ASHANTI (1979)
Director: Richard Fleischer
Severin Films

Michael Caine trades Zulus to rescue supermodel Beverly Johnson from Omar Sharif in Richard Fleischer’s ASHANTI, on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Severin Films.

UN doctor David Linderby (Michael Caine, THE HAND) joins his Boston-educated Ashanti wife Anansa (supermodel Beverly Johnson) in Africa where she has been running medical clinics for local tribes. While he snaps touristy shots of the dancing Senoufo warriors, Anansa goes for a skinny dip on the beach and is grabbed by slave trader Suleiman (Peter Ustinov, DEATH ON THE NILE). The authorities prove rather ineffectual because they are unwilling to admit to that slavery is still a widespread problem; and, while the main roads are being watched, there are several miles of unprotected savannah where the slavers can cross undetected. The most likely route the slavers will be traveling will be across the Sahara to the eastern coast, so Linderby sets off on his own. Brian Walker (Rex Harrison, MY FAIR LADY) of the Anti-Slavery Society arranges for mercenary pilot Colonel Sandell (William Holden, DAMIEN: OMEN II) to take Linderby up in the air in search of the slavers, but the helicopter is shot down with Linderby as the only survivor. Once Walker has somehow surmised that Suileman is responsible for Anansa’s abduction, he takes Linderby to nomadic Malik (Kabir Bedi, OCTOPUSSY) whose wife and children were abducted and sold by Suleiman. Crossing the desert on camels (which look more ferocious than any CGI creation), they are soon on the right track when they come across the camp of a Tuareg chief (Marne Maitland, THE REPTILE) whose newest slave is a Senoufo girl (Akosua Busia, THE FINAL TERROR) that Linderby recognizes as having treated at the medical clinic and spotting with Anansa during Sandell’s ill-fated air search. Having learned that Anansa speaks English and works for the United Nations, Suleiman knows he’ll have to find a very special buyer for her (either that or ransom her back to the UN), and he has in mind Prince Hassan (Omar Sharif, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO).

In the disc’s accompanying interview, actress Beverly Johnson refers to the film as the “last glimpse of old Hollywood” which is perhaps meant to refer to its LAWRENCE OF ARABIA-esque visuals and once high-profile cast (Harrison, Ustinov, Holden – who shows up for about five minutes before going out with a bang – and Omar Sharif as more of a “special guest star” than an actual character); but it also includes the substitution of Israel for Africa (with the exception of some footage shot in Kenya and studio interiors in Italy) and a supporting cast of recognizable British 1960s/1970s cinema’s go-to actors for various “ethnic” roles: India-born Maitland (usually the “Eastern” villain in Hammer productions like THE REPTILE, STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY, and TERROR OF THE TONGS) here as a Tuareg chief, Johnny Sekka as a West African officer (Sekka was born in Senegal but much of his film and TV work has been in Britain with a side trip to the states to appear in UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT and guest on GOOD TIMES and ROOTS II), and Viennese Eric Pohlmann (INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU) as the “honorable” proprietor of “The Fattening House” Zeda El-Kabir (in fact, Maitland, Sekka, and Zia Mohyeddin – who plays another of Suileman’s guards – had all previously appeared in KHARTOUM).

Caine’s hero isn’t too likable – coming across more snobbish than suspicious whenever he receives offers of help – with Bedi’s nomadic brooder a more interesting character. Johnson plays it straight, but she is undermined by thin characterization in a script that pits her against Ustinov’s character who comes across more as comic relief – with lines like “Humans have not gone up in price like petrol” and “There is inflation even for virgins” – than as a cruel villain (Sharif’s Harvard-educated prince seems even less likely to harm Anansa). Harrison’s “stiff upper lip” performance also keeps things too light early on when thing should be more tense. Director Richard Fleischer (AMITYVILLE 3D) revels in the scenic beauty of the locations (aided by cinematographer Aldo Toni [Visconti’s OSSESSIONE, Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA]) and keeps the two hour film moving at a good clip thanks to a script by Stephen Geller (SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE) that clings faithfully to the film school three-act structure, getting its introductions and inciting incident out of the way in the first ten minutes rather than going for a more languorous buildup which might have given more depth to the main couple’s relationship and a bit more skinny-dipping Beverly Johnson (the screenplay was based on the novel EBANO by Alberto Vázquez Figueroa, whose novel IGUANA was later adapted into a bizarre Spanish/Italian co-production by Monte Hellman). The breezy score of Michael Melvoin (BLOODSUCKING PHAROAHS IN PITTSBURGH) also keeps things from getting too grim, mainly consisting of instrumental variations on Jimmy Chamber’s end title vocal “Don’t Lose That Feeling” (lyrics by Don Black); however, the score does take a trippy turn during the scene in which captured Dongaro (Tyrone Jackson, LEAN ON ME) uses voodoo to kill one of Suleiman’s guards (THE WILD GEESE’s Winston Ntshona).

Released theatrically here by Warner Brothers (and in some territories by Columbia Pictures), ASHANTI’s VHS release was through Trans World Entertainment (TWE). The rights somehow wound up with Spanish company Victory Films who licensed the film in 2004 to Tango Entertainment (who also released the Victory-licensed THE WILD GEESE and ZULU DAWN, both of which are forthcoming on Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Severin) for their barebones DVD (which I have not seen). As with Severin’s combo of THE WILD GEESE, Severin’s 1080p 24fps widescreen (2.28:1) is encoded using the MPEG-2 codec. The results are probably as good as can be with the master, because there is a flatness to many of the scope compositions where there should be depth and fair detail that can’t really be blamed on seventies Panavision lenses (the DVD version, of course, is more compressed but it has a moderately high bitrate). There are also two instances of possible digitally smoothed over frame damage at two points as there is a jump in image and soundtrack of possibly one or two frames. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (the same compressed track on both DVD and Blu-Ray) is bold – particularly during the music passages – and clean without any overt evidence of digital noise reduction in the high end (although uncompressed LPCM or one of the lossless formats would have been preferable for the Blu-ray).

Besides the film’s trailer (2:30), the only other extra on the disc is an interview with the still lovely Beverly Johnson (26:55). The first African-American model to be featured on the cover of VOGUE (1974), she reveals that she auditioned for the role of Anansa but originally lost it to Beverly Todd (MOVING), and that her husband (music producer Danny Sims) at the time met with the producers and got them to reconsider somehow. She recalls how Rex Harrison flew right back to Hollywood when no one met him at the airport in Israel and production so they could get him back on location (he instructed Johnson to “always demand the best from your producers”). She is still awestruck by her fellow cast members (particularly William Holden and Kabir Bedi) who gave her practical advice about being an actress, including not doing her own stunts (she ended up falling off of a camel). She’s pretty candid about her relationship with her husband (who was on set) and tells a disturbing story about being attacked by a masseuse in her hotel (she got arrested for slapping him!). She also mentions that her costumes were designed by Edith Head (the chic white dress she wears in the last part of the film had to be let out from the original measurements because she was pregnant with her daughter Anansa Sims (she had not told the producers). She thought the soundtrack had a beautiful picture but was a terrible album (curiously the interview is the only video on the Blu-ray encoded with the AVC codec). (Eric Cotenas)