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Band of Angels (1957)

18 Feb

band_of_angels_1957Band 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.

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

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?

182-1200-630The 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.

sidney-poitier-blogathon-2

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17 Comments

Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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17 responses to “Band of Angels (1957)

  1. Erin

    February 18, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    Great post — I can see how this would be both frustrating and interesting! Also, it doesn’t surprise me that Poitier’s character is the one to add some life to it. I might have to check this one out at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 18, 2017 at 2:52 pm

      Thanks! It is quite fascinating! It’s the kind of story that might be cool to see made today, too…at least part of the story.

      Poitier definitely stands out in the film! The film can be a bit slow at times, but whenever he is on, the film brightens up. I will be interested to know what you think of it!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  2. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    February 18, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    Your review is very interesting. Lots of talent involved to make something which sounds like a mess. I wonder if the film differs greatly from the novel. You have made me want to check out that work.

    Funny you should mention Gable appearing tired. I find him the same way in The Tall Men made about the same time. He sure perked up by Run Silent Run Deep.

    As movie fans, we’re lucky Sidney Poitier came along. His presence here just may get me to watch it someday.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 19, 2017 at 12:58 pm

      Yes, I did expect it to be a bit better considering all the talent behind it. “Mess” is the perfect word to describe this film. 🙂 It would be fascinating to know what the book was like and how much was changed for the film, though!

      That is interesting how he perked up for Run Silent (I really enjoyed that film). Maybe he liked the script better and was bored with his other films?

      But I so agree – we are fortunate to have Sidney Poitier!

      Like

       
  3. The Animation Commendation

    February 18, 2017 at 5:50 pm

    So Sidney Poitier worked with Clark Gable? Interesting….

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 18, 2017 at 9:25 pm

      Yeah, I never would have guess that they worked together until I saw that they did.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  4. Crimsonkay

    February 19, 2017 at 1:32 am

    I knew that it was about the Old South but that’s about it. More of interest after reading your review including Poitier. The story reminds me somewhat of THE BONDSWOMAN’S NARRATIVE which I recommend. https://www.amazon.com/Bondwomans-Narrative-Hannah-Crafts/dp/0446690295/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1487496076&sr=1-1&keywords=the+bondswoman%27s+narrative

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 19, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation! I was just taking a look at the link and it looks fascinating!

      I didn’t know to much about Band of Angels when I saw it, either. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was great to see Sidney Poitier! 🙂

      Like

       
  5. Grand Old Movies

    February 19, 2017 at 7:38 am

    Terrific post, with great insights. I recall this film and how mixed-up it seemed (and you’re right, it’s also turgid viewing). I think much of that confusion might have come in part from Production Code strictures (the Code specifically forbade “miscegenation” in movies), forcing the film to play an elaborate musical-chairs game of race and sex (eg, de Carlo could become Gable’s mistress because she was white in real life). Poitier also gives the best, most complex performance in this film, and makes the viewers aware of film’s hypocrisies and confusions. Really appreciate your thoughtful take on this film!

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 19, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      Thank you! I didn’t consider that point at all about the Production Code, but that makes a lot of sense. It makes one wonder if the book is very different and if changes were made to conform with the code…of if the book (like Gone With the Wind) actually contains more overt racism that was removed?

      Without Sidney Poitier, I think the film might have been insufferable. That’s really true about his character showing up the hypocrisies, even ones the filmmakers might not have intended.

      Like

       
  6. Virginie Pronovost

    February 19, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Interesting, honest and well-written review! I haven’t seen this film yet, but to be honest I don’t know if it would be my kind of film. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed reading your review! Thanks again for your participation. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 19, 2017 at 1:08 pm

      And thank you!

      It was definitely an odd film. It’s hard to recommend, but it was wonderful to see Sidney Poitier and what he made of his role. And great to see in this blogathon how his career developed and how the kind of roles available changed…so much owing to his work.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  7. Silver Screenings

    February 20, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    I had no idea Sidney Poitier and Clark Gable worked together until I saw your review. I’d never even heard of this film!

    I was glad to read your review and know, going in, that a person shouldn’t have high expectations. However, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it and will compare notes if/when I see it.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm

      It was really interesting to see the two working together. I came cross it at the library and was curious because of the cast. It is difficult to positively recommend, but it is a curiosity, and very interesting as a transitional film, between actors and in terms of how race was portrayed.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  8. Sharon

    February 21, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    I was not at all familiar with this film–in fact, when I saw the headline I thought the film being referred to was “Bay of Angels” with Jeanne Moreau.:) Anyway, your thoughtful post inspired me to watch the film and I was amazed at its power and relevance (then as now). I thought Gable’s aged Rhett Butler, world-weary persona and tired appearance was just right for the film; IMO it conveys the need to replace old-time civility with real equality. Poitier is so vivid he upsets the balance of the picture (in a good way). Carolle Drake is a revelation; I read up on her and saw she married Billy Eckstine and effectively retired from film work.
    Lots more to think about with this film; thanks for the introduction.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      February 21, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film – I’m glad you got a chance to see it! It is a fascinating film, isn’t it? That is a great observation about replacing “old-time civility with real equality.” And about how Poitier upsets the balance of the film.

      I see what you mean about Gable’s weariness and Poitier’s power. It kind of presages the death of the Southern aristocracy…which is not a perspective I considered when I saw the film. Thanks!

      That is really interesting about Carolle Drake! I was wondering why I was not familiar with her as an actress, but learning she married Billy Eckstine explains that. It is always interesting when you read about actors who chose retire from making films to move on to other things in life.

      Like

       

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