Ashanti (1979)

screenshot from Ashanti

Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Screenwriter(s): Stephen Geller
Starring: Michael Caine, Peter Ustinov, Kabir Bedi, Beverly Johnson, Omar Sharif, Rex Harrison, William Holden
Genre: Action / Adventure
Country: SUI
Running time: 1h 53m
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 (Bedi), who looks like he just stepped out of the 1970s Turkish Delight adverts. They trace her across the African continent and into the Arab territories, facing danger every step of the way. Peter Ustinov also has a queasy turn as the lead slave trader, Suleiman. Like Caine, Ustinov has never been adverse to hamming it up, thinking of the money and mercilessly scene-stealing.

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.

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. The stunts are terrible. The big action set-pieces don’t actually exist. It also manages to be racist towards two continents, Africa and Asia, which is something of an achievement, although not one to be proud of.

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.

In his own words

You would have thought I would also have learnt never to pick a film with stars in my eyes. But sadly I made that mistake several more times. Just a year later I was offered a part in an action adventure movie set in Kenya called Ashanti. My co-stars were to be William Holden, Rex Harrison, Omar Sharif and Peter Ustinov. What could go wrong? Everything. The director left. The female lead left. The script was rewritten. We were all contractually obliged to finish the picture and we did. Never heard of it? Good.

From Sir Michael Caine’s 2018 book, ‘Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’