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Band of Angels (1957)

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.

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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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Some Thoughts on D. W. Griffith…and His Cavalry Charges

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Joseph Schildkraut and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

I’ve been watching a lot of D.W. Griffith recently – both his short films and feature length films – and it’s been bringing me to a greater appreciation of his artistry, if also a greater appreciation of his deep-seated racism.

The curious thing is that in many ways, D.W. Griffith is a humanitarian. He preaches healing between North and South in The Birth of a Nation (1915), bemoans the senseless death of war, expresses pity for both the poor persecuted by the rich and the aristocrats executed by the mobs in Orphans of the Storm (1921) and even manages to give the Native Americans in some of his short westerns – The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch – genuine human emotions motivations for fighting the white settlers. His movies express a deep hatred of intolerance (one of his favorite themes) and a genuine desire for peace, all the while celebrating human endurance and heroism.

The trouble is that there is a very sharp and scary drop-off to that humanitarian sensibility. It does not extend to African Americans and his portrayal of Native Americans remains extremely stereotyped. And the reason is very simple. He does not regard African Americans as fully human in the same way as white Americans, which means there is not an inconsistency in his beliefs so much as there is a gaping hole in his conception of humanity.

This made watching Birth of a Nation a challenge. I knew it was going to be racist, but it was far more racist than I was expecting. I hadn’t realized how saturated the film would be in his vision of separation between African Americans and white Americans and the dangers of mixing.

It’s hard to defend the film, even from an open-minded perspective that allows for differing times.The whole point of the film is – apart from showing the tragedy of the Civil War and how it set friend against friend and lover against lover – that there is a gap between whites and blacks that should never be bridged. People often say that Griffith’s villains are interfering white do-gooders who want to raise the black man as an equal to the white man and stir up the ignorant and child-like blacks to discontentment with their natural place in life. But that’s an incomplete picture, because Griffith’s most villainous characters are actually two people who are half black and half white, people who are in-between, so to speak. In Griffith’s world, racial mixing makes for a dangerous blend of ambition and lack of true equality of mind and morals.

Even if Griffith hadn’t used actors in blackface, it still would have been a poisonous film.

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The KKK ride to the rescue…we were supposed to cheer, but it’s all a bit sickening

What makes Birth of a Nation such a bizarre film to watch today is that Griffith knows how to manipulate emotions and emotions are not always moved in conjunction with one’s mind. It is entirely possible to be emotionally moved and intellectually revolted. This is partly because Griffith imbues his film with so much genuine conviction, but also because our emotions are trained to respond to certain cues. Heroes riding down the street to rescue the damsel in distress, accompanied by stirring music? Our emotions experience a slight thrill. Our mind revolts. But there is something particularly spine-chilling about watching the KKK charge down the street, shooting black people and accompanied by “Ride of the Valkyries.” No wonder Hitler loved this film.

That ride of the cavalry to the rescue, juxtaposed with scenes of Lillian Gish and others in peril was a quintessential moment for Griffith, one I’m beginning to realize he could pull off in his sleep. I’m sure he didn’t invent the “cavalry riding to the rescue” cliche, but nobody executed it better than Griffith.

In two short films  – The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) – he also employs the charge of the cavalry to the rescue of a beleaguered band of people fending off attacks from Native Americans. You can also see Griffith working out his battle sequences, which are brilliantly in evidence in Birth of a NationThe Battle of Elderbush Gulch in particular seems like a warm up for the end of Birth of a Nation. There is even the tiny shack that is shown from a distance to be entirely surrounded by enemies (Native Americans in the short film, black Americans in Birth of a Nation). He must have liked the imagery so much that he reused it.

At least in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Massacre he gives the Native Americans plausible motivations for what they are doing, rather than just having been children stirred up by evil men. In The Massacre, the army preemptively attacks a Native American village and massacres everyone, including the chief’s wife and baby. In turn, he attacks a wagon train and slaughters nearly everyone…until the cavalry arrives.

the small cabin under attack

the small cabin under attack – looking very similar to scenes in Birth of a Nation

In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, his caricature of Native Americans is rather more stereotypical, but even they are reacting to the death of the chief’s son in what seems to have been a serious misunderstanding. For a short film, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch appears like a clear precursor to Birth of a Nation. Not only the imagery of the cabin, but also much of the cast – Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron. Mae Marsh is the star of the short film and I liked her quite a bit more in this one than I did in Birth of a Nation, where she seemed flighty. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch she is brave, pro-active and and clever. If she’d been more like that in Birth of a Nation, she wouldn’t have jumped off the cliff when pursued by a black soldier who was proposing marriage.

And then of course there is the inevitable ride of the cavalry to the rescue. Seriously, these kind of nail-biting finales – imminent danger juxtaposed with the rescue on the way – is something Griffith seems to be able to pull off effortlessly at will. It’s been surprisingly to me how often he employs this method in his short films.

Griffith even manages to get horsemen riding to the rescue in Orphans of the Storm, which I did not think he was going to be able to achieve. Orphans of the Storm was far more enjoyable than either Birth of a Nation and even Intolerance. The racism isn’t a factor in the French Revolution and he doesn’t even preach as often. His history is still a mixed-bag; he’s wonderful at recreating details and the feel and look of a time-period, but less reliable at actual events and interpretation – he twists facts to fit his own particular agenda.

The film is a tremendous tour de force for Lillian Gish. She and her sister, Dorothy Gish, play adoptive sisters who venture to Paris, but their timing is terrible. Lilian Gish gets abducted by an aristocrat, rescued by an aristocrat, arrested by an aristocrat, rescued by the revolution, arrested by a revolutionary and finally rescued by a revolutionary. She gets into all sorts of trouble – as does her sister – and all she did was go to Paris.

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish is incredible in the film, though. She’s timid and ferocious and heartbreaking…she’s one of the few actresses I’ve seen who can faint and appear vulnerable and yet still project strength and even though I knew that there was no way she would actually lose her head to the guillotine, I still felt totally invested in the rescue and in the touching reunion with her sister. That is powerful film making.

It’s impossible not to admire the scope of D.W. Griffith’s ambitions, achievements and convictions (well, some of them), just as it is impossible not to be shocked at his racism. He can be a difficult director to appreciate now – his racism, his sentimentality, his earnestness and his evident humanitarian vision (blinkered though it is) makes him confusing to us today. One is almost embarrassed to be watching films like Birth of a Nation, which is why I used to dismiss him. But the more I see his work the more I appreciate his inescapable place in film history and his consummate artistry.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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