Friday 12 April 2019

Movie Review: Band Of Angels (1957)

A Civil War drama, Band Of Angels is stranded between old and new representations of racism and eventually falls between the cracks.

In Kentucky just before the Civil War, Amantha Starr (Yvonne DeCarlo) is the daughter of a cotton plantation owner who is unusually kind to his slaves. Upon her father's death, Amantha is shocked to discover her mother was a slave, and so therefore she is half negro. Brutal slave traders holding her father's debts immediately capture and ship her to New Orleans, where wealthy businessman Hamish Bond (Clark Gable) buys her at auction for $5,000.

Hamish owns multiple properties and treats all his slaves with dignity, and indeed has raised Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) as a son, but Amantha remains unsure what Hamish wants from her. Eventually a romance develops between them and he offers her freedom, but she elects to stay. Hamish is hiding dark secrets about his past, while various other suitors enter Amantha's life as she struggles with her identity. The eruption of the Civil War severely disrupts Hamish's business, while Rau-Ru finds the dream of true freedom within grasp.

Based on the book by Robert Penn Warren, Band Of Angels deserves some credit for adopting a relatively enlightened stance and featuring multiple dignified black characters carving out a place in a shifting societal landscape. Sidney Poitier's outspoken Rau-Ru is the most prominent, but the intriguing Michele (Carolle Drake) is another of Hamish's slaves grappling with loosely defined captivity, the complications of freedom, and quiet infatuation.

Despite the good intentions, Band Of Angels stumbles and stalls rather than building momentum. Director Raoul Walsh is unable to ever ignite the film as it trundles from scene to scene with little passion. The intention to duplicate the grand drama of Gone With The Wind with more modern sensibilities is clear, but Band Of Angels does not come close to replicating the grandeur of the 1939 classic. Neither the writing nor the acting are at the requisite level, and indeed many scenes unfold with a stiff and artificial theatricality.

Walsh and writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts also manage to fumble the most pertinent discussions around racism. Amantha openly resents her blackness, Rau-Ru is angry at everything, and Hamish's relative kindness appears to stem from embers of guilt rather than any core belief. Although Gable is absent from large chunks of the film, Hamish's dark background is by far the most compelling aspect of the story, and Band Of Angels would have greatly benefited from showing samples of his formative years. Instead Walsh leans heavily on Gable, who is excellent, to recall the past, reducing the film to plenty of talking and spurning the opportunity for a more powerful cinematic experience.

Elsewhere, and between bouts of self-hate, Amantha too easily falls in love with every man who sets eyes on her. There is a fiery preacher and ardent believer in freedom, a handsome military type, the gruff Hamish, and a slimy next-door plantation owner. They take turns abusing and rescuing her, not necessarily in that order, as Band Of Angels desperately tries to define itself. In search of stability and fulfilment Amantha wastes too much time purring at the wrong targets, much like the film itself.

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