Say this for Roger Corman: His “Women In Cages” films may be lurid exploitation trash of the first order, trading on the cheap labor and faux-revolutionary atmosphere of the Philippines, but they never pretended to be something that they weren’t. Never was there a sobering title alerting people to the scourge of beautiful, exotic women being unlawfully detained and tortured by oppressive tropical regimes—Corman had too much respect for the intelligence (and raw prurient interest) of his audience. Richard Fleischer’s 1979 howler Ashanti has no such shame. It wants viewers to know that human slavery is alive and well in the late 20th century, and if they need a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, there’s a brief scene of the luscious Beverly Johnson skinny-dipping in an African lake. And in the pre-Mr. Skin age, that was certainly a more tempting proposition than it might be today.
Michael Caine has called Ashanti “the worst, most wretched film I have made,” a striking distinction in a filmography that’s famously vast and includes Jaws: The Revenge.
He’s right about it being wretched, but the surprise of Ashanti—especially given the well-earned reputation of Severin, its new Blu-ray distributor, for cult curiosities—is how drearily wretched it is, lacking conviction both as exploitation and exposé. Caine leads a cast of familiar faces (including William Holden, in one of his final roles) as Johnson’s husband, a fellow U.N. medical missionary delivering immunizations to an unspecified African nation. When an Arab slave-trader (a dreadfully miscast Peter Ustinov) seizes Johnson post-skinny-dip and forces her on a truckload of shackled children, Caine follows a 3,000-mile trail across the Sahara to get her back, aided by swarthy nomad Kabir Bedi.
Ending a decade that included such cultural touchstones as Soylent Green and Mandingo, Fleischer tries for something similarly provocative here, but any urgency he might have felt about slavery in our time evaporates with Johnson’s screen time. In truth, Johnson’s absurd beauty, a persistent oasis in the desert backdrop, is the only compelling element of Ashanti, which almost feels like a deliberate attempt to punish and shame those who stuck around after that early nude scene. For nearly a full two hours, the film cuts back and forth between the slavers inching along in the blazing sun and Caine and Bedi following their trail at only a slightly quicker pace. By the time Omar Sharif shows up as a worldly customer, what excitement he brings is but a drop of water to a mouthful of sand.
Key features: Remarkably, Severin has found Johnson alive, still stunning, and eager to talk about her experience in making Ashanti. It’s the best half-hour on the disc without question.