Now that Severin Films has bounced back into circulation with their outstanding Blu-ray release of The Wild Geese, the company has also released a more obscure, star-studded title: the 1979 adventure film Ashanti. Never heard of it? Most people haven't and only a relatively few people have ever seen it in the American/British market, despite the impressive cast of high profile names. The film takes on what is probably the world's second-oldest profession: slave trading. Although human trafficking is high on the list of international crimes today, when the film was made, great pains had to be taken to educate viewers that slave trading did not get extinguished in the age of the horse and buggy and remains a very modern criminal activity. The film, directed by old hand Richard Fleischer, opens in Africa when an interracial married couple - doctors David and Anansa Linderby (Michael Caine and Beverly Johnson)- are seen providing medical services to remote tribes who reside in isolated regions. When Anansa decides to take an ill-fated skinny dip in a local river, the beautiful young woman is mistaken for a member of the tribe and brutally kidnapped by slavers headed by the notorious Suleiman (Peter Ustinov), an Arab trader of human misery. When David discovers his wife's fate, he launches an ambitious rescue effort but is hampered by corrupt or incompetent local officials. He decides to take matters into his own hands, with the help of a local humanitarian (Rex Harrison) and a sympathetic mercenary (William Holden). Despite their assistance, David finds the only man who can really help him is Malik (Kabir Bedi, who makes a striking screen presence), a Rambo-like figure who lives in the desert and is consumed by his own wife's abduction and murder at the hands of Suleiman. He agrees to assist David and the two make an arduous trek across the blazing Sahara in an attempt to rescue Anansa and her fellow victims before they can be sold at a private auction to rich men who want to abuse the slaves sexually.
Ashanti doesn't stint on the plight of those victimized by slavery. The slaves are treated brutally on the walk across the Sahara and given a minimum amount of food and water. The plan is to bring them to a "fattening house", a deplorable cellar, where they will be brought back to health in order to maximize their price at auction. Along the way, both young women and little boys are molested at will. David and Malik make for a disparate but determined team. David, who is unskilled in fighting or the use of weapons, must rely on his hot-tempered ally, who is capable of taking on numerous adversaries at the same time and prevailing. Meanwhile, Anansa tries to use logic with Suleiman to gain her freedom, pointing out that she is employed by the United Nations and her kidnapping will bring authorities down on him. He is unimpressed and claims that her natural beauty will result in his making enough money to retire and leave the slave trade before he can be found.
Ashanti is a consistently compelling adventure film, well-directed by the veteran Fleischer. Caine is a refreshing screen hero because he isn't a superman. He does acquit himself well in a climactic fight scene but his unfamiliarity with firearms realistically results in tragic consequences for one of his key allies. Ustinov channels his role from Spartacus as a charismatic scoundrel. Even when he engages in deplorable acts, he is personally charming. The real find is model Beverly Johnson, who gives a very fine performance in what is really the starring the role in the film. Harrison and Holden have extended cameos and their presence adds greatly to the enjoyment of the movie, as does a late-in-the-story appearance by Omar Sharif. If there's a weak aspect to the production it's the musical score by Michael Melvoin, which would be more appropriate in a disco-themed romance than an action film.
Severin's Blu-ray edition features an extensive, recent interview with Beverly Johnson, who discusses the fact that she was the "breakthrough" African American female model of the 1970s. (She is also an activist for social causes and was recently honored by Oprah Winfrey). Johnson is very verbose and amusing in recounting the film, which she is proud of. She found herself the only girl among a team of hard-drinking guys on the production company, but recalls some sound advice given to her by Rex Harrison ("Never perform your own stunts!) that she ignored with almost tragic results. She still swoons at the memory of aging William Holden's handsome features and speaks bluntly about having to cope with former husband Danny Sims' on-set antics, which she says included bedding seemingly every female in sight. She also blames Sims, who was a high profile record producer, for the film's awful song, heard over the end credits which he convinced her to sing in order to promote a record album that no one bought. Johnson says the film's producer alienated the "suits" at the studio and they decided to get even by burying the movie, despite its expensive production values. Regardless of its theatrical fate, Ashanti remains a fast-moving, well-acted adventure movie that entertains even as it outrages viewers with an honest look at how cheap human life is in certain parts of this planet.
The special edition also includes the original trailer.