The movie is set in the Deep South of the United States prior to the American Civil War. Falconhurst is a run-down plantation owned by widower Warren Maxwell (James Mason) and largely run by his son, Hammond (Perry King). Hammond and his cousin, Charles, visit a plantation where both men are given black women out of hospitality. Hammond chooses Ellen (Brenda Sykes), who's a virgin. Both she and Hammond watch as Charles abuses and rapes his wench, claiming that she likes it. Hammond asks Ellen if this is true, and she says no. Hammond then rapes Ellen.
Warren Maxwell pressures him to marry, so Hammond chooses his cousin, Blanche (Susan George). A social climber and sexually promiscuous, Blanche had been having an affair with her brother, Charles. After their wedding night, Hammond is sure that she is not a virgin—a claim Blanche denies. On their way back from their honeymoon, Hammond returns to the plantation where Ellen is kept and purchases her as his sex slave. Eventually, he comes to genuinely care for her.
Meanwhile, Hammond purchases a Mandingo slave named Ganymede (Ken Norton). Nicknamed "Mede", the slave works for Hammond as a prize-fighter. He's forced to soak in a large cauldron of very hot water to toughen his skin. Hammond also breeds Mede with female slaves on his plantation. Hammond makes a great deal of money betting on Mede's fights.
Rejected by Hammond, Blanche becomes a slovenly alcoholic who does nothing all day long. While Hammond is on a business trip alone, Blanche discovers Ellen is pregnant. Correctly assuming the baby is Hammond's, Blanche beats Ellen. Ellen flees, but falls down some stairs, and miscarries. Hammond (who had promised Ellen that her baby would be freed), returns to Falconhurst and discovers Ellen lost the baby. Threatened with bodily harm by Warren, Ellen does not tell him how she miscarried. Hammond gives Ellen a pair of ruby earrings, which she wears while serving an evening meal. Hammond gave the matching necklace to Blanche, who becomes enraged to find Ellen being publicly favored by Hammond.
Hammond leaves on another business trip, taking Ellen with him. A drunken Blanche demands that Mede come to her bedroom. Although the other slaves attempt to stop him, Mede does as he is ordered. Blanche says she will accuse Mede of rape if he does not have sex with her, so he spends the night with her. Blanche's sexuality is reawakened by Mede, whom she finds exceptionally well-endowed, and she has sex with him several more times.
Hammond returns to the plantation. A great deal of time has passed since Hammond and Blanche's marriage, and Warren Maxwell is eager for a grandchild. Sensing that the marriage is troubled, Warren locks Hammond and Blanche in a room together and refuses to let them out until they reconcile. They appear to do so. A short time later, Blanche announces she is pregnant, but when the baby is born, it is clear the child is a mulatto. To avoid a scandal, the child is killed on doctor's orders. Sickened at Blanche's sexual indiscretion, Hammond asks the doctor if he has the poison he uses on old slaves and horses. He pours the poison into a toddy for Blanche. An outraged Hammond seeks out Mede, intending to kill him. As Hammond attempts to force Mede into a boiling cauldron of water, Mede tries to tell him that Blanche blackmailed him into having sex. Hammond shoots Mede twice with a shotgun and the second shot throws Mede into the boiling water. Hammond uses a pitchfork to drown Mede. In a fit of fury, the slave Agamemnon (Richard Ward) picks up the shotgun and aims it at Hammond. When Warren calls him a "crazy nigger" and demands that he put the gun down, the slave shoots and kills Warren. As he runs away, Hammond kneels helpless next to Warren's lifeless body.James Mason as Warren Maxwell
Susan George as Blanche Maxwell
Perry King as Hammond Maxwell
Richard Ward as Agamemnon
Brenda Sykes as Ellen
Ken Norton as Mede
Lillian Hayman as Lucretia Borgia
Ji-Tu Cumbuka as Cicero
Paul Benedict as Brownlee
Ben Masters as Charles
Debbi Morgan as Dite
Sylvester Stallone as Crowd Member (uncredited)
The original novel sold over 4.5 million copies. Film rights were eventually bought by Dino de Laurentiis.
Producer Ralphe Serpe said during filming that the movie was:
A human, sociological story that's going to bring about a better understanding between the races... We're faithful to the story of the book but not the spirit. I mean, the book's hackwork, isn't it? It's almost repulsive. A lot of people have read it, but they read it for the wrong reasons. It's really a story of love. We had the script rewritten three times.... I hated that ending in the book where the guy boils the slave down and pours the soup over his wife's grave. I mean, we have the slave boiled but we cut out the part where he pours the soup on his grave. He just... pulls away. And we know that tomorrow there's going to be a lot of trouble. It's really a very beautiful ending.
Charlton Heston turned down the role of the father and the role of his son was rejected by Timothy Bottoms, Jan Michael Vincent, Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges. Boxer Ken Norton turned down a $250,000 gate to fight Jerry Quarry to make the film.
Upon its release in 1975, critical response was mixed, although the box office receipts were strong. Roger Ebert despised the film, calling it "racist trash", and gave it a "zero star" rating. Richard Schickel of Time magazine found the film boring and cliché-ridden. Movie critic Robin Wood was enthusiastic about the film, calling it “the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood.” In Leonard Maltin's annual publication Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, the film is ranked as a "BOMB" and dismissed with the word "Stinko!"
Some prominent critics hail the film, including the New York Times columnist Dave Kehr, who called it "a thinly veiled Holocaust film that spares none of its protagonists," further describing it as "Fleischer’s last great crime film, in which the role of the faceless killer is played by an entire social system."
Director Quentin Tarantino has cited Mandingo and Showgirls as the only two instances "in the last twenty years [that] a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie". In Django Unchained, Tarantino took the terminology of "Mandingo fighting" from the use of "a Mandingo" being a fine slave for breeding in the film.
Drum, the sequel to Mandingo, was released the following year. Released by United Artists, it was once again produced by Dino De Laurentiis. Ken Norton, Brenda Sykes, and Lillian Hayman were the only actors from the first film to return for the sequel. Norton and Sykes played different characters, and Hayman returned in the role of Lucretia Borgia. Warren Oates took over for Perry King in the role of Hammond Maxwell. The story is set 15 years after the events of the first film.
Paramount Pictures licensed the film to Legend Films for its first official DVD release. The DVD was released on June 3, 2008, in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen version without any extras.