“Manson”: The 1973 documentary that told us “We are what you have made us.”

By on June 9, 2015

With the announcement today of the death of Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi — he died on Saturday June 6th, 2015, at 80 years old — we are sure you’re going to be hearing about his exploits, but we were instead reminded of the great documentary we saw several years back, the rarely-seen 1973 film simply titled Manson, directed by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick.

Bugliosi — who wrote the non-fiction best-seller Helter Skelter — is the man who first proposed the theory that Manson was inspired to violence by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” and he famously called 84 witnesses to give testimony in Manson’s trial, most of them young men and women who were runaways who had ended up in Manson’s “family” and held under Manson’s sway, but if you really want to see evidence of that, seek out Manson.

Manson was comprised of original 16mm footage taken of the Manson Family, shot by Laurence Merrick between late 1969 through the summer of 1972, at their Spahn Ranch compound, Devil’s Canyon, their Barker Ranch hideout in Death Valley, and then — after Manson’s arrest — at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, California, and various other locations. It had been commissioned by Charles Manson himself, who had also recruited Hendrickson fresh out of the army to document the daily life of the family members on the ranch where they all lived.

Also featured in the film are interviews with Manson family members who left before the August ’69 slaying, as well as an interview with the prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi, and an interview he gave to Jerry Rubin.

Manson shows the life they were leading at the time, skinny-dipping, sewing clothes, dumpster-diving for scraps of food, preparing meals, even having sexual orgies, although this is presented with a kind of anthropological objectivity.

At one point the narrator of the film says, as we see images of Spahn Ranch: “They lived in the ramshackle, broken-down movie sets, panhandled, hustled, stole, shoveled manure and ate garbage. But the obvious discomforts of life with Charlie were far more desirable to these runaways than their parents comfortable homes.” In another sequence, the narrator adds: “The establishment smugly dismisses the Mansons as an oddball phenomenon. These kids came from our own schools, our own neighborhoods, our own homes.

We see Manson family member “Brenda” telling America: “We are what you have made us. We were brought up on your TV. We were brought up watching ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Have Gun Will Travel,’ ‘F.B.I.’, ‘Combat.’ ‘Combat’ was my favorite show.”

The film’s soundtrack music was created by Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins, two former Manson associates. There are six songs by them total, as well as additional background songs sung by the Manson family members, including Steve “Clem” Grogan talk-singing the Beatles’ song “Helter-Skelter,” and Manson and various members singing “Never Say Never To Always,” one of Manson’s original songs.

One of our favorite moments shows how Lynette “Squeak”  Fromme and the rest of the Manson girls made a vest out of their hair, which they had all cut to show their solidarity with Manson himself, who was arrested and had his own head shaved.

Manson was released in January 1973 by Tobann International Films, with a lurid publicity campaign and posters promising audiences that “YOU WILL ACTUALLY SEE each member of the Manson family and HEAR their horrifying philosophy of sex, perversion, murder and suicide.”

Manson was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature in 1972, but it did not win, and it did not get wider distribution until 1976.

Years later, Manson was banned from being screened in the U.S. by order of Judge Thomas McBride, the District Court judge presiding in the case of Lynette”Squeaky” Fromme — who had attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford — in order to preserve Fromme’s constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial. Hendrickson became and still is the only U.S. citizen to have had his U.S. Constitutional right to “free speech” set aside.

The legal matter was taken by the ACLU to the Supreme Court. In 2001, Manson was the subject of the Federal Court’s “first impression” decision regarding the legal interpretation of liability under provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the DMCA).

When a 35mm print was screened for an entire week, in 2013, by the Cinefamily, at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, it was a big deal because Manson had not been seen theatrically by audiences in decades.

It remains unclear even today if the footage from the Manson documentary — 83-minutes total in length — could figure as evidence in future trials for the Manson defendants, and so it is still not widely seen in theaters.

On February 6, 2008, YouTube “banned” the director’s 4- minute video for having content deemed objectionable.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Dillion

    This is a really good documentary. I taped it back in the 80s when the only type of movie format available was VHS tapes.