Southern Movie 63: “Band of Angels” (1957)
Less well-known today, 1957’s Band of Angels tells a complex story dealing with race in the South. Here, two men – one white and one black – and one biracial woman are intertwined in intricate relationships that are rooted in the dynamics of the era leading up to the Civil War. Directed by Raoul Walsh, the film stars Clark Gable as a sailor-turned-plantation-owner, Sidney Poitier as a slave whose exceptional abilities enable him to cross the color line, and Yvonne De Carlo as a Southern belle whose biracial heritage is revealed after her father’s death. The story was adapted for the big screen from a 1955 novel by Robert Penn Warren, one of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand and also the author of All the King’s Men, who Kirkus Reviews reminded its readers was a “Pulitzer prize winner, erratic genius, poet, philosopher, novelist, [and] short story writer.”
Band of Angels begins with a classic-Hollywood opening: a painted scene in the background, orchestral music playing, credits rolling in ornate type fonts. As those finish, we are provided with our initial setting: “Sherwood Plantation, Kentucky in the year 1853.” Then, as live action kicks in, we see three elements in quick succession: a pack of hunting dogs running across a field, then two black men in rough clothing running, then two white men with long guns running. It is not hard to add up, given the year and the place— these are slaves attempting to escape. The two escapees are soon caught as they run through an abandoned house, and are brought back to picturesque home with white columns. They are marched past a girl who is tending a grave in the home’s front yard, and she looks at them, somewhat befuddled or at least curious. The slaves are then made to get on their knees in front of an older man wearing a suit – presumably the master of the plantation – and one attempts to talk his way out of blame. The overseer holds up his whip and suggests a good flogging, but the calm master says no, that the two men are new and should only be made to pull weeds in the old graveyard. As they walk away, one overseer remarks that the master has never had a slave whipped, adding that people have strange ways up in Kentucky. We are clearly supposed to see this plantation owner as a kindly man whose benevolence softens the harshness of the peculiar institution.
After this scene, the master walks over to his young daughter who has witnessed it. She asks why her mother’s grave isn’t in the nearby graveyard with the others. The grave simply says, “In Memory of Louisa.” Her father explains that he wanted her near the house, near him. Just then a slave named Shad walks by with two baskets full of berries, and he stops. The master says to his daughter to go with the slave and tell Old Sukie to bake them a berry pie. She is clearly not in the mood, so he reminds her what little girls are made of: sugar and spice and everything nice.
In the kitchen, the girl – Amantha – steals berries as Sukie and old Shad talk and cook. However, it quickly turns tense when Shad remarks that there is no difference between black people and this child. Sukie scolds him to stop but he doesn’t, then she runs him out with a rolling pin. Amantha wants to know what that was all about, and Sukie tells her that Shad is just crazy. But later we see Amantha in bed crying as her father sits nearby. She wants to know why her father sold Shad away. He replies that some things just have to be done . . . like sending her to boarding school. Amantha then gets even more upset, saying that her father first sent away Shad, now her! Despite her chagrin, still her father reassures her that some day she will come back— as a fine lady.
Time passes, and we are carried to The Misses Hibbs Seminary for Young Ladies, where we see Amantha all grown up into a pretty young woman. During this transitional part of the film, things are going well for Amantha. She is living in a nice home and is interested in a young man named Seth Parton, whose work is to preach the Gospel and exhibit his fine, upstanding moral character. However, there is a hitch. At one point, when her father comes to visit from the plantation, he is confronted by Seth about the immoral and un-Christian nature of slavery. The elder man takes the criticism with humility, then excuses himself to leave. We recognize now that the story will contain complexities, if Amantha Starr is to marry a man who will oppose her father’s way of life.
But it won’t get that far. After a brief conversation with Seth, when he tells his big news about being asked to work for Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign, Amantha receives a letter explaining that her father is ill. Of course, we know in modern times that Lincoln would free the slaves, but that factor is coming later at this point in the story. (Some girls from the conservatory were just gossiping that Amantha has been there for over six years, so we presume that it is about 1859 by now.) Yet, the news of her father’s illness is foremost in the young woman’s mind. She packs up and heads for home.
Upon arriving home, Amantha finds her father’s funeral in process. White people are gathered around the grave inside the fence, and black people are gathered down the hill outside the fence. Her carriage rolls up, and she jumps out frantically, realizing that she is too late. But there is another surprise for her— in fact, two surprises. Before she learns the grim news, Amantha runs into the cemetery and protests the placement of her father’s casket. It should be down in the yard, next to her mother’s grave. That will be the least of her worries. The first surprise is that a slave trader named Calloway has a judgment against her father, who was deeply in debt to him. Calloway claims that Aaron Starr was borrowing money to “go cavorting on Cincinnati.” Gasp! There’s no way that such a good and moral man would do that! Calloway will be taking all of the slaves to sell. Amantha protests, but there is nothing she can do. The second surprise is that her mother was black! This makes Amantha not white, but a mulatto, which means that she is not an heiress, but a slave like the others who will be sold. What is happening explains two things about her mother’s grave: first, why there was no last name, and second, why it was not in the family cemetery. It also explains why old Shad was proclaiming to Sukie that Amantha was no different than them, and why he was then sold. Instead of coming home to grieve in a familiar place among loved ones, Amantha must gather her few belongings and travel with Calloway to be auctioned in a slave market. So who will get the property? Miss Idell, the sultry boarding school mistress who earlier tried to seduce Seth Parton when Amantha was out of the room.
Calloway then takes his newly claimed property to the riverboat, presumably to ship them further south. He walks with Amantha, who goes onto the gangplank with the other whites, but is then escorted to stand among the blacks. While Calloway steps away to speak to the captain, she makes a halfhearted effort to sneak away, but an overseer stops her. Calloway runs up excitedly and reclaims his prize possession. He then takes her to his cabin, where we know what he will do next. Once inside, he attempts to rape her, but she does a good job of fighting him off until a slave woman comes into the hall to tell Calloway that some of the slave men are fighting. He leaves to go deal with that, needing to make sure that the white men guarding them don’t whip them. They’ll fetch a smaller price with marks on them. Meanwhile, Amantha locks the door against the slave woman’s entreaties and tries to hang herself with a rope laying under a bunk. But Calloway returns just in time and cuts her down. The ordeal is not over. Amantha will get no kindness. Instead of caring about her welfare and seeing her suicide attempt as an act of desperation, Calloway says she has tries to cheat him by killing herself and that if she doesn’t change then he will put her “down there with those hotblooded blacks” and won’t care what happens “so long as they don’t bruise you too bad.” Calloway leaves, and the slave woman takes the opportunity to whisper what these men do to slave women. When Amantha is repulsed by the suggestion, the slave woman laughs out loud.
Their arrival in New Orleans is announced by poster proclaiming the sale of sixty slaves. First, a shirtless black man is sold for two hundred dollars, then Amantha is put up on the dais. The barker assures them that she has black blood and reminds the “gentlemen” to note her beauty. Then a voice comes in from the back, shouting a bid of $5,000. Everyone gasps, and the bidder emerges from the tittering crowd. Though we don’t know his name yet, it is Hamish Bond (Clark Gable). His only opposition is a Frenchman who had already set about “examining” the woman, but this new bidder halts this intrusion. Hamish insults the Frenchman, saying that he’s a cheapskate, so the Frenchman attempts to cast doubt on Hamish’s bravery and character. Hamish then proves that he’s the real deal by slapping his detractor across the face so hard that his friends come and help him decide to leave. That’s Hamish Bond, we hear them say, “You get his dander up and you’ll find yourself in a pine box.” This high roller then wins the bidding without opposition, and asks his new slave her name. “Manty,” she replies. Hamish then instructs the clerk to put it on his tab, and he strides out with “Manty” following him warily.
After a few blocks, during which Hamish never turns around to see if Amantha is still behind him, Hamish rings the bell at a garden gate. Inside is a tropical courtyard, and a pretty slave woman in a pink head wrap greets Hamish in French. They speak for a moment, and they find out that Amantha understands this foreign language. This is his home, and Michele (Carolle Drake) leads Amantha to her bedroom. There, Amantha immediately tries to enlist Michele’s help to escape, but Michele is not interested. She actually defends Hamish’s character, intimating that he is a man of quality, not a brute and a rapist (like Calloway was). Amantha quickly understands that Michele is in love with him.
That night, Hamish sits at a long dining room table all by himself. When he gets up to leave, his glances toward Amantha’s room, gives a coy smirk, then walks very slowly past her room. Aware of his footsteps, she lies in bed and wonders with mild terror whether he is coming to invade her room and take her. But the footsteps pass by, and his door opens and closes. She lies back down, relieved. But in the morning, here comes another slave woman named Dolly (Tommie Moore). She is all smiles as she sets down the coffee service then begins to snoop around the room. Amantha asks what she’s looking for, and Dolly playfully replies that, since there’s no evidence of lovemaking to be found, they clearly need her “gris-gris love potion.” Dolly sits down and serves herself some coffee too, a move that irritates Amantha, but they are interrupted by Michele, who tells Dolly to get up and moving. She seems to leave but then comes back through the bathroom, and makes some sly remarks about teasing Hamish like a catfish would to a worm on a hook, until he goes after it and “breaks his pole.” Michele and Dolly are diametrical opposites: one measured and careful, the other wild and brash. Amantha doesn’t care much for either one.
In the evening, Amantha is sitting with Hamish at the long table this time. He is trying to keep a conversation going but not doing well, then begins to ruminate about money. Amantha reminds him that he bought her just like he bought the dress she wears. Hamish says that he once thought money was a cure-all, but now knows better. Amantha chimes in and raises the issue of her “pedigree,” which he knows from reading her documentation. Just then, a black man in a fine suit enters the room without knocking. He is clearly not a servant but stands at attention, delivering news about the cotton market. He does not speak in a servile manner, but as a confident businessman who takes care of matters. This is Rau-ru. As they discuss the situation that will lead to the Civil War, including the possible blockade of the port in New Orleans, Rau-ru informs him that slaves all over are feeling that freedom is coming, and some are already rising up. This news isn’t delivered with deference, but with the sense that a reckoning is coming, which Hamish will have to face. Amantha is clearly uncomfortable by the familiar manner in which these two men – one white, one black – speak to each other as almost-equals. Hamish wants to know of there have been any uprisings at his own plantation, and Rau-ru tells him no. Hamish says he needs to go there, to be sure that it doesn’t happen, then instructs Rau-ru to stay in New Orleans and sell the cotton the moment it reaches the price they agreed to.
After Rau-ru leaves, Hamish explains who he is. Rau-ru is a “high-stepper” who gets off the sidewalk for no white man, who requires no pass to travel freely. Hamish calls him the “big boss negro,” who handles the business. Amantha is not impressed though and asks, then what am I? She remarks that all of his other slaves know their duties, so what are hers? The implication is that she knows she will be his sexual toy. His retort is that he saw her on the auction being fondle by a man with lace cuffs. “And I hate lace cuffs,” he grumbles. With that, Amantha leaves the room.
Outside, she saunters over and tries to pull the locked gate open. It doesn’t work. Hamish follows her and remarks that the streets of New Orleans aren’t safe at night for a pretty woman, and Amantha smiles. Hamish tries to tease her about smiling, but she gets upset and runs away. To the side, Michele is watching the scene. We know that she is in love with Hamish, and watching him seduce Amantha is painful. Hamish doesn’t follow her this time, but up in her room, Dolly is turning down the bed. While she does, she shares how she knows that Amantha met Rau-ru tonight, that he’s the real boss, and that soon the slave and master roles will be reversed. Amantha screams at her to get out!
The shopping trip to buy dresses with Michele comes the following day. Amantha is seen in a silvery gown, as Michele brings her another in green. This will make three in all— a lucky number, says Michele. Amantha appears happy, while Michele is her usual reserved self. Michele then instructs the lady helping them to also pick out a traveling case and put all three gowns in it. After remarking that three may be a lucky number for them both, Michele hands Amantha a steamboat ticket and some cash. They two look at each other for a moment, and Amantha says, “You really do love him, don’t you?” Michele remains silent, then kisses Amantha on the cheek and walks away. This is part of what makes Band of Angels a radical film for its time: to have an open acknowledgment of interracial love, first where a white man openly seduces a mulatto woman, who will then be ushered away to make room for a relationship with a black slave. Yet, Amantha won’t get away that easy. She runs into Rau-ru in the streets of New Orleans, and despite what she has been told about him, she treats him like a bag boy and says to pick up her suitcase for her. And they walk the other way . . . away from the boat. Ray-ru has caught her trying to escape.
Now forty-five minutes into the film – not even halfway – we are back at Hamish’s house. The bell on the gate rings. It is Amantha. Rau-ru has brought her back. And she is pissed. She tells him that she will leave one way or another! To make matters even more complicated, Michele comes out, sees what has happened, then leaves, head down. As these events transpire, a thunder clap is heard as the garden gate’s bell rings again. This time it is a two drunken sailors, one of them who is let in. (The other is sent back to the boat . . . if he can find it.) There in the courtyard, we meet Hamish’s old friend from his sailing days. We learn how wild Hamish was in the past from the stories that the drunk Irish sailor tells, and when Rau-ru walks up, we also learn how Rau-ru and Hamish came here together. It makes sense now how and why Hamish and Rau-ru coexist as equals, not master and slave. So, Hamish Bond is no blue-blooded aristocrat who had his wealth handed down, but a hard-working man who has traveled the world and lived life to the fullest. And Rau-ru is not a slave in his heart, but is posing as one because he must. Meanwhile, a storm has blown up. The old friends finish their conversation in the blowing rain, then the drunk Irishman leaves.
It is after this that Hamish finds Amantha trying to close her bedroom doors against the wind and rain. She is soaked and falling down, until he comes in to help. After all the doors are closed against the rainy night, they have a conversation about how he also has a past that he can never escape. Hamish admits that he isn’t Hamish Bond at all. This man we’ve been watching was a sailor who – it seems from his story – killed his own captain in a fight, then took over his life and his vessels. Amantha asks who he really is, and he replies, “Never mind who I was.” What does matter is that they both are starting anew after the end of a life that no longer exists. The two posts souls are bound by a common thread . . . and their love affair begins.
In the morning, the servants clean up the courtyard, while Hamish watches from the balcony. He is dressed in a clean, light suit and is smoking a cigar. Michele passes by and enters Amantha’s room to open the curtains. She informs the half-asleep woman that she’ll be leaving today to accompany Hamish to the plantation Ponte de Loup. Amantha asks what it’s like, and Michele replies that it’s beautiful. The tension between the women is obvious: the one who wants him has to see him with another, while the one who doesn’t really want him has him. Hamish then enters the room himself, sends Michele out, and pontificates a bit more about identity. He tells Amantha that he’ll get off the steamboat at his stop and that she should continue on to Cincinnati before the South “starts a shooting war.” On the one hand, we’re thinking that this is a gesture of kindness for a woman he now loves; on the other, he finally got her to sleep with him, so now she can leave. The mysterious man leaves her – and us – to wonder which it is.
Once they arrive and will disembark, Hamish gives a brief speech about forgetting the past. Amantha at first accepts what he is saying grimly, but then calls after him and comes running in her big green hoop skirt! The two smile then go arm in arm up the gangplank. Behind them is the crowd of city slaves, with Dolly providing her usual comic banter, and Michele still stark and closed. On the shore, the country slaves shout and sing and dance at the couple’s arrival and promenade to the estate. (This scene, rooted in the Lost Cause myth, portrays a now widely debunked notion that slaves were happy in these lives.)
In the countryside, among the cotton and sugar cane, is Hamish Bond’s large white-columned home, built in 1789 he explains in a brief bit of exposition. The two ponder the idea of memory and identity once again, with Amantha saying that it reminds her of home and her father, which seem like they may never have existed. Just then a man walks up brushing the dirt from his sleeves, and Hamish tells Amantha to go inside. She thinks it’s out of his shame about her, but he follows her in and corrects the misconception: it is her who is too good to introduce to him. Now, we meet our next villain, the unscrupulous dandy Charles de Merigny (Patric Knowles). Hamish tells Amantha, “He’s a blue blood alright, but I always figured it was better to be a man than a gentleman.”
When Charles comes inside the house through the open door, he immediately remarks that he knows who Amantha is. He heard about her in New Orleans. She replies with a mild insult and leaves up the stairs. Getting to the point, Charles tells Hamish that the war is on and that his slaves are beginning to rise up. He also asks Hamish to intervene, since his slaves trust Hamish more than their own master. Hamish responds wryly that he won’t make promises that he knows Charles won’t keep. The two men are obviously wary of each other, with Charles being the villain here. Before he leaves Charles tells Hamish that he wants to beat him at something that really matters, and ties that desire in with Amantha. He asks if Hamish will forbid him to see this woman. Hamish replies no, he won’t forbid it, but if Charles treats any less than he would any free woman, he’d better look out.
In the following scene, Hamish has left to go to another plantation when Rau-ru arrives. He and Michele talk, and Rau-ru shares the news that the Yankee gunboats are firing on New Orleans and that the planters are burning their cotton on the docks. The end is near for the Old South, and he sees Hamish as a fool for purchasing another plantation with everything about to collapse. Michele then shares with him that Charles has been coming around to see Amantha.
The next scene is a deep one, and pivotal. Rau-ru storms into the study where Amantha is reading, ostensibly to put some papers in the desk. There he notes that she is reading French poetry, probably a gift from Charles. She tries to ignore him, bur Rau-ru forces the issue of race. If Amantha believes that she has an identity outside of this bondage, she is wrong, and if she believes that either Hamish or Charles will marry her as though she is a white woman, she is also wrong. Amantha responds by calling Rau-ru “ungrateful” for Hamish’s kindness, but Rau-ru tells her that the kindness is the worst thing. If his master had taken the whip to him, he’d know what he is fighting, but to have a man to own him and be kind to him meant that there was nowhere to aim his opposition. Ray-ru enunciates the particular conundrum of oppressed black people – in 1957 no less – as a situation where to be treated poorly or kindly makes little difference when true freedom is not possible.
Just as Rau-ru is getting fired up, Charles walks in and tell him to leave. Rau-ru does, and Charles gets on with the business of forcing himself on Amantha. He offers her a drink, which she declines. She asks him why he isn’t joining the Confederate army, and he says that cotton, i.e. money, is his contribution. First, he sits down close by and tries to talk his way in, then just gives up and grabs her. Amantha screams, and Rau-ru runs in. Charles is shocked at the black man’s audacity. They fight, and Rau-ru knocks Charles out. All the while, Amantha is standing by helplessly. She offers to call on Hamish, but Michele has a better idea: Rau-ru needs to go on the run before Charles wakes up and gets the law. Next we see Rau-ru, he is running through cane fields and swamps with dogs after him. But unlike the two men in the opening scene, Rau-ru gets away.
Back at the mansion, Hamish comes home. Amantha tries to tell him what has happened but he already knows. H goes straight to a nearby cabinet and pulls out an ornate box, setting it on the round table in the foyer. Amantha is all the while telling him how Charles will be fine after the beating – he actually only gets punched once – but Charles comes downstairs and interrupts. When Hamish opens the box, we see: they are dueling pistols. Charles is ready to get on with it, but Hamish has to psych him out first. He says that Charles might win in a duel back in the city, where there are judges and rules, but out in the country it will just be the two of them. Hamish admits that Charles is the better shot, but reminds Charles that one shot won’t kill him. And when he lives, he’ll put his own bullet in Charles’s gut and watch him die slow. Charles is visibly shaken, but appears to want the pistol anyway. As he takes it, and the two men point their guns at each other, Hamish continues to blow Charles’ mind, calling him a coward and a braggart. Ultimately, Charles decides to drop the pistol and walk out the front door, never to come back again, an option that Hamish gives him because he is such a coward.
With the threat of Charles behind them, Hamish admits that what he did was a test. He left Amantha alone with Charles because he loved her and needed to know that she would choose him, even when he was not around. He asks if she hates him . . . and she answers by embracing him affectionately.
Now, our hero and heroine have the Civil War to contend with. And who do you think returns to our story? Amantha’s old preacher boyfriend Seth, who is now a captain in the Union army. We see him ride into New Orleans as the Confederate flag is lowered and replaced by the American flag. He reports to his superior, who commends him on doing such a good job of recruiting freed black people into the Union army. Meanwhile in the swamps, Rau-ru is lining up a ragtag group of black men who have obviously been living there. And out at Ponte de Loup, a fellow plantation owner urges Hamish to torch his fields before the Union army arrives to take possession of his crops. At first, Hamish says no, but the news that anyone who burns crops will be hanged by the Yankees changes his mind. No man is going to tell Hamish Bond what to do! For the next few minutes, we watch Hamish and his slaves burn fields, barns, and warehouses.
When he returns home, Hamish sits down to relax, but Amantha soon comes in. She wastes no time in bringing up the subject of marriage, how he probably does not want to marry her, but he replies that it is she who would not want to marry him. She is perplexed, so he explains. Hamish admits that he used to be a slave trader. In ugly and brutal terms, Hamish describes what he used to do obtain Africans to sell, how he worked with an African king who would raid villages and kill many in the process of kidnapping the healthy people. Then Hamish would warehouse them in inhumane conditions, before putting them on his ships, where conditions were worse. This monologue is his confession, which he acknowledges would make Amantha – who is biracial – hate him. Amantha swoons at the idea that Michele and Rau-ru have regarded him as kind, but they have no idea about the truth.
The next day, Hamish has Amantha in a carriage to leave. He gives her a bag of gold and some papers stating that she is a free woman. A group of slaves stands nearby, singing a dirge about her departure. Before the carriage pulls away, he tells her that he does not want to know where she is going, ever.
After she leaves, Michele asks why he sent her away, when he clearly doesn’t want to. He laments the situation and says it was “to give her chance.” In plain view, then, Dolly begins to holler about troops in blue coming and about freedom! Everyone cheers, but Hamish scoffs at the idea. He believes that the Union troops will only re-enslave them in another form. He instructs Michele to clear out all of the slaves before the Union troops arrive and also— the entire plantation now belongs to Rau-ru. The papers are already filled out.
In the final half-hour, our characters’ lives are in total disarray. Hamish has sent Amantha away after she chose him over leaving for the North. She must attempt to navigate her way to freedom, while avoiding detection as a woman of color— essentially, her journey is now a matter of “passing.” The Civil War has broken out, so Hamish’s comfort and fortune are basically gone. Rau-ru beat up Charles then ran away, but has gained the upper hand in the melee. He is now able to subvert the system that has oppressed him, using the Union Army has his tool. The scoundrel Charles – cruel slave owner and disrespecter of women, the kind of guy who has lace cuffs! – has been shamed by a real man into sulking away, never to bother people again. The whole Old South order – the one that none of our three main characters fit into – has collapsed on itself, and a free-for-fall must necessarily ensue.
Here is also where we find out what the title means. The “band of angels” is the Union army, which has come to liberate slaves from bondage. They are scouring the Louisiana swamps in clusters and small regiments. Slaves with no shirts or shoes are joining their ranks, while slave owners like Hamish duck and hide as they look for an escape. The crops that were once worked by those slaves are burned to keep them from falling into Northern hands, which will use the wealth to fund their efforts against Southern secession. And of course, with the introduction of the Union army, we also see the return of Seth Parton, the self-righteous abolitionist whose high-minded morals don’t really jive with the real world.
In the real world, it’s dog eat dog. Hamish Bond spends the latter part of the movie trying to get out of town by hitching a ride with his old Irish sailor friend, the one who came around on the stormy night. He is a highly sought-after capture, but it is Rau-ru who knows where he is. Ultimately, the former slave pins down his old master at Ponte de Loup, with the other boys in blue right behind him. His arrogant commanding officer offers Rau-ru some tangible benefits if he hands over Hamish and lets his superior claim the catch. But Rau-ru is wily for that . . . and also has too much affection for Hamish. That kindness that he so hated, in his speech to Amantha, pulled on his heart strings, and he sees to it that Hamish gets away. Meanwhile Amantha has come back – strong Southern belle that she is – and the two manage to get aboard the smiling Irishman’s vessel, which is moored in the darkness of the small bay. In the end, Band of Angels has turned over every paradigm of the Old South. We have a former slave whose benevolence is his shining glory, a former slaver who regrets his past and who relies on the benevolence of a man he once enslaved to give him his freedom, and a former Southern-society belle who relies on a rogue sailor with a stolen identity to help her to hide her identity and leave the society that has betrayed her. It is convoluted at best.
Band of Angels occupies a space alongside other difficult films about the South, like 1966’s The Chase, 1969’s Slaves, 1970’s The Liberation of LB Jones, and 1974’s The Klansman. Many films about or set in the South deal in the subject of race and attempt to expose the hateful, irrational, and often hypocritical features of the slavery system and of Jim Crow segregation. Most do so in a way that embraces the use of easily digestible flat characters put into clear-cut scenarios where good can triumph over evil in a two-hour timespan. Films like Band of Angels don’t do that. In this film, the complicated characters outnumber the ones built around a few recognizable traits. Hamish Bond basically admits to identity theft, probably murder, treachery, and profiteering, and he is a slaver who shamelessly indulges himself in his wealth. Rau-Ru is a man so adept and capable that he works in society like a white man, while living in slavery as a black man, and later he turns the tables and gains the upper hand. This slave-master relationship is unusual. Furthermore, Amantha aka Manty experiences both the powerful position of a slaveholding family while her father is alive and also the powerless position of bondage after she loses that white-male patriarchal protection, then she seeks to regain that protection through Hamish. Finally, as Old South as he may be, Aaron Starr is a latter-day apologist trope of the slaveholder who eschews violence and brutality. On the other side of that equation, of Hamish’s two female slaves in New Orleans, Michele is graceful and dignified and in love with her master, while the other Dolly is silly and uncouth. Held up against a stereotype like the Unionist preacher-turned-soldier Seth, these characters have depth, and thus, Band of Angels exists outside of the normal paradigm where a white liberal outsider saves victimized blacks from violent racist whites— the end.
As a document of the South, though, the film still traffics in old myths about and from the South. The most gratuitous example is the riverboat arrival scene, when dozens of slaves dance and shout and smile and sing at the arrival of the man who owns them. Despite the movie’s portrayal, the facts of slave labor on cotton and sugar plantations – the kind that Hamish owns – involve a life of drudgery, heat, disease, squalor, exhaustion, and violence. In that scene, however, we see no overseers, but instead these slaves are free to go as an unsupervised group down to the riverside, where they are so glad to see Hamish that they rejoice at his presence then follow his flower-laden carriage down the road as a chorus. Then, when he and his lady want privacy, the slaves disappear completely. In the images shown during Hamish’s expository monologue about his plantation, fields are seen, but no workers. This cinematic trope uses its power to show them singing joyously, but it is not expedient to show them laboring. Another of these tropes involves Aaron Starr, who is the first slaveowner we see and who is notable for his kindness. The myth of the slaveowner who never beat his slaves and was therefore good to them is another aspect of the Lost Cause myth. There were mean, brutal slavers who did the kinds of things we now see in photos of scarred and broken bodies, of course, but most – most! this myth says – were good, Christian people who looked after these pitiful innocents, giving them places to live and work to do, and showing restraint in disciplinary matters. Never mind that they owned human beings, bought and sold human beings, developed a system to own their children too, and all the while worked them for no wages and with scant hope of ever having even the smallest amount of freedom. This myth says that, yes, there were the Calloways and de Merignys in the Southern world, but that men like Aaron Starr and Hamish Bond were the norm: kind and celebrated guardians of well-being. Yet, this makes us ask: if it was so wonderful, why were the two men in the movie’s very first scene running away?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two glaringly important figures in this paradigm: Robert Penn Warren and Clark Gable. Alongside Faulkner and a few others, Warren’s contributions to American literature are quintessentially Southern. The looming presence of this author, whose novel was adapted, cannot be ignored in this film. Also quintessentially Southern is Clark Gable, who starred in Gone with the Wind almost two decades earlier. His Rhett Butler became the archetype for the Southern gentleman in film. Where Sidney Poitier was a great actor who had his best films still to come, Gable’s face on the screen evokes images that necessitate comparisons to the prior film. When all is said and done, Warren might be Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the Ohio-born Gable might have gotten an Oscar nomination for Gone with the Wind, but this time, things didn’t go so well with audiences. Critical responses to the film ran the gamut, with most reviews being negative, and its box office didn’t amount to much. Today, Band of Angels is just an obscure, hard-to-find film, not a generally recognized classic.
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