll, we follow this motorcycle and find out that he is a deputy sheriff riding through a small town. While this is going on, we also find out in the credits that The Stax Organization and The Staples Singers are providing the soundtrack! Then our attention shifts to the sheriff’s car, where Track (Lee Marvin) is cruising through town as well. His car hits the highway after a moment and ends up on dirt road, where Track has to get out and move a large tree limb.
Once he is out of the car, Track observes a group of white men encircling a large black man who is beginning to sexually assault a black woman in their midst. The white men cheer on the assault and shove her back into the circle as she tries to escape. Track calmly walks over and tells them to break it up, covers the half-clothed woman, and sends her fleeing. The black man, who is called Lightning Rod, has been paid a dollar to put on a show for the white men, who now disperse. One white man asks how the sheriff found them, and Track replies that Lightning Rod’s mother saw them and figured out what was going on. The man then asks for a ride to where his wife, who is bird-watching with a friend, has the car, and Track gives him one.
The scene then shifts, and Track arrives the home of Breck Stancill (Richard Burton). Breck is in the dirt front yard rebuilding a door, and the two men exchange a casual greeting, then go inside. Breck’s house is large with a wraparound porch, but its white-painted exterior is also dirty and neglected. Inside is relative luxury, and Breck limps his way into a large wingback chair. His speech is slow and lazy and has the aristocratic cadence of the Upper South. Track begins to question him first about the alterations he is making to the house, then about whether he will allow forthcoming Civil Rights protestors to camp on his mountain. Outside a large window, we can see an expanse of hills and small mountains that lie untouched and uncultivated. Breck sardonically replies that he has no interest in such protests, and Track reminds him that locals don’t like outsiders coming in to stir up trouble. The insinuation here is that the wealthy man on the hilltop has a habit of harboring unwelcome parties on his land. Track helps himself to a whiskey drink, and the scene ends.
Out on the road again, Track is driving and passes his son’s parked car, where the young man is making out with a girl, then by another car carrying Bobby – the man who asked for a ride earlier – and his wife Nancy (Linda Evans). In that latter car, Nancy asks her husband what he was doing all afternoon, and he says, “Nothing.” As their car begins to sputter and die, Bobby pulls over onto a dirt road and tells her to get out, that they’re walking to get help. Nancy refuses to budge, and he huffs off, leaving her with her arms folded across her chest. However, it is only a moment before a black man emerges from the dark, forces his way into the car, and sexually assaults her.
So far, there’s a lot going on – none of it good – but it’s about to get worse. The next scene shows a Ku Klux Klan meeting that is led by the town’s mayor Hardy Riddle (David Huddleston). They’re anxiously discussing the upcoming protests and how they’ll respond, with some men suggesting violence. Here, we meet our handful of white antagonists, including the sheriff’s deputy who we saw during opening credits. During the meeting, the phone rings, and the Ku Kluxers get the news that Nancy has been raped by a black man.
Meanwhile, Track has arrived at the local black club and goes in alone. The place quiets down when he walks in, and the men look like extras from Dolemite. Track is there looking for Willie Washington, who sits at the end of the bar in swanky clothes with his hat cocked, and he walks down there to speak candidly a warrant for his arrest— for rape. Willie is surprised by the charge and looks around to gauge his options. His gaze is met by Garth (OJ Simpson) who tosses him a pool cue to fight off the sheriff. But Track quickly subdues him, and despite the cold stares from half-a-dozen men who appear to stand in defiance, Willie submits and heads to the car to go to jail.
Out in the parking lot, though, a truckload of KKK arrives. The white men tell Track to step aside, to let them handle Willie Washington themselves. But Track says no, protecting his prisoner, who sits in the back seat and watches the whole thing warily.
Frustrated by their failed efforts to lynch Willie, the truckload of KKK goes cruising and finds Garth and his friend Henry as they walk down the roadside. The driver of the truck swerves to run them over but misses. Then the men in the back of the truck throw things at the two pedestrians, and Garth throws a rock back, hitting one of the white men. The six or eight angry KKK guys now unload and begin to chase Garth and Henry through the woods, shooting at them as they go. Henry is hit, falling to the ground, while Garth hides. When the white men catch up to Henry, one of them shoots him point-blank as he lays on the ground.
Our attention then returns to Breck, who is in bed asleep with pretty redhead Trixie. She sits up and asks what those gunshots were. He doesn’t seem to care and brushes her off pleasantly. She then begins to ask Breck why he won’t marry her. He responds that she wouldn’t want to live with him, but she pouts that she does. Trixie then turns the conversation to someone named Loretta Sykes, who is coming back to town, asking him if he will “start that back up” with her. No, Breck tells her, Loretta is coming home because her grandmother is dying of cancer. Trixie contradicts him, saying that she is coming home for Civil Rights demonstration. Breck just chuckles at everything Trixie says.
In the light of day, the klansmen who came for Willie then killed Henry are in the barbershop discussing matters at hand. The deputy from earlier, whose name is Butt Cut Cates, comes in excitedly with a fistful of Klan flyers to hang up. As he does so, Breck stands up out of one of the chairs, reads the flyer out loud, pulls it off the wall, crumples it up, and tosses it at the men’s feet. Butt Cut gets furious and follows Breck out, acting like he’ll do something but then doesn’t. Breck gets into his blue International Scout, and Butt Cut stomps into the sheriff’s office.
Inside, Track is walking down the jailhouse hallway to let out a drunk who has gotten sober enough to have remorses, as Willie tries to get his attention. Once the scruffy white drunkard is gone, Willie tells Track through the bars that Henry raped Nancy and that the arrest warrant scared him enough that he didn’t want to talk. Track receives this information coldly. Just then, Butt Cut comes charging in, disparaging Breck and proclaiming that he and his racial-purity buddies know how to handle him. After the lawmen walk from the jail as they talk, Trixie, the redhead from Breck’s bed, informs Butt Cut that Breck is actually a tough dude, to which Butt Cut responds that he and his friends have ways. Track receives this coldly as well, and tells Butt Cut that it won’t happen as long as he’s the sheriff.
After that foreshadowing, we meet Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana), who Breck picks up at the bus station. Loretta is an attractive and stylish black woman, and the two have an obvious affinity for each other. We’ve gathered from Trixie that people believe they’re involved romantically, but Breck denied that. Their conversation in the Scout has an ambivalent sexual tension, and we can’t exactly discern the nature of the relationship either. Loretta hints that she has not only come home for her grandmother’s last remaining days, but also has an interest in both Civil Rights and Breck.
Later, at her grandmother’s shack, two men come to the door looking for Loretta. One is a well-dressed black man, the other a hippie in blue jeans and a sport coat. They’re both preachers, they tell her, and they want her on their side in the demonstrations. What follows is a vague conversation debating action and equality. The men are outsiders who have come there to lead, but Loretta is a local, whose heart is in the place. They ask about Breck, and she defends him, telling the two about the old tree in front of his house, where his grandfather was hung in 1861 for having progressive views. The two radicals try to convince Loretta to be with them, and though she resists following them blindly, she does intimate that she’ll be there with them.
In the evening, we see a white man in a shoddy room, lying in bed and reading, when a Klan hood appears in his window and motions for him to come out. The white man smiles and gets dressed, donning his own hood and appearing excited about whatever action they’re about to take— until he notices that the first Klansman’s hand is black. They trade blows, the white man drops his gun, then the black Klansman takes off his hood. It is Garth, who shoots the white man point-blank with a shotgun as he screams the n-word defiantly.
Next we see, Track is showing the evidence to newspaper reporters who surround him in the sheriff’s office. However, they’re frustrated at his lack of transparency, while he is frustrated their desire for answer he doesn’t have. One of the reporters has come down from The New York Times. Preferring to get back to work, Track tells them to go talk to Trixie, which they do. In asking her about the situation that now involves “a couple of rapes and a murder,” the Times reporter asks her how this all started. Trixie replies that it started in 1619 when a ship captain brought a load of slaves ashore and that she wishes the ship had been attacked and sunk before it arrived. The reporters seem intrigued but not satisfied.
Just then, Bobby storms into the office and barges into Track’s office, choking back tears and anger. He can’t take it anymore, he tells Track, having a wife that has been with a black man, knowing that everyone sees him now through that lens. His main problem is: she doesn’t appear bothered by the whole thing. He is leaving Nancy in town and getting on a Greyhound bus for anywhere else. He leaves behind his life insurance and half his measly savings, then storms back out.
Later that morning, we are brought to a church service where a white minister preaches about segregation and white supremacy to his white congregation. Everyone seems pleased until Nancy comes in and sits down. She is asked to leave, but protests that she is the victim, not the criminal. But her pleas won’t matter, and she is made to leave the church.
Back at Breck’s house, Track has gone out there to have a heart-to-heart talk. He wants Breck to take Nancy in, but Breck refuses, instead offering two hundred dollars to “ship her off.” Track then explains that the problem with Nancy is: the experience of being raped, moreover by a black man, hasn’t torn her up emotionally in a way that other people find acceptable. The people want to see her weep and crumble, but she doesn’t. With nowhere to go, she needs the refuge she should find in the town’s only progressive. Breck, however, wants no part of the deal. Then, Track tells him, you go out to the car and tell her no. Breck goes outside and halfheartedly tries to hand Nancy the money, which she stoically ignores . . . so he tells her to come inside.
The next stop for Track is the mayor’s house. There, Track has another heart-to-heart, this time from the racist town leader who wants everything to settle back down. The mayor tells his sheriff, as only a demagogue can, that he’s a good sheriff but that the status quo must prevail. Track doesn’t share his acceptance of the Southern way of life, though, so the conflict must continue.
Back at the sheriff’s office, two reporters are quizzing Trixie about Breck. He has refused to speak to them and wouldn’t even let them photograph his dog. She then explains that, because the dog is a pure-bred and because he belongs to Breck, somebody might want to kill him. Likewise about the black people’s shacks on Breck’s property— there might be some inclination, after seeing in a newspaper that they live better than poor whites, to “practice arson.” Is there anything she can tell them about Breck? Yes, she replies, his family has lived there for eight generations and he’s the kind of guy who loses money on timber revenues because he lets old, rotten oak trees remain so yellowhammers can live in them. The reporters are not impressed by the noblesse oblige, but they do segue into the next scene: the funeral of guy who Garth killed.
The funeral is a loud brash affair with plenty of Klan regalia, including a burnings cross and a coffin draped in the Confederate flag. Our main characters are there, including Garth, who is perched in a tree with a rifle. As the ceremony continues, Garth raises his gun and begins shooting— which causes all hell to break loose! He shoots one Klansman named Taggart straight through the heart, and Butt Cut shoots back with a pistol. The hearse driver then jumps in the car, which rolls backward into the street, causing a two-car collision that goes up in flames!
Given the circumstances, the wake for Taggart is held at his home, where the few people gathered in a small living room sing “Rock of Ages.” Out in the yard, Butt Cut and the other klansmen decide over a galvanized bucket full of Schlitz that action must be taken. The agitators who’ve done this would certainly be hiding out at Loretta Sykes’ place, and the klansmen will go there to get him.
Now it is night, and the same truckload of KKK pulls up to Loretta’s grandmother’s shack. They demand to be let in to search the place, and she reluctantly complies. While the men search her house, Butt Cut accuses Loretta of letting the two protestor-preachers of spending the night there. But, of course, the white men find nothing they’re looking for, so they opt for arresting Loretta.
Meanwhile, Breck is having dinner at Track’s house with his wife and son. As they finish dinner, the phone rings, and Track takes the call, which is the high school principal telling him that his son is tearing down Klan leaflets, too. He admonishes his son that he is risking West Point by doing such a thing, but his son replies that he wants to be a tree farmer, to get married, and stay close to home, not “fight in any damn wars.” Track dismisses his son without reacting. Now alone in the living room, Track and Breck wonder out loud at the power the Klan holds and at the futility of resisting it. During the conversation, Breck asks Track if he is a member of the Klan, and Track evades the question, reminding him instead that his office is an elected one.
As the movie cuts away from this peaceful discourse, it cuts back to what we knew was coming. The truckload full of KKK has taken Loretta to an isolated lumber mill, where they discuss what to do. While the first men to speak advocate for violence, an older man reminds them that they need something that won’t show on TV. He suggests getting Lightning Rod to sexually assault Loretta, but Butt Cut breaks in, “Anything Lightning Rod can do, Butt Cut can do better.” And the men hand her over to him.
Later, after Track speeds the scene, he finds Loretta beats up, and the two speak in the back of the sheriff’s car. He advises her that, he will take her to the hospital to be examined, if she will claim that a group of black men did this to her. She tells him that isn’t the truth, and he replies that the truth doesn’t matter. Sensing that she has no other option, she tearfully agrees.
At the hospital, Breck is there waiting, and in the hallway, the doctor tells them that she has accused black men of the crime. Breck goes into see her, and they talk for a moment about Chicago, where Beck had encouraged her to go and where she might not return. She also confides in him that she has falsely accused her rapists, and Breck advises her to keep that deal with Track. At this point, we feel certain that Track has a reason for this, but we don’t know what it is— we hope that he isn’t protecting Butt Cut against a rape charge.
Now, it is time for the Civil Rights demonstration, which will be a complex day in the small town. The protestors are singing and waving signs, while Track sits across the street calmly. Various ones of the klansmen stop by to taunt him or insist that he stop the whole thing, but he pays them no mind. Among them is Butt Cut, who is now in civilian clothes, and the mayor stops by to ask Track to put him back on the force. Nearby, we are shown how Garth is sitting on a hilltop park bench assembling his rifle while pretending to eat lunch. Over to the side, the hippie preacher stops Breck to proselytize about Loretta, about the movement, and about the costs of fighting the status quo, and Breck meets him with pragmatic cynicism, before walking over to check on Track. As the scene continues, one of the younger Klansman walks over and asks Track to stop the whole affair, and when he doesn’t comply, the young man tries to cross the street and do it himself. And that’s when he is shot in the back by Garth, who immediately scoots in front of an oncoming train and escapes!
In the Scout on the way home, Breck and Loretta talk candidly. She tells him that she is not going back to Chicago and that she won’t be “hiding up on the mountain.” He retorts by asking if that’s what she thinks of him. No, she tells him, but she does know that she was raped because people believe that she is his mistress, that it was done to punish both her and him. About that time, a gun emerges from the backseat, and it is Garth, who has been hiding back there. As he instructs Breck to drive him down the road then let him out, they have a semi-civil debate about the black radical approach versus the white liberal approach. Eventually, Garth gathers a few things and runs off up a hill, saying that if they need him, “you know where to find me.”
Now, since there are three dead klansmen and Track has defied the Klan in plain sight, it’s fixing to get ugly. When Breck and Loretta get the mountaintop house, Breck’s dog is lying bloody in the driveway, with Nancy tending to the situation. Then Nancy and Breck go into the house, where Breck makes his move on her. Back in town, the few remaining klansmen are throwing horseshoes in Butt Cut’s backyard, fueled again by more Schlitz, and they decide to go take on Track.
The film then cuts to Track’s dark office just as the shotgun-wielding crew come in, demanding to have Willie Washington. Track refuses to give them the keys to the jail, despite their claims that this is their duty as “white patriotic Christians.” The whole scene, though, is broken up when one of the klansmen’s wife comes in saying that she wants to testify . . . About what, asks Track. She tells the whole group of men, including her gun-toting husband, that Willie couldn’t have raped Nancy— since he was with her that night!
After clearing the room and taking her statement, Track goes to find Garth at Lightning Rod’s house. There, Garth emerges from a back room with a gun, and the two men speak quietly and calmly about what has happened and what might happen next. Track tells Garth that if he can figure out who has done these things, then the Klan can, too. He advises Garth to leave the county immediately and adds that, if Garth ever points a gun at him again, he will drop him on sight. Garth appears to take the advice and moves to the door to leave, but stops to ask where Track was the night Henry was killed. When the white lawman doesn’t answer, Garth scoffs at him and leaves.
The scene then shifts back to Nancy and Breck, where Nancy is in his night shirt and carrying a tray of food to bed. Breck expresses his interest in keeping her around, but she sweetly says that she’ll leave, reminding him of his original offer of some money to help her do that. He accepts quietly, and the next morning takes her to the bus station. However, it won’t be so simple: Butt Cut is waiting there, and after some mild antagonism, he attacks! But Breck kicks his ass pretty soundly, despite his bum leg, with some well-placed karate chops and other exotic fighting techniques. After Butt Cut gets his comeuppance, all that is left is to put Nancy on the bus and bid her farewell.
Later that day, we’re back at the Klan’s bar, where a beat-up Butt Cut is sitting at the bar in his under drawers while a woman behind the bar irons his clothes. The rest of the men stomp around and shout about what they ought to do about it, about Track, and about Breck.
Then we see Breck’s blue Scout drive into the sawmill parking lot. There, he will meet with Mayor Riddle, who also owns the mill and the town’s bank. He is trying to warn Breck that the Klan has plans to burn him out. Breck says snidely that he will consider talking to them. Encouraged by that openness, the mayor says that he has to do three things: openly affirm the Klan’s righteous position, remove Loretta, and evict all of his black tenants. He refuses all three, and the mayor advises him that trouble is coming . . .
On the home front, Track’s son is now on a tirade about those supposed plans for him to go to West Point. He paces back and forth, and near-shouts at his father, who continues in stoic manner to receive and reply calmly. Then Track gets the phone call: it is time for the final showdown.
Out on Breck’s mountain, he gives instructions to his black tenants to hide and put out the lights, giving a few of them airhorns to warn each other. Soon, Track arrives, then right behind him are his son and Trixie. They will form a small but righteous force against the oncoming Klan attack. And they don’t have to wait long. The headlights show over the hills, the fires start, and then come the white-hooded figures. In one final stand, Track tries to use the power of the law to stop them, apprising them that they are trespassing. One hooded Klansman shouts to Track, “Remember, you’re one of us,” finally outing him as a member of the Klan, to which Track replies, “Not anymore!”
Once the shooting begins, the pace speeds up. As the battle rages, Track is shot, then Breck. Garth appears from the darkness to help, and is momentarily cornered by Track before being allowed to flee. It looks for a moment like Track will survive, as Breck dies in the dirt driveway near his home, but Butt Cut raises his bloody head to shoot one final time, killing Track. The film ends with Loretta setting fire to that old dead tree where Breck’s ancestor was killed in 1861.
Back in November 1974, The New York Times opened its review of the film with this compelling paragraph:
“The Klansman” is one of those rare films that are not as bad as they seem when you’re watching them. That’s a warning to be disregarded only by lunatics, but the point should be made that it’s not an uninteresting film to think about afterward.
I agree. The first time I watched The Klansman, I couldn’t figure out how to feel about the movie. If I had to posit a guess as to why that is, I’d say it’s because both main characters, Track and Breck, are neither all good nor all bad, neither completely right nor completely wrong. Given the nature of the story, we want for there to be a hero— but there isn’t one. While both of these white men do noble things, neither is all that noble. Likewise, OJ Simpson’s character Garth, whose righteous indignation creates more ugliness, is a vengeful killer . . . who gets to walk away, even though Track and Breck die as the flames rage. Then we’re also left to wonder, what will this town be like without Track and Breck, with the racist mayor and his Klan pals going unchecked?
Another difficult aspect of the film is the prevalence of sexual assault and a seeming indifference to the victims. The black woman who Lightning Rod is attacking is treated as a nonentity, Nancy is described as being OK with what happened to her, and Loretta is coerced into lying about her attacker, who only faces job loss not criminal charges. Toward the beginning of the film, Bobby is not upset that Nancy was raped so much as he was by people looking at him as the husband of woman who’d been with a black man. Perhaps worse, the white pastor who derides Nancy in church as unfit to attend the service also attends and cooperates in the rape of Loretta. However, this element may have been necessary to show the brutal callousness of a male-dominated, white-supremacist culture toward not only blacks but also women.
Where The Klansman is a disturbing film, it succeeds in portraying some of the complexities of Civil Rights-era Southern culture. The main characters here are not cardboard cutouts. Even the klansmen, who live and meet in dilapidated structures and commit heinous actions, are media savvy enough to take news coverage into account when planning their actions. Likewise, several of the one-on-one conversations serve as polemical debates about pragmatic positions, with each character exposing the flaws in the other’s perspective. Despite the movie’s problems – Richard Burton’s awkward Southern accent, the disconnected fact of Track’s military service – it does one thing well: leaving the viewer with an understanding that there are no winners, that no one comes out clean, and that no resolution is being offered.