Band of Angels Flawed but Yet Classy
By Kristin Battestella
On a bit of a whim, I decided to write about the 1957 Civil War drama Band of Angels. Though likeable thanks to its stars, and I do like this film, I strangely found this flawed and uneven presentation tough to write about and reflect upon. Do the askew racial perceptions behind the camera ruin the style on screen?
Upon her father’s death, Amantha Starr’s (Yvonne De Carlo) “colored blood” is revealed, and she is subsequently sent to a slave auction and bought by a mysterious gentleman with a past, Hamish Bond (Clark Gable). Hamish treats Amantha as an equal, despite animosity from maid Michele (Carolle Drake) and Hamish’s second Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier). Raised with respect, education, and inheritance by Hamish, Rau-Ru nevertheless despises his position and escapes to join the Union Army. As Amantha and Hamish warm to each other and develop an unusual love, the Civil War unfortunately comes calling. Will Southern defiance split them apart?
1957, it turns out, was a little too soon for director Raoul Walsh (They Died with Their Boots On, Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.) to take on writer Robert Penn Warren’s (All the King’s Men) titular source novel. The slavery presentation here can be just downright cruel. Either the bound are totally menial, ignorant, and subservient or happy nymphomaniacs who can’t get enough of taking the white master’s proffered treats. The interracial storylines and culture clashes try to present some goodness, but the execution is too over the top and comes off as inappropriately fake: “You white trash!” cue dramatic crescendo! Naturally, demeaning terms like negress or worse are used, and it is indeed tough to hear today. However, such talk is meant to reflect the attitudes of the time onscreen- and it glaringly showcases the tone behind the camera, too. There’s plenty of latent naughty and kinky innuendo about what these men do to keep their female slaves from getting “uppity”, too. It all makes Band of Angels so ironic. The breaking of such shocking taboos, showing suicides and shamings- it would seem to make great strides in racial storytelling and portrayals. Yet the ills are inadvertently reinforced by the dated, flawed sensibilities and uneven filmmaking of the day. Despite some lovely performances, these errors will make Band of Angels tough for many audiences. Things do get a little better when the Civil War enters the stage, though the schism is also subparly handled, or at the least, not recreated on the scope it should have been. That is perhaps the worst part of Band of Angels- it could have been much, much more.
And yet, there’s something delightful here, largely due to the outgoing grace from Academy Award winner Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, Mutiny on the Bounty). Okay, he’s a little worse for the wear in 1957 compared to those inevitable “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” memories and pre-war heights. He is long in the tooth and tough to believe now as a young, active leading man, but this adds an extra element to Hamish Bond. There is a feeling of the old guard-onscreen and off- taking one final bow. Gable carries Hamish as an on form, timeless leading man nonetheless. The opening bidding scenes are a little too much like the bazaar scene in Gone with the Wind, indeed, and yet Gable’s gentlemanly presence somehow turns this off-kilter mixed slavery melodrama into some sort of star-crossed Southern romance. Back in the day, I’m sure some women would not mind being bought by Clark Gable for $5,000! Band of Angels seems slower when he’s off-screen, and you wonder why in the heck Amantha has such an attitude about his treating her so well. Really, only Rhett Butler can talk his way out of a duel with totally pimp-acity! (and no, I didn’t mean pomposity, either, like spell check thought.) Hamish’s only fault is he is a little too grey and somewhat out of touch to Amantha and the changes happening around him.
Yvonne “the great Amantha Starr” De Carlo is far, far superior in The Munsters, The Ten Commandments, and McLintock!, oh yes. Of course, she is without a doubt lovely as always, even when she is supposed to be uglied up. However, De Carlo is just too miscast and out of place. Was it really so unacceptable to have an actress who looked anything but white play a half-black heiress? This hypocritical start only makes Amantha’s actions tougher to swallow. She pouts about Hamish’s saving her from far worse sex and slavery, and then uses his position to pretend she is white and seek other men’s marriage proposals. Amantha hates Rau-Ru, but calls him for help when nasty white men would force themselves onto her! I love, love Yvonne De Carlo, but the back and forth, up and down, and insipid backhanding from Band of Angels’ supposedly star character is sketchy at best, and downright unlikable and insulting at worst. Even with all the unkosher racial aspects aside, how is the audience supposed to root for a woman who turns out Clark Gable?
Thankfully, fellow Oscar winner Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) anchors Band of Angels beautifully. His Rau-Ru is classic and suave- the perfect young rival to Gable with the strength and education to gracefully buck the system and stereotypes presented. Rau-Ru is menacing and threatening as Hamish’s almost pseudo-presumptive heir; he is obviously ready to rebel or supplant and is portrayed as a danger to the already delicate balance. But is the audience really supposed to believe that a slave discontented with his would be higher station and wanting freedom is a villain? Band of Angels gets the racial aspects at its core quite wrong, yes. However, Sir Sidney has the best-written dialogue here and delivers every word with real weight, honesty, and conviction. Rau-Ru’s tug and pull with Hamish is far more interesting than Amantha’s over the top scandal. You can see the off-screen ideologies of Gable’s day giving way to the Poitier’s movements to come. Band of Angels tries- I really think it does. What it does well is quite classy thanks to the male leads, but the show is inevitably handicapped by the attitudes of the time. Oddly enough, this time capsule also makes the film all the more fascinating to watch.
Yes, the costumes are a little inaccurate and the music is more fifties than 1850s, too. Fortunately, the gowns are still awesome, and all the colorful styles and Victorian vibes set the necessary tone. The men’s top hats and frocks are so, so much more stylish than today. The boys with their pants around their knees couldn’t handle Gable’s suave even if they tried! Granted, the sets are a little stock; this budget was definitely not on the scale of Gone with the Wind. The plants are also a little too, um, plastic! Some of the New Orleans flavors and panache is just right, but other times the underutilized French touches and clichés imply or presume too much. Moreover, the over the top Southern accents and 19th century via fifties dialogue may be tough to some- lots of stereotypical “hisself” talk with plenty of double negatives. It doesn’t make up for all the off color ways by any means, but the grandiose looking staircases and courtyards are pretty pretty!
Strangely, I always think of Band of Angels together with the 1954 Charlton Heston mail order bride yarn The Naked Jungle, though I’m not really sure why. I suppose both are a little preposterous to start and have classic men to carry what turns out to be a very flawed film. Again, the errors made here mean Band of Angels is not for everyone. However, film students or social scholars may enjoy an examination of the movie’s mistakes and ill attitudes onscreen and off. Fans of the cast, lovers of sordid Tales of the South, or classic period piece audiences can also enjoy Band of Angels- classy, flawed, and all.