Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Band of Angels is quite an eye-opener. Sensitivity to racial issues in movies has had some time to settle, but Gone With the Wind still receives its fair share of scorn for promoting outdated attitudes. Twenty years later came this return to the antebellum South, starring Rhett, um, I mean, Clark Gable. He's the dashing Hamish Bond, a slave-holding he-man beloved by all of his 'property,' especially Yvonne de Carlo. Taken from a book by Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men), Band of Angels plays like a creaking D.W. Griffith tale of the South, injected with anachronistic allusions to the 1950s Civil Rights movement.
Despite good intentions, the film comes off as high-class exploitation. What we really care about is Ms. de Carlo's frantic efforts to avoid being legally raped by every hot-blooded white male that comes along. The wordy script is frequently sexually suggestive, adding to the vaguely trashy air of hypocrisy.
Southern Belle Amantha Starr (Yvonne de Carlo) doesn't understand why her mother's grave isn't in the family plot. Away at school, she falls in love with Seth Parton (Rex Reason), an anti-slavery preacher. But when her father dies the truth comes out in a hurry ... Amantha has black blood and is held for auction by the slave trader Calloway (Ray Teal), while her father's lover Miss Idell (Andrea King of Red Planet Mars) takes over the estate. Calloway tries to rape Amantha but she makes it to the auction block 'intact.' She's purchased for $5,000 by the rich Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a friend of her late father's and a man equally kind to his many slaves. Amantha's fear and fury yield to passion; she falls in love with Hamish and becomes his mistress. Meanwhile, the attack on Fort Sumter is not far away. Bond's resentful 'business' slave Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) can't wait to be emancipated and take his revenge on his 'kind' master, while Amantha is molested by yet another white man, Bond's neighbor Charles de Marigny (Patric Knowles). With Yankees occupying New Orleans, Union officer Lt. Ethan Sears (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) takes an interest in the beautiful Amantha, but she crosses paths with Seth Parton ... who knows the secret of her bloodline. With the Yankees trying to hang Hamish and Amantha still torn between her two identities, the future is uncertain indeed.
Band of Angels would like to remind us of Old Hollywood but it's even cheaper-looking than the same year's Raintree County. The only crowds we see are groupings of 'well-treated' slaves and most of the film is confined to limited sets like Hamish Bond's courtyard house. Max Steiner's lively score introduces the jaunty main theme into many scenes where it doesn't seem to belong.
Some productions just don't come together as one might wish them to. Clark Gable is like a rock; the character of Hamish Bond, ex- slaver and man of the world is tailor made for both his talents and his screen persona. But Gable can't do much with a script that calls for him to act out all the old clichés -- a heavy breathing romantic encounter in a wild storm -- and then talk reams of White Man Apology dialogue.
This is perhaps Yvonne de Carlo's bid for the big time, a chance that came rather late in her career. Her acting has the required passion but fails to deepen the script's shallow characterization. We certainly understand the terror of Amantha's predicament. Ray Teal's repulsive slave trader seizes her at her father's funeral, gloating that she'll immediately become his sexual property. Amantha puts up a fierce female resistance, only to suddenly surrender when confronted by the ultra-masculine Hamish Bond.
Band of Angels deserves some credit, if only for having the nerve to attempt this subject matter in the Civil Rights decade. B it shouldn't have expected a box office success. Bigots would in no way be interested in the lectures about racial equality, and progressives would reject the story as the same old baloney seasoned with a few unconvincing liberal speeches. Black audiences? If it wasn't for the presence of Sidney Poitier, I'd think they'd prefer to pretend the film didn't exist.
Everybody talks about racial situations, constantly, in this anachronistic view of the 1860s. As if trying to mollify Southern sensibilities, the script only shows us benevolent slaveholders. The farm slaves stand around like sheep and welcome Hamish with a gospel-singing procession befitting a prince. The house slaves make flowery speeches that the actresses can't handle: Tommie Moore's Dollie is awkward and Carolle Drake can barely recite her French dialogue. The only black with a real presence is Sidney Poitier's Rau-Ru, an educated slave with a determined rationale for killing his former owner Hamish. Rau-Ru is a radical with revolutionary tendencies (they certainly existed in the 1860s). He angrily claims that Hamish's benevolence only makes the situation more despicable.
Rau-Ru eventually tempers his racial vengeance when Band of Angels gives him a sentimental reason to spare Hamish Bond's life. The text constructs intellectual arguments to rationalize murder and revolution, until the melodrama kicks in with sex scenes and heartfelt confessions. Everybody loves everybody and the white man gets the girl. Black audiences surely had little patience for the film's soft-boiled politics -- at one point Hamish Bond magically predicts that real freedom for the blacks won't come for another 100 years. Thanks heaps, Massa.
The movie's best scenes chart Amantha's unpleasant introduction to her slave status. Ray Teal's heinous slaver is given some really odious, authentic-sounding arcane dialogue as he enthusiastically prepares to rape Amantha. Amantha counters by trying to hang herself. Throughout her trials, Amantha is never actually forced to cohabit with any real African Americans, although the harsh dialogue encourages us to imagine how the 'animals' in the slave pens might treat her if given the chance. Audiences incensed at black film stereotypes will have a strong reaction to this material; the crude crowd might laugh at Amantha's illusions of superiority and relish the idea of her being raped. More sensitive viewers will surely resent the use of interracial rape as a 'juicy' exploitation theme. Band of Angels sells the sex thrills pretty heavily and the "N" word gets heavy usage.
Director Raoul Walsh's work is restrained, to say the least; even with a peppy editorial pace the movie seems slack. It's also not all that well cast. Besides the weak performances of some of the peripheral black characters, we get the sincere but wooden Rex Reason as a predictably hypocritical preacher-soldier. Efrem Zimbalist is okay but bland, while Patric Knowles' "Bad" Southerner is a one-dimensional creep. Almost making up for all of them is Torin Thatcher's vibrant sea captain. His courtyard drunk with Gable is the best scene in the movie, at least until Sidney Poitier starts singing with a terrible dubbed voice.
As for Sidney Poitier, his role clearly was a chance to exhibit some righteous black rage, even if his Rau-Ru character is somewhat humbled when the fadeout comes around. Poitier need not apologize for his choice. As the spearhead of black opportunities in 1950s Hollywood, he took the best parts he could find and played all of them with dignity.
Most of the production is attractive but generic, with star doubles seeing use in bayou long shots. Band of Angels is a reckless and trashy movie made by people unsure of how to handle its racial theme.
Warners' Band of Angels is a fine single-disc release. The biggest improvement is the good enhanced widescreen transfer; on old open-matte flat TV prints the drama tended to get lost in Raoul Walsh's unfocused wide shots. Colors are good but a few scenes are a bit faded or grainy. The movie suffers whenever it cuts away to cheap stocks. Max Steiner's score comes across nicely, at least when heard in appropriate scenes.
The only extra is a trailer that stresses the show's scandalous content. It starts with a shot of the elderly Raoul Walsh directing a love scene; Gable breaks away to talk to the audience about his new attraction. I can't see that kind of trailer being tried today!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Band of Angels rates:
Movie: Good +/-
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 27, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson