Director: Richard Fleischer
Screenwriter: Stephen Geller
Starring: Michael Caine, Beverly Johnson, Peter Ustinov, Omar Sharif, William Holden
Release details: Warner Bros, USA 1979, 113mins
Full details: IMDb
Genre: Action adventure
Rating: 3 out of 10
One of a string of unsuccessful Michael Caine movies in the late seventies and early eighties, Ashanti is, according to its publicity "an all-star action movie that deals with the ultimate sexual humiliation...slavery in the 1970s!!" Sadly, it does not prove to be the campy video nasty that the box promises.
Michael Caine is a UN doctor, working in aid camps in Africa alongside his wife and colleague (Johnson) who is from the Ashanti tribe herself. While swimming in a lake near the aid camp, she is kidnapped by slave traders. He is sure that he will get a high price for her from his best customer, wealthy Arab price Omar Sharif.
Caine sets off to find her, helped along the way by Rex Harrison as a British anti-slave campaigner, William Holden as an American mercenary and Kabir Bedi as an enigmatic Arabian nomad (who looks like he just stepped out of the 70s Turkish Delight adverts). They trace her across the African continent and into the Arab territories, facing danger every step of the way.
So, truly all-star, then, and not entirely unenjoyable. Caine himself, describes the film as "the worst, most wretched film I ever made," but clearly this is only because he's never had to sit through The Honorary Consul. Okay, so it's not even remotely mentally taxing for either the audience or Caine, who does well enough as the grief-stricken but persistent husband, but it's not meant to be Chekhov.
There's a vaguely queasy appearance by Peter Ustinov as the lead slave trader, Suleiman, although I suppose slave traders are meant to be sleaze-bags. Like Caine, Ustinov has never been adverse to hamming it up, thinking of the money and mercilessly scene-stealing.
For a thriller, though, it fails on one key point: there are no thrills. You never really think that Michael won't get his wife back (although, living with Omar Sharif in Middle Eastern opulence doesn't look like such a bad life for her anyway). The stunts are terrible. The big action set-pieces don't actually exist.
But, if you get a very strong feeling that the movie doesn't exactly hang together properly, that there's something missing, then you'd be right. Director Fleischer (whose career varies from Soylent Green to Red Sonja) and co-star Beverly Johnson, not to mention several other key employees, were both unceremoniously sacked two-thirds of the way through the shoot once the studio got a look at the rushes. This certainly explains why Johnson appears only fleetingly throughout the film and why the whole enterprise feels like a series of un-related set pieces loosely thrown together.
In the end, the film wasn't released, it escaped.
|UK release date||Feb 1979|
|US release date||April 1979|
|US box office||-|
|UK box office||-|
|UK cinema certificate||AA|
|UK VHS/DVD certificate||15|
|US MPAA rating||R|
Reel Classics is a huge site dedicated to the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The sort of site you could lose a whole afternoon browsing. It has a one page tributes to Sir Rex Harrison (linked to a more substantial My Fair Lady site) and William Holden.
For more information on William Holden's life away from acting, visit the William Holden Wildlife Foundation site (the foundation has a game ranch in Kenya and sponsor students who are studying conservation).
At Salon.com, you can hear about Sir Peter Ustinov's travels in Mark Twain's footsteps.
Find out more about the Ashanti nation at www.ashanti.com.au (work-place warning: page features background spoken message on loading).