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Starting with The Birth of a Nation (1915), American Civil War-themed films have flowed steadily onto movie screens. Band of Angels (1957), starring Clark Gable, Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier under Raoul Walsh's direction, is the one that has never been able to climb out from under unfavorable, if inevitable, comparisons to Gone with the Wind (1939). Apart from attempting to recycle Gable's Rhett Butler as a roguish Southerner trying, however belatedly, to do the right thing, it stems as well from a Southern perspective, Margaret Mitchell's novel in the case of Gone with the Wind, Robert Penn Warren's in the case of Band of Angels. The War laps more distantly at the edges of the latter. The combat we see in Band of Angels is not between soldiers. Although the Civil War's root issues of racism and slavery sit balefully at its center, Band of Angels is mostly focused on domestic and romantic embroilments. If the civil rights movement can be heard knocking at its door in the person of a defiant educated slave played by Poitier, the film's soapy melodramatics are closer to Madame X than Malcolm X.
It begins in 1853 with white overseers chasing and overtaking two runaway slaves on a Kentucky plantation. It ends with Union soldiers, including former slaves, pursuing Gable's wealthy slave-owner along the edge of a Louisiana bayou following the Union capture of New Orleans in 1862. (From start to finish, a line is drawn between "good" and "bad" slave-owners, based on whether or not they beat their slaves...as if that was the issue.) The link between the Kentucky planter (William Forrest) and Gable's planter is Yvonne De Carlo's Amantha Starr, suspended between two worlds. She begins as a daughter of privilege. But when her widower father dies, she learns why her dead mother was buried behind the Kentucky mansion in which she was raised, and not in the family cemetery. Her mother was a slave, which means she's stripped of status, instantly relegated to slavery herself. After fending off the lecherous slave trader who bought her, she's sold at auction in New Orleans to Gable's Hamish Bond.
What follows is a sort of extended minuet. Unlike that lion of the boudoir, Rhett Butler, Hamish Bond is all gentleman. Technically, she is his property, even though he surrounds her with luxury and the trappings of gentility in his New Orleans house. Eventually, they kiss in a gale, but not before he makes clear that he means to treat her with respect. Hers is the most emotionally complex character. Having lived in the white world and the black, she understandably decides that white is better. Aiming for marriage to Bond, she's eaten at by the uncompromising hatred Poitier's Rau-Ru harbors for whites. He insists the subjugation of blacks is even more pernicious when wrapped in kind treatment because it robs the blacks of the outrage that might free them. Band of Angels even has a counterpart of Gone with the Wind's house servant, Prissy - Dollie (Tommie Moore), whose chirpings stir further doubts in the conflicted Amantha.
The reason for Hamish's restraint is soon revealed. When Amantha asks him why, if he loves her, he won't propose marriage, his reply is that if she knew his secret she wouldn't want any part of him. His secret is that he was a slave trader, shuttling between Africa, the West Indies and the U.S. before he cashed out and got even richer buying land and planting cotton and sugar cane. But what's the secret? It's the most conspicuous of several weak spots in the film's structure. How could Amantha not be aware that if he were a rich landowner in the South, slavery would be an integral ingredient of his fortune? Is it supposed to matter that he was a more hands-on beneficiary of the slave trade in his younger days? Or that by treating his slaves more humanely than most, it somehow takes the sting out of his embedded position in slavery? Repeatedly, Band of Angels trips on its acceptance of slavery, never more so than when it tries to soften the cruel truths of its mere existence.
Rau-Ru, two-dimensional figure that he may be, is right. Even by the prevailing standards of 1957, the film's politics represent the very variety of racism Rau-Ru decries. Is Gable's Hamish supposed to represent some sort of tortured moral redemption? He may go through the motions of agonizing over his slave-trading ruthlessness, but he does so from the comfort of wealth derived from slavery. And only at the very end, when his world is being shot out from beneath him, does he actually get around to freeing the slaves on whose backs his fortune has been made. Like Hamish, the story wants to have it both ways. Sometimes this leads to embarrassing contortions in its efforts to make Hamish sympathetic. We're supposed to know he's a deep soul and a good guy when he journeys upriver with Amantha to one of his plantations and his slaves gather at the dock to belt out a lusty chorus of welcome. Cringe-worthy!
Max Steiner's music is alarmingly below the level of his Gone with the Wind score. To be fair, he isn't given the earlier film's kind of sweep to work with here. Worse, and perhaps most fatal, is the fact that Gable seems an exhausted travesty of Rhett Butler. Dramatically and physically, his Hamish is fatally passive. He mostly stands around, looking and sounding rugged and manly in that Gable way. But he doesn't do much, partly because there isn't much Hamish can do to extricate himself from the onus under which the film puts him. It's not only that he's not heroic, except for a few instances in which he defends Amantha's virtue, but that he hasn't much to be heroic about. If it was hoped that De Carlo would expand her dramatic range after playing the wife of Charlton Heston's Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956), it doesn't happen. The story's origins in a Southern perspective can be sensed in its caricatures of the Union side. Crude or smooth, the Yankee interlopers run a narrow gamut from slobbering thugs to pious hypocrites. The South does not rise again in the dramatically inert, urgency-deprived Band of Angels.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: John Twist, Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts (screenplay); Robert Penn Warren (novel "Band of Angels")
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin
Music: Max Steiner; Carl Sigman (uncredited)
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: Clark Gable (Hamish Bond), Yvonne De Carlo (Amantha Starr), Sidney Poitier (Rau-Ru), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Lt. Ethan Sears), Rex Reason (Capt. Seth Parton (Union officer)), Patric Knowles (Charles de Marigny), Torin Thatcher (Capt. Canavan), Andrea King (Miss Idell), Ray Teal (Mr. Calloway), Russell Evans (Jimmee (Bond's steward)).
by Jay Carr