Band of Angels is an odd film. It has the kernel of an interesting idea wrapped up in an infelicitous combination of The Sheik and Birth of a Nation, with a few attempts to update the story to a more progressive era.
The story follows Amantha “Manty” Starr (Yvonne De Carlo), who is raised by her white plantation owning father to believe that she is a white Southern belle. But when her fathers dies, she discovers that her mother was a slave and that (since her father evidently never thought to formally free her) she can be sold with the rest of the plantation.
She is bought, however, by Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a tormented former slaver who is now trying to atone for his misdeeds by treating his slaves well (which is odd – apparently it never occurs to him to free his slaves or become an abolitionist?). She also meets Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier), who was raised and educated by Bond, but harbors resentment against Bond because, as he tells Manty, kindness can be used to enslave as surely as brutality. But Manty still becomes Bond’s mistress and then the Civil War begins.
One of the things that is odd (among many things that are odd) is that we never really believe that she is half-black. This is not only because Yvonne De Carlo was not black, but because of how all the characters (including the slaves, with the exception of Rau-Ru) treat her, like an “honorary” white person. She never evinces any interest in who her mother was or really attempts to grapple with her own identity. Instead, it comes off more like exploitation, an excuse to get a white woman into slavery and the power of other men. It’s kind of trashy in that way. She even suffers from Stockholm Syndrome and is molested by practically every white man who comes on the scene.
I think the film was trying to be progressive in that Hamish Bond really has no prejudice against Manty, but because it’s hard not to think of her as really a white woman, the film loses its edge. And in truth, the story would have been a hundred times more interesting if the romance occurred between Manty and Rau-Ru.
In an uncharacteristically turgid film by Raoul Walsh, whose films I otherwise always enjoy for their energy and pacing, the only real source of energy and tension comes from Sidney Poitier’s character. He despises how Manty continues to view herself as white and above the rest of the slaves (she becomes very angry at the suggestion that she is having an affair with Rau-Ru and always goes out of her way to remind people that she is a lady – which is understandable, because she was raised to think of herself that way). He also points out that, despite their education and relative freedom, neither of them has any identity outside of Hamish Bond. A working out of a relationship between them – if not a romantic one, at least one of mutual respect or understanding – could have made for an intriguing story.
Although we are evidently supposed to disapprove of Rau-Ru’s lack of gratitude to Hamish, he is right. If Hamish Bond had really cared, he would have freed him and all his slaves. No matter how much you may actually care for someone, if you do not respect them enough to realize that they are separate individuals who cannot be owned, then if push comes to shove, you will always exercise that power you possess over them. This happens with Manty’s father. He prides himself on never selling his slaves, but when one of the slaves hints about who Manty’s mother really was, her father sells him in a heartbeat.
Rau-Ru may have been raised like a son by Hamish Bond, but he still finds himself running from the dogs and hunters like a runaway slave after he hits a white plantation owner in defense of Manty.
I usually enjoy Clark Gable, but he seems tired in Band of Angels as the romantically tormented hero. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, because of his guilt, having to burn his plantation when the Yankees come, but it is difficult to do so. Worse, in the film all his slaves love him, including Michele (Carolle Drake), who seems to have been his mistress before being casually tossed aside for Manty, who both he and Michele treat as being above her. And we’re supposed to feel more sorry for him than for Michelle? Or any of his supposedly happy slaves?
The film also suggests that the Northern army and the abolitionists were a bunch of hypocrites, no better than the Southern plantation owners. The myth of the hypocritical abolitionist shows up in a number of Hollywood films, which is frustrating, because there were few people less hypocritical than the abolitionists.
In short, it’s a very odd and frustrating film. Interesting idea; gives one something to think about. And it does illustrate the limited number of roles available for black actors in the 1950s, though it was improving. But it never would have occurred to anyone to write a romance between Poitier and De Carlo…or a romance between Michele and Hamish Bond. Or to cast a black actress as Manty. Which is too bad because, at the very least, Sidney Poitier would have been a great leading man for the film.
I viewed Band of Angels as part of the “90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon,” hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts celebrating his life and career, which can be found here.