“You talk about freedom. You think I’ve got freedom? I’ve got a past I’d like to forget, but I can’t run away from it. No more than you can run away from what you are.”
The essence of that piece of dialogue, if not the exact words, forms the bedrock of many a drama. As with a fly trapped in amber, cinematic drama gives us a moment captured on celluloid, preserved for our scrutiny, superficially isolated in time. Yet those moments we return to with every successive viewing give the lie to that; the poignancy or power of each example exists and is dependent on what came before, and on the suggestion of where it might lead. The latter is necessarily unknowable in the majority of cases, as in life. And as in life, the former, the touch and influence, perhaps even the bonds represented by the past, helps to shape the course of the present. Band of Angels (1957) explores this eternal link between that which has been and that which is; it is the collision of past and present, presented within the emotive framework of racial conflict and prejudice, which adds a timeless quality to the film’s core themes.
It seems appropriate that a movie so concerned with the idea of straining against the shackles of one’s former life should begin with the image of two slaves stumbling in desperation across a Kentucky plantation with overseers and hounds in hot pursuit. Flash forward some years and the daughter of the plantation owner Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo) returns to attend the funeral of her father. It is at this point that her ordered and structured world is rent asunder, the significance of her mother’s grave being in a different section of the plantation brought home with jarring force as she learns that not only is she of mixed race but that the status she once took for granted is now forfeit. Instead she is now to be designated as property, denied full human dignity and sold as one might sell some personal belongings. Driven to the point of suicide by the shock and horror of what lies before her, this woman is thrown what at first appears to be an unlikely lifeline. She is bought by Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a wealthy man who installs her in his household under somewhat unusual terms. In truth, his domestic arrangements are generally unusual; his housekeeper (Carolle Drake) and his assistant Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) both have a complex, and in the latter’s case a volatile relationship with Bond. As the country lurches into the chaos and tumult of the Civil War, the nature of these varied relationships will be tested, torn and reshaped by the trauma of conflict, and the truths about the past lives of all the principals must be dragged under the spotlight to be confronted and addressed if freedom in any real sense is to be secured.
On one level Band of Angels can be approached as an examination of the Civil War and the racial conflicts that surround it, and this is certainly the aspect that is immediately recognizable. However, to dwell on that alone would make for a superficial reading of the movie, marrying it to the concerns of a bygone era in a way that distances it and so waters down the impact. Of course the period setting grounds the story and affords it an historical and practical value, but I would argue that this acts as a conduit for the deeper, more constant message concerning the probing of the past and the absorption of its lessons, thus allowing the future to be met with hope. All through the story the past is revisited, either implicitly via the lewd whispered reminiscences of a slave girl (a bit part for Juanita Moore and radically different to her famous role in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life), or explicitly in the returns to various locations. Perhaps one of the most telling of these occurs when De Carlo finds herself back in the New Orleans house she first came to before the war – the structure is still there and she is even wearing the same costume but the fighting has brought significant changes, not only in terms of atmosphere (beautifully rendered by the subtle shifts in lighting by Lucien Ballard) but also personnel. There is considerable irony in both the fact that Poitier is seated in the chair once occupied by Gable and the way the passage of time has affected his attitudes.
The movie could have settled for some trite commentary on the way authority corrupts, or perhaps the dangers of becoming that which one despises. However, the central theme is much more engaging and forward looking. That theme, filtered through the prism of racial tension, is one of achieving growth and progression on a personal level, and I guess by extension on a wider societal level, not by cutting off or artificially isolating the past though; rather, it is about reaching an accommodation with what came before, whereby some emotional equilibrium may be attained.
The cast is strong and well chosen but Clark Gable dominates it all. There is much to appreciate in Gable’s late career performances, that indomitable spirit tempered by experience and loss was powerfully effective given the right material. Of his three collaborations with Raoul Walsh, only The King and Four Queens feels disposable and both Band of Angels and The Tall Men are fine movies. There are, to my mind, a number of standout scenes that give him an opportunity to shine. The first takes place in the courtyard of his New Orleans house and is almost stolen by a flamboyant Torin Thatcher. With a storm brewing in the background and Thatcher grandstanding for all he’s worth, Gable sinks into brooding intensity as the ghosts of his youth come scratching at his conscience. Next, when confronted by Patric Knowles’ craven braggart who is spoiling for a duel, he burrows mercilessly into the other man’s insecurities to destroy him psychologically. Later, after supervising the systematic torching of his own plantation, he delves deep into his own tortured past to explain to De Carlo why there can be no marriage between them. The matter-of-fact way he narrates the horrors he both saw and participated in is superbly delivered, as he sits ragged and spent amid the tarnished splendor his actions bought for him. Finally, there is the climactic confrontation with Poitier, the latter consumed with righteous hatred and hungry for retribution. It builds terrifically, with Gable’s calm resignation lulling both the viewer his co-star before the hugely satisfying resolution arrives. It’s a wonderfully played scene, a credit to the skills of Poitier and Gable.
Warner Brothers released a very attractive DVD of Band of Angels quite a few years ago and it still holds up well. My impression is that Raoul Walsh’s antebellum melodrama enjoys a mixed critical reputation at best. Personally, I rate it highly and regard it as one of the director’s best later works. There are those who say Walsh was a great action director, and there’s truth in that assertion. However, he was much more than that, he was a great observer and director of human drama, and this is a movie which has more than its fair share of that quality.