“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review
I have been a fan of period dramas for a long time. A very long time. This is only natural, considering that I am also a history buff. One of the topics that I love to explore is the U.S. Civil War. When you combined that topic in a period drama, naturally I am bound to get excited over that particular movie or television production.
I have seen a good number of television and movie productions about the United States’ Antebellum period and the Civil War. One of those productions is “BAND OF ANGEL”, an adaptation of Robert Warren Penn’s 1955 novel set during the last year of the Antebellum period and the first two years of the Civil War.
The story begins around 1850. Amantha Starr, the privileged daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner, overhears one house slave make insinuations about her background to another slave. Before Amantha (or “Manthy”) could learn more details, she discovers that Mr. Starr had the offending slave sold from the family plantation, Starwood. He also enrolls Amantha in a school for privileged girls in Cinncinati. A decade later in 1860, Amantha’s father dies. When she returns to Starwood, Amantha discovers that Mr. Starr had been in debt. Worse, she discovers that her mother had been one of his slaves, making herself a slave of mixed blood. Amantha and many other Starwood slaves are collected by a slave trader and conveyed by steamboat to New Orleans for the city’s slave mart.
Upon her arrival in New Orleans, Amantha comes dangerously close to be purchased by a coarse and lecherous buyer. However, she is rescued by a Northern-born planter and slave owner named Hamish Bond, and becomes part of his household as his personal mistress. She also becomes acquainted with Bond’s other house slaves – his right-hand-man named Rau-Ru, his housekeeper and former mistress Michele and Dollie, who serves as her personal maid. Although Amantha initially resents her role as a slave and Bond’s role as her owner, she eventually falls in love with him and he with her. But the outbreak of the Civil War and a long buried secret of Bond’s threaten their future together.
Many critics and film fans have compared “BAND OF ANGELS” to the 1939 Oscar winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Frankly, I never understood the comparison. Aside from the setting – late Antebellum period and the Civil War – and Clark Gable as the leading man, the two films really have nothing in common. “GONE WITH THE WIND” is a near four-hour epic that romanticized a period in time. Although “BAND OF ANGELS” have its moments of romanticism, its portrayal of the Old South and the Civil War is a bit more complicated . . . ambiguous. Also, I would never compare Scarlett O’Hara with Amantha Starr. Both are daughters of Southern plantation owners. But one is obviously a member of the Southern privileged class, while the other is the illegitimate and mixed race daughter of a planter and his slave mistress. Also, Gable’s character in “BAND OF ANGELS” is a Northern-born sea captain, who became a planter; not a semi-disgraced scion of an old Southern family.
Considering the political ambiguity of “BAND OF ANGELS”, I suppose I should be more impressed with it. Thanks to Warren’s novel, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay and Raoul Walsh’s direction; the movie attempted to provide audiences with a darker view of American slavery and racism. For instance, Amantha’s personal journey as a slave proved to be a harrowing one, as she deals with a slave trader with plans to rape her, a traumatic experience at the New Orleans slave mart, Bond’s lustful neighbor Charles de Marigny and her attempts to keep her African-American ancestry a secret from a Northern beau later in the film. The film also touches on Rau-ru’s point of view in regard to slavery and racism. Despite being educated and treated well by Hamish Bond; Rau-ru, quite rightly, is resentful of being stuck in the role of what he views as a cosseted pet. Rau-ru also experiences the ugly racism of planters like de Marigny and slave catchers; and Northerners like some of the Union officers and troops that occupied New Orleans and Southern Louisiana in the movie’s last half hour. I also noticed that the movie did not hesitate to expose the ugliness of the slave trade and the system itself, including the reveal the fate of a great number of slaves who found themselves being forced by Union forces to continue toiling on the cotton and sugar plantations on behalf of the North.
There are other aspects of the movie that I found admirable. Not all of “BAND OF ANGELS” was shot at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. A good of the movie was shot on location in Louisiana. I have to give credit to cinematographer Lucien Ballard for doing an exceptional job for the film’s sharp and vibrant color, even if the movie lacked any real memorable or iconic shot. If I must be honest, I can say the same about Max Steiner’s score. However, I can admit that Steiner’s score blended well with the movie’s narrative, I just did not find it memorable. Marjorie Best, who had received Oscar nominations for her work in movies like “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” and “GIANT”, served as the movie’s costume designer. I was somewhat impressed by her designs, especially for the male characters, ironically. However, I had a problem with her costumes for Yvonne De Carlo. Nearly dress that the Amantha Starr character wore, possessed a low cut neckline that emphasized her cleavage. Even her day dresses. Really?
After reading a few reviews about “BAND OF ANGELS”, I noticed that some movie fans and critics were not that impressed by the film’s performances. I have mixed feelings about them. Clark Gable seemed to be phoning it through most of the film. But there were a few scenes that made it easy to see why he not only became a star, but won an Oscar well. This was apparent in two scenes. One of them featured the Hamish Bond character recalling the enthusiasm and excitement of his past as a sea captain. And in another scene that impressed me, Bond recalled the “more shameful” aspects of his past. At age 34 or 35, I believe Yvonne De Carlo was too old for the role of Amantha Starr, who was barely into her twenties in the story. Some would say that the role could have benefited from being portrayed by a biracial actress and not a white one. Perhaps. But despite the age disparity, I still thought De Carlo gave a very strong performance as the passionate and naive Amantha, who suddenly found her life turned upside down. Ironically, I thought her scenes with Sidney Poitier seemed to generate more chemistry than her ones with Gable. Speaking of Poitier . . . I might as well say it. He gave the best performance in the movie. His Rau-ru bridled with a varying degree of emotions when the scene called for it. And the same time, one could easily see that he was well on his way in becoming the Hollywood icon that Gable already was at the time.
There were other performances in “BAND OF ANGELS”, but very few of them struck me as memorable. The movie featured solid performances from Rex Reason, who portrayed Amantha’s Northern-born object of her earlier infatuation – Seth Parson; Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who not only portrayed Amantha’s later suitor Union officer Lieutenant Ethan Sears, but was already on the road as a television star; Carroll Drake, who portrayed Hamish Bond’s introverted and observant housekeeper Michele; Andrea King, who portrayed Amantha’s hypocritical former schoolmistress Miss Idell; William Schallert, who had a brief, but memorable role as a bigoted Union Army officer; and Torin Thatcher, who portrayed Bond’s fellow sea captain and friend Captain Canavan. Many critics had accused Patric Knowles of bad acting. Frankly, I found his performance as Bond’s neighbor and fellow planter Charles de Marigny effectively slimy . . . in a subtle way. Ray Teal was equally effective as the slimy and voracious slave trader Mr. Calloway, who had conveyed Amantha to the slave marts of New Orleans. The only performance that hit a sour note from me came from Tommie Moore, who portrayed one of Bond’s house maids, the loud and verbose Dollie. Every time she opened her mouth I could not help but wince at her over-the-top and if I may say so, cliched performance as Dollie. I think I could have endured two hours in the company of characters like Prissy and Aunt Pittypat Hamilton from “GONE WITH THE WIND” than five minutes in Dollie’s company. I guess I could have blamed the actress herself. But a part of me suspect that the real perpetrators were screenwriters John Twist, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts; along with director Raoul Walsh.
I wish that was all I had to say about “BAND OF ANGELS”. I really do. But . . . despite the movie’s portrayal of the ugliness of slavery and racism, it ended up undermining its attempt. Quite frankly, I found “BAND OF ANGELS” to be a very patronizing movie – especially in regard to race. And the most patronizing character is this movie turned out to be Hamish Bond. Someone had once complained that although the movie initially seemed to revolve around Amantha Starr, in the end it was all about Bond. I do not know if I could fully agree with this, but I found it disturbing that the character “growths” of both Amantha and Rau-ru revolved around Bond and their opinion of him.
One aspect of “BAND OF ANGELS” that I found particularly bizarre was Amantha’s opinion of Hamish Bond’s connection to slavery. At first, she simply resented him for being her owner. But she eventually fell in love with him and opened herself to being his mistress. Amantha certainly had no problems during that ridiculous scene that featured Bond’s field slaves lined up near the river side to welcome him back to his plantation with choral singing. Really? This was probably the most patronizing scene in the entire movie. Yet, when Amantha discovered that his past as a sea captain involved his participation in the Atlantic slave trade, she reacted with horror and left him. Let me see if I understand this correctly. Once she was in love with Bond, she had no problems with being his slave mistress or his role as a slave owner. Yet, she found his participation in the slave trade to be so awful that she . . . left him? Slave owner or slave trader, Hamish Bond exploited the bodies of black men and women. Why was being a slave trader worse than being a slave owner? Not only do I find this attitude hypocritical, I also noticed that it had permeated in a good deal of other old Hollywood films set in the Antebellum era. Even more disturbing is that after becoming romantic with an Union officer named Ethan Sears, Amantha has a brief reunion with her former object of desire, Seth Parsons. He reveals knowing about her mother’s ancestry and her role as Bond’s mistress, and tries to blackmail her into becoming his. In other words, Seth’s knowledge of her racial background and her history with Bond leads Amantha to run back into the arms of Bond. And quite frankly, this makes no sense to me. Why would Seth’s attempt to blackmail Amantha lead her to forgive Bond for his past as a slave trader? The movie never really made this clear.
I found the interactions between Rau-ru and Hamish Bond even more ridiculous and patronizing. Rau-ru is introduced as Bond’s major-domo/private secretary, who also happens to be a slave. Despite receiving education from Bond and a high position within the latter’s household, Rau-ru not only resents Bond, but despises him. And you know what? I can understand why. I noticed that despite all of these advantages given to Rau-ru, Bond refuses to give him his freedom. Worse, Bond treats Rau-ru as a pet. Think I am joking? I still cannot refrain from wincing whenever I think of the scene in which Bond’s friend, Captain Canavan, visited and demanded that Rau-ru entertain him with a song without any protest from Bond. This scene struck me as very vomit inducing. What made the situation between Rau-ru and Bond even worse is that the former made an abrupt about face about his former master during the war . . . all because the latter had revealed how he saved Rau-ru’s life during a slave raid in Africa and – get this – some bigoted Union Army officer tried to cheat Rau-ru from a reward for capturing Bond. The former sea captain/planter ended up leaving his estate to Rau-ru in a will. How nice . . . but I suspect he did so after Amantha had left him. If not, my mistake. And why did Bond failed to give Rau-ru his freedom before the outbreak of war? Instead, Rau-ru was forced to flee to freedom after saving Amantha from being raped by Charles de Marigny. In Robert Warren’s novel, Rau-ru eventually killed Bond. Pity this did not happen in the movie.
Overall, I see that my feelings for “BAND OF ANGELS” is mixed. There are some aspects of the movie that I found admirable. I might as well admit it. The movie especially benefited from Lucien Ballard’s colorful photography, an interesting first act and an excellent performance by Sidney Poitier. Otherwise, I can honestly say that “BAND OF ANGELS” focused too much on the Hamish Bond character and was a bit too patronizing on the subject of race and slavery for me to truly enjoy it.
R.I.P. Sir Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)